by Steve & Barry Simpson
Once she hitched her wagon to Duke, Momma Rose kept ‘em coming fast and furiously. It was the middle 1950s, and Duke and Rose were newly wed. You know the routine, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.”
At least that’s how it once was. Not so much anymore.
Over the next six years, there would be five occupants in Rose’s buggy. At that point, there was no more room at the inn.
When the Simpson tribe traveled, it was a mob. When we ate, it was every man, woman, and child for him or herself. If you went hungry, it was because you weren’t quick enough or tough enough, not because there was inadequate grub on the table.
Indeed, the groceries were typically piled high and deep. The competition was, however, fierce.
When people ask about the numerous scars on my face, wishing to project a tough image, I typically answer, “I was talking when I shoulda’ been walking.”
In fact, the internal and external trauma is mostly home grown. Ours was a tough crowd.
Duke worked day and night to keep the chuckwagon stocked, and while he was on the road, Rose stoked the fires, cooked the meat, and mashed the taters.
Despite their diligence, they could barely keep up. As Duke described it, he hammered away day and night and even worked while he slept.
I have yet to discover exactly how that was possible but assume the statement is accurate. Duke, born to be an Indian trader, would never misrepresent the facts.
Susan was the first to drop, then Craig, Barry, me, and Cindy. Five jokers in one package. Obviously, someone had stacked the deck.
Years ago, I noticed a family like ours, as they unloaded from their station wagon. I was amazed how many small beings there were in the vehicle and what a challenge the parents had corralling the teeming horde.
It reminded me of clowns at a Barnum and Bailey Circus; the bodies just kept tumbling out of the car.
I am sure it must have been the same for Rose and Duke. How they avoided misplacing one of us still confounds me. Surely, they could have gone months without noticing the loss. Just as surely, they would have been happy for the reprieve.
At some point, they decided enough was enough and put an end to the maternal multiplication.
That conclusion, however, seemed to dawn slowly. Although Susan and Craig were born in the Bay Area of California, Duke and Rose must have realized the coming apocalypse and bugged out for the wilds of the Colorado Plateau before Barry, Cindy, and I emerged.
In the late 1950s, Bluff was as far removed from civilization as one could get. In fact, in many ways it still is. Likely that reality made the prolific procreators secure that whatever damage their wild bunch inflicted on each other or their surroundings would go unnoticed by the national networks or regional authorities. They were flying under the radar, hoping to keep us out of the penal system.
In 1947, about a decade before Duke dragged Rose to the red rock wilderness, Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author wrote, “Once Bluff was alive. There were cattle there, and people were rich. But that was long ago. Bluff was dead now, and well it knew it.
“The immense square stone houses, reminiscent of past wealth, stood like ghosts, only one or two to a block. Sand was deep in the streets. People moved slowly, for there was no competition. Nobody new ever came to Bluff.”
Things had not changed much when our clan settled in for the duration. Rose had gone from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of northern California to the outlaws and outhouses of southern San Juan County, but she didn’t seem to mind.
Who needed indoor plumbing when you could sit in a wooden latrine and hear the wind whistle through the slats or watch the moon rise? Maybe it was the thrill of adventure, or maybe she was just too exhausted to complain. Either way, she soldiered on without ever attempting to go over the wall.
Not long before Pyle filed his report, H. Baxter Liebler established St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission, which is located approximately two miles east of Bluff.
Liebler, a priest from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, came to the northern border of the reservation as minister to the indigenous people. He studied and became proficient in the Navajo language, wore his hair in a bun, and delivered his sermons in their native tongue.
His chapel even included a dark-skinned Madonna wearing traditional dress and carrying her newborn in a cradleboard. As a result of Liebler’s dedication, the original wooden meetinghouse quickly expanded to include living quarters, a school, medical facilities, a commissary, public meeting spaces, and a variety of other buildings.
Momma Rose was raised Roman Catholic. As for Duke, well, nobody is exactly sure. The historical record provides no clues, and he is unwilling to discuss the issue.
In order to ensure their offspring would receive proper salvation, as a prerequisite to expressing their eternal love for one another, the papacy required Duke to swear his offspring would be raised in the Mother church.
This proved to be a difficult task in rural Utah. Due to a shortfall of Catholic worshipers and Catholic training in the immediate area, Rose turned to St. Christopher’s and Father Liebler as the only viable alternative.
As Merle Haggard would later sing, “Momma tried.”
Craig, Barry, and I attended school with Miss Sally, were installed as altar boys, and even had our wounds attended at St. Christopher’s.
Every Sunday our shaved heads were scrubbed and inspected for mites; our tanned, half-naked bodies clad in freshly pressed clothing; and uncomfortable shoes placed on our thickly calloused soles. Then off to mass we went.
Having been raised in a devout family, Rose confidently assumed her efforts would bear fruit and that we would grow to be respected members of our community.
At this point, however, as she sheepishly, and proudly, explains about her children, “Although they may have been captured and tried, they were never convicted.”
No one could steer us right, but Momma tried.