Virgil 'Smoker' Marchand
Great art bestows immortality.
I found comfort in that thought a few days ago when I learned that Virgil Marchand had died peacefully at his home in Omak, Washington on January 13, at the age of 71.
He was a painter, illustrator and produced stunning works of metal sculpture. His masterpiece is pictured above. It is entitled The Salmon Chief. The chief faces the Spokane Tribe’s traditional fishing grounds at Spokane Falls, the heart of Spokane’s Riverfront Park. Many other Marchand sculptures, all celebrating Native American heritage, adorn the park.
I learned something knew when I read of his death. Few people called him Virgil. He was widely known by his nickname, “Smoker.” I didn’t know the nickname came from his grandmother, Mary Marchand, who gave him his Indian name, Spa Pool, which means smoke.
We thought everyone called him Smoker because, on a fastpitch softball mound, he threw smoke and then some.
Smoker was a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Colville Confederated Tribes. He represented Omak on the Colville Business Council. He was also a legend in Pacific Northwest fastpitch softball in both the U.S. and Canada, where they call the game fastball.
Before adult amateur baseball was available, the game that filled that void once we were left high school or college was fastpitch softball. I played in both the Northwest and Southwest for twenty years before the men’s fastpitch game faded and organized adult baseball leagues came along.
Smoker was a tournament pitcher for our Spokane City League team for two seasons. He was a quiet man, a cutthroat competitor and a universally respected teammate.
In one of our conversations, he gave me insights into his past. Like many young Native Americans, he attended missionary schools left over from the days when Native American language and tradition were challenged in the name of Christianity. One of these schools was the Navajo Methodist School in Farmington, New Mexico. I had a relative who had once been superintendent at the mission.
Smoker told me most important thing he learned there was throwing a softball.
In Farmington, he fell under the tutelage of a legendary Southwest softball pitcher with the wonderful name of Moses Yellow Rope. Moses introduced Smoker to the finer details of the windmill pitching motion. From there Smoker’s natural athletic ability took over.
Smoker played several years for a team in Wenatchee, Washington. A young Wenatchee pitcher whose name I can’t remember, played with Smoker there. He told me Smoker was a bare-knuckle boxing champion on one of the Northwest reservations. I have no idea whether that’s true—I never saw him express any hostility toward anyone— but given his athletic ability, if he did it, I’m sure he was good at it.
What I do know—having faced him as both friend and foe—if Smoker Marchand was on the mound, hitters were in for a short, frustrating day of hissing rise balls, heavy drops, and pure, unadulterated smoke.
Good ride, Smoker. Good Ride.