A few weeks ago, I was in New York City for a professional symposium and met up with a friend to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was my fourth visit to this incredible landmark, and each time held new and exciting discoveries. I am fairly convinced that one could spend weeks in the halls of the Met and not fully absorb half of what there is to see. Parting with my friend, I eventually wended my way to a food court tucked in the corner of a huge marble atrium in the museum. It was a winding-down moment for me after a busy symposium that week, and I sat down to enjoy a warm blueberry muffin and hot coffee. Sitting down slowed the pace of everything I was seeing. Right next to my table was a huge life-sized sculpture by Hermon Atkins MacNeil called the Sun Vow. So my eyes studied it perhaps longer than my standing feet would have stood patiently for. I’m certainly not much of an art cognoscente. But after a few minutes, I started to see something deeper and more metaphorical than what first met my eye.
The piece depicts a young Lakota Sioux brave and a mentor who could be his father. The test for the young brave to become a warrior is to shoot an arrow into the sun. If he does it perfectly, its trajectory will head straight to the sun and the arrow will not be visible once it leaves the bow. The sculpture dramatically captures the precise moment that the arrow leaps from the bow, and that moment is a masterpiece. Both are looking skyward as the arrow is launched—the old warrior’s lips are tight with apprehension while the brave’s, slightly parted, reveal a subtle mix of optimism and confidence. The facial structures are so identical it is hard to determine if these are truly father and son, or perhaps the past and future of the same warrior. The elder’s back is hunched forward with age and perhaps even gravity, and one can sense the earth calling him down, while the brave’s back arches and mimics the shape and spring of the bow in his hand. In his eyes, he flies with that arrow. And it is in reading their faces that the message truly comes home—the elder wanting to be proud and the brave wanting to earn that pride. These two powerful emotions—one hope and the other optimism—meet where the arrow meets the sun.
As I studied those faces, my father came to my thoughts in a rush of emotional resonance. I had not been consciously thinking of him the past few days. But alone in this huge marble hall, there he was—as present as I have ever felt him, even though he had been gone over two decades. And I found myself traveling back with my dad through long lost memory that suddenly seemed so perfectly accessible.
YMCA’s Indian Guides was a cub-scout age youth program that was a bonding mission for fathers and sons. We would meet every few weeks at a different family’s house and sit our cans on the floor— literally and figuratively. Father and son each had a crafted paint can covered with paper mache and bearing the wood-carved emblem of their guide name. My dad was Broken Arrow. And he named me Black Hawk, although Runaway Rabbit was the alternative (my dad often called me his “Wandering Jew”). At each meeting, we would stack the cans to form a totem pole and sit cross-legged on the floor in a circle around it, whereupon the father-son bonding would begin. A typical bonding exercise went like this: we would bring boondoggle (which was a flat linguine-shaped plasticized thread) to stitch, say, a tribal necklace. The fathers would quietly and meticulously weave the necklaces while the boys ran around the house screaming. By the end of the evening, the boys were hoarse and the fathers exhausted. Such relationship-building was clearly not an easy effort.
It was through Indian Guides that I discovered my Shangri-La—a special paradise in the Finger Lakes region of New York State known as Camp Lawrence Cory. To my best recollection, my first visit there was with my dad after Sunday religious school on a chilly spring day. I was dressed nicely and wearing a new pair of brown leather shoes. When we arrived at the camp, there was a huge dock that sloped downward towards the water of Keuka Lake. Gravity beckoned me, and I wasted no time answering its call. Despite my father’s repeated shouting for me to stop, I was far too intoxicated with gravity-fed acceleration and the beckoning wood slat runway ahead of me. I had this.
My braking point was so perfectly calibrated that I stopped my running feet just short of the precipice with not an inch to spare. Unfortunately, my untied right shoe did not stop. It kept moving apace and enthusiastically leapt into the chilly blue water. There it floated, tauntingly just out of reach. By the time my dad caught up to me, it was filling with water and starting to list. Molly Brown may have been unsinkable, but Buster Brown wasn’t. And we watched in vain as the shoe slowly sank beneath the waves into the dark depths of Camp Cory Jones’ locker.
This was a classic “Oh, Stuuuu…” moment. And it is as good a time as any to share one of the reasons I have always preferred my middle name Lee. I have heard “Oh, Stuuuu…” too often associated with events just like this, such as when I discovered the hidden trunk release in my dad’s new car while we were speeding down the New York State Thruway. Or when I managed to destroy my father’s wallet by capsizing our canoe on Oxtongue Lake in the wilds of Ontario, Canada (yes – he brought his wallet.) Each time, my father’s voice would loiter on the lengthy vowel of my name. “Stuuuu” escaped his lips like a fatalistic sigh of resignation. Stu rhymed with “oooh,” and saying it painted oooh-faces on disappointed parents and teachers. Even when I didn’t do anything wrong, it painted that face. So I started insisting people use both syllables. “It’s StuART. Okay? Please say the full name.” But my middle name is Lee. And you can’t say that without smiling. I digress.
It was later that summer I visited Camp Cory again, but this time as a 2-week overnight camper without my dad. My group’s cabin was in a section of the camp called Iroquois Village. I remember mostly the stupid little things—like the head counselor. His name was Chief Tomunk. But we all called him Chief Tomato Junk. I remember tasting crunchy peanut butter for the first time under the pine rafters of the Camp Cory mess hall. And I can never forget the exquisite torture of “polar bear”—a morning ritual in which we would be awakened to a bugled reveille and instructed to run naked off the end of the dock into a cold lake covered with the wispy fog of sunrise.
If I may—a word about this polar bear thing so that I can finally put it to rest… It is named after wildlife—as if we are doing what bears do. And yet while a bunch of screaming and traumatized kids jump into the misty still lake at daybreak (the same lake, mind you, that sent my shoe to its watery death), the wildlife is watching us from the woods in curiosity. Even wildlife knows that this is not what wildlife does. So while I may have had my dumb moments, at least they were of my own making. Polar bear was a dumb moment of the ADULTS making. When I ran the dock earlier with my dad, I only lost a shoe. The counselors, however, were perfectly fine launching an entire village of half-asleep campers off that same dock into the freezing depths. And while they made us do this ridiculous thing, they knew all along that polar bear was entirely unnecessary. Coffee does the same thing without the noise and discomfort.
The novelty of Camp Cory was wearing thin. But I got my revenge. When I returned from camp two weeks later, my mom was shocked to see 13 folded pair of underwear in my knapsack. She packed 14. And no—I did not do laundry at camp.
Yesterday marks 22 years since my father died. Broken Arrow did his best with this little brave. His wisdom was reflected in his apt choice of names for me – one at birth, and the other in Guides. He was Broken Arrow, but knew I wasn’t his obedient Little Arrow. Arrows tend to sail in predictable lines, and he already suspected that little in my life would travel with such linear trajectory. I was Black Hawk. I painted the skies with the wings my father saw, and chased many dreams an arrow would miss. Sometimes I chased nothing, flying down a dock to its end and to no end at all. But every time I flew, I’ve aimed for the sun. Even when my dad lost me in the glare, his eyes squinted to follow me anyways. Always. And in my heart, I know he does that still.
Originally published on Facebook.