WILD RIVER BOOKS
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines:
The Tallest Totem Pole in the World
The Tallest Totem Pole in the World: The North Edge of Lake Champlain
I’ve been working the lines for ten years, for Canada Power (you know their TV commercial: CaPow!–We light up your life—then the camera zooms in on an Eskimo family in an igloo reading by a hundred watt bulb). A recruiter came around our village on Vancouver Island, looking for a few good natives to run electric towers from Nanaimo over the mountain to Tofino. You know what they say about how we’re not afraid of heights, work at a hundred-sixty feet like we’re on the ground. I’ll tell you something: I’m terrified of heights. Every morning I strap on my boots and safety belt and chant to Mountain Goat: help me step up to that first rung, get me up the tower and down again. Why do you think they call them high tension lines? But the money’s decent, and it got me out of Clayquot Sound. And, when my line’s tethered and I’m not afraid to look, the views are humbling.
I followed the grid east when the lights in New York City started dimming. The Power Chiefs had worked out a transnational agreement to ship electricity from Generating Plant Number 4, outside Montreal, down to New York, and they needed a crew to lay the line. That’s how I met Tillman Allmore, we worked in pairs. “I’m a guest of Judge Preston Proctor,” Tillman said. “After my third bust, His Honor looked at my record and proclaimed, ‘Son you’re well on the road to hard time.’ Then he checked out my redskin cheekbones and the light bulbs went off. ‘I’ll give you one last chance’, Old Judge said, ‘it’s the high wires or the jail bars’.”
So there we were, products of an international treaty: an Algonquin who raised marijuana on the rez and got caught peddling in Buffalo, and a Kuakiutil, unofficial representative of the Bear Klan, atop a two-hundred foot tower controlling the fate of seven million New Yorkers.
“Tribes of the world unite! Who has the power now?” Tillman shouted our first day.
It’s true what they say about us First People: most of us don’t talk much; we tend to enjoy the space between the words. But not Tillman. In two days on the tower he said more than my entire village said in a year. Sometimes he zinged like the wires, talking so fast he didn’t have time to breathe, like he was sucking in air through his south end and blowing words out his mouth. “Hey Chief,” I’d say, “give me a little peace up here, listen to the wind.” He’d keep chattering, like it was just him and some ears in space taking in all he had to say.
Other days Tillman transformed into a different person; he wouldn’t talk at all, strung tight like a moody panther in the zoo. One morning I found him sitting at the foot of the tower, staring off. “Time to go to the mountaintop,” I told him. “I’m not going anywhere today,” Tillman said. “Call the line chief and tell him I got diarrhea, can’t be up at two hundred feet with the shits.” “What’s got hold of you?” I asked. After a long while he finally spoke: “I’m lost, I go into this cave and can’t find my way out, for days there ain’t light.” “Then what?” “Finally there’s a speck of light, like dawn,” he said. “Then it gets brighter and brighter, I see things that no one else can see, like looking through a microscope and a telescope at the same time. Sometimes it’s too much, I have to close my eyes. When I open my eyes again I’m back in the cave.” He’d told somebody about it once, a shrink at some homeless shelter in Albany who gave him some white pills. The white man’s medicine kept him out of the cave, but he didn’t see any bright lights either. So he dumped the pills.
One morning Tillman scampered up the tower, swinging from strut to strut. He edged out to the end of the highest horizontal and stood, like on a diving board. He shouted, “I am Raven! My spirit will soar! I will fly with my ancestors!” “Cut out the brave shit,” I yelled. “Get your brown ass down here before you fall. He closed his eyes and flapped his arms in slow motion. Then he dove off, arched out over the valley. “Caaah! Caaah!” he screeched, the sound falling away. I pissed in my pants. A hundred feet below me the screech turned to laughter. Goddamn Tillman had tethered a bungee cord to the top strut. He sprung back up, and, as he passed me, shouted “Hey Little Bear, I double-dog dare you to soar like Raven!”
Last October, we were working a peak on the north edge of Lake Champlain. The leaves were in the middle of their turning, and from our tower we looked down over the sea of red and gold to the edge of the lake, the water honed blue by the cool air, just a breeze. We were working in rhythm; it felt good to be there. Then the wind moved around and came up the pass, like the shift of tides through the narrows of Clayquot Sound. The temperature dropped ten degrees and the wind picked up. The uprights split the wind into a metallic whistle; then the whistle turned to a howl, and the tower creaked and swayed. The wind caught my blind side and blew me off the strut, leaving me hanging there over the valley on my tether. I wrapped myself around the upright like a wild grape vine, my cheek against the cold metal. I wasn’t going anywhere. Tillman climbed down and assayed my state. “You’re shivering like a cub in an ice storm,” he said. “I got just the medicine for you: Chief Tillman’s finest herb.” Then this grinning Native American Indigenous Aboriginal First Peoples Indian member of the Twelve Nations of the Confederacy, this Algonquin of questionable sanity, turned his back to the wind, pulled out his stash, packed his coyote bone pipe, lit up, and toked until the ember was orange. “Smoke, Cubby, this’ll soothe those shakes.”
Then he talked me down, strut by strut, to Mother Earth. Raven as medicine man.
His last day, we were tightening connectors and adjusting insulators, fine-tuning the circuit just completed between Montreal and New York City. It was all over the news: the switch is on, Canada and the U.S. sharing natural resources, the model of international cooperation between great democratic nations. I was into it, feeling a small part of the Great Electrical Plan. Tillman was his caged-panther-stalking-self, I just let him be. “Yessir,” he finally said, “this free trade treaty’s mighty cool; may the air conditioners of New York City blow for a thousand years.” He stood on a strut, unzipped, pointed west and peed, his yellow arc steaming in the sun. “Brother Bear, this is my last free piss. They caught me in West Harrington over the weekend with a stash, picked me up for looking suspicious. ‘Hell’, I told the cop, ‘all us redskins look suspicious to you.’ The judge did his judge thing: ‘Son, you had your chance, I warned you: go back on your word and you finish your time at Muncie.’ Yessir, this no-count injun, this pole-climber for Con Ed, broke his itty bitty treaty with his parole officer. He got to pay.”
Tillman, Panther Tillman, unhooked his tether. Then he pulled out his pliers and cut the safe lock wire on the transformer box. His head tilted and a river of sadness emptied from his eyes. “I can’t go back, no way. Raven Power and Light!” he shouted, and the valley echoed: “Raven Power and Light!” Then he reached into the box and grabbed the connector. Thirty-eight thousand volts ran through him over and over, a great circle of lightning. I was paralyzed, grounded to the tower by my tether. Sparks and the smell of smoked Indian. It took two minutes for his hands to be fried so bad there was nothing to grip, and he fell 180 feet, a trail of fire. I crawled down the tower like an inchworm.
In the news the next day: An accident occurred on the new Canada-US electrical highway. New Yorkers bristled at the temporary brown-out, while they re-routed the circuits.
I carved the totem pole over two months, after work and weekends. I found the red cedar log in a family-run sawmill in Chalmers. I always carry my carving chisels with me. Getting the pole to the top of the tower wasn’t that hard. I hauled it up with the winch we used for replacement struts and equipment. It’s a simple pole: here’s Raven’s head atop a human body, his legs standing on the shoulders of Panther.
Raven, the great trickster, the magician who taught the First Nations to make fire from lightning. The transformer, he can become anything, Raven never dies, he just slips on a new skin. One day he’s human, or the ember in a pipe; next day, panther. Some days, electricity.
Raven Power and Light zings along the high wires, and watches the wind blow through the valley and ripple the water on Lake Champlain.
Mark Lyons is co-director of the Philadelphia Storytelling Project, which uses digital storytelling in their work with teens and adult learners in summer workshops, computer courses and ESL classes. Participants write stories or interview others about their immigrant experience, record, edit and mix their stories, and create short audio stories. He also does workshops with teachers on doing community oral histories. He is the co-editor of Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows, Oral Histories of Mexican Farmworkers and Their Families, which is published in Spanish and English. He developed a theater piece from the stories in the book, which was performed by local people at the Border Book Festival in New Mexico.
He has worked in the Latino community for the last twenty five years, as a health worker and community organizer. For eight years he was the director of the Farmworkers Health and Safety Institute, a consortium of grass-roots organizations in the U.S. and the Caribbean. The Institute trained farmworkers to use theater and other popular education methods to train other farmworkers concerning health and safety issues such as pesticides, field sanitation, housing, drinking water, HIV/AIDS and workers’ rights. He also worked for several years in a community health center, as a provider and health planner.
Mark’s collection of short stories, Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines, was published by Wild River Books in 2014. It was chosen as a Kirkus Reviews Book of the Year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships for 2003 and 2009, and the J.P. McGrath Memorial Award from Whetstone Magazine. In addition, one of Mark’s stories was performed at the Writing Aloud Literary Series at the Interact Theater in Philadelphia.
ARTICLES BY MARK LYONS
Dreams and Nightmares: Notes from the Editor, working with Liliana Velasquez
Dreams and Nightmares/Sueños y Pesadillas
The Ecuadorians of Upper Darby
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Nuestras Historias en Español
Espejos y Ventanas / Mirrors and Windows: Our Stories in English
My Power Ranger Had One Leg: The Open Borders Youth Radio Project
The Youth Radio Project: Transcripts of Audio Stories
Welcome to Open Borders
Wild River Books
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Arnold’s Roadside Café: Route 80, North Platte
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines – Holy Roller
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Security Risk
A Celebration of Shrines
Introduction to Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: The Borders That Divide Us Are the Places We Find Each Other
Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines: Tlaxcala Red