Grampa and the Indians

About 70 years ago, a popular ornament in America was the bronze figure of an Indian brave astride a pony. He wore a single feather in his hair. One listless hand held a spear, its point nearly touching the ground. His head was bowed. The pony's head was lowered, also.

There was a certain sadness about this figure, which sat on top of the cabinet that held my grandparents' Victrola, just as it sat on similar cabinets in their friends' homes. Or perhaps the sadness was less in the figure than in its title. It was called "The Vanishing American."

My grandfather respected Indians (called "Indians" then, not "native Americans," and no offense meant). He probably knew little about them, although we lived in the West. That hardly mattered, to him. Indians were part of that great whole of mankind. As such, they had a right to his regard. He entirely believed in the Constitution of the United States, and he believed just as utterly in the brotherhood of man.

He had quite a few other principles by which he lived. Some were troublesome. He informed Grandma one day that while tramps or the idle unemployed were not to be trusted, she "need never fear the working man." Shortly after that, two miners in a nearby town killed one another during a fight in a bar. Grandma never let him forget it.

Mankind frequently distressed my grandfather. When news of terrible pogroms in Russia reached America, Grampa was horrified. Born and raised in the Midwest, he must have known even less about Jews than he did about Indians. It's entirely possible he never met one. But that made no difference to Grampa. All men were brothers. After he heard the news about the Jews in Russia before World War I, he scarcely ate or spoke for days.

I noticed these things about Grampa because he was important to me. He taught me how to count to 100 and to say the Lord's Prayer before I entered kindergarten. He made wonderful fried potatoes. He never raised his voice at my brother or me, but when he said "That will be enough," it was.

I loved him. I nearly burst into tears whenever my kindergarten class took a nature walk around the block and I saw Grampa walking across the street from us - tall, erect, and probably terribly lonesome, all by himself like that.

I WAS always proud of him, but I was especially so whenever my mother told the story of Grampa and the Indians.

She wasn't sure if they were a tribe or just a family passing through. Whoever they were, my mother said they came one night and stopped at my grandparents' ranch on their way north. It had been a bad time for them. They had run into trouble: One of the babies was ill. Two of their horses had died. They asked to camp overnight in my grandfather's field. He agreed.

Grandma made them some hot food and helped with the baby. Before they left the next morning, the Indians asked Grampa if he would lend them two horses. They would return the animals, they said, in the fall on their way back south.

Their need was desperate. All men were brothers: It was a favorite principle of Grampa's. He also believed in the innate goodness of people. He loaned them the horses.

Autumn came, but not the Indians. The stall that should have held the horses stood empty. Worse yet, other ranchers heard about my grandfather and the Indians. It became the joke of the year. Everyone knew - except fools like him - what Gypsies and Indians were like. To the other ranchers, Grampa's innocence and faith were funny to the point of contempt. They let him know it.

Grampa never spoke of this. He went into town whenever he had to and endured the jibes. But it must have been a bad winter for him.

Spring came. And one morning, Grampa walked into the barn. (At this point in the story a chill of sheer pleasure would always run down my back.) There, in the stall that had been empty the night before, were two Indian ponies. They were a hundred times more beautiful than the horses he'd lost. The Indians had come in the night and, Indian fashion, had left the horses without waiting to be thanked.

Trust, honor, courage, generosity: Who was "The Vanishing American"? The Indian brave on his pony? My grandfather? Both? Or - I hope - neither?

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