WEDNESDAY: Low Man on the Totem Pole

BY CONNIE LYNN COOK

Copyright is held by the author.

THE TREE was forgiving. Its shape came to life as he worked, filled his nostrils with the pungent scent of cedar. Blisters bubbled on his hands from the repetitive action of the chisel, and the knife sometimes slipped and cut his fingers. He felt no pain.

David knew in his head the image he wanted to create. His work was pure, emergent, a sculptured outline of an eagle at the top and a bear at the bottom of the trunk. It was a tribute, meant to capture the essence of the man who had changed his life forever. The base of a totem was the most important part, designed to support everything above, and he took special care. Wood chips flew in the air, dusk fell, and still he continued into the night.

The artistry of totem pole carving had been taught to him by his father; skills handed down from those who had come before. But, this time, it needed to be perfect. Perfect for the man who’d commissioned him. David bore a hole in the upper trunk, enough to hold the ashes of the man who’d been his mentor for over 30 years.

It was the very least he could do to repay Mr. Bennett, the teacher who’d taken him under his wing, taught him to never take things at face value, to never forget his heritage, and to look at the politics of business. It was one of the hardest lessons life had thrown at him.

Since the call from Bennett’s niece, one week ago, he’d worked diligently. Sometimes the work was precise, and at times it was driven by passion; that unique moment when the mind transcends and takes over the hand. Salty tears stung his cheeks and dripped onto the red cedar, forever embedded.

***

The Beginning
“David, you’ve missed school three times this week. Do you have a problem or anything I should know about?”

Seventeen-year-old David hung his head and stared at the floor, avoided eye contact. “I’m, sorry Mr. Bennett. It won’t happen again.” He shuffled his feet, looked at his worn runners, afraid to look up.

“You’re a smart kid, and it really annoys me when you’re off wasting your time with drivel. You’re better than that, and I reckon it’s time you realized it.”

The teacher’s voice echoed in his head. David remained silent. How in hell could he answer? What should he say? It wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. Sometimes, he wondered why his teacher even put up with him.

“This is your last year in high school. It’s your chance to get off the reservation, if that’s truly what you want. Do me a favour. Don’t screw this up,” said Bennett.

David didn’t want to explain the reason for his absence. Who would understand that his father required the time for him to do totem pole carving? A wasted skill at this point in his life, and not one he totally understood or was even interested in. Besides, he wasn’t very good at it and often injured his hands and fingers. If there was going to be any shedding of blood, he’d prefer it belong to someone else.

“Sorry sir,” he said. As he cautiously lifted his head, Mr. Bennett rolled his shoulders and David heard a frustrated sigh.

“No, I’m sorry if I jumped all over you,” Bennett said. “It’s just that rarely do I have a student with the potential you have. Your scores in math and science are off the chart. You think outside the box, and your last project was exceptional. You could be an engineer, make a huge difference and impact the lives of others. I know and believe you are capable of that, but you have to show up for school and be on time. The scholarship deadlines are in the next three months. I want to be able to recommend you for them, but I need a commitment from you as well.”

David squared his shoulders, stood tall, and looked Mr. Bennett straight in the eye. “Absolutely, I’m committed. I want to do better. And I promise you that one day you’ll be proud of me.”

“That’s what I wanted to hear. I’ll put the recommendation forward.”

In the back of his head, David knew, his dad would never understand. He loved his father, but the opportunity for moving off the reservation — following another path — was not what his family would understand.

As he took the high step onto the yellow school bus that would take him home, David practiced his speech to his father, over the hour long ride. His head ached, his stomach roiled and he wished he could throw up. As the bi-fold bus doors screeched open, there was his Dad, eager to greet him.

“David, you must come. We’ve just finished a new totem, commissioned from the arts and native group. It will be raised tomorrow. I want you to be part of the celebration. It’s our heritage and you have been part of the carving.”

“That’s great Dad, but I have school tomorrow.” How could he tell his father, that life on the reservation wasn’t enough for him? He had bigger hopes, bigger dreams. The words burst from his mouth without thinking. “I can’t do it Dad.”

“What do ya mean you can’t do it? Of course you can. School can wait. It’s not like you’re learning anything there. Just a certificate at the end and you’ll be back here, carrying on the family tradition.” He slapped him on the back, tried to hook an arm around David’s neck. “You need to do this.”

David struggled with his inner thoughts, tried not to cringe under his fathers’ arm. “Dad, it’s your heritage. I know it’s mine too, and I respect that, but I have other plans — things I want to do. It doesn’t involve totem pole carving. I have a chance for a scholarship, to continue on in school. I want to do it. I need to do it. Can you understand that?”

He watched as his Dad’s eyes turned stormy, saw the disbelief, just before the scowl consumed his face — anger palpable. He wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time there had been a confrontation between he and his father, but at least there had been no physical blows this time. An awkward silence as they faced each other, then finally his father spoke.

“We make our paths. If your heritage is not good enough for you, then leave. Leave now. Pack your bags, say goodbye to your mother. You’re not welcome here anymore. You’re no longer my son.” His father turned his back and left.

As David watched him head to the small trailer they called home, his Dad looked old, hunched over, his gait stumbling. Christ, what have I just done, he wondered?

David packed a small satchel, hugged his Mother goodbye, walked five miles to the only place he thought he might be welcomed, and knocked on the door. His Mother’s tears were dried salty reminders on his cheek of what he was leaving behind.

“Mr. Bennett,” he asked. “Can you put me up for the night?”

***

The Middle
The scholarship had been a godsend. It paid for his tuition, and Mr. Bennett allowed him to stay at his home during the years of schooling he had to complete. All he had to do in return was some gardening, cleaning and cooking on occasion. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and David knew his teacher had been instrumental in securing his spot at the university. How on earth could he ever repay him?

Whenever he asked, Bennett was always firm in his response. “First, never forget your heritage. At some point you need to make peace with your family, and that’s up to you to do. Second, just make me proud of you, and third, always look at organizational structure. You’re going to be involved with companies with tons of employees. Not everything is as it seems. You’re a smart kid and you’ll figure it out. Bottom line, look at who has the most important job, — those who keep everything else upright and functioning.”

What the hell was Bennett talking about? David knew better than to ask, knew his teacher was making him think for himself, but for now he was happy they had a peaceful co-existence.

Over the last year of university, the routine was easy. They’d greet each other at the end of the day, take turns cooking. Sometimes David roasted venison and even assaulted Bennett with his mother’s recipe for pemmican. “Just in case you get lost on a road trip with no fast food restaurant,” he said with a laugh. “This stuff keeps forever. But, tell me about your students.”

“They’re a bunch of loafers, only doing what they can to squeak out a pass at the end of the term. I have a couple of hopefuls that might be okay. What about you? What about your classmates in engineering?” Bennett asked.

“They’re a bunch of overachievers, committed, competitive and way classier than me. But my marks are good. I’ve already had job offers from a couple of local engineering firms when class is finished next year.”

“Just what I expected, and I’m not surprised.”

David couldn’t help but notice, Bennett’s voice sounded tired. Over the last year he’d noticed an increasing number of pill bottles in the medicine cabinet. Some, he recognized as pain medication — not the over the counter stuff — and others’ he had no idea. He didn’t want to pry, but he knew something was not right with his mentor. One day, he summoned up the courage to ask. “Are you all right?”

“Sure, it’s not something I can’t deal with. In the meantime, do me a favour and connect with your father. I may need his and your help at some point. No more questions for now.”

As Bennett quietly turned and left the room, David felt as if he’d been slapped in the face. First his father had disowned him, and now his teacher wasn’t being honest. What in hell was he missing?

***
The End
“David, you’re on in one hour. Are you good to go? Just make sure you make our company look good. There’s a lot riding on this presentation, and it’s worth a shitload of money. I know I don’t need to remind you of that. Throw the numbers at them and also remind them we’re turning the organizational chart upside down. That should impress them. It’ll make them think how valued our frontline employees are. See me in my office before you go to the boardroom.”

The irritating voice of the chief executive officer for Pacific Engineering rang in David’s head.

“As always, I’m prepared.” David’s voice was cold, and a part of him hated feeling so detached. He adjusted his tie, made sure it was straight, inhaled and adopted the persona he knew would be expected. As an aboriginal, part of it had to do with his connections to native society, a group of which, to further company plans, would be asked to give up land rights. If he pulled it off there would be $3 million for the company and he’d get a good percentage. But it would be a loss for the natives — one they’d never understand. Could he live with the betrayal?

As David headed to his office, he felt a blow, like a thrust to his chest. Then, Bennett’s voice caught him. It was surreal, like a spirit whisper, brushing against his inner thoughts. Remember your heritage. David shook his head, struggled to remember how he’d come to this place. He’d started at the bottom of the corporate ladder, the low man on the totem pole, been the one who got no respect, but tenuously climbed his way up.

As a gofer, he had caught the eye of a supervisor. He’d worked his ass off, worked overtime, weekends, and pretty much given up a personal life, but the guy took the credit, presented David’s ideas as his own. It was a hard lesson to learn and David knew in his heart, he would never allow that to happen again. Sure he’d gotten a small promotion out of it, but Mr. Bennett had been right.

The most important people in an organization were those at the bottom. If it wasn’t for them, there would be no company, no business. Hell, they were the ones who kept all those upper management dweebs employed. And he’d become one of them, sucked in by the lure of money and false promises.

Over the years, he’d been through countless restructuring and styles of organizing. First it was management by objectives, then it was continuous quality improvement, and finally some bright-eyed ass had suggested turning the organizational chart upside down, so it appeared the frontline workers were being touted. It was all lip service as far as he was concerned. He knew where the big pay cheques landed, and they sure as hell weren’t going into the pockets of the real workers.

David’s rumination left him feeling disgusted. There was only 10 minutes left before his presentation, but in his heart, he knew it would never happen. It was time to stop. As he headed to the CEO’s office, his phone buzzed in his pocket. The voice caught him off guard.

“David, I know you haven’t seen my uncle for a while. It’s Natalie, Mr. Bennett’s niece. He’s passed away. He’s had cancer for a while, and this was his time to go. He wanted me to remind you about an earlier promise, something about his ashes going into a totem pole. Do you know what he meant by that?”

His heart caught in his throat. He and Bennett had often joked about it, embalming and burying, embalming versus cremation. David hadn’t understood, thought it was just one of those morbid conversations older people have. Now he did understand, and the message was clear. Always Bennett had felt like the low man on the totem pole, but he’d encouraged others, given them opportunities. Totems were structured for a specific reason and always the base supported everything above. Being on the bottom was an important job. But, it was time for Mr. Bennett to be on top.

“Don’t worry, Natalie. I have it covered. Just a couple of things to do here and I’ll see you at your uncle’s place in the morning.”

First he found the CEO, submitted his resignation and walked out of the office. For the first time in a long time, he knew he was doing the right thing.

Next, he picked up the phone and called his father. “Dad, it’s your son.”

David heard and felt the silence on the other end of the phone. Then at long last a raspy voice that said, “Hi Son. What took you so long?”

“I’m so sorry Dad.” David struggled to keep his voice controlled. But then he broke down and sobbed. “You were right all along. There’s so much we need to talk about. I feel like I’ve let you down, but now, I need your help. It’s a promise I made, and one I need to keep.” As he recounted the story of how Bennett had changed his life, he felt like a burden had been lifted.

“Don’t worry David. I’ve always loved you. I’ll start the base today. Together we’ll make sure Mr. Bennett soars with the eagles.”

7 comments

  1. Nancy Boyce

    Nice story, Connie. I’m sure there is a fine line between bettering yourself and staying true to your heritage and you did it justice.

  2. Anne Norman

    I loved this, Connie! It moved me and I really felt the pain and struggle. The ending made me feel happy and want to cry at the same time. Did I mention I loved it?

  3. Karen Harding

    A wonderful piece of writing. Well done. You did a great job of portraying the struggle with maintining one’s heritage.

  4. Karen Harding

    great job Connie. You did an excellent job portraying the struggle with keeping one’s heritage.

  5. Bev Bachmann

    Two powerful characters come to life in this story. I particularly liked the teacher. Some teachers leave a legacy that words cannot capture. Yours did.

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