The visions of my father, Isaac Curley Sr., come and go with each passing month and season. My father was born on March 25, 1922 and raised on the Navajo reservation. His home was a hogan, the family subsisted upon livestock, no modern conveniences and news was gathered only by word of mouth. Like the trading posts, that simple way of life is now almost a bygone era. Yet, the memories of “Daddy” remain as vivid as if it were only yesterday. Daddy left us much too soon as a result of dreadful diabetes.
Daddy worked in the copper mines of southern Arizona for more than twenty years. I recall riding many times in his turquoise-colored Dodge pickup from the early 1960’s that he bought brand new. One summer my brothers and I helped him construct a camper shell out of lumber, plywood, screws and nails. We even managed to find turquoise colored paint to make it look uniform–at least we thought so. I can still see him sweating as he was using a hand saw to round the cross members for the roof, so when it was finished the rain would naturally run off.
When it came time for his annual vacation from work, Daddy chose to return with the family to his original home for it was a time to become reacquainted with family, friends, and rejuvenate cultural ties. We all knew our day long journey was nearing his home when we would pull off to the side of the road and Daddy would get out and walk over to the sagebrush, break off a bunch, briskly rub between both hands, cup them over his nostrils and inhale as if breathing in new life. We would also do the same and then that long drive seemed like the opening of a whole new world. We were at a place that stood still for a few moments and like a beautiful painting, our eyes would see hued color of sands that brought forth pinion, juniper and ponderosa trees, hogans with chimneys reaching skyward from cast iron stoves and corrals that contained bleating sounds of sheep and goats, and blue skies from horizon to horizon that stretched endlessly with beauty. Daddy opened this world to us and he was there to teach us how nature was always in charge and we had to learn to bend with her so that she would kindly give back to us.
That pickup took us to Navajoland on several occasions where it came in handy. It was used to haul water in a 55-gallon drum for my father’s sister and her family. We had to drive a few miles on the rugged dirt road to reach the nearest hand pumping station that sunk deeply into the ground to reach the sweet tasting water. It took several minutes to fill that huge barrel and when it came time to drive back, the rear end sat low, but the big task would be unloading it. My aunt and uncle only had a wagon and team of horses to do hauling. If you sat in the back, you quickly learned that it was not a joyful ride when hitting ruts and jutting sandstones.
As many of my brothers and sisters could attest to, our Daddy had one of the most beautiful voices when it came to singing traditional Navajo songs. The songs he chanted were both social and ceremonial that included horse riding songs and Yei-bi-Cheii. The interior of a vehicle, whether it was a pickup or car, had ideal acoustics to listen to his extraordinary voice that you could also feel as he reached deep inside to bring out majestic yet tranquil songs. I believe that those songs brought harmony to him when he longed for familiar surroundings of his homeland or whenever he recalled his younger days or as he referred to it “in my days.”
Closer to home, we took many trips to the Apache reservation to the community my mother grew up in, known as Cibecue. We loaded that trusty Dodge with food, beverages, light weight mattresses, blankets and tools. The drive on the winding highway took what seemed like two hours. Once we reached the exit from the main highway, it was all dirt road for a drive that was more than 10 miles. If you were unfortunate enough to sit in the pick up bed, you tasted powdery dirt and your eyes tried to blink away the gritty sand particles. Our family, for several years, was invited by close relatives to use their spacious field to plant corn and beans. The summer days could become long when working in the field, hoeing weeds and mending fences. It was in the late 1960’s when I recall one particular night after a long day of work. I remember my mother was with us as we drove in the late evening to the cool pines to find a place to park and sleep. The bedding lined the back of the pickup which is where we would sleep under the magnificent starry sky. My father, being the man who could handle a handgun and rifle of any caliber, decided that he needed to scare away any nearby bears. He was after all, a WWII veteran or as they are also known, of the “Greatest Generation.” So after we got settled in our makeshift beds, he proceeded to go to the cab and behind the seat he pulled out the single barrel shotgun, loaded it, and fired it into the air. Boom! I can still see the flame coming from the barrel and catching a whiff of burnt gun powder which I always like to smell. Oh how he made us feel so safe and secure from any harm. He was truly the Daddy I looked up to and adored tremendously.
My father was a man of strength, wisdom, loyalty, and although he was not one to openly say I love you, you knew he did deeply whenever he took to his side and told you how he always wished the best for you with great meaning and sincerity. And for all the many cherished memories that I carry each and every day of Daddy, I thank God for my dear father. I love you Daddy.
Isaac Curley Jr. is Apache/Navajo. He attended Diné Community College and Northern Arizona University as a history major. Professional background is in development work for museums and special event planner with emphasis in Native American art and culture.