Imagine walking into a room with wood floors and walls, and a wood-burning stove providing heat for the room. An elderly man sits on an old sofa, wearing a western style shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, and smoking a freshly-lit Camel. Behind him is a shotgun set on a large window sill and leaning against the window frame, and in a nearby corner is a hat stand on which is hung his off-white Stetson cowboy hat. The man is my grandfather, and he is watching that week’s installment of Gunsmoke on his black-and-white television set. To me as a 10-year old boy, this had the feel of being in the old west, even though it was really southern Illinois!
One of my slightly-older cousins told me of the time this same Grandpa visited his family in Nevada, and while walking outdoors, the two of them encountered a rattlesnake in their path. Grandpa told my cousin that he would hit the snake’s head with his hat, then my cousin was supposed to quickly step on the snake’s head with his boot heel. After my cousin twice froze when he was supposed to do his part, Grandpa then did the whole job himself – striking the rattler with his hat, then quickly grinding his boot heel on the snake’s head and allowing safe passage along the path.
My grandfather was a cowboy at heart. He was the son of a real-life cowboy, his father having been a cowboy for about 12 years in late 1800’s Oklahoma Territory. During my growing-up years, Grandpa commonly wore a Stetson cowboy hat, western style shirts, jeans, and cowboy boots. He was known to be up late at night when reading Zane Gray novels, and was a regular viewer of TV westerns – especially Gunsmoke and Bonanza (his favorite characters seemed to be Deputy Festus and Hoss Cartwright).
My father was a kid growing up through the Great Depression before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. His stories about basic training, army life, and being shipped overseas for combat were certainly interesting to me and my brothers. He told us of how it felt to be marching through the streets of the just-liberated city of Paris as young French women hailed them as heroes, giving out hugs and kisses to Dad and his comrades. However, things were tougher for him during the Battle of the Bulge, where he witnessed his lieutenant being blown to bits by a German grenade. It was a moment that stayed with him as a painful memory throughout the rest of his life.
My sense of history was greatly influenced early in life by such family stories told by my grandfather and father, as they shared memories of their experiences related to the Old West and life during World War Two. Both of them are now gone, but I am grateful for the personal stories they shared with me and my brothers. Now that I’m older, I have so many more questions I would love to ask them, but, of course, it’s too late now.
A suggestion: During this Father’s Day holiday, take time to ask your father (if possible) for a special memory, a story. And if you have children of your own, make sure they hear it, too!
Wishing all you fathers a Happy Father’s Day!