You Are What You Eat

Grandpas may be some of the oddest creatures on the planet. Take mine, for instance. Grandpappy Vance was the kind of person that you couldn’t ever really be sure that what he was telling you was one hundred percent true or not, but his yarns were entertaining none the less. My brother and I spent many an hour snuggled up in our sleeping bags by the fire while our beloved grandfather sat in his overstuffed easy chair and told us of a life of adventure that there was no way looking back on it now could have been even close to the truth. I have heard it said though that the fun is in the journey, not the destination and I hold that maxim dear to my heart. Grandpappy’s journey through life held more excitement to me than my own destination ever could.

By the time that I was ten or eleven years old my only brother and I had heard of wars won by the heroics of men, lives lost by those same men’s stupidity, loves won by valor and daring, and the heart of the fairest lady lost by what he said was “a bonehead play”. The old man refused to elaborate on that one, so I believe that it held the most truth of anything that he told us.

It is a sad fact of life that we all succumb to the effects of time and circumstance upon our bodies and eventually life becomes a battle each day that the alarm clock rings and we struggle to face our mortality. Thomas Evans Vance was at the place in his life that he was losing that daily war, and worse than that, he had capitulated and was looking to put his house in order. Neither my brother nor I knew anything of my grandpa’s surrender, but the light had gone out of his eyes by the time that my twelfth birthday came around.  

I have to think that the only thing keeping him going then was that he still had a few more important details to share with us, and that was the only thing keeping him going. The night that changed my life forever the three of us had taken our customary places in the comfortable living room and we two young lads were awaiting another in a long line of entertaining tales. There was something different about Grandpappy that night. As he sat there staring into the fire I could see the flames bouncing off a sheen that had not witnessed in his normally lively green eyes. I realized that he was crying softly and had completely forgotten that his grandsons were there awaiting his latest speech.

“I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. I was out in the barn yonder working on that old Model A that we ride around in when that government man came up the drive. I knew right away what he had for me, and my first instinct was to just ease back inside that old barn and wait for him to leave. Instead, I stood there in that sun with that telegram from the War Department in my hand and my old spanner in the other. I didn’t need to read it, and I never did. I knew in my gut that my only boy was dead and I cursed what and whoever I thought would make me feel better; God, the government, Hitler and his band of halfwit Jerrys, but I finally found the real culprit. He was standing with that telegram in his hand and that sun beating down on him. I was to blame that my boy was dead because I hadn’t done more to prevent it. I have held that guilt in my heart, and every time that I look at you boys I see him just like he was at your age. Before I go I must tell you boys that I am sorry for what I took from you by my foolishness,” he said, wiping the tears away from his weather worn face.

There was nothing that I could say in reply to his confession, and I was doing my best to fight back the lump that had formed in my throat. Today, I wish that I had said more to him, and that I wished that I had known what I could have said to make the morose old man feel better, but I didn’t have the answer back then, and I still don’t to this day. The single thing that pains me the most in life is that the man that I came to love and respect more than any other went to his grave not knowing whether I had forgiven him for what he reckoned was the worst sin that a father could commit against his son. Of course, there was not one percent of my soul that blamed him for my father being absent in my life. Things happen  that is a result of choices made, and  my father had volunteered for the Army just like all of the rest of the other boys that never came back home. If anything, I held a grudge against my dad for loving his country more than he  had loved me, but even that is not something that I truly mean.

“Well, let’s put this pity party away and get on to some much more serious business,” Grandpappy said, with the trademark twinkle returning to him.

“Here, you boys take this,” he said as he fished deep into the drawer of the cigar stand that stood next to his chair.

A variety of items rifled from the drawer until he grabbed hold of what looked to be an ancient looking leather pouch. Truth be told, even though I had been warned never to look into that drawer by our mother, I had already laid eyes upon that particular artifact, but had not been interested in what was inside. Instead, I had borrowed the stubby end of a cigar and had done with it what comes naturally to an eight year old.

“Now take this and chew it real slowly. You don’t need more than a itsy bite to feel it, so don’t go wolfing it down,” my grandfather warned.

I took his offering in my and hand and looked at it intently. Although the darkness made it harder to see, I could tell that it was a piece of what looked to be beef jerky. It was sanguine and wrinkled and reminded me a lot of the prunes that Mom had made us eat when we could not take a proper bowel movement. Grandpappy saw our apprehension at placing such a thing in our mouths, so he made the universal sign for eating by opening his maw and pointing inside with a crooked finger. I apprehensively took the smallest nibble, and from the second on my world changed.

I was expecting the salty, gamy flavor that I had been used to when consuming smoked meats, but I have never been more wrong about anything in my life. My taste buds exploded with every sensation known to that part of my body, and there was a euphoria that gripped me tightly and wouldn’t let go. I imagined that I could feel every single living cell in my body and that they all surged to life upon my imbibing just the tiniest bit of that substance. For a second I thought that grandpa had given us some sort of drug that Mom had warned us not to touch, but I could never imagine him giving two young boys something so dangerous, so I had to dismiss that theory.

“The effect will wear off in just a minute. Just sit back and enjoy it while I tell you where it came from. This is perhaps the rarest substance known to man, mostly because no one else in the world knows that it exists. Well, I won’t say no one, but let’s just say that no human knows about it,” he said cryptically.

“I know I have told you boys some pretty good yarns over the years, but you need to understand that there is not a word of what I am about to tell you that is not absolutely true, cross my heart, and my eyes, and whatever else I have to cross. I guess I should start at the beginning. Way back, more years ago than I care to remember I was brought up on this very ground. My daddy was a mule breeder back in those days and we didn’t have much in the way of your creature comforts like we do today. Not to say that we really missed them any because it’s hard to miss something you never had. All through my growing up years I knew one thing for sure and that was that I hated the very sight of mules. I broke my back feeding and cleaning up after those God forsaken creatures and I sure wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life doing that,” he said, nodding his head in affirmation.

“When I got old enough to think that I knew better than daddy I threw my knapsack across my back, shook my father’s hand, kissed momma and the other kids good bye, and lit out on my own. I drifted from one town to another doing odd jobs along the way. I met a lot of good folks and some who weren’t so good, but I was bound to see the Pacific for some reason. Well after a good six months of kicking around I made enough to buy a train ticket to old Frisco ,and soon enough I was stepping off the train into the biggest city that I had ever seen. Even back in those days it was grand and exciting, especially for a hayseed like me,” he snickered.

“I can still remember how that sun had beat me up on that train ride across Nevada and into California, and I can say that I was in dire need of a good beak wetting. Instead of spending my first minutes looking for suitable lodging or getting a lead on a job, I headed straight for a tavern. There just happened to be such a thing just off of the wharf, and even though I wasn’t much a man back then, I sauntered in and ordered up a pint of beer. To my surprise, the man behind the bar was just as nice as he could be, and within seconds, I had half of my mug drained. He said that I looked like I was new to the area and that the next round was on him. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I swigged down that one as well. The barkeep suggested that I take a seat against the wall there and he would bring me another round. I thought that he was downright hospitable and I took him up on the offer. Instead of one round there were four beers on the platter that he brought, and I assured that he was in a habit of treating all of the new arrivals thusly,” Grandpappy said jovially.

“After that many drinks, and me being none too big of a boy back in those days, I can tell you that the world was looking a little bit wavy when I felt my chair tipping backward. I tried to jump up but found that my shoelaces had been tied to the wooden legs and I couldn’t work them free. So back I go through what must have been a secret panel in the wall behind me, and I can still remember freefalling for what seemed a coon’s age. Last thing that I recall is someone putting a bag over my head before I could get a good look at them. They must have chloroform of something on that sack because the next thing I knew I woke up in a very strange place,” the old man said earnestly.

“It’s hard to believe, but I was in the hold of a ship, and almost immediately after I came to my head started to spin, and soon after I was upchucking onto the wooden floor of the ship. Someone up above must have heard me and the hatch up there opened and a voice from above told me to climb up the rickety looking ladder that led up to whoever it was that was yelling at me. I learned soon enough that those free beers that I had so greedily partaken of the night before were not at all free since I had been what they called shanghaied. I’m not going to tell you about the deplorable men on that vessel or the disgusting work that they made us do, mostly because I don’t want to remember what had been maybe the worst three years of my life,” grandpa said glumly.

“Once we had the boat all full with whale oil we headed in to port. When I spied land again after so long at sea I cannot convey to you the feeling that a lubber like me had upon seeing dry ground. I was so overcome that, as the ship got closer to the docks, I was determined to leave that life behind me as soon as possible. I had been told that I would receive what would be a rather sizable sum of money when the captain settled up the accounts, but I was not going to wait around for it. Unbelievably, many of the men on that devil’s boat had been forced into that life and had actually stayed at it, but I was certainly not going to be one of them,” he said with a grim look on his face.

“No one could grab hold of me before I went over the side, splashing down in that cold water and swimming madly for the shore. I didn’t know, nor did I care, what port I had stumbled into. It could have been Singapore or China, but all I knew was that I was free and I was not looking back. I felt like a drowned rat as I struggled the couple of hundred yards to the docks, grabbed hold of a ladder hanging down close to the water line and pulled myself up. I stumbled through the streets with all of the passersby giving me strange looks since I was soaked to the skin and must have looked a mess. I worked up the courage to ask a woman with a kind face which city I happened to be in and she told me that I had landed in Portland, Oregon. I had just gotten my wish to swim in the Pacific, but it certainly wasn’t the way I had envisioned it back in Indiana,” he snorted.

“Long story short, after wandering around for a couple of days and sleeping in a couple of back alleys, I got me a job working the timber. I know it wasn’t much of a step up from whaling, but at least it was my choice and I had cut many a hardwood tree back home and I at least knew some of what I was doing. I don’t know if it was the fear of failing or me just remembering how much I had hated the three years previous employment, but I outworked some of the toughest roughnecks that ever stepped foot on this planet. By the end of the year I had been promoted to foreman and they even gave me a nice little cabin all to myself. It was the first time in a long time that a place felt like home and I was satisfied with my place in life,” granddad confessed.

“It wasn’t to last though, and I never could have guessed how my adventure would play out from there. We happened to be cutting timber one day and a storm front was coming in fast.  There was already a man sized blizzard attacking the higher elevations and the snowline was dropping rapidly, so I called work for the day and the boys went back to the bunkhouse to drink and fight like they usually did. It was my job to make sure all of the equipment was cared for, and it happens that one of my best saws was missing when I took the count. The snow was really coming down but I was so hot under the collar that I didn’t even notice as I stomped around the jobsite looking for that saw,” he said, rubbing his hands together absently.

“I left the clearing behind me and entered the woods when I saw movement to my right. Instinctively, I jumped behind a tree and then peered around the edge. There not fifty yards in front of me was a creature that I can only describe as a man-bear-ape hybrid. It was a good three feet taller than I am and twice as wide. The black fur that covered it from head to toe was bushier in places but I could see that it was incredibly muscular underneath. As I stood there and watched, I realized that the wind was in my face and I could smell a thick musk riding the breeze toward me. Whatever that thing was it was obvious that it was looking for something because it was tearing up boulders of any size and easily pushing them aside and looking underneath. It tore lose any low hanging limbs and angrily threw them away, and every second that it spent in its quest made the stinky ape thing hotter with rage,” he said, the story really warming up.

“I could feel the instant that the wind switched, and I felt as though I could be in real trouble if that thing caught my scent and turned on me. Before I could move its massive head jerked up from its tantrum and looked directly at my hiding place. Even from fifty yards I could feel its terrible gaze and I knew that any second it would charge me and the boys would find me in pieces when the snows melted. To my surprise, the monster let out a bone chilling cry of rage and alarm, turned away from me, and was in a full sprint within half a second of voicing his displeasure at my presence. Within two seconds it was gone,” he said breathlessly, the excitement palpable on his face and in his normally calm voice.

“My legs were wobbling badly as I turned back toward my cabin. I made it back to the spot that we were cutting earlier, and as I passed, I saw something shine from beneath a pile of boughs. Thinking how lucky I was to find the missing saw, I began to pull the limbs off of the pile. At first I didn’t notice what was beneath since it was perfectly still and blended perfectly into the pine needles that covered the forest floor. I simply thought that someone had piled up a bunch of leaf litter from some reason. Sure enough there was the double buck where one of the boneheads had left it, and I gave a bit of a whoop as I reached down to grab it. When it did the leaves to my left came to life as something rose from them and within half a second I was staring into eyes of a second man-bear-ape,” Grandpappy exclaimed.

“Well I just froze because I knew that he had me dead to rights. I wasn’t a man that prayed to God every night and I wasn’t about to do it in a pinch because I didn’t think it was fair, but I can tell you that I sure felt like giving it a try. Something exceedingly odd happened just a couple of seconds after I decided not to run. Instead of coming at me and tearing me limb from it looked at me with its deep brown eyes, sat back down, and began piling the limbs back on top of it. I figured that it had been hiding underneath that stack and something told me that I needed to put things back the way that I had found them when I had happened upon the scene. I gave a little shrug and started placing the pine boughs right back on top it, even adding a few more for good measure. After I finished I took the saw in one hand and began dragging it back to the cabin, the blizzard pressing in behind me,” grandpa said.

“Back there in front of the fire I could not stop thinking about the once in a lifetime scene that I had witnessed that day, and after the shock of it all had worn off I began to realize the truth of it all. I was reasonably sure that the big darker one had been looking for the smaller lighter furred one. I was pretty sure of that fact. I didn’t know why the one was looking for the other. Maybe they were man-bear-ape and wife, they had a fight, and she had run away for a bit of a mental health break. Maybe they were buddies that had a falling out. I had no idea as to the why, and frankly, as long as it didn’t happen again I was willing to forget the whole thing,” he admitted.

“As is the case in my crazy life, that would not remotely be the last time that I would see one of those things. After the weather broke, the men and I returned to the cut and got that timber off to market. I remember that it was a Friday night and the guys were slamming them pretty hard when I decided to leave the mess and go back to my cabin. I had gunned a couple of beers and I wasn’t exactly walking straight, but I made it home okay and crawled into bed dead tired and a bit tipsy. Sometime later that night I awoke from what I recall was some kind of odd dream that the ceiling was caving in on me. I sat up in bed and swung my feet over onto the floor only to feel a number of small stones littering the rug. My wondering turned to fear as I realized that a dark figure was standing there in the doorway before me. As soon as I looked up, it turned, and I could both hear and a feel its footfalls as it made its way into the front room. I heard the large wooden chair groan as it must have sat down in it,” granddad said, moving to the edge of his chair.

“I inched my way into the next room only to find that my hearing had not been playing tricks on me, and that the thing had poured itself into my favorite chair. I honestly was at a loss as to what to do next so I didn’t do anything, just stood there with what most have been a rather stupid look on my face. For a couple of minutes we just stood there across from each other, neither of us making a move. After what seemed like an eternity he spoke,” he said.

“”I’m sorry to have bothered you tonight, but what I have to say won’t wait. My family and I are in the greatest of peril and I have come to see if you will help us like you did before the snowstorm,” it said in a deep, bellowing, but otherwise friendly voice.”

“I was taken aback and didn’t know how to respond. Not only had a gigantic creature that I had never wanted to believe existed stationed itself in my living room, but it was also there speaking the Queen’s English and asking me for help. Not knowing how to reply, and feeling a bit weak in the knees, I made my way the chair opposite him and sat down,” grandpa said.

“”I would tell you my name, but you couldn’t understand it anyway so you can just call me Joe if you want to. The reason that I came here has to do with what you witnessed a few days past. I’m sure you won’t forget the creature that was tearing through the forest right before we met. Well he and his kind are not what you would call friendly. They are what you would call murderers and cannibals. Some time ago there was a great famine here and most of our natural food sources were very scarce. My family and I decided to move into this area from the north, which was a terrible mistake. Since they had no food the others began to hunt and eat us. Unfortunately for us, we are considered to be a delicacy to them and now they hunt us all of the time even though there is plenty of food about,” Joe said sadly.”

“We would just move away but we aren’t certain that would change anything. They are excellent trackers and they would just find us eventually. We must find a way to leave and not leave any sign of us behind. I was hoping that perhaps you could help us as you did before,” Joe said.”

“Well I sat back and gave it some thought. Despite the clumsy way that he had approached me I was beginning to like Joe, and I believed his story since I had seen that other black beast with my own eyes. and I doubt that anyone would want to tangle with his kind. Then right out of the blue the solution hit me. I could take the money that I had saved and I could buy a wagon and some supplies so that we could all go back to Indiana. Daddy had tons of acreage that he didn’t even use and they could easily live there. Those black demons would never find them halfway across the country, would they? Joe and I discussed the possibility of it all and decided that it would take a good deal of time to transport all his rather sizable family back East, but that it seemed like a logical thing to do,” the old man said.

“I still felt as though I needed some way to throw the big black boys off of the trail so I asked Joe for some hair clippings from he and his family and I made plaster casts of their feet. I made my way up north, stomped around in my casts, and left their hair all over the place thinking that it would keep the bad ones busy while we made our escape. For months Joe and I moved back and forth across the country until every last of his family was safe, and each time we came across I moved farther north with my diversionary tactics. Since none of my friend’s family had been attacked and eaten while we were gone, I figured it was working. We all breathed a sigh of relief when everyone was safe in Indiana and there was no sign that we had been followed,” Grandpappy said happily.

“One day I was busy taking care of the farm since my daddy had passed and it fell to me as the oldest to take his place. Joe would leave me a sign when he needed to speak to me and that evening I went deep into the woods to visit him. My heart broke when his daughter took me into his dwelling to see him. With just one look, I could tell that he was dying. My old friend beckoned me close and whispered in my ear,” he said, obviously upset.

““I am dying, my friend, and I need to ask one more favor of you before I go. I told you that our flesh was a delicacy to the dark fiends, but it also has other properties. If you eat it you will have an exceedingly long life and will be in perfect health. I am willing to give you this gift if you promise to continue the work that you have done for all of these years keeping the black devils from finding my family. They will not stop looking so we need your vigilance. I know it sounds strange, but I am offering one gift for another,” Joe whispered to me,” grandpa said.

“It took a bit of convincing by Joe and his family, but eventually I worked up the courage to partake of my friend and you have seen the effects of eating him for yourselves. Now, the reason that I told you this story is that I need your help. I have grown tired of this life and have decided that remainder of Joe’s gift will fall to you two, but only on the condition that you keep doing the work that I have done for the century and a half,” the old man confessed.

My brother and I looked at each other with matching looks of shock upon our faces, but with the first bite of that magical food, we knew that Grandpappy had told us the truth. We were sad to see our beloved grandfather leave this earth, but we have never gone back on the promise to keep Joe’s progeny safe. For the last fifty years, we have traveled the country leaving our subterfuge in state after state. Even though many foolish men have joined the hunt for our friends, we will stay a step ahead and make our grandfather proud.