There is always a struggle in a writer’s mind about just what to write about. We want our posts to be meaningful in some way, although the definition of meaningful may vary from day-to-day. And lately, I’ve taken a little rest from writing. It’s not because I don’t have stories to tell, it’s just trying to decide which I want to tell, and how I want to tell them, and if they’re relevant, and would a reader enjoy them?
Those are big questions, and I don’t have any answers for any of them this morning. But I need to write.
It’s sort of an addiction and I’m in withdrawals.
Last night I was reading along in in Edward Abbey’s book “Beyond the Wall,” which is a collection of short stories. By now, you know I’m a fan of Abbey’s work. The images he paints of the western wilderness often match the ones I’ve seen first-hand on my journeys.
Reading those visions take me home. To those magical hikes and incredible vistas.
At any rate, in the final story describing a trip he made to Alaska, he briefly talks about a bar in Fairbanks that reminds him of his home in the Southwest. The bar was a favorite of First Nations people, the Athapaskan. And seeing two Native women involved in a brawl inside reminds him of several bars in Arizona.
He decides not to enter as it will make him too homesick. 😊
One bar he mentions from back “home” is the Club 66 in Flagstaff, or “Flag” as he called the city. And this sparked a memory, because I was there in the late seventies. And while Abbey is recalling a bit earlier time, from his brief description of the Alaskan bar scene, the images I saw in “Flag” came racing back to me.
You see, the Club 66 had a notorious reputation. All Native. Navajo and Hopi frequented it. White folks weren’t welcome.
Or so it was said.
And that, of course, adds an element of intrigue for a twenty-year old traveling the west, living day-to-day on odd jobs and pawn sales. Sleeping in national forests. Under the stars or in my 1970 Plymouth Satellite.
In my attempts to make ends meet while living in my “mobile home,” I had even sought out state assistance in the form of food stamps, but was denied because I didn’t have an “operable kitchen.” Campfires didn’t register with the state bean counters.
So, it was a huge treat one day when I had scrounged up enough money to buy something other than potatoes or rice or beans. A couple of cold beers were waiting for me. And I wanted the full western experience when I drank them. No cowboy bar was going to do.
I had been warned. And the Club’s occupants lived up to their reputation.
It seems, the Natives would often get into fights after a few drinks. In fact, a common scenario described to me would be for a Navajo husband and wife to be fighting, and I mean fighting. (Those women could have probably kicked my ass easily enough back then.) But when the police came in, the couple would unite. As the police placed handcuffs on the husband, the wife would be screaming at them to let her husband go. And often followed that with a pool cue to officer’s head.
I actually saw something close to this happen. And the cops were ready for it.
About once an hour, two cops would walk through. Part of their “normal” patrol. Wearing their blue riot helmets. Hands on their side-arms. Just waiting to make an arrest.
So when all 5 foot 6, 110 pounds, short, blonde hair, pale-faced, me walked through those doors what kind of a greeting do you think I got? Well, the room got really quiet and as I reached the bar, the bartender, a rather large Navajo woman, stared me in the eye and asked, “Do you know where you’re at?”
I just smiled, said yes, and asked for a beer.
Cold beer in hand, I turned around and spotted a group of Navajos towards the back of the bar. They were harassing a Hopi who was on his way out the side door. I heard later that the two tribes didn’t always get along, at least not in that bar.
I figured I’d just get any harassment out of the way. So I headed straight towards them planning on striking up a conversation. But I’ll be dammed if the police didn’t just happen to be making their rounds at that moment.
And they sped towards me like a lightening bolt from a monsoon storm.
Next thing I knew, I was being slammed up against a pinball machine, had my legs kicked apart and was being frisked. The officer, apparently blind to the Fourth Amendment, was asking me about identification and wanting to know what I was doing in Flag. The other kept his eyes on the room, covering his buddy’s back.
My explanation about traveling around the country didn’t seem to satisfy him as he was studying my driver’s license. “Missouri, huh? What the hell do you think you’re doing out here? Sure you’re not from the coast? San Diego, maybe?” He passed my license off to his buddy who walked out to the patrol car parked out front on Old 66.
At this point the officer had turned me around to where I could see the rest of the bar, his left hand firmly held the collar of my shirt. The whole room was staring at us now.
The officer’s partner returned saying, “He checks out.”
At that point the officer told me he had to be sure. “We get a lot of washed-out sailors and marines through here – AWOL – straight shot from Diego for them cowards.”
A brief pause as he turned loose of my shirt and I could finally take a full breath, “And maybe you ought to think twice before coming into a bar like this one.”
With that, as fast as they had entered, the officers exited the side door, out on to San Francisco Street.
And all activities seemed to resume now. That suspended animation was over. Except things had changed. And for the better. The room was much lighter. Friendlier.
I only made it half way towards that group in the back of the bar before they met me. Hands warmly reached out to shake mine, patting me on the back, asking what that was all about. Those two cops had just given me hero status. It couldn’t have been timed any better if planned, and it certainly wasn’t.
I had been made an equal.
And so we talked a few hours away. I told them about my home and they told me about theirs. We talked about daily life, spirit totems, the sacred San Francisco Peaks.
An older Navajo woman joined the group, grabbed me by the arm and said, “I like this one, I think I’ll take him home.” But one of the young men rescued me from her grip. He whispered, “You really don’t want to go home with her.” We laughed and continued our conversation.
At one point, another white guy poked his head through that side door and asked if any of the Navajos would get him some Peyote. They quickly sent him on his way. He never even made it inside.
I asked, “So was that guy talking about Mescalito?”
One of my new-found friends stared at me briefly and said, “You actually know something, don’t you?”
Mescalito is said to be the spirit in the Peyote cactus. The cactus is used in an important spiritual ritual for a number of First Nation tribes.
My friend wrote down his address and gave it to me saying, “You come find me and I’ll get you all the Peyote you want.”
With stories told, my extra cash all gone, and the evening with it, it was time for me to exit out that side door. Leaving the Navajos and the Peyote for another day and another story . . .
Photos: I found the feature pic and the one below on the Internet, in the public domain, and with no definitive site to provide an attribution. The feature pic was dated 1954. I believe the pic of the post card below is of the same era. It looked pretty much the same in the late 1970s. Flag was a little more grown up and the cars were, of course, different. Now, in comparison, you’d never recognize the Highway 66 strip there.
BTW: I’m not sure what’s up with WP, but today’s date is February 4, 2020. The date on my post says January 23rd ?????