In the autumn of 1966, I was living in a rented room in Montreal, Canada and studying at the Université de Montréal as part of my international relations major. The three months I spent there involved researching my honors thesis on political change in Québec and taking Canadian history courses. My life was a bit lonely. The university was a big place, and so I took advantage of as many public cultural events as I could. One of these involved a National Film Board of Canada film series. It was there that I watched Breaking a Quarter Horse, a made-for-television production, based on a short novel by Paul St. Pierre. The author, who led a full and varied life, often wrote with affection about Chilcotin County in the Cariboo country of his native British Columbia. His short piece gives a bittersweet vignette of relations between First Nations people and white settlers in an inland region of the province. The adaptation was a splendid one, poignant, but low key, and filled with a humor infused by St. Pierre’s love for his countrymen. The piece was eventually followed by a predictably syrupy and eminently forgettable Walt Disney movie. The original is a small gem. Chief Dan George starred in both versions and gave a great performance. International audiences will remember Chief Dan George’s performance, as Old Lodge Skins, in Arthur Penn’s film version of Thomas Berger’s novel, Little Big Man for which Chief Dan George received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. During the movie, he always greeted his adopted son, Dustin Hoffman, with the question: “Are you hungry, my son?”
I recently read St. Pierre’s piece, and found his story wonderful, fully deserving its reputation as a Canadian classic. The television production is sadly not available, though there is a short clip on YouTube.
The story reminded me of my old friend and housemate, Gaylord Barr, who passed away suddenly six years ago. For an anniversary of his passing, I have wanted to write a blog entry. I knew him as well as anyone at the time of his life when we served together in the Peace Corps. Gaylord and I shared a house in the medina of Sefrou for three years, kept in touch for most of the nineteen seventies, and sporadically afterward, until his death in 2015.
Gaylord’s life was a search for a world in which he felt comfortable, and he found it serving abroad. As a teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL) and then as an aid worker in refugee camps in Southeast Asia, helping others became a mission as well as a vocation, and his source of personal fulfillment.
Gaylord graduated from college in his hometown of Yakima, Washington, eager to see the world and escape the military conscription which faced all young American men at the time. By joining the Peace Corps, Gay, which is what his family and close friends called him, could do both.
Though Gay loved the dry lands of central Washington, he seemed to have had few connections there. He wrote at length to his family in the U.S., but I do not remember him once writing to, or even speaking of, friends that he left behind in Yakima. By way of contrast, Gay made many friends in the Peace Corps, and they still remember him fondly. He treated the housekeeper we shared with warmth and respect, and made a point of being polite with everyone he ever dealt with. Despite depicting himself, right until the end of his life, as shy and having difficulty making friends, he did make many fast and lasting friendships as he traveled the world.
Gaylord grew up on a small orchard, so perhaps his sense of isolation and shyness came by way of his rural life. Though he loved Yakima, he may have felt trapped there. But though he never talked of Yakima friends, he could spend hours recounting the history of Native American peoples, especially those of Washington State. He took their sufferings personally, and celebrated their achievements with pride. When he spoke of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé, he showed the affection and respect that he would in talking about family. If Gaylord left any friends behind in Yakima, when he began a new chapter of his life in North Africa, they were the Native Americans of his youth. He took three books with him to Morocco. One was a picture book of American national parks, one was a souvenir book about President Kennedy, and the last was another picture book—about Native Americans. In Morocco he encountered poverty and neglect, struggle and resignation, sometimes similar to the conditions he saw on American reservations.
Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse reminded me of Gaylord just as the sixth anniversary of his death on May 30 approaches. He never saw the television production nor read the story, at least as far as I know, but he would have loved it as emblematic of his beloved Pacific Northwest and the people who lived there.
Today his ashes are somewhere scattered over the dry sagebrush hills of Yakima. In the distance, the snow-covered volcanic cone of Mt. Adams rises over the Yakima Valley. Though it is too late to talk to Gay about old times in Morocco, I am comforted to think that he would be pleased with where he rests today. He always planned to return to Yakima.
In memory of Gaylord, I reprint this poem of Chief Dan George, which Gay probably knew, and certainly would have loved.
My Heart Soars
By Chief Dan George
The beauty of the trees, the softness of the air,
the fragrance of the grass,
speaks to me.
The summit of the mountain, the thunder of the sky,
the rhythm of the sea,
speaks to me.
The faintness of the stars, the freshness of the morning, the dew drop on the flower,
speaks to me.
The strength of fire,
the taste of salmon,
the trail of the sun,
and the life that never goes away,
They speak to me
And my heart soars.
In Gay’s memory is this little photo gallery. He would be embarrassed to have so much attention, no doubt, but it documents a time and place that is long gone and, like Gay himself, missed.