Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana
Like George Armstrong Custer, I too made a bonehead move on the Little Bighorn. But mine didn’t result in a quick death (“…in the time it takes a hungry man to eat his dinner,” one Indian said of Custer’s demise).
This story won’t take that long. It’s more of an appetizer. The tale occurs during the 125th Little Bighorn Anniversary and Re-enactment, held on June 25, 2001, near Hardin in south-central Montana.
I had long wanted to see this iconic battle re-enactment. It just so happened that before the event, I had a meeting scheduled in Salt Lake City with a design firm that hired me to write a corporate brochure for a client. I made plans to fly to Utah. Knowing the re-enactment was just a few days after my meeting, I determined to marshal whatever forces were necessary to attend it. First, I needed a vehicle.
My mother was living in Salt Lake at the time in an assisted-living center on the outskirts of dementia. I cooked up a scheme where I would drive her to Billings in her Ford Taurus to see old friends. Then I would kidnap her car and drive 60 miles south to the Little Bighorn. She didn’t put up a fight and forgot about my plan soon after I presented it. On June 24, I picked her up and we hit the road for the 500-mile drive to Billings.
As we drove, our conversation took some odd turns. Old stories were revisited and we bickered over the details. She asked me several times where we were going, and to break the tedium I responded with outlandish destinations.
“Cleveland,” I said. She snorted. “Why would we be going to Cleveland?”
“I meant Tierra del Fuego.”
“Tierra who? I don’t believe you.”
She knew her faculties were fading but still carried a glint in her eye that said, “Don’t fool with me. I know you’re up to something.” For fun, I suggested we play a game. I would give her the first name of a famous actor or actress and she would give me the last name.
“Humphrey…,” I said. She thought for a moment. I could see her mind turning like tumblers in a lock. They fell into place. “Bogart.”
“Elizabeth…,” I said. “Taylor,” she huffed. I could tell her feelings for Liz were less than fond.
“Marlon…,” I said. She pursed her lips, then said, “Monroe.”
I guffawed and slapped my knee. That’s genius, I thought. She looked at me in confusion and then laughed too, not knowing why. We played the game a little longer and laughed more as we almost missed the turnoff to West Yellowstone.
I wish I could remember more about what we talked about. Someday I won’t remember the trip at all. As I tell my daughter, be prepared because as I get older I will tell certain stories over and over again until I have just one left. We argue over what that last story will be.
On the morning of June 25, I got up early in Billings to drive to the Little Bighorn. On the same morning 125 years earlier, Custer and his scouts had crept up to the crest of the hill that looks down into the valley of the Little Bighorn. Custer couldn’t see how many hostiles were gathered there. Scouts could, and they began singing their death song.
Although he was unsure what awaited him, Custer wanted the element of surprise and decided to attack early that morning. I, too, was unsure. I wondered how many people would be attending the re-enactment and whether I could get a good seat. Like Custer, I decided to attack early. We both received a less-than-warm welcome.
Chet joins the adventure
I gassed up my mother’s Taurus for the drive to the battle site. Before I left Billings, I called to check in on Chet, a pal from the past whom I had not seen in several years. He had disappeared for a while and was dealing with some personal issues, which caused him to close his business and move in with his mother.
When he heard why I was in town and where I was headed, he asked if he could go along. I usually travel solo (or with my mother) on road trips, but Chet always makes things interesting, so I swung by and picked him up. Chet had gained some girth since I’d seen him last.
“I’m trying to get over 200 pounds,” he explained. “I’ve gained about 20 and I’m close, but I just can’t quite get there. I’ve hit a plateau.”
As I gazed at the Rimrocks in the distance, I squinted through the haze of Chet’s cigarette smoke. Along with his weight, he had increased his intake of nicotine, mostly, he claimed, because he looked so damn good with a cigarette. I had the feeling he was slowly trying to stub out his existence.
An hour later, we were perched on barstools in Hardin watching a parade pass by outside with cowboys and Indians and drummers and assorted folks riding horses, motorcycles and beat-up bikes. In Montana, many bars open early. Patrons often sidle through the door just after it’s unlocked and saddle up with whiskey ditches. Today was no different.
We downed two drinks each. I drank red beer and a Bloody Mary — Chet drank diet Pepsi (he had been sober for about 10 years, I for about 10 hours). After the parade ended, we drove on down the freeway a few miles to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. As any good student of history knows, the Little Bighorn was the last hurrah for the Plains Indians. They killed 268 soldiers and scouts that day, buzzing around them like hornets armed with guns, arrows and lances.
Arriving a couple of hours early, Chet and I toured the visitor center and main gravesite, then drove up the road that winds along the ridge west of the river. In essence, we followed Custer’s path in reverse direction of the way he and his troops had come.
Custer had, in an ill-fated maneuver, divided his troops into three commands. Major Reno’s force attacked straight down the valley and was quickly turned on its heels. Capt. Benteen circled south to prevent an escape by the natives in that direction. Custer led the majority of the men at a high trot along the ridge above the river, hoping to come up behind the Indian camp and claim what he felt were his just rewards as the greatest Indian fighter on earth.
Along the road that follows Custer’s ridge ride are markers indicating where soldiers were killed. Chet and I took our time exploring the area and walking paths that took us back into the past.
“These poor suckers,” Chet said. “What a god-forsaken place to get an axe in the skull. But the view’s not bad.” In Chet’s state of mind, calling something “not bad” was as good as it got. He didn’t suffer fools well. Particularly Custer.
A brilliant idea
As it approached time for the re-enactment, we realized the grandstand was across the Little Bighorn River, and we would have to drive back to the frontage road to cross the river and get to the viewing area. That didn’t wash with me. I told Chet I thought we should find a place down near the bank on our side of the river. In between puffs, he nodded. He was not unacquainted with logic. We slowly drove along the ridge road and soon came upon some small dirt tire tracks that led down towards the river.
Look at this, I thought. I’ll bet nobody has been so bold and brilliant to make this little maneuver. We turned and drove down the tracks a half mile and reached a flat area near the river, where we parked. We were alone. Not another soul had been so inspired. As I turned off the car I said, “This is sweet. We’ll have a great view from here.” Chet grunted approval.
Across the river the grandstands were full. I could see people crammed together and I pitied them. No imagination, no audacity. They were like sheep, being led to the re-enactment of a slaughter and being told where to sit. Chet and I, on the other hand, were latter-day Magellans, unafraid to venture to the other side of the world and take our place in the company of brave explorers.
As I congratulated myself on my bravado, I noticed that near the grandstands stood a tripod that appeared to hold a movie camera. Standing next to it was a man who was waving his arm — but not as if to say hi. His arm was fully extended and had a wide sweeping motion, as if vigorously wiping snow off a windshield. He seemed upset. It dawned on me that this was a signal for us. In an instant, I realized it: I had parked my mother’s Ford Taurus dead center in the battlefield. And her tan sedan was about to be encircled by a horde of bewildered and angry battle re-enactors — all hostile to Chet and me.
I imagined arrows piercing the car and rifle butts smashing cracks in our windows through which smoke escaped. I wondered how I would explain this to my mother, in terms she could both understand and quickly forget.
Custer and his troops had traveled close to this very route down toward the river. Bent on surprising the Indians, Custer was surprised himself by a contingent of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors sweeping around to greet him. He and his men reared up and reversed course, hoofing it back up the hill for a last stand at what is now their historic gravesite.
Custer and I both recognized our situation had turned dire.
“Holy shit,” I shouted to Chet. “We’re sitting in the middle of the goddamn battle site!” Chet coughed and yelled, “Get us outta here!” As the man by the tripod continued waving, now jumping up and down, I fired up the Ford, spun around and hightailed it back up to the ridge road. I checked my rearview mirror for flying arrows.
We drove down to the frontage highway, across the river, and around to the grandstand area. The re-enactment had already begun. Eventually, the battle moved to the flat piece of land where earlier we had been smugly parked. Dust swirled as the Indians and soldiers swept around each other — as had occurred a century and a half earlier.
A word with the filmmaker
We walked over to the man with the tripod who had his camera trained on the action. He told us he was making a documentary of the event.
I said, “Did you see those morons who parked over there across the river?”
“Yeah, idiots,” he responded. “Assholes almost ruined my movie.”
“Probably from the Midwest or back east somewhere,” Chet said. “Figured they would sneak up on us.”
After the re-enactment, we walked down to the Little Bighorn and waded in to cool off. It was a blistering day. We talked with several re-enactors watering their horses in the stream. They were discussing the next re-enactment they were headed for — some were going to Oklahoma, some to Nebraska. It was a lifestyle they enjoyed. Driving to battle sites and getting shot at and killed on sunny afternoons. Then heading to the local watering hole.
As we stood in the stream, at the precise spot where Custer tried to cross before being chased back up the hill to his destiny, I pondered the idiocy of the white man. How clueless we all can be. How full of hubris and false courage. I can only say I’m glad my misguided maneuver did not occur on a bigger stage and result in my inglorious death, leaving my white bleached bones cooking in the sun like Custer’s, and my mother’s Ford Taurus pockmarked with dents and holes, stripped of tires and windshield wipers.
The next day, when I told my mother the tale of her lone Taurus, she frowned and said, “You ninny, I can’t leave you alone for a second.” It was what she often said to me when I was young and in trouble. Then, with a glint in her eye, she said, “I should have gone with you.” Looking back, I wish she had.
In the end, I believe George Armstrong got just what he deserved that deathly June day. And Chet and I got what we deserved exactly 125 years later. Chet got out of the house and had his load lightened a bit, and I, with my exaggerated notions of myself, got bucked off my high horse.
White man plenty dumb.
Tom Vandel moved from Billings to Portland many years ago. He is a professional copywriter/creative director with a one-man firm called Les Overhead (his alter-ego and boss). He returns to Montana at least once a year to explore remote back roads and country bars. He likes the town of Custer, but not the man.
Editor’s Note: More on this series may be found here.