Monday, January 28, 2013

Piling Stones by the Jordan—And Near Cheyenne

Old Blue's Grave circa 1900

This Sunday the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation now in McHenry preached from the text of Joshua 3:1 - 4:24.  Several readers here will now have to pause to pick themselves off of the floor and recover from the shock of hearing of a UU minister preaching from the Bible.  For those of you who are not aware of our ways, although it is not uncommon to include biblical snatches and citations in sermons, it is rare to “preach to the text.”  The text of a UU sermon is just as likely to be taken from other world religion scripture, a poem by Mary Oliver, a book suggested by a congregant, a New Yorker article, or a Little Golden Book.
And of all Bible stories the barely remembered tale of Joshua’s copycat miracle.  You may be forgiven if you forgot or never knew that under the detailed instructions of the bossy Lord God Jehovah, A/k/A Yahweh, Moses’s former ramrod stopped the flow of the River Jordan so that the Priests could carry the Arc of the Covenant into the Promised Land without getting their feet wet.  They were followed by the whole of the People of Israel.
Once on the other side Joshua would eventually lead his people to nearby Jericho.  You probably know what happened there because of a song wherein Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho and the “walls came a tumblin’ down.”  In other words the Israelites were invaders who ousted the former residents of the territory.  Although a sermon could clearly be constructed around that and how it echoes in violence to this day, that’s not where Rev. Sean wanted to go with his sermon.
No, he wanted to talk about what happened just after the whole nation, which had been wandering in the wilderness without benefit of a GPS for forty years in punishment for one lousy wild night with a Golden Calf.
When the whole nation had finished crossing the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Choose twelve men from among the people, one from each tribe, and tell them to take up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, from right where the priests are standing, and carry them over with you and put them down at the place where you stay tonight.”
So Joshua called together the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one from each tribe, and said to them, “Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever.”
So the Israelites did as Joshua commanded them. They took twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, as the Lord had told Joshua; and they carried them over with them to their camp, where they put them down. Joshua set up the twelve stones that had been in the middle of the Jordan at the spot where the priests who carried the ark of the covenant had stood. And they are there to this day.
The Bible, New International Version
The Book of Joshua, 4:1-9
Rev. Sean wanted to talk about miracles now that the Great Sky God does not come down and personally lay them on the table before us.  The absence of such showy stage craft leads many cynics to dismiss miracles all together.  Of course, looking at it another way, our very aware existence in the Universe is a miracle.  Everything and everyone we encounter every day is in some way a bleepin’ miracle.
The trick, the Preacher suggested, is remembering it.  For that we sometimes need reminders—like that pile of rocks by the Jordan.  He challenged us to go home and pick our own 12 miracles and in some way build a monument to remind us of them.
Well, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around that.  Twelve was too many—or too few.  But it did start my mind on a rifle through some musty file cabinets in the old cranium.  And lo and behold I hauled this one out…
My Mom, Ruby Irene Mills Murfin, was Den Mother for our Cub Scout Den  of eight or nine squirrelly, squirming kids in blue shirts and caps and yellow bandanas.  I was a Bear so that made me what, eight or nine years old?  That would make it about 1957 or’58.
Mom liked projects.  Big projects.  Projects that were not necessarily in her Den Mother’s manual.  Projects that helped us learn about the country around us, which happened to be the environs of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Once she had cut up a prized possession, an old mink coat that was out of style with its Joan Crawford shoulder pads.  A furrier could have used the pelts for a fashionable stole or evening jacket, but she gave them to us.  We made Indian war shields trimmed in fur and lances dangling pelts like trophy scalps.  We all whooped it up, terrorized siblings and neighbor children, and massacred settlers to our hearts content for days.
We made all sorts of things from pine cones she collected every summer on picnic trips along Happy Jack Road.
But this day she heaved a peck basket full of rocks she had collected from the bed of a fast, high country trout stream that my father had fished the summer before.  They were smooth and oval or oblong all rough edges long ago knocked off by some old glacier and millennia of rushing icy water.  They were about the size of a good big Idaho potato.  They had satisfying weight and heft in a boy’s hand.  Our minds naturally went to what we could heave them at and satisfactorily break because we were, after all, boys which meant we were as wild and vicious by nature as any pagan hoard.
But before we could commit mayhem, Den Mother Mom sat us in a circle and read to us from a picture book—Old Blue the Cow Pony by Sanford Tousey.  [Note—I had to refresh my memory of this book by a Google search and was delighted to find a copy on Amazon beat up but intact of $80!]
Blue was evidently a ranch horse of extraordinary talents.  Rounded up among the free and wild horses of the high plains he was an Appaloosa, a nimble, sure footed horse preferred by the Shoshoni and the far off Nez PercĂ©.  From a dark, almost black rump, his coat shaded to blue-gray in the forequarters.
Once broken and tamed, he took to the rigorous demands of working cattle—the intricate dance of cutting calves or steers from a herd for branding, running at full speed over broken ground as his rider threw his lariat, knowing just how to taut the rope so that the cowboy could leap from the saddle and throw the critter to the ground.  He had endurance for long days and nights of constant work and the speed to win the Sunday afternoon races at the home ranch.
Blue was also extremely loyal to his cowboy.  Together they rode through many seasons until the horse’s muzzle grew gray.  He was the stuff of cowboy folklore yet he kept working.
Then one year—could it really have been 1886 the year of the Great Blizzard that buried the high plains from Colorado all the way up into Canada in several feet of white death?—Blue and his rider were caught in the high country near the Great Divide searching for strays when the storm hit.  As I recall the tale, if they could not make it to the safety of the home ranch, they would surely die.
Through the raging storm with winds blowing icy pellets sideways, in the dreaded white out the man lost all sense of direction.  But Blue knew.  He kept plodding on breasting drifts up to his shoulders.  Two, maybe three days, the rider insensible and barely clinging to the saddle.  When the storm finally broke they were in the midst of a featureless plain far from the Mountains. 
Finally they encountered riders from the home ranch not more than two or three miles away. When they reached Blue he gave up his burden to them—and lay down and died.
They had to leave him where he lay.  The body quickly froze and was covered by drifting snow.
But as soon as it cleared the cowboys rode out with their shovels and buried Blue where he lay.  But now there was a new danger…the hungry coyotes that would find the shallow grave and dig it up.  So they began to haul stones from a distant stream to build a cairn over the grave to protect it the same as they would do for any fallen comrade.
A small pile a couple of feet high would have done the trick, but they wanted something more—a monument.  They built the pile high and fenced the plot with split rails.  And on a tall board stuck into the ground they painted, “Erected to the memory of Old Blue, the best old cow pony that ever pulled on a rope. By the cow punchers of the 7 X L Outfit Rest in Peace.”
When Mom finished telling the story to us she said, “That was a long, long time ago and some of the stones on Old Blue’s grave have fallen.  But we are going to help.  We are going to bring new stones!”
She let us each pick a stone and broke out the Tempera paints and brushes.  She had us each paint our rock and decorate it with the brands we had designed for ourselves the week before.  Mine was the P-standing-A-T, the capital letter A standing on the top of letters P and T with a leg on each.
At our next Den meeting Mom loaded us into my Dad’s Wyoming Travel Commission station wagon and drove south of town onto the giant Warren Ranch.  We found the grave by a rutted dirt road not far from the Colorado line.  It was a raw and blustery day, the sky leaden, but the frozen ground clear of snow.  It must have been March.  The grave was there just like in the picture but the stones slipped along the ground on one side, the sign had faded, and the rail fencing long since replaced with wire.
One by one we each solemnly stepped forward and placed our stones on the pile.  Mom took some pictures with our old Kodak Brownie Box camera.  We may have said a prayer for Old Blue, or sung a song.  Or not.  We piled back into the station wagon and drove back to town in an odd silence, not a single boy trying to start a round of Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
And that’s the story.  Make of it what you will.  There may have been miracles involved.

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