[Source: Google Search]
It was the icon of our school.
It stood in the large foyer of the Owego Free Academy high school.
The title of this equestrian sculpture is Appeal to the Great Spirit. The artist was Cyrus Dallin and it dates from 1909. The original bronze statue is at the entrance of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A small version rested on a table in the Oval Office of President Clinton.
My classmates and I were lucky to see this amazing piece of art everyday as we moved about the building near the main office and entrance. I believe it stood in the old school (now a county office building) before it was moved to the front lobby of our high school. It was never vandalized (to my knowledge), but more than once, some student would stick a cigarette between the fingers of the Native American as he sits upon his horse. The Marlboro never lasted long there–a teacher or administrator would remove it.
But, somewhere in the minds of the students was the question: Why is he making a plea? What does he ask for?
I recall having to spend a few minutes in the lobby alone with the statue sometime between the years 1961-1965. I leaned against the wall and stared at the figure. I felt I knew what the man on the horse was seeking.
As a boy growing up in Owego, NY, I collected arrowheads and sinker stones along the banks of the Susquehanna River. The town is steeped in the history of the natives who lived on the site, undisturbed, until the late 18th century.
I pulled down my copy of the 1965 Tom-Tom yearbook. I don’t find the Appeal; the cover is a stylistic “Indian” printed in white on burgundy. But, I sensed his presence.
Other yearbooks in other years used the figure on the cover.
I look at the brochure inviting me to the 50th reunion of the Class of ’65. There is the statue.
I think back on the years we walked past the statue dozens of times a day–on our way to gym, the office, the nurse–the front door. The ‘message’ of the figure is unmistakable. A young Native American in full-feathered headdress has his arms out stretched. He is asking his god, his Great Spirit, for something. Is he asking for forgiveness? Is he pleading for a cause that he and his people would eventually lose?
As I leaned against the wall that afternoon, I wondered what his plea meant for us. I didn’t know the answer then, but I think I have an answer now.
I stare at a downloaded image of Dallin’s work. I think of four years among my classmates, my girlfriends and my teachers. I think of a warm day, a June afternoon, in 1965. Closing my eyes, I can see hundreds of people, parents and recent graduates walking past the statue. We’ve just walked across the stage and received our diplomas. For most of us, passing the figure on the horse would be the final time we would have an opportunity to look at his pleading arms.
Some of us would go off to war and lose our lives. A few would come home from the war and lose their lives. Many would move away, never to return to Owego. Many would go off to a college and perhaps return–perhaps not. And, many would stay in Owego and marry and have children and take their kids to football games and attend reunions.
A few would pass away from illnesses that we never knew much about, or even heard of, when we sat in our classrooms–those many years ago.
I can only speak for myself. My answer to what the young man is appealing for is clear. He, as our symbol, is asking the Great Spirit for a kind of guidance. We didn’t know it when we left the building that day in June, but deep inside, we were scared. We were afraid of what the future held for us. We wanted more guidance than the well-meaning speeches we had just heard. On the outside, we felt we had “made it” and were now on our own to discover the secrets of life. But, on the inside, we feared what we would find along the trail of years that lay before us. We feared we would lose our way. Some of us did.
There are statues and monuments to great explorers like Captain Cook, Robert Scott and Henry Hudson. They were all going into the unknown–without accurate maps–not knowing what awaited them. Aren’t we all deserving of a statue? We all went “where no man has ever gone before”, and we did it without a starship.
Yes, the figure on the horse was our icon but he was also our Ultimate Class Speaker. He had absorbed our hopes and fears for four years and now he was asking his (and our) Great Spirit for a guide to carry us from that day to this day.
Now we can say we “made it”.
On September 12, I will sit down at a dinner and look around the room at my classmates, now in their late 60’s. I’ll see familiar faces of friends I’ve never lost touch with. I will see faces of those I haven’t seen since the last reunion I attended in 2000. I’ll see people I haven’t seen in fifty years. And, I’ll see the empty seats of those who are no longer with us…there will always be a place at our reunion dinners for those who swirl among us in our memories only. Those of us who carry on with our lives are left with fleeting moments and stories to tell. This is the double-edged reward for a long life.
Gary sitting behind me in homeroom. Doug and Donny and David. Nancy and Glen and Keith. Too many to mention…too many to forget. Too many. Too soon.
We have followed our individual paths for over half a century. Countless appeals have been made by each one of us, and countless more will find their way to whatever Great Spirit we choose to speak.
Let us raise our glasses…
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
Those were the days, oh yes those were the days…