Granddaddy could have been Santa Claus.
He could have been Stevie Wonder, Cassius Clay or the Pope, so giddily did we anticipate his visits. We would crowd the windows at the front of our tired shotgun house, my four older siblings and I, shoving, pinching and punching
shoulders to attain the clearest view of the road. We wouldn't look for cars because Granddaddy was a walker.
Though he was well into his eighties, he'd hike the five miles from the Greyhound station, having granted the
impracticality of slogging it to Indianapolis all the way from New Mexico. He would tow an entourage like a celebrity
tows the press, arriving with no less than five or six attendants, old men mostly, as matte brown and yellow-eyed as Granddaddy, all thin and angled as Joshua trees, with salted coarse hair tied in pony tails. They all wore necklaces of turquoise, juniper seeds and the bones of unnamed animals, this over blue jeans and flannel shirts. They looked like just about anyone else, it being the sixties, but they carried themselves taller and looser than others, relaxed from pride and hard experience.
Whenever Granddaddy came to visit, our meager, falling-down house would brighten even as it grew too crowded. It boomed with rough-throated Southwestern laughter, which has the clear, tonal quality of a stick dragged along rough, baked clay. The house would reverberate from amicable but hotly felt arguments (mostly political involving Indian rights), from news of the res, and, more than anything, stories. After supper, which wasn't too fancy (Granddaddy's favorite meal was pancakes), Mom would offer up brandy alexanders and the adults would overflow our tiny dining room as they mixed drinks into jelly glasses and coffee mugs. Granddaddy told stories of supernatural powers and great Apache historical figures, and stories of everyday life on the res that were often more bizarre than the myths he stored in his encyclopedic head. The more he drank, the more outlandish the stories became, the more full of preternatural spirits, talking animals, visions and magic. We kids listened open-mouthed from the living room only feet away. The always on, seductive TV was forgotten so long as Granddaddy spoke.
Granddaddy was a teacher. Some of the men in his company were students of his in some mystical rite of which none of them would speak. It had to do with magic, we knew, like the medicine men in the black and white westerns on Saturday mornings. But to mention specifics meant giving up power, for the spirit that gave the magic its force could be stolen by any who knew its name. But Granddaddy's teaching went beyond magic. He watched us kids with keen, squinted eyes. He saw as easily as anyone else our range of skin tone from toast to cream, a range of hair from thin, straight blonde to tight, kinked black. And he listened to our play and our arguments, and heard the Blackness of our unconscious perspectives; talk of Stevie Wonder, afros, Martin Luther King, succotash and the best baked beans, Bobby Seale, Bobby Kennedy, Sidney Poitier and which local schools were "still all-white and wouldn't let no black folks in". The odd thing about living multi-ethnic is that you have to make decisions other people don't. You have no questions if not who you are and what you are about. You aren't born in a white box, a black box or a red box. You build your own box. We were a puree of white, black and Apache, but philosophically black alone, having rejected the white as criminal and having little understanding of what Apache meant. Granddaddy sought to clarify the latter. Only decades later would I realize that his main reason for visiting was to educate us kids.
He spent more time with me than with the others, whether because I was more receptive or more in need of his teachings, he never said. We spent hours on the front stoop, Granddaddy talking and me soaking it up slack-faced and hang-jawed, hardly a fidget and always my eyes on his skeletal octogenarian face. Those talks shaped the world for me, directed my thoughts and molded my decisions. I was my granddaddy's son, more than I'd ever been my father’s. That wasn't much of a hat trick, though, since my dad was mainly absent and drunk.
"Live for your Bear," Granddaddy often said, the Bear being a powerful force in nature, the sum of everything you've done, thought and said. People start out as animals, little more than muscle, sweat and an urge to mate. That's what Granddaddy would say. When you face your Bear, you face your animal and what you've taught it. You face every lie you've told to redirect trouble to your sister or brother, every insult you've hurled or punch or kick you've delivered, every stolen candy bar or cheat sheet for a test, but also every blood donation, honest argument against the majority, insistence that a stranger cut you in line or take your quarter for a phone call. What Granddaddy meant by "live for your Bear" was not to do anything you couldn't face later. "You'll have to meet your Bear someday. Will you accept what it shows you and earn humanity, or flinch from what it shows you and forever remain an animal?" That was Granddaddy. Meeting your Bear is an ascension to heaven, except it happens while you're alive.
I soaked up everything Granddaddy taught me. He was Granddaddy, after all, that towering, board-tough Odysseus in my life. I was six years old, ten the last time I saw him. Those were the years in which heroes are made.
I never knew when Granddaddy died or where they put him into the ground. Apache don't like to speak of such things; one day the living breathe and eat and the next they don't; they lie with their feet toward the east, their slack faces frowning at the stars above. The best of friends find the best possible place for a burial, at night most likely and in secret. They push the deceased into a shallow hole, under some rocks, into a crevice or a hidden cave. They leave him with a good pair of shoes, a woven basket and a drinking jar, and they never speak of him again. Only the best of friends grant such a send-off. It's been the Apache way for unknown thousands of years. It's also illegal; the Interior Department has very strict rules on corpse disposal. But a man lives Apache; how can you deny his dying like one?
I said his friends never speak of him. This isn't because they fear the police. They fear, instead, the dead man's spirit. For if you speak too freely of those gone away, they might hear their name and return. Wouldn't you return if you heard your name, or if your ears heard gossip at your expense?
I loved my Granddaddy, but I loved him less than I worshipped him. He was taller, stronger and wiser than other men, a charismatic man who swept me into the certitude of his world as a broom sweeps dirt into a dustpan. Loving Granddaddy, I understand how people love Malcolm X, Jesus Christ, or even Walter Cronkite, except that those people aren't as real to me. I never met them. I never heard their voices from their own throats, or felt their warmth beside me on the stoop. They and all my other heroes — Kennedy, King, Means and Newton, Huey P. — were ephemeral wisps compared to that man who visited. But I never went to the res in New Mexico, never sought out the old man's house or his friends or his grave. What would be the point? Part of me is Apache, after all. Asking after him would bring uneasy stares and disapproving silence. There is nothing so vulgar as bad manners with respect to the dead.
Besides, I don't need to see his grave, because Granddaddy isn't dead to me. He's there when I need him, a presence more real at times than faces right in front of me. Twenty-two years ago, I sat atop a heavy armored tank, trembling with chills in a snowless German winter. Ninety meters before me, East German engineers dismantled the chain link fence that separated enemies in the now concluded cold war. They joked as they worked; I was close enough to hear their laughter. Behind them, Russian tanks and personnel carriers lined up to flood the West. They would crush me, a cast steel wave, because Poland was antsy and of course it was my fault. I carried at my side a triggering device for the explosive charges under all the local roadways, and a microphone and radio frequencies for all the NATO artillery and air support in central Germany. I had a frequency for requesting nuclear release. I was twenty-four years old. Despite the power entrusted to me, I was expected to live maybe thirty seconds once the Russians shifted into first. Should I run, I remember thinking, should I not, should I cower from indecision? I shouldn't do anything I can't face later, that's what I should do.
Well, I did something, obviously, and it must have worked. But who am I kidding? I'm not Apache. I always groaned at those other "Indians", the burnt-red Kentuckians claiming "one-sixteenth Cherokee", a bunch of white boys who wouldn't know an Indian if their own names were Custer. But, as I grew older, I did the math. And I catalogued the un-Apache things I do each day. If I were Apache, I couldn't write this; coming from a culture that values privacy and devalues small talk, the task would never occur to me.
Regardless, Granddaddy still comes to visit, to ensure I avoid what I can't face later.
I often wonder about my destiny, if there is one. I've got my Granddaddy in me, he's nestled in me like a pecan in its shell, leaving scant room for Catholicism, Black power, White rationalism, the Democratic Party or any other dogma I might have adopted. When Russell Means defied the government in his 1970s Wounded Knee stand, I rooted for the Indians, not the National Guard. But I'm not thirteen anymore. Mortality has a face for me now; it waves at me from across the street. So, what do I do when it gets more intimate, maybe comes over and knocks on the door? Is there epistemology to deal with that question? If there's a heaven for Indians and a heaven for The Other People, as Granddaddy called them, then what place awaits those who are both, and neither? What place waits for people like me?