Let me tell you
a story about my Grandpa Gass
He was really
neat. The end of one of
his fingers was all twisted up.
The fingernail didn’t line up with
the knuckle like they usually
do. I still can’t believe
how interesting it
was to look
when he rolled cigar-
ettes. He took a cloth bag out
of his shirt pocket, the kind with a
string you can pull to tighten it, opened
it, then grabbed up some tobacco with
two fingers and his thumb, put the
string in his mouth, cinched up the
bag, and let it hang from
He spread the
tobacco along a trough in a
piece of paper, holding it a special
way, licked along the edge of the paper,
gently, with just the tip of his tongue, then
rolled it into a perfect white cylinder. He
looked carefully at both ends, lit one end
with a match, and smoked it with
obvious pleasure. That was
wouldn’t let him
smoke inside. Especially
cigars. I think we went outside
when Grandpa smoked mainly because
he felt more at home out there than he did
in houses. He sure did like it out there, noticed
all kinds of things and told me stuff I remembered.
He thought he was born in the wrong century. If he
had only been born in the late 1700s instead of the
late 1800s, he thought, he could have raised
horses on a homestead somewhere, lived
a simple life and it would’ve been
OK. Or something like that.
All I know is what Mom
told me and that’s
all she said.
Grandpa’s Twisted Finger
Snowing. Blowing. Cold.
Horses steaming. Snorting steam.
Running. Running. Lasso swinging.
One horse trying to get away.
I wondered if
the horses knew each other,
what they thought about what was
happening right while it happened. Did
they know what would happen next? Did they
understand why? You don’t know this part yet, but
even Grandpa didn’t know what would happen
next in his story. He wouldn’t have done what he
did if he had. That’s for sure and it’s no joke.
It surprised him and it surprises me
every time. Here’s what
The loop went
slow through the blowing
snow. Whirling, closing, landing
lightly. Saddle horn wrapping,
leaning backing, slowing,
tightening, the other
doing stuff like that was
fantastic! Better than in the movies.
I couldn’t believe how good it was! Grandpa
was a real cowboy throwing real lassos catching
horses in snowstorms in Montana. And Grandpa
was right there telling it to me! But wait till
you hear what happened next! It already
happened, actually, but you
don’t know it yet.
know it yet either, but when
he wrapped the rope around the
saddlehorn a loop of rope was wrapped
around his finger. His horse slowed
down, the rope snapped straight, and
spun the tip of his finger around
like a top and stayed like
that until he died.
Even in summer
back in those days, it took all
day to get to town with horse and
wagon and in winter they couldn’t get
out at all. Once the snow flew they were
stuck for the duration and had to take what
ever they got, right there on the homestead.
What Grandpa got was what he would
have gotten a century earlier,
I suppose, which was a
told me to keep my
wits about me, and she told me
whenever she needed to, that made
me think about things like
Mom’s Mom, my
Great Grandma Styvers,
stayed with them on the homestead
one winter. Three adults and two little kids,
stuck in a small, dark cabin til spring. No power.
No water. No indoor plumbing. Basically, no nothing.
After it snowed and they were stranded, Grandma’s teeth
disappeared one night. Everyone looked everywhere, but
there weren’t many places to look. Eventually, they all
agreed the teeth were gone and gave up looking, and
she spent a whole long winter gumming steak and
potatoes, or whatever they ate out there. A
kid found the teeth in a packrat nest the
next summer! But Great Grandma
Styvers was long, long gone
and outta there by then.
You may have
guessed by now that they didn’t
stay long on the homestead. Grandpa got to
keep loving it for a few more years and Grandma
got to keep hating it. Then they moved to town and
the asymmetry shifted in their relationship. Grandma
got to live in a house with light, heat, water, an inside
toilet, her home, and no horses, and Grandpa got to
sweep floors for a living. But before I tell you
about Grandpa sweeping floors, I want
to tell you a Montana story
I got to see the
homestead when I was about
eight. Dad wanted to show us what it
had been like to live there and he was full of
homestead stories for a year before we went. In
one of his stories, the school he and Auntie Doris attend-
ed was another log cabin a long way away through the
snow. As the oldest kid in the school, he had to light the
fire in the stove at school before breakfast every day
to warm it before the teacher and kids arrived,
return home, eat breakfast, and go back
to school with his little sister. It
was an important job and
Dad was proud of it.
I liked the story.
went to Montana it was
summertime. Dad’s first surprise
was that while he remembered taking all
day to get to town in a horse and wagon
it took us only a few minutes in a car on
a paved road. He said he “shouldn’t
have been surprised”, which all
by itself is interesting. But
it did surprise him
so it’s even
was bigger, but I think Mom
wasn’t surprised at all by either of
them. On the last little rise before we got to
the homestead, Dad pulled off to the side of the road,
and walked slowly way up front alone. He stood on the
horizon, and looked out into the little valley that Mom and
I couldn’t yet see. I wondered what he was thinking
about. He turned around, walked back to the car
even more slowly, got in, sighed, and said “I
could have sworn that school house
was a half a mile away.” It
was right next door.
I tell you
one about Grandpa
sweeping floors, I’ll tell you
more about his twisted finger.
and the Movie Theatre
After they moved
to town, Grandpa swept floors
every night and cleaned all sorts of places.
I went only once with him to a bar-and-restaurant.
The restaurant part was boring because there were just
tables and chairs, it was closed, and there was nothing for
me to do. The bar part was interesting because there were
people there while Grandpa worked and Grandpa didn’t
want me to stare at them. He said it was impolite. Not
staring was hard because I’d never seen anything like
that before and rarely seen it since. It was very,
very interesting. But like I said, they only
let me go there once, no matter how
many times I asked.
places by far, if you ask
me, were two movie theaters he
cleaned at night after the shows were
over. Sometimes I got to go with him.
Big empty theater. Projectionist
gone home. Pitch black dark
until Grandpa turned
on the lights.
If I didn’t play
in the bathrooms, go
behind the candy counter or near
the screen, didn’t eat anything we didn’t
bring in our lunch, didn’t stand on seats or
throw stuff, and was careful, I could do any-
thing I wanted. Like yell but not scream.
Running up and down aisles as fast
as my horse could go, galloping,
whinnying, and jumping
nothing like it, and nothing like
running with stacks of popcorn boxes, either.
That was the best! I stacked them as high as I could,
like by the popcorn machines but dirtier, slipperier, right
side up, and way higher, each nesting in the one below
it, flaring upward. How tall a stack you can run
with, vertical like a flagpole, is a matter
of experience, skill and practice.
There is definitely an
art to it.
If you’re up
by the swinging doors in
the back, ready to run with a tall
one, down the rug in the right hand aisle,
across the front without a rug, and up the left
hand aisle on a rug again, you have to do it right
if your stack is tall, and first you need to get started.
You don’t start as fast as you can start, but slow and
speed up slowly at first with the stack leaning forward.
How far forward it has to lean depends on how fast
you’re speeding up, and that’s why you have to
be careful at the start. As you speed up,
you speed up slower and slower
til you’re going your fastest.
By that time,
your stack is straight up
and down but it’s already time to
start slowing down for the corner, start
to lean the stack back again and over to the
left to get ready to turn, more and more as you
slow down and go into the turn, and when you’re
in the middle of the turn the stack is pushing out on
you, but you have to speed up and slow down again for
the next corner. If your feet don’t slip out from under
you on the first turn and you make the second, you
still have to speed back up again, run up the
hill, and slow back down again before
you hit the swinging doors on that.
side. You have to practice
lean your stack as you run,
how fast, how far, and in what dir-
ection, depends critically on several things
that change all the time. Those things all depend
on how high your stack is, and that’s what makes
stack-leaning so important. How far you lean your
stack forward or back, for example, depends on how
fast you’re speeding up or slowing down. How far
you lean it to the side depends on how sharp a
corner is and how fast you’re going.
The taller the stack, the harder
it is to do it fast.
I think Grandpa
thought it was kind of funny
when I got out of breath and sat in a seat
for a while or slipped and spilled my
stack on a corner. But he didn’t
laugh at me.
helped Grandpa sweep,
too, but not with a broom. I couldn’t
kick anything up past Grandpa if he was
sweeping down, but I could kick anything
down if it didn’t have any coke in it. I left them
there for him to get. If you kick an empty coke
cup hard enough downhill and it doesn’t hit
many seat legs, it goes a long way
and makes a lot of noise.
When a coke cup
hits a seat leg it just slows down
the coke cup. But when you hit your shin
on the back of the seat in front of you when you
kick, especially if you kick hard, I can’t even tell you
how much it hurts. It makes you want to cry. When
I kicked a coke cup up once, I got myself on the
heel on the seat behind me and could
hardly stand it. I got tears in
my eyes but didn’t cry.
I think my Grandpa
thought it was kind of funny when
I did things like that, but he didn’t laugh at me.
He said things like “It sure does hurt when you do
things to yourself, don’t it, Lee?” That reminded
me of how much it must have hurt him
when he twisted his finger,
and it helped a lot.
bedtime story about his
on the bus by himself one time
to visit us. Grandma had something
to do or something. Or he just wanted to get
away. We were upstairs in my room, getting ready
for bed the first night, and I kept thinking about
his twisted finger, hoping he’d tell me about
it before we went to sleep.
I liked that story
all the time, even when it was
just me thinking about it. But with
him right there in the next bed telling
me it was so exciting I could
hardly stand it!
on one foot getting
my pajamas on, I thought
about it so hard I
I wondered how much it
hurt him, but never really imagined
it. Not really imagined it, if you
know what I mean. It was
way too scary
being Grandpa, imagined
being his horse, being the other horse,
the rope and the snow. Mainly, though,
I just sort of ‘saw’ it happen, dreamlike,
as if it were a show. I could zoom
in, out and around the action
while I imagined it.
Any way I wanted.
But I didn’t
really want to imagine
how much it hurt him. And even
to imagine imagining being the ground
when the horses ran over it was impossible.
Sometimes I pretended I could imagine
it “if I wanted to”, but I never
really tried it.
thinking about, and imagining
imagining things are not imagining them,
though, and I never did really imagine it – – it
was far too scary for that. I could imagine
imagining Grandpa’s finger spinning
around when the rope snapped
straight, too, but I never
All of that and
more went through my
mind while we put on our pajamas,
climbed the ladders to our beds and
snuggled in under the covers. The light
was still on. When it got quiet, I asked
“Grandpa, will you tell me the story
about your finger getting
twisted before we go
Grandpa got serious
and quiet for a while, then
told me it wasn’t a story. It was
true, and it bothered him that I
didn’t believe what he told me.
time”, he said, but “not tonight”,
and he turned out the light
and went to sleep.
me. I loved Grandpa’s stories,
and knew everything in them was true.
He had stories about everything and I loved
everything about every one of them. I
couldn’t wait to hear them again
and again and again.
Grandpa told me a story I
forgot about everything but the story.
I forgot I was listening to a story and forgot
that it even was a story. I almost forgot
Grandpa was telling it to me. It was
like I was in it
What are stories, anyway?
I thought about
that for a while, then went
to sleep, and when I woke up Mama
was coming up the stairs. She said when
Grandpa came down in the morning he said
it hurt that I didn’t believe what he said. She
told me she knew I believed his stories and
‘story’ just meant something different
to him and told me not to
worry about it.
getting pretty hungry and he’s looking
forward to a big breakfast with you.
We’re having waffles.”
Grandpa Gass Drinking Coffee
drink coffee back then. They
wouldn’t let me, and it tasted horrible
anyway. But you should have seen
Grandpa Gass drink coffee!
It was amazing.
He poured a
steaming shallow broad brown
lake from his cup to his saucer, picked it up,
swirled it around, and blew on it till it was cool,
then drank it from the saucer without spilling a drop,
over and over and over til his cup was empty,
then Mama filled it back up and
he did it again.
cooler quicker that
way,” he said, “and I can’t drink
it hot.” That seemed like a good idea
to me and I wanted to try it with
my hot chocolate, but Mama
wouldn’t let me.
Eating Apples Outdoors
Grandpa Gass drink coffee
was almost as much fun as watching
him cut apple slices with his
was so sharp and his
slices so thin that I could see
right through to the other
side, like windows
made out of
He’d slice off a slice,
then use his knife as a spatula
to lay it gently on his tongue and
withdraw it to cut the next slice.
And he never cut his tongue.
ate apples that way, but
only when we were outside.
Not me. I took great
big bites of snappy
the apple, the bigger the bite,
and the snappier the twist of the
wrist when you snap it, the snappier
the snap and the juicier and crunch-
ier the bite will be when you bite
into it. There’s a real
art to it.
small a bite, you don’t
get enough snap or enough
apple, which is disappointing.
If it’s too big, you can’t keep
the pieces and the juices in,
which is embarrassing.
never snapped his apples,
apples (he knew I liked them),
he offered me slices right off
his knife and I always
on my tongue,
though, because what
if I sneezed and cut off
He held it out
on the tip of his knife,
crossways and easy to get,
standing like a waiter with
his arm behind his back,
formally, and said,
be careful of that knife
there, Lee. It’s a sharp
one.” And I always
I took the slice from
the knife, usually with two hands,
held it up to the light, and imagined
it as a window of apple, not to wher-
ever we were at the moment
but to the inside of
see everything in
there, all the way through
to the other side and imag-
ine what lay beyond.
pretending to be
Grandpa with his knife,
I placed it slowly and gently
on the tip of my tongue and
began, as slowly as I could
at first, to savor its
tastes and textures.
If you get far
enough into it, if you
practice, and if you imagine
practicing it, it will probably
be as easy for you as it
was for me.
must be a snappy
apple, your knife must be
very sharp, and the slice
must be very thin for
it to work.
Here’s the thing about
thin it is when it
passes your lips, is a
flavour bud of apple
juice that Pops! when you
bite into it and sprays apple
juice all over your mouth.
Imagine that and see
Better yet, do it.
Eating Apples Myself
after I got married
the first time, my wife didn’t
approve of how I ate apples. You
know, snapping them like I told you.
She said it was impolite, especially
outdoors where people could see
and hear me. She consi-
dered it disgusting
I kept my
knife pretty sharp and
did it Grandpa’s way some-
times but she didn’t like that either,
inside or out, especially if there were
kids around. She said it would
‘give them ideas’.
gave me ideas when
I was little! Good ideas, too,
like how to be careful
and slicing, I know only one
other way to eat snappy apples
that’s any good, but she thought
it was even worse than
In case you
want to try it, here’s that
other way and I think it’s fantastic!
The apples have to be snappy and the slices
have to be thick enough to rock back and forth
on their backs, like a flotilla of boats in a
harbour. You’ve probably seen
them served that way
a slice on your bottom
teeth, skin side down and inside up.
Hold it with your top teeth and lips but
don’t bite through. Then bend the part that
sticks out of your mouth down just enough to
break it, and break it. If it’s a snappy enough
apple, if the slice is thick enough, and if you
do it right, the snap, though quiet,
will be heard throughout
snappy apples like that,
makes your mouth round and hollow
inside like the Mormon Tabernacle, the Taj
Majal, or a guitar, and the sound goes every-
where. The sound of the snap is one good
thing to like about it. Another
is what you can do with
When you snap
a snappy apple like that, the
apple breaks but the skin doesn’t. You
can peel it off with almost no apple sticking to
it. If you put a peel like that on your tongue, outside
up, it feels all thin and papery and interesting, and
sometimes it sticks to the roof of your mouth. If
you lay it outside down, it usually curls up like
a cigar which is interesting in its own right.
Give it a try and see if you like it. I
like it lot. But I’d rather snap
big bites and crunch
Gass when I went
outside to snap apples.
I’vc often heard
parents and grandparents
caution people not to “give children ideas”
but I’ve never understood that. My parents didn’t
seem worried about it at all. The more ideas the merrier.
It was more that when someone or something gave me
ideas, they gave me other ideas to help me deal with
them: “Keep your wits about you if you try it,
because you might be sorry if
I’d probably never
heard of microscopes when I first
observed the internal structure of thin
apple slices. That probably conditioned my
fascination with microscopy a few years later.
In turn, the way described it much later
than that undoutedly reflected my
experience of microscopy.
started to go outside to eat
apples, I didn’t remember Grandpa
Gass going outside to smoke cigars.
When I did remember I got a
kick out of it.
Edited June 2022