A Tale of Two Quilts

by Steve Yockim


October 1896, a warm day in the ancient Panathenaic stadium, situated between the twin pine-covered hills of Ardettos and Agra in downtown Athens, sat a lone figure. On a bench near the entrance of the white marbled stadium, Welles Hoyt prepared to compete in the first modern Olympic Games.

He began the methodical steps, cultured over time, forcing his mind to focus on the task of jumping higher than any man. He checked his wooden pole carefully, looking for ever present and dangerous cracks. A splintered pole had scarred him dearly, and in this venue, there was no margin for error. Applying new tape to the grip, he turned to the pole tip and checked the tip of the pole. Satisfied, he turned to watch the vault in progress.

The three Greek vaulters had started at 2.40 meters and easily cleared the height, landing on the unyielding grass field with little or no emotion. The bar was raised to 2.50m, Damaskos and Theodoropoulos cleared easily, but Xydas failed to make the height. Hoyt and his teammate, Albert Tyler, waited fretfully, anxious to enter the competition, but deciding to wait until the bar was higher.

At 2.70m, their fourth height of the day, both Greeks went out, leaving the field open for the American vaulters. Both cleared their opening height, 2.80m with little difficulty. Relaxed and focused now, both vaulters continued clearing heights. Tied, the bar was raised to 3.30m; Tyler took the first attempt and failed. Hoyt, sensing the opportunity, steadied himself, calling up the inner strength developed by years of thankless practice sessions, ran down the grass field, jabbed the pole into the ground and cleared 3.30m, a new world record. Both men, exhausted from the ordeal, failed to clear another height. At 21 years of age, William Welles Hoyt was the first Olympic Gold medalist in the Pole Vault.

That same day, on the plains of western South Dakota, a gnarled old woman sat in an austere government-built cabin, adding firewood to the potbellied stove. An early season blizzard raged outside the door, causing her ears to shiver with the sound of cold. Her blind eyes could no longer see the wintery scene, but her inner eye could plainly discern the storms wrath. Sitting on the bed next to her, was the quilt, just completed, with the help of her granddaughter.

The Star pattern was relatively new but gaining in popularity among Native American quilters. Pretty Owl, gazed at the pattern, lost in her thoughts, moving in and out of the dream world and the present, thinking about the path that brought her here. Her husband, Makhpiyaluta, known as Red Cloud, was a fierce warrior and chief, sometimes ruthless with his enemies. But the six years since the Wounded Knee Massacre, which he had tried to avert, cost him respect with the members of the tribe. Having seen the folly of war, they had settled into reservation life. Red Cloud was absent often, lobbying the government, while Pretty Owl tried to make a home for her children and grandchildren.

The quilt had taken several days to complete, but the vivid colors made it dazzle in the glow of the light coming from the stove. Quilting was not new to her people, but the scarcity of animal hides, brought about by the restrictions that reservations life placed on the tribes, had the unforeseeable benefit of increasing quilt making. She gathered up the folds of the quilt in her calloused hands, reflecting on the pleasant hours her granddaughter and she had spent together. Although no one knows the origin of the first Star quilt, the tradition that it represents, that of honor and respect for individuals who made a difference in one' life, may very well have started here.

That same day, over 100 years later, Sarah' eyes were blank, staring into the void of thought, contemplating the tradition and meaning of the quilt that she clutched next to her breast. She remembered with happiness the nights Grandmother and she toiled over the stitches, fingers raw from sewing, yet blissfully ignorant of the pain, basking in the warmth of the task. She remembered with a smile the absolute look of joy in Coach's eye when she presented him with the quilt. Yet now, the smile gave way to anger. Given back to her, she repeated the words Coach spoke when he returned the quilt, "I am returning this to you because I have cried enough. A hardness remains in my soul that will never yield. Perhaps your tears mingled with mine will give solace. It' meaning is lost to me, someday you may choose to return it."

Sarah' emotions drifted from anger to sadness. It hadn't always been this way; yet now, years later, it still tore at her when she touched the quilt. Pole Vaulting had been her life, consuming her with unbridled passion and guiding every aspect of her existence. A new event for women, it rocketed to stardom in the track and field arena, her meteoric rise a flash amongst the stationary sky. Now, only darkness. She fell asleep, crying into the quilt, doubting the two traditions which bound her could ever break the self-inflicted banishment.


© 2018 Steven A. Yockim