July 1965 on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.
The high school youth group at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois headed for a month-long work camp to do repairs and basic maintenance on a chapel at Nazlini, AZ and run a summer Bible school. Nazlini is about halfway between the Presbyterian mission at Ganado and the ancient ruins of Canyon de Chelly, all in northeastern Arizona. And it’s where I first fell in love with deserts!
The group drove out from Illinois, via Tulsa, leaving on July 4th and arriving July 7th. Heat and red dust seemed to be the ambient features of the environment. Our group set up tents, created a kitchen, and camped for the next few weeks next to the frame church on the hill above the Nazlini Chapter House (the Navajo nation is divided into chapters). There was an outhouse and rattlesnakes; we learned to check for them before heading to the outhouse and to check under the seat inside for spiders and the occasional tarantula. At one point we rescued an occupant of the outhouse whose exit was blocked by a rattler.
For some reason, I was one of the ones elected (Presbyterians after all are the “elect”) to work on the roof and paint the steeple (this was in my pre-acrophobia days!). Did a pretty good job but some joker removed the ladder as I was coming off the roof and I fell the 20 feet to the ground, only injuring my pride and the jeans I was wearing. Church groups aren’t any kinder than other groups, I guess.
We spent a lot of time working on the chapel but also visiting the Petrified Forest, the Painted Desert and Canyon De Chelly. On the 14th we took a trip to Chinle, one of the larger towns on the reservation at the entrance to Canyon de Chelly.
It started raining on the way back, a driving rain that filled the washes and arroyos. Along the road back to Nazlini we came upon Charlie, a Navajo man who commuted daily between Nazlini and Chinle. We were mostly in the back of Jim Cavanugh’s pickup truck, with a raised roof over the truck bed and a hinged upswinging door over the tailgate.
As is usual on the reservation, we stopped to get Charlie out of the rain and give him a ride back to Nazlini. I opened the upswinging door for him to clamber in. He thought I was holding it up and I thought he was but in fact, once he got in no one was and it swung down with my hand still up in its hinge space. The downswing cut right through my left thumb, down to the bone and left me in shock but still articulate enough to put my hand out the side window and show Jim the bloody mess. As someone wrote in the account of the trip “The next thing you know he was bleeding all over the place, accompanied by flashes of lightning and peels of thunder.” Someone in the back with me grabbed a bucket, put ice in it and jammed my hand down in the ice while Charlie put a tourniquet on my wrist.
At Nazlini, everyone except me jumped out and Lou, one of our group, got in and drove me to the new mission hospital at Ganado where they sewed my thumb, hanging by a thread of skin, back on. Luckily the bone wasn’t crushed. They gave me a lot of painkillers and a sedative and a paperback novel to read and put me in a room with a bed. All I remember of that night was that there was ONE MISERABLE mosquito in there. To this day, when I have a fever, I often dream of a buzzing sound of one mosquito. I tried all night to catch that thing and all night it eluded me. The sedative never had a chance to work. And I never did sleep. I would curl up under the blanket until it got too hot and then emerge only to find the mosquito waiting for me. It would buzz directly at me and I would swing with my good right hand and never connect. I really hated that mosquito that night. And it was a VERY LONG NIGHT.
But the good doctors of Ganado saved my thumb, which to this day is punier and more withered looking than its mate on the right hand.
That trip also exposed me to the intolerance of Christians. On our way back to Illinois, we drove north out of Arizona, stopped at the Grand Canyon and then crossed into Utah. In Utah, we stopped at a local hospital to have the stitches removed brom my thumb but when the hospital learned we weren’t Mormons, they refused to help us. It wasn’t until we got to Salt Lake City that we found a doctor who would remove the stitches.