My Teacher Declined To Be Shown or Told
Today, I think, they call it show and tell, or some such thing, and little Henry brings his periwinkles and does his recitation about gathering seashells all summer at Spurwink Beach. So I was thinking about that, and decided to speak briefly on the time Charley Martin brought an assegai to school and told how his uncle, Cap'n Oliver Plaistead, handled the Kaffir cannibals back in 1834 when they tried to eat him.
I mention this now to show how out of place I was in the small Maine coastal town where I grew up. Nobody in our family ever went to sea, and we didn't have much to talk about. When our ancestor came to America, he jumped from the boat to the mud flats, kneeled, and offered a solemn vow that he would never step foot again on anything that floats. This vow was so respected that his grandson refused to sail with Boscawan to join Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham, saying he knew a shortcut. He walked to Quebec, distinguished himself, and walked home.
When my own grandfather, later, was on his way to Gettysburg, he left Maine by train. It took 10 strong men to lift him onto a boat at Fall River so he could ride to New Jersey. After that, Uncle Levi did some duck hunting on a gunnin' float, but that's all.
So after Charley Martin brought his assegai to school, Wally Tuttle brought a blowgun used in Chile back along, and a souvenir of the guano and copper days on the West Coast. Next, Tootie Bibber brought in a machete that quelled a rebellion in the Leewards, but also used to cut sugarcane. Then Jim Hopper had a real boomerang from Australia, but he didn't know much about it because his grandfather kept it in a glass case and forbade anybody to touch it. Then Clifton Thompson brought an Aztec sacrificial knife that had something to do with Montezuma, but his mother couldn't remember just what it was.
Well, after Bud Griffin brought the samurai sword, Flossie Ringrose said one of the sea chests in her attic was full of lovely silk kimonos from Yokohama. So her mother brought the kimonos, and one Friday afternoon all the girls dressed up and we had a talk by Mrs. Ringrose about how her father and mother went Out East on the Laura Kinkaid, built in our town, and how she was born in Yokohama Harbor.
One day, I fancied I'd top all the weapons my schoolmates were bringing in, and I asked Mother where I should look for Uncle Levi's war club. "Oh," says she, "I don't know. What do you want that thing for?" It always nags me when I ask a question and get a question. I said, "I want to brain somebody at school." Mother said, "It used to be in the shed attic, did you look there?"
Too young for the Civil War, in which his older brother was involved, my Great-uncle Levi went to North Dakota in 1881 to homestead a ranch. He found North Dakota a tough place to live, but was bound to seven years there before the government would give him title. He found various things to do at a distance and returned to his wind-swept ranch often enough to create an illusion of residence. As soon as he got his deed he sold the place and came east. Enough was enough.
During those years, he learned to lay bricks at St. John, New Brunswick, prospected up and down the Rockies, and one year stoned water wells across Montana for the Union Pacific Railroad. He collected Indian relics and shipped them to a store in New York City that took all he could supply. In this venture he met and became a friend of the Sioux Chief Sitting Bull. (When Sitting Bull was captured by the United States Cavalry and brought into Bismarck in a wagon, Uncle Levi was in the crowd of spectators. He and the chief embraced as old friends.)
So one time in school the history book said the Spaniards introduced the horse to the Indians. Uncle Levi, now aged and living with us, told me my teacher was full of prunes. The Indians didn't have horses. Only ponies. He said I should tell the teacher. "It's important," he said. But my teacher didn't think it was, and she said my uncle must be big fun around the house on rainy days.
THERE was another time my uncle tangled with the educational system. He went to a western movie and saw Plains Indians in war bonnets, and they were using English longbows. The Sioux, he told me, didn't have longbow wood, and used short bows at close range. They'd ride a pony up to a herd of buffalo at top speed and shoot. No saddles. Indians, he said, never used saddles. The next day my uncle cut a dry spruce limb and made me a true Indian bow. And my teacher pooh-poohed again about my uncle and his ignorance about everything.
I found my uncle's Sioux war club; it was in the shed attic. It was just what it was meant to be, a stone bludgeon thonged on a long handle, intended to persuade, influence, instruct, and edify an enemy before he picked up any bad habits. As an object historical, I suppose it combined and proliferated all the purposes of all the assegais, boomerangs, blowguns, pikes, spears, axes, and related devices man has invented for self-defense and holiday fun.
But our Sioux war club was unimportant in our tidal town where everybody had been east of Suez, down under, down to Gehenna, around the Horn, into the Arctic, and through the Straits. But nobody had been west of Mt. Washington. When I exhibited my uncle's war club, the name of Sitting Bull didn't ring a bell. The teacher was pleasant about this. She explained about my uncle so the class would understand. She said something about bows and arrows and ponies, and thanked me for bringing the thing.