There goes my hero, v.2

In a past life, I was a conservation organizer with the Sierra Club in Rapid City, South Dakota, working with a large group of like-minded organizations to garner support for what would have been America’s first national grassland wilderness in the southwest part of the state. I say “would have been” because, though we got as far as federal legislation being introduced, the project never progressed beyond that.  It’s very painful to look back on this time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the distressingly large number of deaths of people I had come to know, respect and love through this job:  my beloved mentor and supervisor, Kirk Koepsel; the Club’s Northern Plains Regional Director Larry Mehlhaff; my good friend and regional coworker, Mary Wiper; our steering committee director, Rich Gordon; long-time Sierra Club volunteer Don Higgins; radio/TV outdoor show personality Tony Dean; and Keith Jewett, the father of my dear friend and immediate coworker, Chas Jewett.

Chas is the daughter of a Lakota father and White mother, born and raised on the Cheyenne River Reservation in northwest South Dakota. She joined our team in 2002 as an organizer, specifically focusing on tribal outreach. Though we supported each other extensively, my emphasis was more on partnering with “unlikely allies,” specifically hunter-angler groups. It would be a colossal understatement to say that we had many adventures during our five years as coworkers–unfortunately not all of them happy. It is significant to note that, while both of us were insulted, threatened, and even spit at during our time on this campaign, none of that disrespect was committed by her peeps (native Americans)–only mine (White people). 

That being said, few people in my life know (or will remember) that although Chas is the first native American person I can call a friend, she wasn’t my first native American Sierra Club coworker. That person was, in fact, a Lakota woman named Charmaine White Face, who for years had been organizing native American folks on national forest management issues in the Black Hills area. She joined the grassland wilderness campaign shortly after I did in winter 2001.

Though they are both Lakotas passionately committed to environmental and social justice causes, I don’t know that I could have dreamt up two more different women, personality-wise. Charmaine was as quiet and understated as Chas is talkative and exuberant. Unfortunately, I didn’t work with Charmaine long enough to get to know her very well: she left the Sierra Club abruptly after less than nine months in the position.

One day, on a Friday staff call with the two of us, our supervisor, Kirk, made a thoughtless comment having to do with powwow attendees enjoying themselves too much and being hungover on Monday morning after the event Charmaine would be attending on behalf of the wilderness campaign. Kirk, recognizing this the instant it was out of his mouth, apologized immediately, owning his cultural insensitivity. I could hear the embarrassment, mortification and pain in his voice. His comment was meant as a joke about people in general having a good time over the weekend and “paying the piper,” so to speak, on Monday morning, but in context it was highly inappropriate and hurtful. Kirk knew (as do I, as do many White folks in western South Dakota) that many native American families have been affected–even destroyed–by alcoholism, and that alcohol, in fact, isn’t even allowed at powwows. Charmaine, for her part, seemed to accept his apology and understand how badly he felt about what he said. 

Later the next week, Charmaine and I were in the office together, and I was on speakerphone with Kirk. To this day, I truly don’t know what set her off, but Charmaine suddenly flew into a rage the likes of which I had never seen. She screamed and cried and threw things; I was literally petrified with surprise and agonizing discomfort. I don’t remember what she called me, but I know it was something accusatory about conspiring against her. What I do remember is feeling completely and utterly at a loss about what to do with her boiling anger and the way she expressed it. I also remember feeling surprised, hurt and resentful that she would lump me together with Kirk and every other White person she was angry at: after all, I wasn’t the one who made the inappropriate joke. I wasn’t “in cahoots” with Kirk: I wasn’t a racist! 

As a clueless White woman in her late thirties, I had no tools with which to break this down. I had no idea how to process any of this. I had never experienced anything like it. I wish I’d had the skills and the emotional maturity to talk to Charmaine about what happened and make an effort to heal our relationship.

Today, though, I am better prepared to view this incident with the perspective of time, education, life experience and ongoing self-work. I can unpack and analyze most of what happened–and recognize it when it happens in a different context. I understand intent vs. impact. I acknowledge that we live within interlocking oppressive systems built by White people for the benefit of White people, at the expense of people of color. I recognize and own my Whiteness and my racism. I try.

I hadn’t thought about Charmaine and this incident in a very long time. But I had recruited Chas recently to present a program on the concept of culture vultures, and her words brought it to mind. I was able to talk to Chas about why Charmaine left the Sierra Club. Over the years, I was able to have conversations with Chas that I probably couldn’t have had with anyone else. And truthfully, the vast majority of the time I was learning from her–not the other way around.

Kirk, too, spoke honestly about what happened with Charmaine after Chas was hired. I think we made a great team for the short time we were blessed to work together. I don’t doubt that Chas carries a similar kind or amount of anger towards White people that Charmaine does, but she expresses it differently–and, like Charmaine, has always seemed to channel it into her decades-long work in environmental and social justice. It may be that she expressed it differently to me than others. Over the years we got pretty good at calling each other on our shit, in a way that we can both understand and absorb without hard feelings. I know I deserve to be called out more than she does, and I appreciate her friendship more than she knows. Like my brother, Chas is another one of my heroes.

The appeal of the posse

In the interest of doing pretty much anything rather than studying for my Spanish 101 class, a couple weekends ago I spent about ninety minutes on something I’ve been putting off for the past year.  Now that my personal statute of limitations has passed on this particular event, I think I’m ready to write about it.

If you’ve seen the ultra-cheesy 1997 sci-fi flick Starship Troopers, you’ve seen a movie on which my friend Darren Rydstrom worked as “loader, second unit.”  (Oddly enough, his first name is misspelled in the credits.)  Parts of this movie were filmed in Badlands National Park, just an hour east of where Darren and I lived, 30 years ago, in Rapid City, South Dakota.

photo0122

The urbane, golf-playing, cocktail-sipping, cigar-puffing camera operator/ director of photography Darren was known in the biz as “Daz” Rydstrom.  I didn’t know that Darren.  My Darren was a year younger than me, lived across the street and had a three-legged tabby named Tripod and a trampoline in the backyard.

young man holding video camera

Later on he had a motorcycle instead of a trampoline, but Tripod-lovin’ backyard trampoline Darren was the Darren I knew best.

man and motorcycle

My Darren and I did silly, fun stuff like flying a kite with a glow stick tied to it at dusk, so that neighbors who drove by and saw us looking up asked if there was a UFO in the sky.  We climbed Little Devil’s Tower with a friend visiting from the east coast, camped overnight and, the next morning, found our camp covered in ladybugs.

man and woman in forest

young man sitting atop rock looking through video camera

We spent college breaks together:  on summer nights, we laid on the trampoline, looking at the stars and talking for hours, scaring ourselves when we heard deer moving nearby in the dark.  Or, with a group of friends, we’d take blankets out to the middle of a horse pasture adjacent to our neighborhood, and do pretty much the same thing.  One time, the two of us were sitting in my driveway, watching lightning and sharing a clove cigarette–which is what you did in the 80s, right?–and my mom happened to come out of the house right when I was taking a drag.  And it was no big whoop–I was in college, and I knew that she knew that I wasn’t a real smoker.  Plus I was with Darren, who could do no wrong in my parents’ eyes.

During Christmas break, we’d bundle up and drive around Rapid City, stereo blasting Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust or whatever 80s cassette happened to be in the tape deck at the time, shooting whatever looked interesting:  him with his video camera, me with my 35mm.   When we were back at our respective schools, we wrote letters and called each other occasionally.

In July 1988, our families were evacuated from our neighborhood, caused by the locally famous Westberry Trails Fire, which burned within about a half-mile of our homes. Darren, of course, spent a significant amount of time before evacuation filming the blaze from the roof of his house, and then fought the fire with his mom, Jerie, as a Doty VFD volunteer.

Once when I was living in Reston, Virginia, we met up in Washington, DC and spent a day walking the National Mall and visiting the Smithsonian.

young man and woman in reflection

young man seated in front of fountain

It was around this time when we finally decided to kiss, just to see what would happen.  I’ll refer you to a specific scene in P.S. I Love You for the outcome of that ill-conceived experiment.

Darren’s Grandma Harriet lived in Denver the same time I did, so we got to see each other several times during the 1990s.  Grandma Harriet drove us around in her Audi sedan, and once took us to lunch at Denver Country Club.  (She was a classy lady in more ways than one.)  One time, Darren took me to the mansion in which his dad, Don, had grown up.  He walked right up and knocked on the door, introduced himself and asked if we could come in so he could show me the house.  And, because he was Darren, the current occupant was delighted to comply.

Over the years, we saw less and less of each other.  After moving around quite a bit, I eventually ended up back in Rapid City.  Darren would come back to the Hills for visits at Christmas and during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.  He’d call and leave a message, and I’d be busy or out of town (especially during the Rally!).  I kept meaning to visit him in SoCal, but never did.  Once in a while we’d e-mail each other.  Then Facebook came along, and I was at least able to stay more current on his adventures.  I was amazed at the places he wrote about visiting, the people he met and with whom he worked, and the way he was blossoming professionally.  I was so proud of who he’d become and what he was accomplishing.  He was living the dream, as far as I could tell.

One of the things he told me most consistently over the years was how much he wanted to be married and have a family someday.  In fact, some of our more contentious (for lack of a better word) discussions concerned my determination to never have children and how that could possibly be the case.  I always wanted so much for him to find the perfect woman–not a glamorous, superficial, affected wannabe.  But that never seemed to happen.

I should probably mention at this point that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash two years ago today, while filming a new Discovery Channel reality show.  Sadly, like the way I find out about so many things these days, I learned this devastating news on Facebook a day or two after the accident.

This was the second time in six years a close friend had died abruptly.  Both deaths occurred in early February.  Both friends were healthy, active men in their forties.  Both of them were world travelers who packed more living into less than fifty years than the majority of us could in twice that time.  One was married with a young daughter, and happened to be my boss, as well as my friend.  The other was Darren.

young man squatting on wall with pine trees in background

Back to what I spent those ninety minutes on.  I had a couple VHS tapes with footage from 1988 and 1989 that Darren had put together for me a long time ago, and, around this time last year, I asked Loving Husband if he’d record the content onto a DVD for me.

I finally it watched it, and now I can’t decide if I’m glad to have this access to the past.  I think, ultimately, I am–but it definitely comes with a price.  That price is to relive us–our friendship, our youth, our carefree banter and laughter, our total disregard for the inevitability of adulthood, old age, and eventual death.  To see a youthful Darren briefly and falsely brought back to life on a TV screen.  To see myself as a beautiful, young college student without a care in the world.  Maybe it’s better, as Death Cab For Cutie so eloquently puts it, to “depend on that faulty camera in our minds.”  I’ve forgotten much more than I remember about us and our friendship and the time we spent together.  But I’m grateful for every moment.

man and woman smiling together

This morning I looked at a text on my phone just as I was leaving for work.  The message was from my dear friend, Wayde, with whom I exchange random Seinfeld quotes several times a day.  My boss who died suddenly in 2007 was Wayde’s boss as well, and when Darren was killed, Wayde was one of the first people I called.  This morning’s text read, “With Darren’s help, we’ll get that chicken.”  The time stamp was 3:14 a.m.  (Wayde doesn’t sleep well.)  According to Los Angeles County officials, Darren’s death occurred at approximately 3:40 a.m.  I knew immediately who had really sent me that message and why.

I called Wayde on my way to work and, between sobs, told him what he’d inadvertently done–and how grateful I was that Darren had chosen to communicate with me through him.  And as sad as I was this morning, for the rest of the day, I was comforted by the knowledge that everyone and everything is connected, there is no death, and Darren is an integral part of my Nonphysical Posse, if not the ringleader.

Looking at the hundreds of pictures posted on Darren’s Facebook page by his friends around the world, it’s hard not to feel jealous and left out of all the places he’d been and good times he had with so many people who aren’t me.  But I also read messages from people who’d only met him once, for a few hours, and considered themselves fortunate.  They too were deeply affected by his death.  That’s the kind of person he was.  As with my brother, I always felt better for his physical presence with me.  I’m certain every one of his Facebook friends, his parents and his sisters would agree.

We all knew and loved a different Darren.  I loved my Black Hills Darren best.

And with his help, we’ll get that turkey.

Man stabbing at turkey with pitchfork
Darren Arthur Rydstrom        |       11/13/66 – 2/10/13