The look on my face that day had to run the gamut from worried, ohmygodwhatdidIdo, to expectant; hey, maybe I’ll get an allowance. Along with every other emotion that a thirteen year old boy is capable of showing on my necessarily implacable face. Necessarily implacable for the benefit of my peers. It’s not cool to show excitement or curiosity at that age because that’s how babies and sissies act.
It’s hard to maintain that façade of bravado, though, when your only Grandfather asks you to sit at the old wooden kitchen table with him a minute. Right at the table! Where the adults gather to drink coffee among the coffee cup rings and cigarette burn marks-that I treasure today in my own kitchen- to talk about grown up stuff. Usually old moldy memories of “the good old days” and how “these kids today don’t know how good they have it.” I’d like to take them into my world for a day and see how good they think it is then. Why, they wouldn’t last one day in my school.
This is strange, though. I usually don’t sit here in the kitchen; especially with Gramp. I wonder what’s wrong. Maybe someone’s sick or worse, what if he’s dying! Oh my God, what will I do without him around! He didn’t seem too concerned or worried though, in fact he was kinda treating me like one of the adults. What’s up with this?
Gramp started talking, and I expected to hear a speech like when our dog died, but this was different. He had a strange glaze in his eyes; like they were filled with smoke from one of our old campfires and his face had a look like I had never seen before, one that was hard to explain. It was like he was happy and sad at the same time. Is this the way I look?
Then Gramp started talking to me. Like I was one of his friends, not a kid. He told me ‘Joe,” that’s my name Joe, “I want to tell you a little about where you came from.” Then it hit me. Oh shit! It’s the dam old “ I used to walk fifty miles to school every day, in the snow, uphill both ways and had to share one shoe with my brother crap.” I’ve heard that since I started first grade and still had smooth skin and soft hair. He must have seen that on my face ‘cause he stopped me and said “No, you’re not a little kid anymore so you don’t have to hear that stupid one shoe to school story anymore.” What a relief, for a second. Then I wondered, “Well, if I’m not going to hear that, what is this all about?”
Gramp continued and said, ‘Joe, it’s important that you know where you came from and who your ancestors were.” “Why do I need to know all that, Gramp?” He said, “Because Joe, you come from a very long line of heroes. Some of your ancestors were great soldiers, statesmen, explorers, and leaders of men and you are descended from them. I’m not going to bore you with this one did this and that one did that or all that begetting like in the Bible. I want to give you something that my father gave me when I was thirteen and his father gave to him”. Oh, great! Some old stinky picture or something.
I wasn’t at all prepared for what Gramp set on the table in front of me; I wasn’t even sure what it was at first. It was old. One look and you could see it had been worn by years of use. It did have a smell, but not stinky, more like…men and steel and, I don’t know,..Buffalos or something. It was about small enough to fit in my palm and when I hefted it, felt like it weighed a lot of years. Gramp just sat and watched as I looked it over. The finger grooves worn in the old bone handle. The rusty, oily look of it. It looked like something a Man would use to do Man work with; roping and chasing bulls and fixing old tractors and skinning wild things to eat. I looked at Gramp and saw his eyes gleaming with delight and something else…pride? I asked him, “what is it Gramp”?
Looking at me seriously he told me, “This belonged to my father’s father and his before him, Joe, and has been saved and passed to each new man. You are now that man.” “Me?” “Why not Uncle Jake, he’s your son?” “Well,” Gramp explained, “You’re also a son to me and that’s not the only one in existence. Jake has its twin. The point is,” Gramp said, “This means that you’ve become one with me and Jake and my father and his father before him. We’ve all used this to survive with, at one time or another, and passed it down to the next man. It’s now your responsibility to hold it and pass it on to the next new man in the family.”
I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh or jump around so I just leaned over and hugged my Grandfather; who had just given me a link to my ancestors. It really wasn’t all that much, but to me it meant I was no longer a child; I had been accepted as a man by my Grandfather. That meant more to me than all the fancy trucks in the world.
I have what Gramp gave me that day, those happy years ago, in a smooth piece of rawhide leather that Gramp taught me how to tan from a deer skin. I keep it hiding in my special place. Sometimes I take it out and feel it; feel the ages in it and smell the man-steel-buffalo smell of it. I sense my grandfather’s father’s, father’s, father’s work hardened, age gnarled hands guiding mine when I open it and rub it with a little oil; just enough to preserve it, not enough to rub any of “them” off of it.
I showed it to one of my friends once; when I was about seven-teen. He thought it was kinda dirty and old and not as cool as his new cell phone. I knew it was better; I knew it separated me from him. The new man from that kid. To my friend it was just an old brown, kinda dirty, rusted knife with four blades honed thin and the word “Schrade” inscribed on it. That word to me was “Excalibur!” As is the knife. I look forward to the time that I can sit at that same old, worn Oak kitchen table with my son, or grandson, and pass his legacy on to him.
I have done some research on what my Grandfather told me that day, all the heroes and stuff. It’s all true. My ancestors helped begin this nation. Fighting off hostile natives to create, and hold farms; spreading across the Mid-Atlantic States, and eventually all the way to Kentucky; where they were among the first settlers of that wilderness. From there they settled in Illinois, Arizona, Mexico and Texas; a town in Texas bears our family name to this day. They struggled for independence against the British, waged war on Spain and Mexico and again against the British. They then fought each other in what one side called the “Civil War,” and the other brother called “The War Between The States.” They were in Europe for a war called “The War to End All Wars,” but it didn’t. They had to return a few years later and destroy Hitler and his allies and fight on isolated islands in the pacific. Then when North Korea decided they wanted the whole country; once again, my fore-fathers were there.
There were a lot of other battles my ancestors fought; not just in wars. My predecessors have been heroes on the peace front as well; standing up for the rights of oppressed people; no matter their religion or color. The same people whose forefathers fought against slavery one hundred and fifty years before also marched in Selma, Alabama to help end the continued oppression of those that they had helped free. During another time of war, some stood against popular opinion and said “hell, no we won’t go;” others went and one is still there. On a lonely hill called Khe San; his body so shattered by a mortar round hitting his machine gun emplacement that he could not be pieced together to be sent home.
He is not there though. He is here; wrapped in this rawhide, in MY symbol of Manhood. In my Grampa’s time-worn, ageless knife. I still sense the blood and sweat that has soaked into its staghorn handle.