Happy B-day, Van Cliburn

I have something in common with the great concert pianist and virtuoso, Van Cliburn. He won a piano competition in Texas when he was 12 years old. That same year I failed miserably in my efforts to play "Chopsticks" on an aging piano at Holy Rosa...

I have something in common with the great concert pianist and virtuoso, Van Cliburn. He won a piano competition in Texas when he was 12 years old. That same year I failed miserably in my efforts to play "Chopsticks" on an aging piano at Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

So what do we have in common? We were both born in the wee hours of July 12, 1934. This week we both turned 72 years of age. I doubt very seriously if Van Cliburn knows about me, but by virtue of our birth dates I have followed his illustrious career from its outset.

We were born the year of the Indian Reconciliation Act of 1934. This was an Act of Congress to allow Indian tribes to establish a Constitution and to hold free elections in a lesson in self-government. Of course, most tribes practiced a form of democratic rule long before 1934 and long before they received Congressional approval to do what they had always done.

Many tribal elders referred to the IRA governments as "New Deal governments" and some of the tribes such as the Navajo Nation, refused to endorse the Act. My tribe, the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) ratified the Act in July of 1934. I don't suppose Van Cliburn showed much interest in this piece of legislation that changed the complexion of Indian country forever.

We were born on the cusp of the Great Depression and Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s. We rode in Model A Fords and saw the airplane go from a two-winged fence jumper to powerful jets that could fly three times the speed of sound. We witnessed the mushroom clouds that darkened the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


While Van Cliburn was winning piano concert awards in Texas in the 1940s, I was playing war games and cursing Adolph Hitler and Tojo with my boyhood friends at the Indian mission boarding school on the reservation.

He was 17 when he entered Julliard, a school for outstanding performers, and I was 17 when I enlisted in the United States Navy. While Van Cliburn was sniffing the perfumed air of Carnegie Hall, I was freezing in the winter and swatting flies the size of hummingbirds in Korea.

As you can see, aside from the coincidence of our birthdays, Van Cliburn and me had very little in common, although we were both on this planet earth when so many events happened that shook the world.

In our 72 years on this earth we saw manned space flight and we saw men walk on the moon. We saw a war in Vietnam that tore a nation down the middle. While Van Cliburn was watching the collapse of mighty Enron in his native Texas, I was watching the rise of an Indian gaming empire that grossed $23 billion in 2005. What he saw was the rich fall while I saw the poor rise.

I am sure there are many things both of us will miss and things that we will remember that encompassed these many years. There were times when this nation was at peace during our stay. But it seems that most of the time we have been at war.

I remember when I first fell in love, or at least I thought it was love. I was a sophomore at Holy Rosary Indian Mission and I had worked up the courage to ask Arlene Clifford to dance with me at one of our high school Sodality Dances. In my young mind, Arlene was one of the most beautiful Lakota girls I had ever seen. When I put my hand on her waist and took her hand in mine I was shaking so badly and my heart was pounding so loudly that I was just sure that I had embarrassed myself beyond redemption. I think it was just last year that I discovered that all teenage boys go through this excruciating experience.

On the morning of July 12 I will miss that phone call I got every year on my birthday. My daughter Roberta always called me very early in the morning and she would say, "Hey Dad, rise and shine and enjoy a beautiful day on your birthday." Roberta died in an automobile accident in April.

I think Van Cliburn will agree with me that when one lives to be 72 he loses many friends and relatives. In my immediate family that once had seven children, only three of us remain. I have seen my parents, brothers, sisters and many aunts, uncles and cousins pass away in this lifetime. And many of my boyhood friends from my school days at Holy Rosary have made that journey to the spirit world. And there's not a day goes by when I don't see the name of someone I watched at the movies of my youth listed in the obituary columns of the newspapers.


But aside from that gloom, I think that life has been wonderful.

Happy birthday Mr. Van Cliburn and I hope the both of us have many, many more.

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