Home Making and Working,

Chapter I




Chapter I, Native Americans


In 1952 Karl Shahoskoy was a powerful looking man of 24 in fatigue uniform, barrel-chested, square shoulders held back, hawkish eyes and nose. He was sitting on a concrete platform that rose twenty inches above the dusty soil of the North Dakota badlands. It was an August afternoon, and the temperature was in the low 80's, the air dry, the light of the plain all around him like a lens. The concrete was the roof of a missile silo. A whir, low-volume but tense, strained the air. It was the motors that sucked breath through filters into the silos. Karl breathed deeply. He had designed and supervised installation of the "Atmospheric Environmental System". Over the months he had gradually learned that no one else heard the sound. Well, he was kind of a nut. He dreamed of becoming rich, having exotic women, of winning a Nobel Prize for the social benefit of his designs. Other men dreamed far-fetched dreams, he knew, but not the way he did. Their dreams seemed to him detached from what they cared about, from their energy. He saw other men like trees in a landscape; you knew roots must support them, but the roots were not before you. He was like a drawing of a tree in a textbook. The roots, the part of the trunk underground, shown below himself, that was his dreams. Like his awareness of the silo itself, his image of it as a complex, breathing mechanism, mostly hidden from sight. He was constantly aware of the breathing motors and steel warheads that gave it life and purpose, even though it looked like the top of a cistern. Co-workers would tell him he should forget it, but he did not want to. Not him. He was proud of being...something hurt in the pit of his stomach.

The plain was so flat he could see the roofs of the next silo half a mile away. Five miles away there were trees that bordered a gully. He could see smoke rising from among them. He was proud of his part in building these installations, invisible walls for his country. But he wanted to go beyond them. The Army had paid for his engineering education, but when his commitment was over he would have to move on.

He removed an envelope of salt and a hard-boiled egg from his jacket pocket and cracked the egg against the edge of the silo. The egg collapsed in his fingers and cold slimy liquid filled his palm. It had not been hard boiled after all. His anger at his own absent mindedness mixed with admiration and gratitude for the architecture of the egg: that fragile shell had held together all morning in his pocket by virtue of its design.

He wiped his hand on the concrete. The roughness of the concrete made him look down and he saw a small yellow flower growing in a crack. He pulled it out. What crap. Where weeds grew, eventually the silo would crack. He hated the recruits who had allowed that crack to open and fill with silt. The Corps of Engineers hand rubbed concrete with sesame oil in the first few weeks after the forms were removed. This curing reduced the inclination of the concrete to crack during the sharp temperature changes of the plains winter. Commercial construction did not use that method because of the expensive hours of hand labor. The Corps of Engineers had an endless supply of recruits, but the recruits did not care, even to protect their country, their homes, their families. They worked casually. They let the seeds grow. He took out his handkerchief and wiped the dirt and egg white off his hand.

Karl continued to let his mind wander toward his future after the Air Force. He was in a time of searching the images in himself. He had been looking at Buckminster Fuller drawings. Buckminster Fuller was stimulating, but not for him. Fuller was not really practical. He claimed to be practical, but really he was not, because no one in power would ever listen to him. And domes were hard to build. Karl's stomach hurt. In the back of his mind Karl had often practiced getting the attention of people in power. Damned little, yet a little. Karl had great tools...the tools had built the silos, more than the tools, the systems, the systems approach, how the men, the materials, the production of materials, the financing, the training...how they were all planned and worked together, worked wonders. But they were intricately bound in authority. They could build crystal palaces now, pyramids, the things sketched from history books, towers of Babylon. Then he would...the thing in him, in his future as he saw it, was energetic but unclear. He did not know what he did or did not know, but he trusted himself. He felt in himself this summer a string of conflicting, half-glimpsed purposes unfelt since high school.

Now Karl tuned back to the smoke from the gully. He wanted to see what caused it. No one else would care, but he could. It was five miles away, outside the perimeter in intrusion detectors. (Could not detectors like that do for a city? Fight crime. Control traffic. Control the flow of people in and out of the doors and elevators of a large building. Activate Emergency Services.) Outside the perimeter no one cared. Inside the base was the responsibility of the security boys. Not ours. The men did not care because the system was not theirs. The present staff had not designed or built them, but they did not care. They did not care if they guarded their way of life, everything they had ever done, would do. Feelings mattered. His stomach hurt. He checked on his watch to see how long he was free until the next assignment, picked up a sketchpad from the concrete, and went to the jeep. It started hard, like a motorcycle. When he had passed through the checkpoint he set out in a straight line toward the plume of smoke. He knew how to deal with the sensors. A star of tracks made by 4-wheel vehicles splayed from the silos out over the bleak plain like the rays of a bright lunar crater. But then he remembered reading somewhere that tracks damaged ecology, so he turned toward the road, which would take him on a slightly longer route along the contours of the land.

When he reached the trees he saw that the smoke must be coming from the canyon floor. He was able to drive close to the edge. The canyon was about sixty feet deep and two hundred feet across. The stream meandered in the bottom among uneroded knolls. On one of the knolls, quite near him, four middle-aged Indian men were building something. They had not heard the jeep, or at any rate did not turn to look at him. The canyon wall shaded their site; probably it had the coolness of evening already. They had a fire. He took out his sketchpad and began to draw. He noticed a rifle lay on the ground near their work project. After he had been silently sketching some minutes, one of them looked up at Karl, then the others, each at measured intervals, like a slow dance. Suddenly he imagined they might kill him. The security boys were crazy to let wanderers within ten miles of the silos. They could easily extend the peripheral sensors. Karl now really felt what he had often heard, that the threat was not only from the Soviet Union, or their surrogates the Chinese or North Koreans, but here, at home. The missiles could hold off the Russians, their courses over the pole, which he had often sketched as great protective arches, but the threat at home was a tear in the fabric of confidence. When he admitted this fear to himself, it disappeared and he felt calm again.

The Indians were using two-by-fours and one-by-twelves left over from the forms used to cast the concrete silos and using the sheet metal from a cast-off control shack to construct a small building. They were heating used nails in the fire and hammering them straight. At best, wood and sheet metal will leap out of your hand as you try to bind them. He wanted to see how they were dealing with them. He risked watching. They continued working as if he were not there. He got out of the jeep, went to the tool hole at the back, got a pair of field glasses, and began to sketch how the planes of their construction articulated. He remembered reading somewhere that a society was advanced technologically when no one searched the ashes of a burned building for nails.

Maybe the building indicated something that would be dangerous to security? The same sensitivity that forced him to listen to his own half-seen ideas enabled him to sense danger in others. It was a source of conflict at times, but he could make contributions no one else could make. He continued to sketch. He sketched for two hours. His sketches did not include the men working. He gradually concluded they were building a dwelling, a shack. They were digging an outhouse, for one thing. They framed each piece of sheet metal in a cradle of two-by-fours. He could sketch from the foundations how they planned to assemble the frames. He recalled the federal housing program for Indians. He knew the government-supplied houses in the nearest town like candy, and they were standing empty, and gas and sewer connections binding them to the world. He had to resolve the contradiction. He climbed stiffly out of the jeep and began working his way down the wall of the gully. They had come from a path on the other side. They did not acknowledge his approach. He set himself on a stone,some distance away and within view of the rifle. They continued to ignore him. They spoke occasionally in soft voices in an Indian language. He sketched further observations of their technique. They were working very painstakingly. Heating the nails for example, made it easier to chip off the bits of concrete. His watch told him he had half an hour before he had to be back on duty.

"Excuse me," he said loudly, "I have something I have to ask you."

No one spoke or broke the rhythm of work.

"Excuse me," he shouted again, then in a loud speaking voice, "I don't mean to interrupt your work but there is something I have to find out."

One of the men turned toward him. "This is Reservation land," the Indian said, also loudly.

"Why are you building this when there is free housing in Holbrook?" Karl asked.

"The housing in Holbrook is bullshit," an Indian said. "It is built like shit and no one takes care of it."

"If you live in it," he continued reasonably, "you could take care of it." He recalled after a moment that the rules did not permit renters to make alterations. His stomach hurt.

"You got your answer," another one of the Indians said.