Booze & Drugs

The Indian

R. Patrick Murtha

It was a summer that changed the small Oklahoma town of Altus; it was a time that I'll never forget. The year was 1971. I had tagged along with my family from the beautiful northern California Central Valley just out of high school because my Dad was transferred by the Air Force to help coordinate the newly installed Flight Simulators at Altus. The Vietnam War was at it's peak, killing friends of my older brother and threatening to kill me and my friends. The Summer of Love was still fresh in my memory since we'd lived only 40 miles from San Francisco throughout the '60s. Rock was king and I was a "mosher" before we even had a name for it.

Then we moved to the land of the "Sooners," Evangelical Christians and a place where football was more important than life itself. I felt like I'd been transported to another planet! My hair was short for California, but I was immediately labeled a "hippy" in Altus. I didn't mind the label so much as I resented the attitude and the looks. I learned how to tolerate hate; I learned how to drink beer; I learned how to fight.

There were a small, loose group of us "hippies" in town and we always hung out on the picnic tables underneath the cooling shade of the huge trees in the central City Park; the high school on one side and the small junior college I attended on the other. We talked of the war, we talked of the music, we talked about life and we laughed at the terrible situation we found ourselves in. We laughed, because if we thought too much about it we'd probably commit mass suicide. As with most young adults, we were looking for trouble and we usually found it. Every Friday night the "jocks" would leave the Astro Drive In and make their way across town to the weekly fight with us at the park. We were so bored, we would have looked forward to it had it not been for the fact that we were always out numbered 10 to 1. But that was cool. It's just the way it was. I was the tallest of the group and would always be the first one picked out to fight the drunken hicks that would surround us. It was very much like a weekly "Gladiator School," actually.

When we weren't fighting we were drinking. When we weren't drinking we were looking to get high on just about anything we could find. Rag-weed from Mexico, sniffing paint thinner, you name it, we tried it. Okla-damn-homa, for god's sake! It was pretty pitiful. It was under these conditions that I gladly accepted an invitation from one of my fellow "freaks" to go hitch-hiking with him across to New Mexico during that summer. Jim was the "freakiest" of us freaks. Standing a solid 5 foot 11 inches, with the facial features of a Navajo Indian, his black hair was outrageously thick and long, hanging down to just above his waist. I thought I was out of place! Jim would have drawn looks of awe and envy on Haight Street in San Francisco! Jim was the newest of the bunch, having been transferred in with his parents from an Air Force base in Germany where he'd boasted of having access to Turkish hash, Thai weed and other exotic chemicals the rest of us had only heard of, let alone tried. His family on his mother's side were indeed Navajo Indians and I looked forward to learning more about their life style on our trip. Jim, or "The Indian" as we all called him, was a quiet dude, very introspective and rarely talked unless spoken to directly. I liked him a lot and had no doubt that we were in for a great road trip; hell, I'd have taken ANY opportunity to get out of Altus for a couple of weeks and just the prospect of hitching across a couple of states with someone who looked like we did was enough to make the prospect of our tip wonderful to imagine.

Well, the night before we were to leave I went to the park to say goodbye and revel in the jealousy of the others in our group. I didn't see The Indian there as the searing sun set and the temperature went from unbearable to tolerably hot. It just had to be a Friday night, of course, and sure enough, around 9 o'clock as I was getting ready to head home with the prospect of our journey beginning in the morning, the red necks showed up like clock work. As luck would have it there was an especially rowdy crowd that night since the local football team had beaten their long-standing rivals and all of them were stinking drunk. I really shouldn't say "luck" had anything to do with that night because I was beaten so badly I ended up in Altus Hospital's emergency room and stayed there for 3 days. I was hurting physically, but equally upset at missing the trip with The Indian. My friends confirmed that he had indeed taken off Saturday morning and I wasn't all that surprised that he just left without me since he had that "loner" way about him.

The days dragged on relentlessly. Hot? Shit, it was Steaming! Bored? Not just bored but fed up with it all. It was a terrible time to be a long-hair in Altus, Oklahoma. Nobody could seem to score anything but Lone Star beer for an entire month. We'd drag our asses from home, to school, to the park, back home and do it all over again in what seemed like a blur of existence in Purgatory; not quite Hell, but almost wishing it were just to break up the monotony, you know? Then, one Sunday afternoon at the end of July as the heat waves danced on the blacktop and even the birds seemed too tired to fly, a small group of us were again sitting in the park just before sunset, lamenting our fate, when one of the guys sitting across from me looked over my shoulder and then said with excitement, "Look! It's The Indian!" We all stood up and looked down towards the other end of the park and we all laughed at the incredible sight. There was Jim, baggy blue jeans nearly falling off his slender hips, cowboy boots kicking up a little dust, his outrageous head of hair flopping back and forth with every step and a BIG smile contrasting brightly with the blackness of his "freak flag."

"Hey Chief!" I hollered loudly and we all started out towards him in a trot. Finally! Finally we had something else to talk about other than the heat! If we were lucky, maybe he'd even managed to score a little weed to share with us. This was BIG news! As we drew closer I could see that he was carrying a big, heavy Seaman's bag on his shoulder making his walk a little lopsided. Getting closer still, we all became aware of an incredible stench; something nearly indescribable in it's intensity. This was not the smell you'd expect from an unwashed hitch-hiker in the middle of summer. No, this was something you might expect from a HUNDRED hitch-hikers!

"Damn, Jim, you STINK!" we all kidded as we finally surrounded him.

"You don't know the HALF of it!" he laughed wildly, his eyes wide with glee and as red as tomatoes. He didn't say another thing until we'd all reached our favorite picnic table. With effort he swung the Seaman's bag off his shoulder with a grunt and we all noticed that it was soaked clean through by something from within. It was this bag that was stinking to high heaven and as The Indian sat down with relief, we started throwing questions at him. He sat there on the bench, head hanging down so his mass of black hair covered his face and he just laughed quietly waiting for us to shut up.

We got real quiet, realizing now that something VERY interesting was going on here and we silently joined him on the benches, reeling away from the stench coming from the bag and waiting to hear from him what was going on. Slowly, his guttural laughter subsided and he turned on the bench.

"Wait until you get a load of this..." Jim laughed, looking around the table at each one of us in turn. With fingers trembling, he turned the combination lock and with an audible CLICK unlatched it from the eye-hooks. Then he opened the bag. Reaching in, and milking the moment for all it was worth, he again looked at each of us for a moment and I noticed then that his pupils were so widely dilated that it looked like he only HAD pupils with no irises at all! He looked half-crazed in fact. He then pulled out a hand full of small, greenish button-looking things, sweating the foul smelling liquid that had soaked through the canvas of the bag.

"Peyote buttons..." he whispered with sinister glee and he passed them around for us to look at. There we were, in the middle of town, cars passing not more than 50 feet from us, the town cops always cruising by at least once every half an hour just to keep an eye on us and we were screaming and laughing and passing around Peyote buttons like little baseballs! What a sight we must have made. This son of a bitch had somehow hitch-hiked 500 miles carrying this canvas pack SOAKING with Peyote buttons that could be smelled 100 feet away in all directions, hair flying like a crazy man's and now he had successfully completed his mission...the STONING of Altus Oklahoma!

Ha! It was CRAZY! What a Madman! What a DUDE!!! My folks still don't know where I disappeared for that entire month of August along with several of my good friends in that summer of 1971. Hell, *I* don't even know where I went! God, what a TIME we all had! Thanks Jim, wherever you may be.