An Extraordinary Encounter

I’ve been aware for a while now of the incredible power of serendipity, placing ourselves in the path of opportunity, where remarkable things often occur. I had such an encounter Sunday at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
Eight weeks earlier, I had signed up as a volunteer to lead a tour for the Wounded Warriors Project. I looked forward to it. That morning, as I donned my docent attire I was aware of a shimmer of excitement charging through my body. I knew the day would be a challenge, that it could rattle my emotions in ways I did not yet know, as I would be touring a small group consisting of veterans who might be wheelchair bound and or blind. I mentally prepared myself. I might need to become the eyes.
I arrived at the mission early on a warm April morning and waited patiently for my guests. I was told that today only one Wounded Warrior would be joining the tour. Soon a tall woman, near my age, with one leg encased in a heavy metal brace, using a white cane, slowly ambled through the gatehouse door on the arm of a young woman guide. I greeted them and introduced myself. I learned their first names.
“Do you hug?” the veteran asked hopefully.
“I do, of course.” I responded as I leaned in. She dodged my big Spanish hat and proceeded to kiss me on one cheek and then the other. Later I realized she was using her remaining senses of smell and touch to get an idea of who I was. That embrace alone was astonishing. She next asked her aide to take our photograph together.
Feeling a bit rattled, and to ensure that I had their names straight, I repeated my name and she offered, “I am Angela Longboat.” I was startled by her intriguing last name. She elaborated, “I am Mohawk. My DNA says I am 93% Mohawk. I am descended from longboat builders, you know, the big canoes which carried ten to twenty men, hence the last name “Longboat.” I grew up on the Rez in upstate New York. When I went to Indian school the authorities changed my tribal first name to Angela.”
Flabbergasted, I shared that I had seen photos of the big canoes the Tongva people built in the Los Angeles basin, I explained how they had extensive trading with the inhabitants of the Channel Islands. I could see that I had Angela’s full attention and she certainly had mine. We proceeded to the grinding stone where my explanations continued. I handed acorns to her and described the pockets in the grinding rock. Narrating, as we slowly walked through the gardens, I described the colorful red hollyhocks, the abundant yellow and pink roses, and the physical structure and texture of the mission. Angela’s recreation therapist joined our group.
Arriving at the museum room dedicated to the local Acjachemen people, I described the display items; the decoy duck, the handmade fishing nets, the beautiful baskets exemplifying the many skills of the indigenous people of the West Coast. Angela said that she had earned a doctoral degree in Native Studies and began telling me of the life and skills of the native people of the East Coast. I was spellbound. I could not imagine that I had a Native American sharing all this with me!
The tour continued. We wandered into the wine making room and I told them that my fourth grade students loved to mash imaginary grapes. I offered that they could go down the three steep steps to the bottom of the vat if they wished. I was thinking it was too much. I was wrong! Angela was up for anything! The three of them slowly descended the stairs, I continued talking about the wine making. At the bottom of the vat, Angela held onto the rail and using her strong left foot, we all began delightedly stomping imaginary grapes. Angela’s face was beaming with joy! As she stomped she exclaimed, “My people placed skins on top of the fermenting vats to enhance the process!”
The tour continued like that, she would ponder what she was hearing and then share her own knowledge. The narration had become a conversation. Understanding she was from out-of-state, I was not sure how much she knew about California geography as I elaborated on the mission’s vast land holdings.
She explained, “I attended Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, and then I transferred to USC.” Having Cal-Poly grandsons, I am particularly interested in San Luis Obispo. I told her that the Mission at San Luis Obispo was an “accidental mission.” Father Serra had not planned on it, but during the early days of the Spanish arriving in Alta California, the soldiers and missionaries were starving until they discovered bears in the San Luis Obispo area. The bears provided a rich food source which got them through a cruel winter. Father Serra decided then to build a mission in that area to ensure the food supply. Angela knew of the area’s bears, “Los Osos”, the bears. She then told me a lot more about those bears, and what kind they were [black bears], than I had known before!
To say that my 90 minute encounter was exhilarating would be an understatement. I would have never imagined sharing one of my favorite subjects with a person so deeply engaged with it, who had lived it. I could tell that I was in the presence of a great intellect, an intellect both humble and fascinated by history, an intellect eager to exchange ideas.
As the day unfolded I learned that the injuries she had sustained were so devastating that she was not expected to ever walk nor talk again, but there she was walking, stomping “grapes,” and offering me a view into the indigenous Native American experience that I could not possibly ever achieve on my own. I was inspired by the who of her; an injured warrior defeating all odds and walking and talking, enjoying life and sharing her knowledge. I mentioned about being inspired to write about her. She handed me her card.
At home I did an Internet search to discover that she had sustained massive injuries during an explosion while serving in Iraq, that she served 25 years in the military and retired as a Colonel. I put myself in the path of possibility and came away being inspired by a true heroine, a warrior, a patriot, and a great intellect. I feel blessed.
I love hearing what you are thinking about. Have you recently had an extraordinary moment or encounter? My best, donna
Internet search included this photo from 2011