It was bedlam. Flurries of fat snow were storming through gaping holes in the corners of the canvas tent where the thick metal buttons had torn open, sending fierce, unforgiving winds to cut through us like thousands of tiny knives. There was almost no light to speak of, those few glimmers coming from the front flap, where two people were holding flashlights while yelling orders drowned out by the coarse, furious gusts and others yelling orders just as loud.
I quickly shook off my sleeping bag, dismissing the cold as best I could, bare feet pressed against a wooden floor wet from melted and melting ice. Wearing nothing but a t-shirt, a sweat-wicking undershirt, and long johns, I grabbed hold of the closest of the three metal poles that split two thirds of the way up to hold both sides of the now-crashing tent, holding fast for dear life to staunch the collapse.
Someone pointed out that the wood-burning stoves were still pumping out high heat, the fear being that if this tent burned down, not only would the things we'd left behind also burn, but that was one less that we might be able to use in the future. We had to put them out and quickly. People ran outside with sheets of cardboard from MRE boxes, then returned immediately with large piles of snow.
As one of them approached the stove that was right next to me, I yelled “Watch out for the steam!” The last thing we needed was a flood of third degree burns in the midst of the rest of the chaos.
By then, Walid had run up to help, grabbing the other side of the staunch metal beam, the temperature of it meaning little, given the circumstances. Everyone around us was frantic to collect what they could.
I looked at him, incredulous, and yelled “Get your shit on! Now!”
“Fuck that! You need help!”
It was a battle of egos to see who would get to die the most heroically.
I registered this almost immediately, smiling inwardly while yelling at him with the black pitch I hold so close to me.
“I need you to get your shit on! Then you can hold this beam while I do the same!”
He looked at me damningly, then complied, throwing on gear at random in a mad dash to take my place. After what seemed like an eternity but was really a matter of seconds, I looked over to see him tying his boots, wrapping each lace into the speed-fasteners that projected out of the tongue with the focus of a surgeon.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” I exclaimed. “Hurry the fuck up!”
Finished, he hastily grabbed the pole as I rushed to put on my the rest of my cold weather gear. I couldn’t find my ski-pants, but managed to grab my jacket and, rushing like everyone else, slung by boots on, ready to take off like someone had shot the starter-pistol. Then the thought occurred to me that if I tripped over my laces, I could be more of a hindrance than a help.
I remembered how I’d just yelled at Walid about doing the same thing, a pang of guilt hitting me when I realized I’d hypocritically snapped at him. That was poor teamwork and I had failed him in that. He had hit the ground running, relatively, and I’d berated him while he was doing it. But that moment wasn’t the time for reflective punishment. I shoved everything into my pack that I could, knowing that it would be a grab and run when then time came, then went back to holding the pole while telling Walid to get his gear ready as well.
As he was throwing everything into his packs, a voice pierced the mayhem, yelling that we were going to go to a tent roughly 75 meters away, but to leave this tent by leap-frogging from one pole to the next to ensure everyone had time to get out. Walid and I watched as people began taking off, then, realizing it was our turn, he grabbed what gear he could, then held the pole while I did the same.
We looked at one another, making sure we were both good, the faint light from the front barely illuminating the head nods. From there we began running toward the front tent-flap, kicking over cots that were in our way while making sure everyone else had made it out safely, the entire time being chased by the tumbling structure.
Walid, to his credit, was the last one out, but it was together that we ran into the treacherous winds and vengeful ice, with fingers crossed that our supposed “safe haven” had room for us. Through the freezing black night, we followed the last few to make it to the other tent, where warmth did its best to cradle us and falling short, along the people that greeted us with such compassion. Walid decided to stay up front, where further discussion was being had through lamplight. I chose to lay down in a corner, away from all the talking heads.
Adrenaline had engulfed us, with some having difficulty speaking while others ran around looking for answers that wouldn’t be coming. I tend to crack jokes, knowing that what is going to happen will happen regardless. But I didn’t. Instead, I kept to myself, confident that I was dealing with a tough crowd.
The wind hadn’t let up by any stretch, our new home whipping just like the one we’d left, frost raining down on us gently, mocking us with its graceful foreboding. We stayed huddled up next to one another, teenagers and young adults trying to go back to sleep, while most of the older men and women sat together silently. With one exception, that is. A stout man in his mid-fifties spoke loudly and with authority about how we’d handle the situation, yelling for people to stay awake at random. I listened as intently as I could to him, wary of anyone that speaks with an Alpha voice in the midst of total chaos. Those people are often more scared than anyone else, so following them can be treacherous.
Someone approached me at one point, asking if I was okay. I smiled, responded with a “Yeah, buddy!” then had to explain twice that I was, in fact, alright. They didn’t believe me but they left me alone, which was good enough. I figured I’d use the last couple of hours of night to get a little more sleep, the meaning of the billowing flaps falling to the wayside as slumber stood majestically in front of me. Without taking off my gear, I climbed back into my sleeping bag and for a solid 45 minutes, slept. I’m pretty sure I was dreaming about warm, soft things when-
“Everybody! Get the fuck up!”
Yep. You guessed it. Our tent was collapsing. Again.
We had no place to go, no haven to run to when our world fell on top of us. This was it. So I ran up to another metal pole, this one in the center, holding it still for dear life as people around me stared at one another, a few frantically packing their gear and looking, terrified, at the front flap. The teenager that had been lying next to me had not left her sleeping back, but was instead clutching her knees and crying. Some of the men that had been in our previous tent ran outside to restake this one while the pole I was clutching swayed one foot this way, one foot that, entirely at its own bidding.
A full minute's worth of this and I heard myself yelling through clinched teeth, straining to keep the structure from tumbling down and damning at least some of us to a very real, very terrible death. A minute after that and the tent didn’t shake as much. The men that had attempted to restake it had been successful. I let go of the beam and looked around at everyone, each of us looking to one another, wide-eyed and doubting.
It was maybe five seconds after I’d let go of the pole when a woman came up to me. I looked at her inquisitively, wondering what she might want. Then she spoke in shutters.
“Can you hug me, please?”
I smiled at her, my brow creasing as my eyes pleaded in welcoming.
She reached out her arms and as she came nearer, she whispered words that broke my heart.
“I miss my baby girl.”
And with that, she took hold of me and release a tide’s worth of racking sobs.
“It’s okay,” I said, having absolutely no idea how to handle this. “Everything’s going to be alright. You’ll see her very soon.”
But I had no idea if that were true.
After a little bit, she let go, her face red and swollen, returning a smile I had given to her as soon as I’d had the opportunity. She nodded her head and apologized. I couldn’t allow that.
“No! Don’t apologize! You needed to get that out. No stress. We’re all in this together.”
With that, she smiled and walked away, leaving me to collapse onto my sleeping bag, exhausted and furious at the lack of oversight into which we’d been thrown. And as bad, the wind was still in a violent rage, reaffirming with every few seconds that our time on this earth was teetering.
I sat in my sleeping bag with my phone, which was one of the few that was functional, the settings fixed to an LTE network, rather than wifi. In the middle of this crazy circumstance, I could contact my loved ones. And I almost did. I almost emailed my parents, my little sister, my brother, my friends. Not simply to tell them I love them, but to say all of the things I hadn’t out of fear or thinking it wasn’t my place. To impart to them the little bit that I could so that I’d know I did my best before whatever was about to happen... happened.
Then I steeled myself to the idea that I would not die that day. Instead, I chose to ignore it. So I got on Facebook to escape my surroundings and glean purpose from this debacle. Maybe remind myself of the world from which I’d stepped away. Several people, with good hearts and gentle spirits, had reinforced how important it was that I stay at the camp. Or, as importantly, where I would need to go next on what they had assumed was a tour of protests. They were cheering me on, but they didn’t know what we were going through. For some reason, and I know this wasn’t their intention, what I read was “You aren’t doing enough.”
I had another friend who added my name to a link about a Forgiveness Ceremony that had happened recently between the veterans and the Native Americans. I wasn’t aware of it, but that didn’t stop another friend of mine, also a Marine grunt, from speaking down to me because he thought I was a Marine that took a knee. “We don’t bow to anyone!” he said. I had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew is that he was talking “at” me, rather than “to” me. Then I looked up the website.
Wesley Clark Jr. was apologizing on behalf of the American Armed Services for the terrible ways in which we’d treated them. This moral abortion had placed himself at the center of attention, where he received the credit, honor, and distinction of the Indigenous Elders. Where he stood on the shoulders of those that he would soon callously put into the center of a blizzard to fight for their lives, only to be put in the limelight. I’d find out later that he never stayed at the camp. He was in a hotel, then flew out the day before the blizzard, telling literally thousands of veterans, whom he’d earlier told could rely on him, that they were on their own. Then a phrase popped into my head. A phrase that won’t leave me any time soon.
Anger has rarely set upon me like it did in that instant. This wasn’t a fuck-up. In order to fuck-up, you have to first attempt something. This was a spoiled rich kid that knew how to take advantage of people who had hope in others, drive to do good, and faith in their leaders. He’d done exactly what he needed to for his end goal. Anyone else thrown to the wayside be damned. In retrospect, I should have known better. There aren’t too many people, military or otherwise, who I could rely on to this extent.
But one exception that stood out was a friend of mine from my old company, Joey Singer, who is now a police officer in Boston. He posted on Facebook something both small and monumental.
“You’re doing good work.”
It meant the world, reminding me that I wasn’t fighting off all policemen and government agencies everywhere. That many, in fact, still believed in the nobility of protecting and serving citizens of their country, rather than soulless conglomerate business entities that perpetuate our monetized caste system. It was hope in a very palpable way. I focused on this as I tried to go back to sleep.
But the stout man who had slathered himself in authority had spent the last hour and a half reminding everyone in fifteen minute intervals that they shouldn’t go to sleep, but rather prepare for his decisively formed plan of action that, secretly, was based on his own imaginings. And I shouldn’t shed blood on holy ground, so I did my best to sleep through it.
As the sun began its slow ascent, the conversations grew louder, people entering and leaving with information regarding how the camp was doing overall, the situation on the roads, how we’d find a place to stay if we needed to, and generally what to expect.
Everyone that wasn’t part of the main camp that had already been there for months was having a hell of a time. No one was missing or dead that they knew of, but people were just waking up, so no promises. The roads were undrivable right now, but even if they were, it would be every man for himself. As for lodging, we’d have to find our own by asking around to whomever might take us. And regarding what to expect, the general consensus was that we could expect nothing.
It was around then that the stout man declared that there would be a mass exodus to a chow hall a few hundred yards from where we were. Upon rallying everyone, he started repeatedly blowing a whistle that apparently some past fool had not so much given, as betrothed to him. I followed anyway. Warm chow would have really hit the spot.
We got about a third of the way when we all stopped while that idiot collected himself. That was the last straw. I had already almost died twice because I’d followed an authoritative asshole. So Walid and I walked back, beating the rest of them by five minutes before everyone realized he was full of shit. Turns out that chow hall wasn’t open anyway. We would have just marched for several hundred yards in a blizzard, only to march back. Regardless, once he left, I never saw him again. I’m okay with that.
Half an hour later, once the sun was fully pronounced, Walid and I decided to go collect our gear, along with that of the older woman that was bunking next to me the night previous. Turns out her name was Stormy and a perfect fit that name was. Lovely woman. So a chief concern was her medication.
As we got closer, the wind still peeling away at us, we realized someone had been there before we had returned, the poles pushing the front and center portions of the tent back up, thereby allowing them (and us) access. When we opened the flap, the magnitude of the scene was impressive.
I had managed to take most of my gear the night before, so I quickly picked up those frozen pieces of clothing that I’d left behind, a sweater, a glove, maybe a couple of other small things, then helped Walid find his gear. I held the tent flap above us, fighting off sporadic gusts while he rummaged around, slowly becoming more and more flustered.
“Someone stole my stuff!”
It wouldn’t have surprised me. People are people are people. And veterans are taught to adapt and overcome. Hell, even this is a thing: “There’s only one thief in the Marine Corps. Everyone else is just trying to get their shit back.” So it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. But I didn’t want to jump to conclusions.
“Let’s keep looking. We’ll find it.”
We didn’t. We checked the inside and outside of that tent, as well as another that was being used for storage. We's been told some packs had been moved. No reason why, nor why they left some things. Regardless, we found nothing. They weren’t buried in snow. They weren’t taken to a place where they could be retrieved. Good intentions or not, that man’s shit was stolen.
On the bright side, I got Stormy’s medication.
When we finally returned and began warming up, people had begun using our tent as the new Headquarters, which could work out perfectly. It was becoming a hub of information. I immediately began interrogating people about how to get back to Eagle Butte. It was only going to get colder in the next few days, which means icy roads and no way to get back to my house in time to move, let alone write. But since the sun had come out, the winds died down some and damnit, there had to be a way. Two hours later and hope sprang. People were beginning to leave by the droves.
Fort Yates? Check.
Eagle Butte? Nothing.
The interstates were closed in South Dakota. No one was going there. Our only options were the casino that was quickly becoming filled, or the recreation center in the town of Cannon Ball.
Okay. Baby steps. I can do this.
So I started looking for rides to either of those places. To my happy surprise, Stormy and her nephew were leaving and could drop us off at Eagle Butte. I went to find Walid, excited that serendipity had smiled on us and so quickly. It was now or never and never wouldn’t happen.
I found him outside of the storage tent, surrounded by roughly fifteen other men, the man in the center discussing their plans for another search and rescue, this time of a missing woman. Walid had volunteered.
“Brother,” I said, heart and mind torn in two, “We have to go. Now. The only ride we’ll have is leaving.”
He was wearing my ski pants. Sonofabitch.
“We can’t leave now! This is real world! This woman might be dead!”
“Walid, there’s over a dozen other men on the lookout, not to mention those they’ll recruit along the way. This is only chance we may have.”
“She might be dead, Robert. We have to look.”
He was right. I looked at him, furious with understanding.
“Okay. You do this one. I’ll find another ride when you get back.”
“You do that.”
“Do you know how long you’ll be gone?”
Stupid question. But he got his money shot.
“I have no idea, man. As long as it takes.”
Smiling and shaking my head, knowing that I was going to write about this, I walked back to the tent to thank Stormy and reluctantly refuse her generous offer. She smiled, hugged me, wished me luck, and left. By then, some gas stoves had been brought in and people had begun heating themselves in little pockets of threes and fours. Knowing how long search parties can go, I sat down around four others who were using two of the stoves.
A Native American couple, the husband having spent time in the Navy, lamented the roll that Wesley Clark Jr. played, reinforcing that this should have been expected. Another woman chimed in, saying that she had been going to protests since she was seventeen, roughly 30 years in total, and she’d never seen an organization so quickly abandoned. She’d never been privy to the organizers not being at the front lines. Of course, she wasn’t prior military.
I was sitting within earshot of the busy entrance, where someone mentioned that our tents weren’t even set up to house people. They were the sort that were put up quickly for meetings or places to eat, not to survive these blizzard-style winds. But we didn’t have another place to stay. More cursing. More eye rolling. More sheer disappointment. We had to get out of there.
Every thirty minutes or so, I’d confirm with someone that they’d give Walid and me a ride. They’d go run a quick errand and, inevitably, I’d never see them again. “Now or never” is a phrase I heard often. Two and a half hours after he left, Walid returned, weary but riding the high of service to others. Taking off his jacket and my ski pants, he sat by the stove, steam rising off of him like a newborn demon. He hadn’t found the woman, but damned if he hadn’t knocked on pretty much every tent flap at that camp. I gave him a good thirty minutes to relax, letting him warm up, eat some food, and hydrate. But on minute thirty one, I told him to get his gear ready. We’re fucking leaving.
I’d heard that, due to the casino being overrun with weather refugees, we could still be shuttled to the recreation center at Cannon Ball if we made it in time. But we couldn’t take all our gear. There had to be enough room for as many people as possible. We would be shuttled back the next day to grab what we'd left and return to the recreation center to wait for departure to Eagle Butte. So I grabbed my sleeping bag and medication while Walid brought some of what was left of his gear and, leaving the rest of our stuff behind, we walked as quickly as we could to the meeting grounds.
Once we arrived, the place was filled with people looking to leave. One man walked up, declaring that he was going to Cannon Ball and could take three people. Walid yelled “Yo!” and the man turned around, smiling.
“Hey, man! Come with me.”
He and Walid had apparently had a conversation previously and were on good terms. No shit. Thousands of people at this place and Walid had spoken to the right one.
Thirty minutes later and we arrived at a large, snow covered building that housed a basketball court, locker rooms, and a kitchen. It was also the information hub for Standing Rock. I’d been left with a lot of doubt.
Soon enough, we’d be getting some answers.