A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Elmer Slow Bear was the handyman at Anderson Ranch orphanage. He was a huge, slow giant of a man, who almost never talked. In someone smaller, Elmer Slow Bear’s stolid, enduring, imperturbable silence in the face of all events might well have been taken as patience, as meekness and humility — as Christian virtue. In a man of his size and complexion, however, many found the reserve unnerving. Mr. Cody, the history teacher, referred to him in private — with more than slightly nervous humor — as “My Bad Conscience.” Also, as “Doom.” Most people called him Elmer, and stayed out of his way.
He looked a little like Doom; or at least how Doom is supposed to look. He was big and dark and inscrutable. He had a white, jagged scar along his cheek, and a crooked, imposing nose like the bent beak of a hawk. He had a body like a barrel, long, surprisingly thin legs, and enormous hands — great, clumsy-looking, pawlike hands. Yet he was deft with them; he was “handy.”
Not many people knew it, but Elmer had grown up at Anderson Ranch himself, during the Fifties. He had not been called Elmer Slow Bear then. It was standard Anderson Ranch policy either to anglicize the Indian boys’ names or to give them new English names outright. Thus the big, dark baby without a name was called Elmer Granville, after a famous cavalry officer in the last days of the Indian wars. Colonel Elmer S. Granville had led a large troop against the last significant Kundalee force, at Burnt Lake in the mountains of western Wyoming. The troop had caught the tribe in the middle of a religious festival and triumphed with surprising ease.
Granville’s namesake, a Kundalee-Ute, learned all about this victory in his history class at Anderson Ranch. It was called the Burnt Lake Massacre. Elmer’s teacher told him at the time that he should be proud to be named after a hero.
Elmer, as was already his way by then, said nothing.
Most of Elmer’s graduating class — the class of 1967 — was drafted promptly and sent to Vietnam. Elmer himself went into the Marines. It was in the service that he got the rest of his name: everyone called him Chief, and Bear, and soon enough, Chief Bear. The name was half-fearful, half-derogatory, but Elmer liked it better than Granville. He threw in the Slow part himself, and so it was Chief Slow Bear.
Once in a firefight during the Tet offensive, a grenade landed in a doorway occupied by Elmer and five other men, on a street in Hue. Elmer promptly threw his big body across the grenade to smother the explosion. It was a thing humans in combat did with extraordinary frequency. Usually it resulted in the saving of many lives, and the awarding of a posthumous medal to the person who had covered the grenade.
In this case, the grenade did not go off. It was a dud. Elmer lay over it for a while, until it was obvious that it really was not going to explode. Then he got up and stood looking down at the thing. Everyone else in the doorway was looking at him, eyes wide.
“Jeez, Chief,” one of them said at last.
Elmer, as was his habit, said nothing. He picked up the dud grenade and put it in his pocket. This was crazy — the thing, after all, might still go off — but it had been crazy to jump on it in the first place, and no one said anything. They were all just glad to be alive.
The platoon leader, who found Elmer unnerving, did not recommend him for a medal, because — after all — the grenade had not gone off.
It did not matter to Elmer, who said nothing. It did not even matter to the men whose lives he had saved. They all continued to call him “Chief.” All of them survived the war except one, a man named Harold. Harold jumped on another grenade about three hours later, on the same street in Hue, saving the lives of five men. Harold’s grenade was not a dud; he was awarded a posthumous Silver Star.
Elmer took his own grenade home with him after the war. He would take it out and look at it from time to time, wondering if it would ever go off.
He had not wanted to come back to Anderson Ranch after Vietnam; but then, he had not wanted to go to Vietnam either. And he did not come back right away. He fought his fate for the first time and, as is usual with such struggles, though he did not win, he learned a great deal of value. For almost a decade he wandered the West, going anywhere but Anderson Ranch, doing anything but going back. He worked on oil rigs, and drove a truck; he was in the rodeo. He never did talk much to anyone, except to a woman named Maria, who worked in a little truck stop south of Flagstaff. Maria took him to her bed, and he found himself telling her everything. He told her about Anderson Ranch, and Elmer Granville, and Vietnam. He told her about the rodeo. He even showed her the grenade, in what seemed to him an act of unimaginable intimacy. He had carried it around in his suitcase for almost ten years by then, in a lavender box with a see-through plastic display top, originally used for a big carnation corsage. This he set on the pillow between them, sharing it like an offering or a trophy.
Maria, who had been moved by all his tales, looked at the grenade and crossed herself, and said a quick heartfelt prayer to the Virgin for guidance. She was a woman of delicacy and wisdom and deep faith, and she understood that this was a critical moment in this man’s life. She also understood that it was still no sure thing that the grenade would not blow them both up.
“You must take this into the mountains,” Maria told Elmer. “Offer it to your gods, and ask for a vision.”
“My gods?” Elmer said. “What gods?”
Maria looked surprised. “I thought you were a Kundalee,” she said.
“I’m just a kid from Anderson Ranch,” Elmer told her. “I don’t even know what Kundalee means.” To the surprise of both of them, he began to cry. Elmer never cried.
Maria gathered him to her breast as best she could, and patted him. Again, she was moved. She was a Chicana, and not too sure what that meant either. And she was surrounded by people who didn’t know what it meant to be white. But she knew a few things, and the Virgin loved her.
“Look,” she said, patting Elmer. “Don’t worry about all that. Just go up in the mountains and put this grenade on a rock. Then sit a safe distance away from it, just sit there, until you know what’s what.”
“How will I know that?” Elmer said.
“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “You’ll know.”
Elmer went up into the mountains. He took eight cans of beans and franks, and a plastic gallon-jug of water. He took a blanket. He ate one can of the beans every day for a week, but on the eighth day he decided to save the last can, and so he didn’t eat for a while. When the jug of water ran out, he thought he would have to go back down, but that day he found a spring nearby.
He was thinking about the war. He was thinking about Anderson Ranch, and the rodeo, and the silly fake Indian costumes they had made him wear. He was thinking a lot about the fact that he was named after Elmer S. Granville. He was thinking about Maria, and what it meant to be a Kundalee, and what it meant to be a man.
He had brought the grenade and, in keeping with Maria’s instructions, he set it on a rock like an altar and sat a decent distance away. He spent a lot of time looking at it, and about the fifth day it surprised him by turning into Saint Ignatius Loyola.
This was not as fantastic as it seems.
Saint Ignatius Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits; and it was Jesuits who had operated Anderson Ranch as an orphanage since the turn of the century. There actually was a big statue of Loyola in the center of the courtyard at Anderson Ranch, atop a great boulder known to everyone as “The Rock.”
Jack Whitelye, the old Ute alcoholic who had been the janitor at Anderson Ranch while Elmer was growing up there, always said that The Rock was an old Indian holy spot — sacred ground, for thousands of years, and fertile with marvels. The Ute, the Shoshoni, and the Kundalee had called the spot Broohaa. They brought their babies there to name them, and their sick people there to heal them; their adolescents coming into adulthood prayed there for a life’s guiding vision. They had kissed the big stone at the center whenever they passed, and over the centuries the face of the rock had been worn smooth with kissing in a large patch, about belly-high to an adult, low enough for a small child to reach on tiptoe. It was said that if you saw your reflection in that kissed-smooth surface, you could see yourself as you truly were. Even after the Broohaa became Anderson Ranch Indian School, generations of orphaned and abducted Indian kids had quietly continued the tradition of kissing The Rock — “for luck.” This had generally been tolerated, or at least ignored, until during World War II when, amid other crackdowns, the Jesuit headmaster then, a Father Augustine, had decided the practice was pagan and improper, and had had the statue of Saint Ignatius Loyola erected on top of the boulder. The kids had half-heartedly continued the custom for a while, but of course after that when they kissed The Rock they were kissing the strong sandaled feet of the founder of the Society of Jesus. This was deemed pious by Father Augustine; the kissing tradition soon petered out. It lived on only as a sort of ghost story told by Jack, the drunken janitor, to the kids who would listen, along with a lot of other nonsense.
All this Elmer had forgotten — The Rock, the statue, Jack’s whiskey-flavored tales. Now it all flooded back as he gaped at Saint Ignatius Loyola perched in Jesuit black fifty feet away from him on the rock where the grenade had been. The vision lasted only a moment, long enough for Elmer to reflect that, of course, Maria was Catholic, and probably thought it was wonderful to see a saint, that this was no doubt what she’d had in mind when she sent him up here, and bless her heart; but that he, Elmer, wanted nothing to do with it, and if Saint Ignatius Loyola thought he could just blow in here and tell him, Elmer, what was what, he had another thing coming. He hadn’t spent ten years wrestling with his fate just to roll over and let this damned ghost of a Jesuit statue tell him what was what.
In fact, it made him mad, the presumption of it. Elmer stood up, intending to go grab the vision and beat the hell out of it; but the saint, prudently, vanished. In the heat-rippled air of the afternoon, the grenade sat once more on the rock like a sinister dark egg, and Elmer sat down once again to brood over it. He was so mad, it took him three days to calm down.
Who knows what would have happened if Elmer had brought more beans and franks, or if he had gotten over his anger at Saint Ignatius Loyola sooner. It is useless to speculate on such things. When it came right down to it, he had hauled as much food up there as he could stand to carry. He saved the last can of beans as long as he could, filling his belly with cool, clear spring water when it began to ache. It was the height of summer, and he spent the hot solstice days, the longest of the year, sitting in the thin shade of a tiny pine tree gnarled by the altitude, winters, and the general bleakness of life into a shape of eternal perseverance. It was the last tree on the mountain: beyond it the ridge went up as a sweep of stone and glacial dirt, barren as the moon. Elmer leaned against the pine like an old friend, looking at the grenade incubating there on its rock in the sun, and brooding on his fate. He didn’t know why he had been in Vietnam, or why he had jumped on the thing in the first place. He certainly didn’t know why it hadn’t gone off. He hadn’t known then what he would have died for, and he had no idea now why he was alive.
While he was sitting there in this condition, contemplating the grenade, it hatched. A seagull emerged from it, shook off the chips, and flew over to land beside him.
No fooling: this is a true story. It was the world bird. In the creation myth of the Kundalee, as transmitted in a slurred form influenced by television and alcohol in the stories of Jack the janitor, God had been born from a dark void as a seagull of the most brilliant white, and had laid an egg that hatched the world. Everything else had come from that: angels, dirt, humans, vegetables and birds and coyotes.
Elmer looked at the seagull, and the seagull looked at him.
“Hello,” the bird said.
Elmer, as was his way, said nothing.
Elmer came down out of the mountains. He went straight back to the truck stop near Flagstaff and found Maria again.
“I’m going back to Anderson Ranch,” he told her, after ordering steak and eggs.
“Ah,” she said. “Good.” Why, who knows, but it seemed so. It was all in the hands of the Virgin anyway.
“Do you want to come?” Elmer said.
And so Elmer Slow Bear returned to Anderson Ranch. Father Joseph, the Jesuit headmaster, hired him as handyman and general custodian, despite his uneasiness and misgivings, because Elmer was, after all, an “alumnus.” Elmer and Maria lived in the basement of the dormitory for a year, while Elmer built them a cabin at the far west end of the compound.
He never said much to anyone, and most everyone was afraid of him. He fixed everything that broke or malfunctioned, at his own slow pace. It was known, however, among the children, that if you found him in a certain mood, he was no ogre at all, but could be persuaded to tell the most marvelous stories. It was also suspected that it was he who had started the odd custom, prevalent among the orphans, of kissing the big rock on which Saint Ignatius Loyola stood in the courtyard — “for luck”; but Elmer always insisted that he had started nothing. He maintained that the custom went back to the beginning of the world. It was said that if you caught a glimpse of yourself in the glass-smooth surface of the rock as you kissed it, you could see yourself as you really were.
The grenade was gone; he had left it in the mountains. But he still had the lavender display box. He kept it on a shelf of its own in the cabin; and in it, resting on the cotton beneath the battered plastic lid, was a single white seagull feather, tipped with gray.