Friday, March 18, 2016

Ghost Tribe

I was probably ten when I first heard about the ghost tribe.
It was on a Sunday while visiting my grandparents up in the Bronx. They lived on a quiet tree lined street that was just blocks from the El. On the corner was a luncheonette where my grandmother often took me to get a comic book. This time a Justice League 80-page special. It was one of those odd shaped stores nestled among brownstones. The red leather stool cushions worn and the tin ceiling bent. It was perfect.
Afterwards, we headed back to their apartment with my grandmother returning to the kitchen and her sauce. My grandfather was sitting in front of the television holding a jelly glass filled with homemade red wine. A Civil War movie was playing on a small black and white tv. The freshly vacuumed rug smell filled my nose as I stretched out. Flipping through my comic I glanced every so often up at the screen.
“You know we almost lost that war. If it wasn’t for the ghost tribe that is.”
“Ghost tribe?”
He gave me a look that landed somewhere between disgust and incredulousness. “Don’t they teach history at your school?”
“You’re making that up,” and I turned back to the retreating rebels and superheroes.
“Hmmph. I suppose you think we just got lucky? I was just about your age when my uncle told me about them. He fought for the New York 69th Regiment. It was during the second Battle of Bull Run when he first saw them.
“It was just after dawn with a thick fog sitting in the dells when his platoon got cut off. Pin down on all sides. Bullets whizzing passed their heads. Horses shot out from under them. It was quite a mess. Then the shooting stopped. Suddenly, the still air was filled with screams and yells he swore he never forget. When it became quiet again a figure appeared out of the fog. My uncle raised his rifle ready to shoot, when a soft voice behind him told him to lower his gun.
“There standing before him was an Indian, but not like any Indian he knew. He was over six feet tall, with thick red hair and a braided beard flowing to the middle of his chest. In one hand he held a double-headed axe, and the other a knife. He slung a rifle across his red back. Naked from the waist up he was covered in blood, tattoos, and war paint. One by one other tribesmen appeared out of the fog, similarly dressed, some had blond hair. Many wore beards.
“He explained to my uncle that stealth is sometimes best for battle, and therefore chose not to use their rifles. There were thirteen in all. The rebels numbered forty-five. None survived. They saved your great granduncle’s life and many more in that horrible war.”
My grandfather sat back in his chair placing the jelly glass on the small folding table besides him. It took a minute for it all to sink in.
“Indians don’t have red hair or beards,” I told him.
“So you say.”
Then he told me about the tribe. How they were a mixed race from sailing men coming out of what is now Canada. Fierce beyond any other tribe, they were feared and hunted by settlers. My grandfather then told me how they entered the war.
“It was 1863. Things were going badly and the North was desperate. While those in Washington argued and quarreled about using native tribes,” he continued, “Lincoln pressed on. He made a deal promising them land in the Pacific Northwest in return for their help. Of course,” he became sullen, “he couldn’t keep that promise.”

I always like that story of his, but never gave it much credence until years later when I stopped by a flea market in Virginia. I picked up a battered and torn book missing its cover and front matter. It appeared to be a memoir written during the Civil War. Flipping through the pages the words ‘ghost tribe’ jumped out at me.
From what I could gather it was written by a Confederate soldier serving under General Longstreet. He went on in great length about the tribe, how they fought and died. Just a handful of them were feared more than any regiment of Northern soldiers.
They told him how their forefathers first came out of the northern waters on wooden boats bearing dragons at the bow and sails twenty feet tall. They lived together with the natives for hundreds of years until other Europeans came and settled the coast. How when other tribes died from plague and disease brought by the white man their tribesmen somehow survived. Other tribes believed they were cursed. The memoirist went on in great detail about their customs and way of life.
He described living with them after the war, a very rare occurrence, for he fell in love with one of their women. Just as fierce as the men he needed to pass a test of fire before joining their clan. But he failed and was banished from the tribe, returned home and never saw them again.

Could there still be members of this tribe living today? Did the Norsemen really land successfully in North American some four hundred years before Columbus? Many artifacts have been found that suggests iron tool making not in sync with Native Americans. But without a written language it is hard to piece their story together.
I tried to find other copies of the soldier’s book intact with names and publishing information. I spent years researching this phenomenon, my grandfather’s fish story, without any luck. Maybe that’s all it ever was, a tall tale of early America, a specter, a ghost story.

Two more pieces this month. 
One done at our local garbage dump. Hardly a plein aire!
And one for a contest at SCBWI. You are given a prompt word each month. This one LUCKY.