Ultimatum

There is an old Cajun joke that goes something like this. Boudreaux and Fontenot were walking down a deserted country road late on a Friday night. Boudreaux says to Fontenot, “The next time you tell the girls to fuck or walk… make sure that we’re driving.”

With May came more madness, more anti-war protests, and a general unrest in the nation. Nine kids took over the Selective Service office in Maryland and burned a bunch of records before the authorities swooped in to crush the dissenters. The government had recently renamed the Draft Board to the Selective Service to put a more positive spin on their evil deeds.

On May 24th, a teacher entered our English class and asked for Loraine Lafontaine and me. The Principal wanted to see us. I’ll admit that I trembled a bit while we were being escorted to the office. We found Mary, Champlain, and Auggie had been summoned to the office, too.

“What’s going on?” I asked. Nobody knew.

It has never been a good sign when officials round up Indians. Nothing good ever comes of that.

The principal finally entered the room, but with a new face. He normally looked quite serious and stern. That day, however, he looked sad and downtrodden with the weight of the planet on his heart. I guessed what he was about to say. I knew precisely what he was going to say. We all knew what he was going to say. He had already said it with his demeanor. I fought back tears as he delivered the horrific news. Mary and Loraine quivered as unrestrained grief entered their hearts, their heads drooping from the weight of the words that hung in the cumulous cloud of air that engulfed the office.

“I am… I… Um, I regret to inform you that Corporal Buster Lafontaine has been killed in action in Viet Nam.” Our wailing shook the windows of the office. Our brother, leader, spirit guide, and best friend that anyone could ever hope to find, was dead. He was… dead. This just couldn’t be true. There had to be a mistake. Buster was too strong. Buster was invincible. He couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t. My worst fears had been realized. The dread that I felt months before proved to be a premonition that I was powerless, we all were powerless to stop.

We hugged each other, crying together, grieving together.

“You are excused from school today,” the principal said. We filed out of his office, out of the school, and walked to North End. We would have left the planet if that had been possible. The house at 314 John was already filled with Ojibwa mothers trying to console Momma Lafontaine, but nothing eases the pain of losing a child. No words, no looks, no hugs, nothing eases the pain of losing a child.

A bunch of us jumped into Buster’s Yellow ’57 Chevy and drove to Wisconsin Point. We built a fire from driftwood collected along the beach. Dancing and chanting around the fire we unleashed our grief so that Gitche Manitou would know of our love for our fallen brother.

“Hoka hey, hoka hey – it is a good day to die.”

The skies grew ominously gray. A thunderstorm brought tears of Gitche Manitou, who grieved with us, down from the heavens.

I felt the bad wolf inside me growing in strength, feeding upon my pain, and reveling in my misery. I wanted to lash out at something or someone, but mostly the stupid government.

I didn’t call Patty until late in the evening that Friday, which was very unusual. She didn’t understand my words at first, thought I must be drunk, or tripping, or having a stroke, until she finally assembled my blubbering into a cogent thought. “Oh my God, I am so incredibly sorry, Armond. I don’t know… words just…” and her voice trailed off into tears. I knew she couldn’t get out that night as relatives from Ireland were visiting, yet I needed her more than I had ever needed anyone.

Her mother picked up the phone, “What did you say to her?” she demanded. I could hear Patty wailing in the background, suffering as I was, but not able to be with me. Not able to comfort me or obtain comfort from me, the enormity of the happening broke her down as it had me. “What did you say to her?” Her mother insisted. I couldn’t catch my breath to talk nor did I really want to. I hung up the phone on the desperate woman at the other end.

Most of the crowd at the Ramble Inn knew Buster, either personally or by reputation. None but the band had yet heard of Buster’s death.

“Today, we learned,” I choked, “that our brother Buster Lafontaine was killed in combat in Viet Nam.” Shrieks, cries, anguish, “Oh God no,” filled the room.

Jack Ghostly stepped up to his mike sensing that I was about to lose all control of myself, “The name of our group is Die Nasty,” he emphasized. “We are the ones who must force change in this country, or we will all Die Nasty. But right now, we are going to rock… rock our asses off in honor of Buster and the entire Lafontaine tribe.” With that Loraine, Mary, Champlain, Auggie, Rita, and Oscar Deutsch, the Queen of the North End pushed in from the back of the crowd and started a circular tribal dance in front of the band.

Dynasty played upbeat songs to break the sad mood. We celebrated Buster’s life, his spirit, his huge heart, his impact and influence on all our lives. Our message was that a person’s life is not measured by how they die, but how they lived and who they were while they lived.

Later that night, after the gig, several Indian brothers and I drove to the local Selective Service office in Superior on Tower Avenue near the North End. We had armed ourselves with bricks and bats. I hurled a cinder block through the large window fronting Tower. Inside, we smashed and tipped over everything in sight. I spray painted “Fuck War” on the wall. The flurry of destruction of the office took less than five minutes, yet it was a thorough demolition. We stopped short of torching the place because other businesses were attached and occupied apartments set above. We weren’t murderers. We held all life sacred.

It was Memorial Day weekend, 1968.

~~~

Thus far, 1968 was living up to my expectation that it would be a bad year. The year was sucking pretty hard. The beginning of my fatalistic attitude about life began around that time. I was convinced that my life would be short, that I would die young, long before my time. There seemed to be so many forces conspiring against me. Life expectancy for an Indian in this country was about 40 years. Suicide was the leading cause of teenage Indian deaths. Fucking Viet Nam! The Fucking Draft. Diabetes struck the majority of Indians. Alcoholism infected 75% of our reservations. And if I didn’t die I had a large chance of going insane. My mother was schizophrenic, which was a hereditary mental disease. All my mother’s relatives were fucking nuts.

Dynasty played a gig at a resort in Barnes, Wisconsin on my 15th birthday. Patty accompanied me. We started drinking early, the death of Buster still hung heavy in my heart, and I was fairly drunk when the gig started. I may have missed a few notes here and there but nobody noticed. Patty got annihilated. Too drunk to fuck, at first – no skinny dipping because it was June 1st and the water temp was still in the low 50’s – we humped drunkenly in a nearby boat house.

In the days following, a new sense of foreboding overtook me. Something was wrong. Patty seemed bothered of late. I could tell that something was askew in her life, but didn’t know what it was and she wouldn’t tell me. She seemed distant much of the time. No matter what I said she wouldn’t open up

Finally, I broke her down on the 4th of June at Jack Ghostly’s birthday party, which is why I remember the date so distinctly, Jack and I were born three days and three years apart, him being the elder. Patty confided that her mother had been diagnosed. It was cancer. In 1968, cancer meant certain death. For months her mother had become weaker by the day. The doctors didn’t give her much time to live, a month, maybe more, but she wouldn’t see the New Year.

Frankly, I didn’t know what to say. I talked about the cycles of life, but that talk didn’t help Patty one bit. Patty and her mother were very close, more like best friends than mother and daughter. I suddenly saw a new dimension to Mrs. O’Leary’s panicked question of me the preceding week. I felt terrible that I had hung up on her – had hung up on a dying woman. I didn’t know. In my grief I had forgotten that others might have grief outside of mine.

Patty felt guilty, that perhaps her wicked ways had somehow brought on her mother’s illness. I told Patty that she was being silly, that she was not the cause. Have you ever seen an Irish girl when she gets mad? I thought I had, but really I hadn’t up until that moment.

“What do you fucking know about it?” she croaked through tears. “Is your mother dying?”

“No, mine is in the crazy house,” I replied.

She cried a bunch of other words that I made no sense of and then she demanded, “I need you here.”

“I am here,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” she argued. “You’re going away.”

“You mean the tour?” I asked.

“Yes, you’re going away and you won’t be here when I need you most.”

“I’ll only be gone for a few weeks,” I lied. We expected to be gone most of June and July.

“That’s not true. You’re scheduled for seven weeks. You’re going to San Francisco and back. She could die at any time. I need you here with me. I need you to stay. Don’t go.”

“I’m not sure that I can do that,” I said. “There are four other guys involved. If I don’t go they can’t go. We would have to cancel the tour. And there’s another band involved. We’ve signed contracts.”

“Cancel the tour, then. I need you here.”

“I’ll have to think about it. I’ll have to talk it over with the guys. The tour is important to them and me.”

“If you really love me you’ll stay.”

“I do really love you, but it’s not just me involved here. It is more complicated than that,” I tried to argue my point.

“Well, you’re going to have to decide,” she said. “Is it me or the band that you love most?”

“I’ll have to think about it,” I said.

“If you really loved me you wouldn’t have to think about it.”

This was my first experience playing the if-you-really-love-me game. I didn’t know the rules or penalties. I just knew that she was asking me to scuttle the plans of four people that I cared about and she was being quite simplistic about the whole matter. I did love her, as much as any kid can experience love at age 15, but I loved music more. Music was everything to me. Music was “my only friend, until the end,” as Morrison had so eloquently stated.

Could things get any worse? I thought. My answer came later that evening from old Uncle Walter Cronkite. “Robert F. Kennedy has been shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. We have few details at this time, but we have been told that a priest is at his bedside giving him the last rights.”

Bobby Kennedy, as the young generation knew him, was a breath of fresh air, an anti-war candidate for president, and the one person that we felt could save the nation. We would all return to the days of Camelot with a Kennedy back in the White House. Bobby would end the war in Viet Nam. He would bring our soldiers home where they belonged. All that promise and hope died with Robert Kennedy that day.

On Friday, I said a teary goodbye to Patty knowing that it meant the end of our relationship. I had to do the tour. I really had no choice in the matter. I quoted lines from Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”:

“O, man, take good care.

What does the deep midnight declare?

That all joy wants eternity

Wants deep

Wants deep eternity”

The words seemed fitting to me, but not to Patty.

“You are an ass,” she said. “Have fun on your fucking tour.”