Monday, April 18, 2005

The continuity of grandparents

I wrote a little about my grandmother in the previous post. As I grow older I find myself thinking about my grandfathers, who died many years ago.
My grandfather Ross McCulloch was the first man ever to take me out to kill anything with a gun.
He was a man who liked the old days better than the days he lived in. He used to tell stories of South Texas blood-feuds and Indian fights and frontier brutality, bravery and cowardice. He loved the stories he had heard, and I think he probably loved them enough to embellish them. He knew the history of our family and told us our origins, which according to him were glorious, and I certainly believed it. He told us stories of his own grandfather, a Confederate general and Texas Ranger, and of his great uncle, another Confederate general, killed in his black velvet suit at the battle of Pea Ridge, shot off his horse by a Yankee sniper.
I grew up thinking these forebears of mine were great men, for no other reason than my grandfather's telling me so when I was a child.
My grandfather McCulloch slept with a large, ancient .45 revolver under his pillow. My father had once come in late, when he was young, and turned on the light to find the old man had that gun trained on him. My grandfather put revolver back under his pillow and went back to sleep. (I am now the owner of this gun, but I do not sleep with it.)
Cautioning me not to tell my mother, my grandfather would sometimes pour me a glass of the bitter wine he made from grapes that grew in his yard. But he wasn't much of a drinker himself. He was a tall, lean, abstemious man. He was a teller of tales, a backwoods squirrel-rifle Southerner who had a wild and animated verbal style, jumping up from his chair to talk.
I was about eight and he took an old bolt-action single-shot .22 rifle and a pocket-full of bullets and set out to get rid of some English sparrows that roosted in a tree in his chicken yard. It was after sundown, about dark, and the sparrows were lined up five or six on a limb, already too somnolent to respond quickly to their sudden peril.
"Take a good aim." I did. I shot one off its roost.
"Shoot them all." And I did, one by one. He was a fierce old man. I admired him beyond measure. In some way I still do. An unfortunate role-model.
I wonder if such people exist today. He belonged to another time, to the world of his ancestors, the daredevils and land thieves and occasional murderers who swarmed out of Georgia and Alabama and Tennessee to fill up the Texas Republic, men with the souls of bank robbers and repo-men, but who made good, according to their lights, and grew to feel comfortable and at home in their time and place. My grandfather seemed happy to me, and probably was. I recall he had an interest in the Bible, which he read diligently, and was particularly fond of the incendiary moral directives of Jesus. I don't know whether he followed them. I can remember him railing against preachers in general and Methodist preachers in particular. He was a Methodist. Unimpressed with the already saccharine Jesus of smarmy mid-century America babyfat pastors, he would have admired Achilles or Cuchulain, if he had known who they were.
All his friends and enemies came to his funeral when he died, and there was a big crowd. The Methodist preacher had the last word.
There at the McCulloch place, in Devine, Texas, the well water was hard and tasted of iron and sulfur, the flavor of my discovery of the power of words.
My grandfather had put up a grape arbor in his yard next to a large fig bush. In the evenings, we sat under the grapes by the fig in white wooden chairs my grandfather had made with his own hands, and listened to his stories, his old man's voice fretting the twilight with the flight of bats, stories of feuds, stories of Indian intrusions into evenings like these, Comanche raiders entering the settlers' bedrooms like cougar screams, leaving behind a shocked silence. Then I would go to bed under a sky shot through with stars and dream of tall horsemen silhouetted against the Milky Way, quiet as the trickle of centipedes across the hot sand of the South Texas night.
He spent a lot of time watering his pecan trees. There was a barnyard, and a windmill that pumped water into the blockhouse cistern. The top of the concrete cistern held the water, the bottom was a cold-water shower room. Taking showers there was exhilarating because of the water's chill and because you had to watch out for the scorpions which would occasionally rush out of the drain when you turned on the water, a surprise.
Beyond the barnyard was a corn field that my grandfather tilled with a hand plow.
In the years I remember him best, he always wore khaki pants and his clothes smelled of tobacco. He rolled his own cigarettes, and sometimes smoked a pipe. He ate fried eggs and bacon and biscuits every morning of his life with a lot of salt and black pepper over them. He cooled his morning coffee in his saucer, and drank it from the rim. When my grandfather was old, he took a siesta every afternoon on a narrow iron cot in his bedroom. That was where they put him when he had a heart attack, and that was where he died. I was in college when he died and I was given the pipe. I lost it.
When I was a little boy my other grandfather, L. M. Cummings, whose farm was outside of Devine, used to do a Kiowa war-dance, at least that is what I seem to remember he called it. My grandfather Cummings grew up speaking Kiowa, playing with Kiowa children, in Oklahoma. I didn't know what the Cummings family was doing living in Oklahoma, among Kiowas. I asked my grandmother, when she was getting near 100 years old, why my grandfather knew so much about the Kiowa Indians.

"Oh, because he played with Indian children. His family lived at the Indian school. His mother was a nurse, when the Indian children would get sick, they'd call on her."
I remember my grandfather Cummings dancing around under the big live-oak tree in back of the house, stomping and chanting strange words in a tuneless high pitched voice, invoking the spirits of the plains. Did he really remember the words to the war-dance? I don't know. Maybe it was some other kind of dance.
My Grandmother said she didn't know her husband could speak Kiowa until after they were married, and he went off to the Indian store to get some bread or something for supper, and when she went to look for him found him with a bunch of his Kiowa friends having a party, all speaking Kiowa.

I didn't think about it when I was a boy, I wasn't even aware of such things, but my Grandfather Cummings had many of the prejudices you would expect, for a man of his time and place, except that whenever the subject of Indians came up he would get pretty riled up, in defense of Indian rights. He told me stories of the deeds of his neighbor Big Tree and the other great Kiowa war chiefs as if they were his ancestors, and mine.
The little town of Devine was my home during WWII and for a while after, and it was a happy time for me, when one grandfather, out in the country under a live oak tree, sang Kiowa war songs and the other, a few miles away in town, would tell riveting stories of my Texas Ranger ancestors who fought the Comanches and Kiowas in the days of the Indian Wars.
It never occurred to me that I could not reasonably have the points of view of both of my grandfathers. But reason doesn't seem to have much to do with it.
As I parked my old white Plymouth I noticed how neatly the hedges and lawns were manicured at the Veterans Administration hospital in Kerrville, lush institutional grass and greenery that I associate with cemeteries, mental hospitals, and retirement homes; the scrawling cliche of the landscape architect saying Life Goes On. I had come there to pay a last visit to my grandfather Cummings, who was dying.
He was a World War I veteran and had been in the VA hospital for a couple of months. We weren't supposed to talk about the fact that he had lung cancer. It was the custom not to. That seems strange now. So no one could speak to what was on everyone's mind.
My mother had asked me to come to Kerrville for a last visit, a good-bye visit.
I noticed my grandfather's wavy hair still had touches of brown. He was about 75. He looked the same as always, except he hadn't shaved that morning, and was pale, and was if anything more taciturn than ever. His gaze was riveted on a spot on the wall just below the ceiling.
"Hi Grampy."
He looked at me without much enthusiasm. "Hidy, Jimmy."
I don't remember if I asked him how he was doing or not. It was pretty obvious how he was doing. So here were these people dropping in, to wish him a speedy recovery, some of whom, like me, he had not seen in several years. The talk was about commonplace things.
Since I could not talk about why I was there, I asked him about things he used to talk about when I was a boy.
"Grampy, how come you knew Big Tree?" I knew the answer, of course, I had heard the story many times. He thought a while.
"Well my mother saved Big Tree's life."
Big Tree was one of the leaders of the Warren Wagon Train raid, sometimes called by Texans the Salt Creek Massacre. Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree, the three Kiowa war chiefs who led the raid, were later captured. I have seen a photo of all of them. Satank looked formidably dangerous and crazy. His captivity was brief. He sang in a tuneless voice that irritated the troopers guarding him while he was peeling the skin off his hand, slipping his handcuffs. When he had the hand free he got hold of a knife and tried to kill one of the guards before they shot him dead. The other prisoners said that he had been singing his death song. Satanta may have killed himself in a Texas prison by jumping out a second story window head first onto the brick pavement below. Or he may have been murdered, thrown out of the window. Big Tree was eventually released from prison and returned to Oklahoma.
My grandfather went on:
Big Tree had some land near us, back in Oklahoma. There was a road that crossed his place, and he used to flood that road sometimes. People'd get stuck. Then Big Tree would come out with a mule and pull 'em out, but first they had to pay. One man didn't want to pay and took out a butcher knife and cut Big Tree. Big Tree's insides spilled out and the man left him for dead, but after a while Big Tree sat up and one of his children brung him an Indian blanket, and he pushed his insides back in and wrapped himself in that blanket to keep 'em in. Then he sent for my mother who had been a nurse and had taken care of all the Indian children around there when they was sick. My mother came and sewed Big Tree up with a needle and thread like she was stitiching a seam. And Big Tree got well.

He paused and looked at me.
So I was always welcome at Big Tree's place, on account of my mother. He gave us a horse every year. Big Tree used to show me all his scalps. He had a lot of 'em. I was a little tow-headed boy, and every time he showed me them scalps he would look at my hair and say, 'I got every color of scalp there is. Except a little white one. I want get one of them white-colored ones before I die.'

As always, my grandfather stopped for a moment, amused at his story.
"But he never got that white one."
After a spasm of coughing he dozed fitfully.
I followed the rules. He knew he was dying. I knew he knew it. But I didn't say anything.
He woke up as I was leaving.
"See you later, Grampy," I said as I left. He snorted, and mumbled something I didn't catch.
I never saw him again. He died a few weeks later.
The night he died I had gotten high on marijuana, which I did regularly in those days, and went to bed stoned. Sometime in the night I awoke in the grip of unspeakable terror. I lay in bed paralyzed by fear for what seemed like hours, then it went away. An hour or so later I was awakened when my mother called to tell me of my grandfather's death.
Panic attacks are a common marijuana side effect. But I never had one until that night. I had another one, under the influence of an excess of marijuana brownies, in El Paso a couple of years later, and I figured somebody else had died. But it was just panic, nothing more.
I never touched marijuana again.

One day, in the 1990s, I decided to drive down to Devine, which is south of San Antonio. I don't know why.
I stopped at a roadside rest stop a few miles before the exit on I-35, and when I got a drink from the fountain I got a muted taste of the brimstone water of my childhood. As I took the road into Devine, cicadas grilled in the heat, beaded arpeggios sounding like sparks brittled from a grinding wheel, surprisingly high-decibel bugs, forgotten voices. Roadside live oaks grew rough and dark and old. I drove into town, where the buildings of my childhood were fallen in or boarded up, but replaced here and there by contemporary businesses, small modular steel buildings with garish signs saying Quickie Mart and Medina Realty.
The overall look of the old residential part of Devine was almost recognizable, but disturbing because I couldn't quite get my bearings. I had trouble finding my grandfather McCulloch’s house. I didn't recognize it at first. The front door was open and the yard full of weeds. It took a moment for me to realize that the place was empty. I stopped the car and got out.
I went inside the house and found that I could see it the way it had been when I was a boy. My memories filled the dark rooms with visions from my earliest past, and I walked through seeing everything where it was, the couch with the satiny pillows, the beds, my grandfather's cot, his desk with the Prince Albert tobacco can on it, the kitchen table, everything, my uncles and aunts, the living who are now dead. I could hear their voices.
I stood where the iron cot was, where my grandfather died. In the back yard, only weeds remained. The fig was gone, the grapes were gone, without a trace. The old concrete cistern was about to fall down. I leaned against my grandfather's favorite pecan tree and was surprised to find tears in my eyes.
The house looked like it had been empty maybe a year.
I got back in the car. I felt something approaching anguish. I hadn't expected this at all. Fool! I drove off slowly. I drove back to the old downtown. The drugstore with the soda fountain, where my uncles back from the 2nd World War had bought me ice-cream cones with a limitless supply of nickels, was gone. Most of the downtown was gone, or boarded up. I was as dumbstruck as if a tornado had carried off the town before my eyes.
My heart hammered and I felt somehow stricken. Now, should I be surprised that some of the earthly remnants of half a century of memories are in ruin? Life seems to be an accretionary thing built of pictures in the mind, but time has subtracted reality from the most essential images at the core of my being.
I drove back to the McCulloch place, down the streets I used to walk barefooted in the hot pale sand. The streets are paved now, you don't see the sand much. I stopped at the house, and walked around it again, looked in one last time, got a small handful of sand from the yard and put it in my pocket, and left.
I know that the regular world I now live in is a totally new thing, a world like a shopping center with acres of parking lots, covering over the memory of the Indian camps and the trees and old farmhouses and wells and springs and small hills that were there before, so that what was there before, if you know about it at all, is like a dream. But to wander out of the mall and find ruins in the bright blaze of the sun is a shock.
When I got home I dug the small handful of sand out of my pocket and squeezed it from my fist like a thin stream from an hourglass until it was gone.
Ross McCulloch, L.M. Cummings (in WWI uniform), and Big Tree, all as young men.

Ross McCullochL. M. CummingsBig Tree

No comments: