On Men & Arms

Ever heard of John Wesley Powell? He was the man back in 1869 who explored the Colorado River.

Can you imagine what Powell and his nine-man crew must have thought upon entering the Grand Canyon in those little boats on that roiling river? If one can envision the first mission to Mars, one would probably be just about dead-on. Imagine a canyon so vast that there was no earthly standard to go by. It is easy today to see the grand adventure in rafting the Colorado through this colorful chasm because we were brought up on these images via TV, movies, calendars, and tedious home slide shows. But Powell & Co. had no such luxury.  They were the first men on Mars, so to speak. For all these explorers knew there were giant lizards just ahead waiting to gulp them down like popcorn, or a great whirlpool around that next bend which would suck this Jason and his American Argonauts down to China. Bravery has many faces. This grand adventure in the grandest canyon of them all was one of America’s grandest moments.

What Powell did ranks right up there with other famous American explorers, including Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and John C. Fremont.  But guess what?  Powell did all his exploring with just one arm.  If you imagine that this is no big deal, not so tough, then let me suggest that next time you jump into a swimming pool or climb a cliff that you do so with one arm tied behind your back.  I think pretty quick you will see what I mean.

Does anyone remember “Mr. Merriweather”?  He was that crusty character in the movie, Little Big Man, who showed up bye and bye, but each time he did so he was always short another body part?  An arm here, a leg there, an eye, an ear. . . .

“Hey, Mr. Merriweather,” laughs Jack Crabb as he lays drunk in the mud. “You better watch out or pretty soon there won’t be enough of you to bury.”

Merriweather reminds me of a fellow I ran into during research for my Indian War book, Scalp Dance.

Back in the 1860s, during a prolonged siege by the Sioux against Fort Phil Kearny in Wyoming Territory, soldiers mysteriously began turning up drunk. When officers investigated they found, just beyond sight of the fort, a mule cart containing two barrels of “rank poison.” Tending this portable saloon was a tough-looking customer, 50 or 60 years of age, who also sported a peg leg. Hundreds of miles of wilderness . . . the prairie alive with hostile Indians . . . alone and encumbered by a wooden leg . . . and yet this wily old pirate somehow managed to not only survive, but make a living.

For the fellow above, for Mr. Merriweather, for Major Powell, for tens of thousands of others who had lost limbs in the American Civil War, there were no handicap parking stalls, no ramps at the mall and no rails at the library to aid them; it was a life in which you either sank or you swam. Surprisingly, many not only “swam,” many also conquered.