In this guest blog for WellboundStorytellers.com, a veteran Army Ranger finds a renewed path to wellness through the wisdom and power of stories.
Hawe, ie toa ekipshe combre. Every generation of my family has fought for the United States or against it. We are a family that serves the people. We are a family of Warriors; not fighters, but those that carry the people on our backs. When my cousin asked me to write something for Veteran’s Day, my first thought was, “Oh shit! I am a terrible writer…” I have always been a terrible writer. I know this because my teachers have always told me so. I recall one teacher in particular complaining about the length of my sentences and how my paragraph breaks did not follow an appropriate format. I loved to read as a child and I had read several Hemmingway stories. I pointed out that Hemmingway also wrote long luxuriant sentences and his paragraph breaks, if used at all, were placed to give greater texture to his stories. She replied quite haughtily, “You, are no Hemingway.” I stopped writing. I stopped telling stories.
My earliest teacher was my father. He was a hard man; a complex, mostly-assimilated Osage/Yankton who believed that his dad was the last “real Indian” in the world. I grew up with a harsh brand of tough love that involved hard work, heavy chores and enforced respect. He would say stuff to me about being a warrior and being tough and how it was “in our blood.” I would roll my eyes, but never where he could see. He would say that there weren’t any “real men” left in this world; I would roll my eyes. He would say that I had to learn to be strong; I would roll my eyes. Dad was a man of tremendous will and imagination. He was a great story teller and an amazing athlete. He would imagine himself as the best at anything; he would tell a story about it and speak it into reality. He was Mr. Southern California at one point in his life (you know, Muscle Beach). He was a champion professional bowler, a race car driver, a judo black belt, a regional practical shooting champion, an award winning long distance runner, and at 72, he was the Coors Light West Coast Biathlon series title holder. Our closets were so full of trophies and awards that we scarcely had room for anything else.
I was about 6 years old and dad was 46 when he decided to transform his body from 220 pounds of hulking muscle into the lean body of a long distance runner. I would sit in the bleachers or walk around the track with the dog and watch him struggle and sweat and cuss. He looked like he was dying. Have you ever noticed that when people are jogging, they are never smiling; just a passing thought. He told me that our people were great runners, and that it was “in our blood.” As I watched him stooped over and sucking wind after only two miles on a track, I could not help but roll my eyes. “Don’t ever grow old,” he said.
I was fortunate to have an Alaskan Native wrestling coach in high school. His name was Henry. Henry had a huge beaded seal club, with which he would beat out cadence for our exercises. He would chase us down the .25 mile long hallways of our school that we used for indoor running and conditioning during the rainy season. If he caught us, he would jab us in the gut with the end of that club; a dark black wood that bore the patina of a century of blood. We ran in our wrestling shoes, thin soled leather shoes that bore the familiar designs of Nike, Asics and Adidas. Henry wore something different though; he wore a pair of seal skin wrestling shoes with Caribou soles. I looked at those shoes and that club and I saw a “real Indian.” I wanted to be Henry. We practiced three hours a day, two of which were dedicated to conditioning. It was the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. I wanted Henry to respect me though and I never wanted to let him down. I also did not want to disgrace my lineage and my ancestors and fail; after all, we were warriors. Henry chased me and chased me, but I avoided the painful jab from the club, at least when I was running; not so when we were doing leg-lifts and flutter-kicks. I told him that Osages were great runners and he would never be able to catch me. At 18, I could sustain a 5:20 mile for what seemed like forever. I would taunt him as we ran, always keeping just out of reach. I smiled when I ran. “When you get to be my age, you won’t be so smiley,” he would say.
I breezed through Basic Training, Advanced Infantry Training and Airborne School, and other than a bit of difficulty swimming and a bout of food poisoning, RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program) wasn’t too difficult for me. I served as an M-60 machine gunner in the 3/75 Ranger BN, I weighed 130 pounds and my full battle load outweighed me by 30-40 pounds. There were many nights and early mornings when the pain of walking and running was excruciating. I walked so far with so much weight on my shoulders that I bled from my feet and from where my uniform rubbed on my body. I put my mind with Henry and with my father and imagined the pain that these men had endured. I placed my mind with my grandfathers and imagined the hardships they faced. I would place my mind with their fathers and how they fought against the Americans. The other Rangers didn’t just look at me as Ranger Mitch, they looked at me as every Osage, every Yankton, every Sioux, every Indian in the world. Many wanted me to fail, if not to prove their racial superiority, then to prove that I was just a man like everybody else.
But I was not just a man like everybody else, my father told me so. I was dreamed and spoken into existence by my creative ancestors and he told me how we were mentally and physically stronger from the hardships we have endured. I never broke and never fell behind, no matter how loaded down I was and no matter what the pace.
I am 44 years old now; older than Henry and younger than my father, at least the Henry and Dad of my memory. I have led a mostly sedentary lifestyle for the past 15 years, sitting behind a computer and eating my stress; 80 pounds of stress to be exact. It has been a difficult beginning over the past nine months, but I have shed my first 20 pounds and am now running again. It seems like just a story when I try to imagine myself running and laughing at Henry as he chased me. It seems like just a story when I try to imagine those days as a Ranger. It seems like just a story when I imagine my victories on the Judo mat. It seems like just a story when I imagine myself healthy and strong.
My first two mile run, nine months ago, ended at .75 miles. A month later, I was running 12:00 miles. Nine months later, I am running 7:45 miles. I finish my runs by bending at the waist and putting my hands on my knees. I cuss and imagine my dad, so many years ago in the same position. “Don’t ever grow old,” he said. I imagine Henry chasing me with the seal club. I do not smile when I run. I think of my old nasty English teacher in high school as I try to imagine myself healthy and tell the story of becoming strong again.
It is true that I am no Hemingway, but it is also true that with each step I take along the trail, I am getting stronger, and it is true that with each step I take, I am able to imagine myself stronger. I am able to tell stories like my dad, and like my dad, I am able to make these stories true. I doubt I will ever smile again while I am running, and I doubt I will ever again walk until my feet bleed, but these may be good things. I am finding it difficult to follow a path to physical health. The pain I experience is partly because of my age, partly because of the abuse I have put my body through while young, but really it is nothing at all. It is nothing at all when compared to the pain I have endured and the pain that my ancestors have endured. The difficulty I am experiencing is with my imagination. It is much easier to stop running than it is to start. It is much easier to imagine that the pain is more than you can endure, when it really is not. It is much easier to stop telling stories than to imagine the world as rich and luxuriant and to speak it into being.
Now that I am running again, I need something to fill the loneliness of time and distance. I try to imagine Henry chasing me with that ancient seal club. I try to imagine smiling when I run. I try to imagine a good story. I try to imagine growing old.