My grandpa keeps coming to mind these days. He's been dead nearly 30 years and no one ever mentions his name any more. I long ago wore out the shirts I got from him when he died. It's been seven or eight years since my grandmother moved, and I haven't been back to that part of the country in a decade.
Still, he's on my mind all the time.
I'm about the same age he was when I met him.
His name was Wad Blake. Wad was a nickname, of course, but no one ever called him any other name. He signed his checks John W. Blake, but the name on his birth certificate was "Wylie Rose Blake." His parents must have thought better of the "Rose" later. The nickname made it a moot point, anyway.
Raised in Oklahoma, from Okie, Indian and Texan stock, he was a storyteller. In the tradition of that part of the country, he was loud, entertaining and sometimes factual. Physically, he took after his big, dark-complected Indian mother so among his towheaded siblings he said he "looked like a rat turd in a bowl of rice." He greeted everyone with a booming, "Well, howdy!," or a "Que hubo?" depending on their native language, and an enthusiastic abrazo. He taught me how to say "kiss my ass" in Choctaw. To entertain kids, he would pretend to take off his finger, or actually take out his dentures and tell jokes with them in his hand.
Most of the stories he told were about the animals, people and scenes of his youth. They took place on or around the small subsistence farms of eastern Oklahoma's Ozark Mountains.
His horse, "Twenty Grand," was the fastest and meanest horse in the country. Twenty Grand once bucked so high they landed in the bed of a wagon. His Uncle Will was so strong he could lift a 500-lb. cotton bale on his back. His dad rode the trail drives between Texas and Kansas, and once was deposited unconscious in the top of a tree by a herd of stampeding cattle.
I could go on and on.
From the time I was about 3 years old, he regularly took me along to his hangout at the cafe in El Paso's Southern Pacific train depot. He spoke Spanish and taught me the rudiments. I thought he was brilliantly fluent and articulate. Now, remembering his Mexican slang delivered with a profound Okie twang, I have to laugh. I gradually stopped believing in the accuracy of his stories but I never stopped believing in their integrity.
He was a character, in the best sense of that label. He surrounded his yard on a sand dune at the Mexican border with wagon wheels he scavenged and brought back from the Ozarks. He called his place "Blake's Belly Acres," but on the sign he misspelled "Belley."
He built his own home from three defunct wooden boxcars mounted on a cinderblock foundation and nailed together. Because they had been refrigerator cars, they were already insulated with sawdust and newspapers. Over the course of a couple of decades he enclosed the crawl space and put up siding. It didn't look half bad. I was 3 when I "helped" him build the carport. When I was 18 he was still showing guests the notches I cut in the rafters when he wasn't looking.
He took me everywhere. He took me to Mexico and California, the feedstore and the barber. He put me on horses. He put me on unicycles. He helped me raise a flock of pigeons, then he humanely encouraged me to push harder when I used a knife to take the heads off the squabs. He intentionally got us kicked out of a remote Oklahoma diner for speaking Spanish, evidently mistaken for Mexicans, since the sign in the window explained that such foreign personages were not welcome there.
He showed me off to his friends. For some reason he called me "Sam-Well" until my brother came along, then we became "Pete and Re-Pete." I took off my shoe and sock so he could show people in the cafe the "extra bone" in my foot. He ordered me three rib-steak dinners in a row one day, bragging to everyone within hearing that I had a "hollow leg."
I was barely out of diapers when he started telling people I could read. I believe I figured out how to read just to live up to my billing. He told people I was strong, and I went straight home and started carrying big rocks around the yard.
He was a big man with enormous hands that made his way among rough people in rough places. I was a skinny, timid, intellectual kid and I believed I was the apple of his eye. I guess I still believe it.
His stories were populated by horses, goats, chickens, cattle and mules. And now, of course, mine are.
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