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home >> Teaching and Learning >> Let me tell you a story about my Grandpa Gass
posted on August 9, 2016 | Teaching and Learning, Other
Let me tell you a story about my Grandpa Gass

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 at. 

Especially
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
his teeth. 

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
always outdoors. 

Grandma
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

Wintertime.
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 was going to happen next?
Did they understand why?
You don’t know this 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
happened next.

The loop went
slow
through the blowing
snow.  W
hirling, closing, landing
lightly.
Saddle horn wrapping,
leaning backing, slowing,
tightening, the other
horse slowing
too.

My Grandpa
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.

Grandpa didn’t
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
twisted finger.

When Mom
told me to keep my
wits about me, and she told me
whenever she needed to, that made
me think about things like
Grandpa’s Twisted
Finger.

 

Grandma Styvers’
False Teeth
Dad’s
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.  N
o 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!  B
ut Great Grandma
Styvers was
long, long gone
and outta there by then.

As 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, a toilet in
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
about Dad.

 

Dad’s
Two Surprises

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.

When we
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
more
so.

Dad’s
second surprise

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 in 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. 

 

After
I tell you
one about Grandpa
sweeping floors,
I’ll tell you
more about his twisted finger.


Grandpa Gass
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.

The best
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
was incredible!

There was
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 resting 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 other swinging doors.
You have to
practice
a
lot.

How you
have to lean your stack as
you run,
how fast, how far, and in what
direction,
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.

I usually
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 k
icked 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.

 

Grandpa Gass’
bedtime story about his
twisted finger

Grandpa came
on the bus by himself one time
to visit us.    Grandma had something
to do or something.  Or he just wanted to get
away.  W
e were upstairs in my room, getting
ready for bed on the first night
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!   But with him
right there in the next bed telling
me it was so exciting I
couldn’t stand it.

Balanced on one
foot getting my pajamas
on, I thought about it so
hard I almost fell down.

Sometimes
I
wondered how much it
hurt him,
but never really imagined
it.  N
ot really imagined it, if you
know what I mean.
It was
way too scary
for that.

I
imagined
being Grandpa.  I imagined
being
his horse, being the other horse,
   being 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.

Fast.  Slow.
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
that I could imagine it “if I wanted to”,
but never really tried it. 

Pretending to, thinking
about, and imagining imagining things are not
imagining them, though, and I never did imagine
it – it
was far too scaryI could imagine
imagining
Grandpa’s finger spinning
when the rope snapped straight, too,
but never really
imagined it.

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.  W
hen it got quiet, I asked
“Grandpa, will you tell me the story
about your finger getting
twisted
before we go
to sleep?”

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. 

Maybe another time, he said,
but “not tonight”,
and he turned out
the light and went to sleep. 

That confused 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.

Sometimes when
Grandpa told me a story
I
forgot about everything but the story.
I forgot I was listening to a story and forgot
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.

“Besides, Grandpa’s
getting pretty hungry
and he’s looking
forward to a
big  breakfast with you.
We’re having waffles.”

 

Grandpa Gass Drinking Coffee

I didn’t
drink coffee back then. They
wouldn’t let me and, i
t 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. 

“It gets
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.

 

Grandpa Gass
Eating Apples Outdoors

Watching
Grandpa Gass drink coffee

was almost as much fun as watching
him
cut apple slices with his pocketknife.

His knife
was so sharp and
his slices so thin that I could see
right through to the other side,
like windows with apple glass. 

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.

Grandpa always
ate apples that way, but
only
when we were outside.
Not me. I took great
big bites
of snappy
apples, and
still do.

The snappier
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 the crunchier
the bite will be
when you bite into it.

There’s a real art to it.

With
too small a bite,
you don’t get enough snap or
enough apple, which is disappointing.
If it’s t
oo big, you can’t keep
the pieces and the
juices in,
which is embarrassing.

Grandpa
never snapped his apples,

even outdoors. 

With snappy apples,
(he knew I liked them)
he offered me slices
right off his knife
and
I always took them.

Not on my tongue,
though,
because what if
I sneezed
and cut my
tongue 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,

“Now you be
careful
of that knife there,
Lee.  It’s a sharp one.”
And I always
was.

Carefully,
I took the slice
from the knife, usually with
two hands,
held it
up to the light,
and imagined
it as a window,

not to wherever
we were at the moment but
to the inside of the apple.

I could
see everything in there
,
all the way through to the
other side
and through the skin
and beyond. 

Then,
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.

It has to be
a snappy apple
for it to work.

If you
get into it
enough and practice,
and practice imagining it,
your Grandpa won’t
even have to be there
anymore.

 

Here’s the thing about
snappy apples:
Each small
morsel
of a
snappy
apple,
no matter
how small or
thin it was when it
passes your lips or
how you’ve chewed it
so far, 
is a
little

flavour bud
of apple juice

that
Pops!,
spraying juices
all over your mouth
when you bite it.

Imagine that
and see what happens!
Better yet, do it.

 

Eating Apples Myself

Before and after I got married
the first time,
my wife didn’t like how I ate apples.  You
know, snapping them like I told you.
She said
it wasn’t polite,
especially outdoors where people
could
see and hear me.   She considered it disgusting
indoors too.
I kept my knife pretty sharp, so I did it
Grandpa’s way sometimes. 
She didn’t like that
either, inside or out,
especially if there were
kids around.  She said it would
‘give them ideas’.

It certainly
gave me ideas
when
I was little!  Good ones,
too,
like how to be
careful
with knives!

 

Besides snapping and
slicing,
I know only one other way
to eat snappy apples that’s any good, and
she thought it was even worse.  Here’s that other
way to eat snappy apples,
in case you want to try it.
They have to be snappy apples and the slices have to
be thick enough to
rock on saucers on their backs like
boats,
you’ve seen them this way at parties. I
like a couple of things
about this way of eating
apples,
but my wife didn’t like either of
them
and I didn’t do it very often.
Especially at parties.

Balance
a slice on your bottom
teeth,
skin side down and meat
side up, and
hold it with your top teeth
but don’t bite through.  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 I
do it right,
the snap, though quiet,
will be heard
throughout
the house.

Snapping
a snappy apple like that,

holding it gently in my teeth and
holding it
with lips and tongue, makes
my mouth
round and hollow inside like the
Mormon Tabernacle, the Taj Majal,
or a
guitar,
and the sound goes everywhere.
The sound of the snap is one thing,
and the other is what you
can do with the skin.

When you snap
a snappy apple like that,
the
apple breaks but the skin doesn’t
and 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 just fine.
I’d rather snap big
bites and crunch them.

I
often
thought
about
Grandpa
Gass
when I went
outside to snap apples.


Edited January 2019

One thought on “Let me tell you a story about my Grandpa Gass

  1. Thur, June 13, 2019

    Thank you for this window into your boyhood, Lee, and the snapshots of your Grandpa Gass,his twisted finger , the horse, life in Montana , sweeping up a cinema, Grandpa slicing an apple with his pocket knife, your father’s visit to his former home.

    Precious memories

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