A Small History

“I never really had a horse that was mine exclusively,” my grandfather says:

Always had a horse. You just caught the one you wanted to ride. My dad bought a horse – bought it for me, essentially, I’m sure. It had one eye. One eye would have been injured, I guess, or something, but it had one eye. Blinded in one eye. It was truly the best horse I ever had. It wasn’t a very quick horse. You’re running a horse at a gallop. You call it a “short lope” if you’re running it easy, a “long lope” if you’re running it hard. That horse could run at that short lope for hours. It just seemed not to tire. And it was a great riding horse, in terms of being easy to catch. It had a good disposition toward riders. Somewhere I have a picture of me on that horse. And I turned the good eye toward the camera.

The summer before my freshman year of college I decided to record my grandfather’s life story. Somehow, I convinced my parents that I should do this in lieu of getting a job. Wasn’t this the most important job, really, I said. So in-between afternoons at the pool, in about eight two-to-three hour sessions he roughly mapped out his then 84 years for me. This was a life that I felt I knew so well, but a life that I really knew only of its most recent 18 trips around the sun – the circumventions that we had made together.

For most all of my life I can recall my family urging my grandfather to write down his stories. Typically, this would occur after Grandpa told a particularly humorous anecdote, an episode previously untold, an adventure of youth, war, family, Arkansas, or Oklahoma. Without fail, these stories would begin as Grandpa always begins, interjecting the related or unrelated conversation with the word “incidentally.” At this point, usually, the rest of the family members look at each other with sideways, half-hidden smiles, all knowing that anything can follow. It is a marker of narrative as familiar to me as “In the beginning” is to Christians.

It is entirely fitting, since incidents they are. His history, his story, his family story, his state’s story, is a series of incidents. I grew up assuming all people of grandparent age tell stories of themselves. I grew up knowing much about my lineage, about those people that I didn’t know. Piety and Blaine, Michael and Mary, Pleasant Houston, Big Daddy – family members came to exist as characters in this Grandpa Book that he read to me one page at a time, slowly, dramatically. However, as I encountered other families, I began to realize that I come from a storytelling people, a group that feels a need to historicize itself, even if only to itself – perhaps, to immortalize itself this way.

My grandfather’s grandfather wrote letters that reveal his strong, commanding, sometimes harsh and dominating nature. My grandfather’s father delivered letters and news over muddy roads as a rural mail carrier. My grandfather, who reads the entire Wall Street Journal every day, places this profession and its importance central to his father’s story:

My father began to carry the mail as a rural mail carrier when he was 21 years old. That was in 1905. He lived in Jerusalem, Arkansas at the time. My grandmother and grandfather Spears had separated years before and they had divorced in 1895, I believe. Unheard of. That’s a whole other story. I think the mail route – it encompassed Appleton and Jerusalem – was 26 miles long, something like that. No graded roads, just trails for roads. No bridges across the streams. It would take the whole day to deliver the mail. Six days a week. Rode horseback the first couple of years and then he said that even though he was young it was killing him and the horse, and so he began to then use a two-wheel cart. He said his horses would not last after a year or so. You would have two horses, one used one day, the other the next, but still it was so grueling on them. The horse would lie down and die. After a couple of years he switched to mules. You can’t kill a mule. It won’t let you kill it. There’s a picture of a team of mules; he’s got a robe across his knees and so forth. Clearly there’s snow on everything; it’s a winter day.

My grandfather’s sister wrote an autobiography, which would go unread except by herself and her most disciplined family members. My father sifts through documents in a never-ending genealogical search for family roots. The folders in his bedside cabinet grow thick with copies of birth certificates and notes with remote cities written and linked with family names written over with alternate spellings. He discovered that my mother’s people include a Russian executioner. We promptly removed all the sharp objects from our home.

Perhaps this need to tell, to share, to remember is why I decided to interview my grandfather that summer before I went to college. Because I, too, am a Spears. Now, five years after the grandpa sessions, I’m immersed in the task of transcribing the hours of audio files. The process is figuratively and, strangely, physically circular. Rehearing stories that I have heard only once before and not thought of since, I experience déjà vu, suddenly connected to my five-year younger self. In this trance, I sit at my laptop, listening to Grandpa’s old-time movie star baritone voice though ear buds while typing into a Word document. It’s a weird sort of call-and-respond procedure. It feels like a traceable pulse. Sound enters ears and travels through brain, signaling nerves that move muscles that press keys, that spell words, that my eyes then see and read. It’s a total body circuit, completely immersive.

The story is circular too. It hits back upon itself every so often. Naturally, patterns emerge when you lay out a life. Grandpa seems concerned with creating a timeline. I am more concerned with the stories that he thinks mean nothing – the everyday incidents; the small history. In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy creates the landscape of French-invaded Russia out of paper-mache-like layering of episodic anecdotes. History is a practice of calculus that divides time into smaller and smaller parts. “Human science fragments everything in order to understand it,” he writes. Incidents carry the whole meaning, and, in my grandfather’s case, often incidents with horses:

On the farm one time Richard [his son] was riding a horse and it made a sudden turn and the saddle slipped and Richard fell off but the saddle turned and went right under the horse’s belly. Scared that horse to death! We had a corral at that point and I said, “Richard, you’ve got to get back on that horse.” But he wouldn’t get back on. I was tired, so I was, “I’ll ride the horse.” So we got it back in the corral. It was a strong quarter horse type. I put the saddle back on, and the horse let me get on, but it wouldn’t move. It just stood there with its legs braced. So I pulled back on the reins the horse reared up and fell back. I had the good sense to get out of the saddle, but I couldn’t clear myself from the horse. So the horse and I are both on the ground. I was sort of under the horse, and the horse – when a horse gets up it puts its front feet on the ground and the back end comes up next – it had a hoof on both sides of my chest here. One hoof went off of me this way and one hoof went off that way. I thought I had died! The sternum right here is flexible. Thank goodness it didn’t break. But I really thought I had been killed. My goodness. The horse was scared to death, of course. He moves two steps away and just stops. I looked at the horse. Fortunately, it didn’t have shoes on. For about three weeks I was so sore I couldn’t laugh. I couldn’t talk. I could talk, but I couldn’t do anything except suffer. So I’ve been stepped on by a horse. Just one incident, one incident. I’ve been really – I grew up on a horse, around horses all the time, but that one thing made me realize. I’ve been lucky.

Turn the good eye to the camera. Get back on the horse. We make a small history.

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