The Ghost Dance – mixing memories (Melbourne, Australia)

By Ian Cochrane, November 30, 2012

‘I have sent for you and I am glad to see you.

I am going to talk to you after awhile about your relatives who are dead and gone.’                         

– Wovoka, Paiute American Indian prophet,

From Pierre I catch the first available flight to Los Angeles, then home to find my father frail and tired beyond his years. He whispers something in a raspy voice. Leaning closer, I can’t make anything out. Tufts of grey hair sprout from his nose. There’s no follow-up sentence, and he drifts off into some morphine-laced dream.

Ghost Dance at Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota – Illustration by Frederic Remington, 1890

That night I dream of a father I never really knew, and an American Indian ghost dance where men gather at a big tree and dance for five days. There are visions, and talk with dead family and friends. The Prophet promises he’ll return – when the winter passes – with the ghosts of our fathers.

On balmy summer evenings we sat outside on a small square porch of outer suburban concrete, among smoky drifts from my father’s cigarettes – under starry skies, mostly in silence. My father, in his hackneyed white singlet, pondered his own private world with the occasional word to a doting red dog at his feet.

Sometimes he cranked up the record player and suddenly let fly, joining in with the Italian Enrico Caruso – the famous tenor, after being apprenticed to a mechanical engineer at age ten. He gave hope to my father who dreamed of travel. Returned to his ponderings, they were punctuated by the crackles of dust on long-playing 78s, and the rise and fall of the great tenor’s voice.

I’d keep listening – it seemed forever – to the click of the mono stylus at the end of the record and the occasional buzz of a mozzie. My father had drifted off to parts unknown; the glow of a cigarette butt in sync with his breathing, making waves in the warm air as it left and returned to his lips. In the light from the half-open front door, scars protruded from his right bicep: stark white weals track the length of a brown, muscled arm.

My father was knocked off his bicycle at 17 when riding home to my grandmother’s house; his front tyre slipping on a greasy tramcar track. He lay trapped between steel wheels – along with the wreckage of his bike – until pulled clear, unconscious. His arm hung from bloodied bone, sinew and skin. When doctors insisted the arm be amputated my furious Scottish grandfather steadfastly refused.

Never a good sleeper, my father lay in the front room with little to ease the aching – and lots of time for reflection – waiting for the clip-clop of the milkman’s draught-horse Bobbie, the jingle of empty bottles heralding another daybreak.

He swam first thing in a cold pool daily – rain, hail or shine – to regain the use of his mangled arm, while balancing night school with long working hours as an apprentice on the machine-shop floor.

In the early-morning gloom I sit at my desk and daydream bleary-eyed. There’s a twinge in my shoulder. I scratch a hairy earlobe and gaze out the flywire screen door to the street. I hear the pitter-patter of Canine feet and follow the glowing ember of a dog-walker’s cigarette blinking on-off, on-off. The flickering glow looks strangely familiar. The voice of Andrea Bocelli wavers from the CD.

My father is here.

7 Comments

  1. Gavin Cochrane says:

    What a great insight!There are lots of things i dont know about my family,every little bit helps.This story really rings true.Ive never finished a book in all my 48 years,i think that’s about to change.

  2. umashankar says:

    It is an intense, eerie remembrance of your intrepid father, Ian. The imagery of American Indian ghost dance prepares us for the surreal end. As usual, you have invoked vivid images of the old gentleman.

    • IanC says:

      Thanks very much US, for the kind words.
      I especially appreciate your comment regarding the initial ghost dance opening.

      Cheers, ic

  3. JerseyLil says:

    Ian, I love the way you weaved the Ghost Dance with memories of your father. What a fascinating dream you had. I have an affinity for Native American culture. In college in New Jersey, I had a class on Native Americans taught by a professor from the South Dakota Rosebud Reservation. Did my research paper on healing rituals of the Diné (Navajo people). Your descriptions of your father are so vivid I could almost see him listening to Enrico Caruso. So admirable the way he worked to regain use of his mangled arm. Your post is a loving tribute to him, well done!

    • IanC says:

      As always, great to hear from you JL.
      I very much appreciate your detailed comments. Funny, but those memories all came flooding back once I started writing.

      Yes, I do feel an affinity with indigenous cultures too. And re: the American Indian, was deeply affected by Dee Brown’s `Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’. A shocking history of mistreatment here also of course. So much to write & so little time.

      Cheers, ic

      • JerseyLil says:

        You’re welcome, Ian. It is amazing how memories come flooding back once you start writing. That happens to me too. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is on my blog list (or any list) of favorite books. We covered it in class and the shocking, shameful revelations re mistreatment of Native Americans deeply affected me as well. I’ve kept that book on my shelf since college. Cheers to you, too!

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