A few days ago, my good Irish friend, Dennis Malloy from up north state New York, in his prime a premier woodsman, wondered about how the pine beetle is affecting the Big Horn National Forest where I spent so much time this past summer. Good report – the Big Horn pines are still largely green and healthy. Not so for many other forests, including the stands on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, mostly Ponderosa.
For old people like me, that simple question triggered an old memory and thus, I recall Benny Speelman, a most unlikely Northern Cheyenne hero.
At that time, back in the 1990’s my children and I had, at their insistence, moved back to the ‘rez’ from Washington, D.C., which they hated and so did I. We only went there because I got a big dreadful job with a United States Senator. The pay was good and so we got trapped there for several years, taking some time to come back our senses.
Back home, we literally leaped back into poverty, becoming regular Indians again. Though I got elected to the Tribal Council, there wasn’t much money in it then – $75 for each meeting, twice a month and if you didn’t attend there was no check. At that time, child support and welfare were not yet in full force.
Somehow, I acquired a house, tribal leases, some more homeless kids, a few cows and way too many horses. Always extremely hunting a job to meet those expenses, but employment opportunity was far and few between. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I learned that the Tribal Forestry Department was giving out “timber thinning” contracts. How hard could that be? Once again, a wrong assumption. They had to give me one, being on Council and a noisy woman.
Timber thinning is conducted in the winter because then the pine beetles are hibernating, less likely to spring from tree to tree, spreading their woe. For good reason, “just to see” if I could do it. They gave me the hardest one – nine rough miles off road with 35-45 degree slopes – steep climbs.
Since I didn’t know what I was doing, seasoned thinners avoided me. Finally, somebody said “You might try Benny Speelman.”
“Isn’t he that crazy guy?”
“Yep, but damn sure knows his way around the woods,” my good friend Bitsy Small advised. “Feed him, pay him a little and he’ll probably behave.”
It took awhile to find Benny because he was homeless, lying his head every night at any warm location he could find. Finally, I tracked him down. “I need a little help with a thinning contract.”
“Nope,” he replied. “You need a LOT of help. Women don’t do that.”
“How much do you charge?”
“Much as I can get.”
“You won’t get paid until we get done.”
“Fair enough, Ma’am.” That’s when he dubbed me that and during our association I was forever “Ma’am” to him.
So, we started out, first going to the Lame Deer IGA store which sold everything from macaroni and cheese to chain saws. I had to hock the contract to the owner, Mr. Mullins, meaning I couldn’t cash that check until he co-signed, but it got us equipment: a 45 Husqevarna for me (smallest size chainsaw) and 670 Sthil (biggest chainsaw) for Benny, gas tanks, sharpening tools, helmets etc. I wondered if there would be any profit left. Turned out there was enough to pay Benny off, the light bill which was seriously overdue and then start over again.
We had to start early and at first, I wasted too much time every morning trying to find Benny who camped anywhere and everywhere. Finally, I suggested “got a hole in the basement where you could can stay so I can find you. No funny business between you and me. Just offering you a place and a regular share of the grub while we do this job and by the way, you’ll have to be nice to my boys.” He ever was, becoming “Uncle” Benny to them. “If you want to know about ‘crazy’ I can teach you,” he would joke.
People in small closely connected communities always like to keep up with ‘what’s going on’ and thus many assumed that Benny and I were doing something like that. What we were doing was hard work trying to stay alive, nuthin more. But, they liked to talk.
When he agreed to become an inhabitant of the basement, I advised him to gather up his stuff. His stuff fit into a backpack.
He was a very physically strong man, focusing upon that because he was a little weak upstairs. Cheyenne men did not mess with him because he had roughed up more than one or two, once spending a year in jail for assault after somebody called him “mind-dead.”
We had to get up early to get after that job which dragged into months. I don’t know exactly what time he rose, but it was enough to do 250 sit-ups, 500 push-ups, run 5 miles, chop some wood for the wood stove (the only heating source we relied upon) and start the water boiling for cowboy coffee. Then he would yell down the hallway towards my bedroom (prohibited ground) to wake me up, generally about 5:30 a.m. He did not know how to make that kind of coffee, but I did. Daily.
He taught me how to “thin”, putting me in charge of the dog hair (the brushy stands of little pines trees growing everywhere) while he tackled the tough slopes and big trees. Those were good times: drinking strong cowboy coffee re-heated over a campfire. watching the sun come up, often dosing that blend with shot of Black Velvet, eating grilled deer meat (by then we were down to those which he had personally killed) or half burnt fried spuds. The mountains offered the gift of silence.
Sometimes Benny would reflect. He never did say what exactly happened to him, but he liked to talk about Omalee, his former wife, once a Pow Wow Queen, fancy dancer, like a butterfly, who got kilt in a car wreck, breaking his heart. “She knew me but liked me,” he would only say.
To tell the truth, everybody else in the business thought us a joke until we completed our third tribal contract, then with the assistance of affirmative action moved on to federal contracts, going to the Gallatin National Forest, the Big Horns and the Custer National Forest. None of them did that. Ironically, that led to an office job for me.
“Benny, we are done thinning. I got to get moving, but you have to stay here. Can’t drag you around anymore.”
“Nobody can for long Ma’am,” he shrugged.
Later, I heard he went back to drugging and drinking with the worst of them, getting grimy, greasy and gray, often stone-cold on the jail house floor. Maybe then Omalee danced once more, flitting like a butterfly just for him, welcoming him back into her arms. Afterall, as he often said, she “knew” him and “liked” him in spite of himself. I hope that was how it went.
What a woodsman he was! In spite of being weak-minded and generally regarded as “crazy”, he was exceptionally strong-hearted to me. He saved us when we needed saving.
(Clara Caufield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)