Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, February 03, 2017

From the museum--Reading the Great Plains

The hill where Custer and his men died

If I never teach again after this year, what I most won't miss is the kind of day I'm facing right now--a day when what I lug along into class is disliked by students as heartily as it is beloved by me. That dissonance is always disheartening, and my getting older only makes it worse--and more frequent.

This morning, Ian Frazier's Great Plains--case in point. Frazier's book is a junk drawer of info that, most of the time, looks incredibly out-of-control because, for the most part, it is. It's a mess. It's a playground.

But then, so are the Great Plains, Mr. Frazier would say. They've been a playground for as long as Europeans have tried to live out here. The very first white settlers to come in masse to these climes--my own neighborhood--were the raucous sons of English land barons who came out here to do little more than hunt fox on their loyal steeds [see yesterday's post].

Ian Frazier pushes that thesis into absurdity, really, claiming that the greatest Great Plains-er of all was none other than George Armstrong Custer, who, with his men, got himself slain but good on the banks of the Little Big Horn. But doggone it, Frazier says, the man had a great time out here on America's playground.

Absurd as it may sound, that claim is probably more right than wrong. Why else would the man lead his troops into a Sioux encampment as big as Chicago? We're going to whup us some savages, he must have thought. Yeeehaw!

Captain Reno and his men, who weren't that far from the carnage, were in the battle themselves, but some distance away from the hill where Custer and his men were being slaughtered. What all reports of the battle describe is thick clouds of dust and smoke raised where fighting raged, and such was the case on the hill where Custer was killed. Reno and his men saw that mushroom cloud over yonder, but they still had no idea where in the world Custer had gone. It never once dawned on them that Gen. Yellow Hair could have a run smack dab into a Cheyenne and Sioux buzzsaw. It was literally beyond imagination.

Why not? Because their white imaginations simply could not create a scenario of fear: it never dawned on them that Custer and his men would get slaughtered. So absolutely sure were they of the white man's superiority, of European sovereignty, that they absolutely could not imagine what had, in fact, happened. I'm not speaking in cliches here: the fact is, Reno and his men couldn't believe what was happening, so they didn't, not until they came face to bloody face with the mutilated corpses.

It's an amazing story. A whole company of white men, victims of their own limited imagination. Wow. I wonder if that's ever happened to me?

But Frazier says that the whole Greasy Grass story, the Battle of Little Big Horn, was a grand time, and no one loved being part of the whole spectacle more than Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who didn't walk away from that grassy knoll.

My students will struggle to stay awake, and I'll come back from class ticked--not only at them either, but at myself for not finding a way to make them like it.

Anyway, that's this morning. Ain't we got fun out here on the Plains?

Four years have passed since I was in the classroom, ten years since I wrote those words. I'm proud to say that Tuesday night, next, Ian Frazier's Great Plains is up for discussion in a book club I'm leading. 

I've just been reading it again, first time in years. What a ball!

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