Becoming my father’s son
I came up a product of the ‘70s and ‘80s in a Catholic home. This meant that by the age of 10, I had already had my first experience with alcohol, tried cigarettes, and I knew enough off color jokes to have a lengthy career as a stand-up comedian. I was a smart-ass in those days, even more than I am now.
I was at the age when I was beginning to take an interest in my heritage, so I listened at every opportunity to the stories my parents would tell about my grandparents and when they were growing up.
My parents came from small towns in rural Nebraska —places where the high schools offered rodeo as a team sport. Dad told us that by the time he had gotten into high school he had the reputation of being quite the troublemaker. When people saw him in town with his friends they would say, “Here comes that damned Ellis kid again.”
Pop, much to my mother’s chagrin, would often tell of how he, my uncles and his friends would get into trouble for some of the crazy things they did as kids. Every summer we would go and visit my grandparents and all the family would be there. Stories were told after every meal, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the embarrassing.
One event happened when my uncle was still very young. My grandfather worked for the county road crew, and was heading out for work one morning. In an effort to help him my naive uncle filled his gas tank, not with gas, but with sand.
My grandfather came into the house frustrated that his pickup truck wouldn’t start exclaimed, “There’s sand in my damned gas tank!” My uncle, not knowing what he had done was wrong, shouted out that he had done it.
Another time, Dad told me about a time when he, his brother and sister were young and getting ready for a Halloween social. Dad was dressed as a civil war union cavalry officer and his outfit came complete with a fake gun and rubber sword. My grandmother was trying to get them to finish up, and Dad said something smart, which got laughs from everyone except my grandmother. Incensed, she grabbed the rubber sword and beat them all soundly.
My dad and uncle also worked with my grandfather as ranch-hands. Many of the ranches of the Sand Hills area of northern Nebraska had no ponds, lakes or above ground water sources, so wells had to be drilled into the ground to tap into underground sources. Water would be pumped out via use of a windmill mounted on a tower, and would empty into a large metal tank at the towers base.
Uncle Randy told me a story about a day when they were building one of the water tanks and a curious baby antelope approached. An interesting fact about antelopes is that they smell bad, especially when distressed or after exertion. Knowing this, my dad and uncle hid in the tank until the unsuspecting animal was within arms reach.
They grabbed the poor unwary beast by the antlers and wrestled it to the ground. The baby antelope by this time was highly distressed and smelling foul. My dad and uncle decided it would be funny to put the animal into a co-worker’s pickup truck and let it run around inside to musk up the cab, and so they did.
These and many more pranks were relayed to me anytime we visited my grandparents. To an impressionable 10-year-old boy these were gold they let me know my Dad wasn’t always the stiff I took him for. I vowed to take up his mantle, like Zorro or the Phantom I would take up my fathers quest to become that damned Ellis kid!