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The Sad Tale of the Man in Dress Blues

A sad tale of a Marine and his dress blues, and his return home to the Navajo Nation.

It was February, I guess, in Gallup at Richardson's Pawn down on Front Street. Near noon outside, and the air was crisp and cold. The back counter was busy with those wanting to pawn the things they had. Each person had something to lay out on the counter, there were many.

I waited in line and looked at those gathered there. They looked to be all Navajo. Some of the folks were dressed for the cold, wearing coats and overalls. Others sported the finery for a Saturday in town.

There were some old Navajo men standing together and next to them old women who wore scarves holding on to grandchildren. There were family men and their wives. There were cowboys. There were some standing there who looked like they had a rough night and were still hung over. Some girls stood together. They had small bracelets, and looked like they were trying to catch the bus or something.

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There were jewelry cases along the walls on the side where the line snaked past all the silver and turquoise jewelry. The line was long and I joined them standing there at the end of it. I could see it was moving slow.

I heard a voice speak to me and turned to see a White woman. She had asked, "Can you tell if it is real Indian jewelry or fake?" She was looking to buy something, maybe a concho belt or a turquoise bracelet.

"They are all real; they only sell the real McCoy here," I said. I turned around, but she continued on talking. She had a pleasant voice and it sang in the way she talked. Her eyes were clear. gray colored. and they looked straight into mine. This was a city girl, because White women from around Gallup don't look you in the eye that way.

She asked some questions and we spoke a little bit. She told me she was from Texas, visiting the place by chance looking for a rug and a silversmith to make her a few things.

“I come from a place where they make rugs,” I said. “I might know someone who could help you.” She said it would be good to buy something straight from the person who made it.

When you hear these things, you have to stand back and really look at the person, weighing whether it was really worth the trouble to do such a thing. There are always complications about taking someone out to look for a rug when you don't really know them.

You have to bring them into the circle of people you know, some family and all your community. It is a lot to ask such a thing, but this, I guess, is what she wanted to do.

Someone who asks thinks it is a business deal, just a short transaction. They don't know it is a lot more, and they learn how it is when they are in the midst of it. After a long drive to bring them to where they can find rugs and jewelry from the maker, they are far from the city lights of Gallup.

There will be time together, and a lot of driving to a far off spot way out in the middle of nowhere. Some can't take it and get scared, frightened by the way of life, the remoteness and not knowing if it is safe to go way out there.

This one looked to be a free spirit willing to go to such lengths to find a rug. Will she drink my aunt's coffee and eat her stew you think, will she find that no plumbing and an outhouse to use too uncivilized. You think about such things.

I thought about a story told around home. It happened after the Korean War, about a young soldier who came back on the Greyhound with his young bride.

It was some time ago now, over by Sheep Springs. It is way out there, this place, Sheep Springs, but it is near the road. It took a while to get there in those days. The road from Gallup to Shiprock was dirt, but the Greyhound took them that way.

He was from just East of there, from out on the flat—a young soldier, a Marine in dress blues. Somehow, those blues attract a lot of Navajo young men and they look good in that uniform, pants cut straight with the ground, stove pipe legs, a thin waist, gallant and handsome, straight back and hair cut short and when they move it is like a razor. The crowd parts like the Red Sea in front of them. That is what those dress blues can do.

Well, he brought a girl. Some say she was Japanese. She had skin that was like white chalk, clear and light with jet-black hair. She had met this young man and listened to his talk of distant mesas, of the mountain to the West, of strange and interesting things like Sings, ceremonies and a life like she had never heard of or seen before.

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When he spoke he had a dreamy look in his eyes and she could see it with him. What a place! And the people who lived there were just like him. In time, she gave her heart and soul to him and said I will follow you back to your place.

They made the long trek across the ocean, back to Twenty Nine Palms, and left by bus. They came to Gallup, to the bus station on Route 66, and ate across the street at the White Cafe. The Navajos there looked at her and with her face looking like white chalk and jet black hair, thought that she must be Pueblo, some kind of Pueblo from maybe over by Albuquerque.

She was quiet and did not look around and spoke softly to this young Marine in dress blues. They ate and left. The bus would not be around for an hour.

They walked around town and she saw the land was dry, more so than she had thought. There were some drunks walking around, some asking for money so they could visit the Mexican bootleggers.

She did not understand this. He explained that Indians could not drink liquor; it was against the law. They could not go into any bars or liquor stores, so the bootleggers provided the drinks. She thought this was strange, as it was available to anyone in her own country.

She could see from the treatment they received from the ticket agent that Indians were not liked in town. The dress blues meant nothing to the agent. They had to wait outside. Indians could not wait inside with the White people. She was tired and wanted to sit down but couldn't.

There was an outhouse out back to use for the bathroom, and the one inside was reserved for others. She looked at this outhouse. It was an awful sight, but she bore it and used it. She didn't want to look around too closely but she did. The smell was terrible. There was no place to wash up.

The young man in dress blues felt ashamed for her that he could not offer anything better. The bus came and they got on it and sat near the back. It was early afternoon as they headed out of town. As they went north he pointed out a store and told her that the place sold cooked sheep heads, a delicacy for his people. She just looked at him and didn't say anything.

As they drove further north the land turned even drier and there were no trees. The dust rose from the dirt road and there was no more town. It was clear that this was not what she thought it would be like. The drive was long and it was a quiet ride. After stopping here and there, she would see Indian people get off the bus, but there was no house, or car or train to meet them. They just started to walk across this barren landscape.

"Where are they going,” she said? He told her that they live where you can't see the houses; they live way out there. She just looked at him and didn't say anything. She said where is the water, the streams and lakes, where are the trees? He told her that water had to be hauled by wagon in some cases from a long way off. She asked, “Will we have to do this?”

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He said, “Yes.”

She was quiet and asked about the trees, “Do you have trees where you live?” He said, “On the flat land where I live, there are no trees; they are on the mountain.” She could see the mountain rising in the West.

Community people were there at the trading post, getting supplies and water from the springs nearby. They saw the bus pull up and stop by the road. A young Navajo Marine got out and pulled his duffel bag out and laid it on the ground. As he stood there, a Pueblo girl with clear light skin got off. The driver went into the trading post and the bus sat there waiting for him to return.

She stood there and looking around at everything, she told him, “I can't stay here.”

She got back on the bus and the driver returned and it drove off. He just stood there in his dress blues and watched her go.

She left him and never came back. It is a story that still is talked about around those places when people sit around and remember things.

I stood there and thought about the Dress Blues; all this came to me in an instant it seemed like. This woman looking for a rug looked friendly, a wanderer; maybe it would be all right. I collected my pawn and looked at her and said, "Good luck!" and went out the door.

Johnny Rustywire is Folded Rocks Clan People on his mother’s side, and born for Tsinahbiltnii, the Mountain People Clan on his father’s side. He comes from Toadlena-Two Gray Hills, New Mexico, where the mountain is cracked and the water flows. He is a father of six and grandfather of 12. He attended Indian boarding schools and grew up on the Navajo Reservation, and has been married to the same woman for 40 years, a Ute from Fort Duchesne, Utah.