His name is Bernard Powell and I always thought of him as a man living in the wrong State in the wrong century. He lived in Norwalk Connecticut and and commuted by train to New York every day. He made his living as a high level advertizing executive. Even as I kid, I thought that seemed totally inconsistent with who he really was.
No one ever called him Bernard. Everyone just referred to him as “Tex.” He had been born in Texas and spent most of his life there before moving to Connecticut. He was everything a kid expected a Texan to be. He was tall and muscular, with a Texas accent, and lots of hilarious stories about growing up in rural Texas.
Although he lived in Connecticut, Tex Powell had no interest in the wealthy suburbanites of modern day. His main interest in life was in the inhabitants of Connecticut from hundreds of years before. He wanted to know everything about the American Indians who once lived there.
Unlike most people, Tex was not satisfied with just reading about them in books. What he wanted to know about them was still there, just underneath our feet. There was a building boom going on in Connecticut back then. The Baby Boom and created a demand for houses and schools and hospitals.
A lot of people saw all this construction as a chance to make money. Tex, on the other hand, saw it as a chance of a lifetime to explore the past. He soon became a fixture at construction digs all over the State. He came away with arrowheads, pottery, and even bones of the original Native Americans.
You might think that construction crews would get annoyed at this, but Tex charmed them with his stories and jokes and somehow Tex could get even the toughest construction foreman to let him onto a site with his archeological kit.
But Tex didn’t just want relics. He was out to prove something. He was out to show people that the East Coast Native Americans were much more civilized, complex and modern than people had previously believed.
His great moment came when he found an ancient skull. It was not just any skull. It was one that proved that Native Americans had actually practiced a form of emergency brain surgery.
Tex had found an ancient Indian burial mound on what was soon to be a foundation for a school. This was long before the days of preservation laws, so if Tex Powell had not saved the bones and relics they would have simply been tossed in the garbage like so much construction debris.
Tex carefully examined the bones and in particular the skulls to try to determine as much as he could about who these people had been. Then one skull in particular caught his eye. It looked like a precise circular hole had been drilled in the hard bone about the size of a 50 cent piece. There there was much thinner bone filling in that hole.
Tex was an advertising exec not a doctor, so he was not sure what it meant. However, Tex was curious enough to bring it to the hospital and show it to some of the doctors. The chief of neurology took a particular interest. The doctor said that when a person suffers a severe blow to the head, the main problem in swelling of the brain. In extreme cases, surgeons must drill a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure. If this is not done the patient will die. Eventually the swelling then goes down and the skull bone slowly grows back, with the new bone being thinner than the original skull.
Tex’s find had proved that Native American medicine was quite advanced. This was the skull of someone who had undergone severe head trauma and been operated on. The instruments were not metal, and there were no X-Rays, but somehow the Native American surgeons had performed a life-saving operation similar to what a brain surgeon would do today.
I remember Tex Powell passing around the skull and letting people carefully examine it, while he described the details of the operation. What I remember most, however, is how upset Mr. Powell’s young son Travis got. Travis wanted to know what the name of the Indian was. When Tex said there was no way to know Travis started to cry. He was very upset that we would never know who this man had been, or even what his name was.
I have always loved archeology, but never felt quite the same about it after little Travis’ comments. The little boy saw it all much more clearly than any of the adults. Travis realized that these has been real people with real lives, not matter how long ago it had been.
When I drive the Merritt Parkway and look deep into the woods, I often think of the thousands and thousands of Native Americans who lived in Connecticut many hundreds of years ago. Buried under the soil are their bones and pottery and arrowheads – And their names.