Smoke billowed from the burning sage bundle as the man in the wool felt brimmed hat circled the mausoleum. All four sides were smudged, all four directions. The man gently touched his fingertips to the marble monument and spoke to his grandpop and all his relatives whose physical bodies had left this planet, saying hello and thanking them for their continued presence in his life. The man clearly resembled the man in the photographs displayed in an outdoor exhibit a few yards away- Jim Thorpe, especially around his eyes and forehead… as he should, for this was his grandson, John.
Jim Thorpe, (1888-1953) a Native American Sports Legend (Sac and Fox tribe) and Olympian gold medalist, is often considered to be the Greatest Athlete of All Time. This beautiful town nestled in Carbon County in the Lehigh River gorge changed its name from Mauch Chunk to Jim Thorpe in 1954, one year after Jim Thorpe’s death. The story of how this came about, and how Jim Thorpe’s remains came to rest on the mountainside above the town is a very unusual story, (a story we will tell at a later time!)
John Thorpe always smudges his grandfather’s grave when he comes to visit, for this custom of purifying and blessing a space is widely practiced by many indigenous people. John Thorpe honors his Native American lineage, especially his grandpop whom he feels very connected to.
My husband, Todd and I were in the beautiful mountain town of Jim Thorpe this past September to gather material for a feature story for Pennsylvania Magazine. While securing our tickets at the historic train station to ride the train and cycle back to town on the Lehigh Gorge State Park Rail Trail, I learned that on this particular weekend, Jim Thorpe’s grandson, John Thorpe, was in the nearby visitor’s center. After our 25-mile bike ride, I quickly stopped in to shake his hand and asked him if we might meet another time for coffee so I could interview him and make him a part of the story. Like nearly everyone who meets him, I gushed and acted like an adoring fan, even though that exact same behavior makes me feel uncomfortable when I meet some fans (as an author) for the first time. But what an honor, and what a treat. I hated to infringe on his life and time by requesting an interview but John was most gracious. So when we reconnected today, John suggested we meet at his grandpop’s grave, a more fitting place could not be found.
It was chilly out, so I packed a basket of homemade corn muffins with blueberries from our orchard and a thermos of hot chocolate, sweetened with Vermont maple crystals. I wanted him to know that I appreciated his time and also the inconvenience of sitting outdoors for an interview in November. Besides, my Sicilian mother whispered in my ear from heaven- “he might be hungry.”
As a writer, I want my people to know as I sit poised with notepad and pen, ready to write down whatever comes out of their mouths, that they should feel free and comfortable sharing anything. By no means will it ever get printed without their permission. They get to make the final decision what makes it into print. I tell them to share anything they want, anything that would help me get to know who they really are and try to understand them.
In the two hours that John and I chatted, he revealed a lot, about his childhood, his choices in life, what he loves, and his hopes for the future. I spent a few hours reading articles about his grandfather last night as well as about John, so I would have some background. I knew that Jim Thorpe had a rocky youth as a student and resisted regiment and restrictions. He had a fierce spirit and stepped to a different drummer. As John shared his personal story, I was seeing remarkable parallels in both their temperaments and clear evidence of his grandpop’s handed-down DNA.
I also got the brilliant idea (from my daughter Sierra, actually) to later go with John to the Carlisle War College in Carlisle, PA, for a story. It which was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School- a dark part of Pennsylvania’s history from 1879 to 1918. This was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States, exercising the horrid practice of rounding up young Native children from all over the country, from all different tribes, taking them away from their families, their culture and their homes, and forcing them to behave white. Their hair was cut. They were forbidden to dance or sing their songs, they were forced to abandon their spirituality and even their names were changed. The school’s motto was “Kill the Indian. Save the man, through any means necessary.” (We won’t go into this here but let it be said, it was not pretty and decades of children suffered severe psychological damage). Ten thousand Native American children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle; however, according to one source, only 158 students graduated. Jim Thorpe attended this school as a teen. He did not graduate. Today, all the school’s property, known as the Carlisle Barracks, is now part of the U.S. Army War College, where they teach military leaders from all over the world, how to fight wars. Sierra got the brilliant idea to do a feature story on the Carlisle Indian School and now that I know John Thorpe, would there be any better person to visit it with?
Although John Thorpe had been living in Lake Tahoe for the past thirty years, earning his living as a disc jockey, he was often asked to travel and speak about his grandfather. For ten years, John traveled to the Carlisle War College to present a trophy to the winning sports team in their on-going, sports competition amongst the military branches. He has contacts there and if the officials approved, he agreed to accompany me to the college and help interpret the story. I was thrilled, flying high, feeling as though John’s grandfather was in our presence, guiding us both, on his behalf.
When I asked John if he feels his grandfather’s presence often in his life and if he speaks to him, John laughed. He shared one very prominent incident when he had a near-death experience. There was the white light, the rising above his body sensation, “I was clearly going,” John said, but then a booming, bellowing voice yelled, “This is not your time! You have to go back,” and John immediately landed back in his body. He’s certain it was his grandpop. John has been thinking about what his purpose is in this life, and he feels particularly drawn to teaching Native youth about his grandpop, for he is revered in many tribes and is held on the same level as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Suicide is at catastrophic proportions in many tribes and John believes he might be able to help- inspire, offer some hope, and share the lessons of his grandfather of never quitting despite the odds.
I liked John Thorpe immediately. Even though I don’t have a drop of Native blood in me, John felt like a kinsman, and a member of the same tribe. Since he has only moved to the town of Jim Thorpe a little over a year ago, and what a year with Covid it has been, I wondered how he was finding the local people, many who are German and are cautious to accept newcomers, to say the least, even one who comes from such an impressive lineage. John said it has been a challenge. So, I did what Sicilians do- I invited him to our log home, for a hike and a meal, and extended my hand in friendship, and he took it. Thank you John and Jim because I know you both played a big part in creating this marvelous day.
Before we said our good-byes, John asked if I’d join him in playing his elk skin drum while he played his handmade wooden flute for his grandpop. I could not have been more honored.
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