By Wayne Allensworth
The day my grandfather tripped and nearly fell on the sidewalk in front of his house, and I did not help him, I was in my late 20s and he was nearing 90.
Let me explain myself.
I was very close to my paternal grandfather, a man who to me seemed like a hero from one of the Western movies I loved so well. He thought of himself as man of the West. As a boy, he had seen the sun set on some of the legendary figures of an era he recalled time and time again from his worn easy chair, while I sat rapt with attention, trying to put myself in the place he had been in, one that would never come again.
His father had been a county sheriff in the Oklahoma territory, and boy Granddad had ridden in the wagon with his father when the sheriff took prisoners to Fort Sill.
One day, while waiting for his father to conduct his business, the boy had wandered over to a stockade and there he saw on old, fearsome looking Indian staring into the distance, squatting silently, unmoving. A soldier approached him and asked him if he knew who the old Indian was, and he didn’t.
It was Geronimo.
Grandad said he felt a tingling surge of surprise and fear run up his spine. The soldier chuckled and wandered off. And Geronimo, a man who had finally lost his battle with the whites, and his warlike way of life with it, never moved.
I can only imagine that the old Chiricahua Apache looked something like this picture when my grandfather saw him:
By that time, Geronimo looked like a monument carved out of sandstone by desert winds. He is supposed to have told General Crook that “Once I moved like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all.”
And that was just one day.
On another, Grandad’s father was joined by a tall, mustachioed older gentleman for a bird hunt. I think it was quail they were after on that particular day, and granddad tagged along, carrying a sack he put the birds in.
The man was Frank James.
Frank was in Oklahoma living with his mother at the time, the old outlaw times far behind him.
What was he like? Grandad would squint, thoughtfully, and grin and say he looked tall. And he had a big mustache. I guess Frank didn’t talk much.
Frank was a literate, studious man, a lover of Shakespeare, a man in some ways very much like my grandfather, who kept a stack of books in a case next to his easy chair. He would read them, then trade them for new old books at a used bookstore. I often sat next to him, reading one of his worn volumes, waiting for him to tell a story.
Granddad often spoke of Quanah Parker, the half white last Comanche war chief, in elegiac tones. Quanah was an honored enemy, made strange and proximate to us by his consanguinity with the very people who had massacred his mother’s family and carried her off as a nine-year-old child. In a strange and tragic twist, his mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, whom the Comanches dubbed Nautda (“Someone found”), died of a broken heart. She and her baby daughter had been taken back from the Comanches by the Texas Rangers when Quanah was eleven years old, and when Tot-see-ah (“Prairie Flower”) died, the woman who been found and found again pined away unto death.
Quanah, like Geronimo before him, became a rancher with help from legendary Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight, and other ranchers he had once raided. By the time Quanah died in 1911, he was national celebrity, and crowds of red and white men paid their respects to him as his ranch home, Star House at Cache, Oklahoma. Quanah was buried next to his mother and sister at Fort Sill.
Such are the mysterious vagaries of human identity.
Uncle Jack, my grandfather’s brother, lost his leg in the Battle of the Bulge. His brother Eb came ashore on Omaha Beach, while Clyde fought in the Pacific.
My grandparents lost a son in that war. My uncle, a Sergeant and B-24 ball turret gunner, was killed on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was 18 years old. It was a loss my grandmother, in particular, never fully recovered from. The dead never really leave us, especially those who have died young, and his presence was much in evidence in our family conversations, in the pictures of our gunner in his flight suit, and in unspoken memories that showed in the faces of my grandparents.
Grandad was not a man who displayed his emotions readily. But one day in the 1980s, the family went to the opening of a war memorial near Bear Creek Park in West Houston. When the ceremony was over, I watched him approach a solid stone wall bearing the names of the dead and he touched his son’s inscription, muttering “My boy, my boy.” He choked on the words.
It was late in his life, and his health was slipping. His gait became stooped and sometimes unsteady. And so, it was on a day in the late 80s that I was slowly following him up a pathway to his house, watching carefully, nervously reaching behind him, just in case. I remember distinctly his stumbling a bit, but he caught himself and I pretended not to notice. He set his eyes forward, straightened up, not saying a word, and continued on.
Grandad was a proud man, one whose dignity was deeply tied to his own sense of independence, and I had made an unconscious decision not to encroach on that dignity. I didn’t say anything or take note of his faltered stride in any way. If that was a sin, then so be it.
The man of the West I so admired was fading quickly, and soon his memory would fail together with his body, and he would go the way of all flesh.
During the war, he had worked tirelessly in the Houston shipyards building landing craft for the navy. He chain-smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes for years. He wore khaki work clothes and otherwise wore suits, a flower often turning up in his lapel. He was upright and handsome and kept a pencil thin mustache. The ladies said he looked like Clark Gable.
My grandparents with Sergeant Allensworth
He loved to fish and garden and tell stories. On summer days, we sat on his back porch and ate watermelon.
My grandfather was a man of the West, and his stories were our stories, America’s stories. I often look at those old pictures, at those remarkable faces that come from another world. His grandfather had fought in the Civil War, and it was his and our people who tamed the West and made America. Long live his memory and the memories he told.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.