May 22, 2024, 06:28AM

Grandpa Fred

Fred Ellis was as politically conservative as most native Nebraskans born in 1901, and yet always found ways to go against the grain of expectation.

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Let me tell you about my paternal grandfather, Fred Ellis, who died of heart failure in 1977 in a camper trailer parked on his front lawn. He was 76. All families have lore, and certain family members get more attention than others. Fred’s stories point him up as a cowboy archetype and idiosyncratic nonconformist. He was as politically conservative as most native Nebraskans born in 1901, and yet always found ways to go against the grain of expectation.

The first time my father took my mother to meet Fred, who had divorced my paternal grandmother and moved with second wife Monica from Casper, WY to Fresno, CA, she noticed a handgun lying on the Western-themed bar he’d constructed in his dining room. My mother, from a middle-class Catholic family from Oakland asked, “Is that real?” Fred picked up the gun and shot a hole through the ceiling, a hole that remained until the bungalow off main-drag Blackstone Avenue was finally sold.

Fred often ran afoul of governmental agency and civil authority. When he fell behind on his taxes (we don’t know if it was federal, state, or local) a persistent tax collector began knocking on his door. About the sixth time this timid-but-dogged public servant showed up in his tan summer suit, Fred answered the door naked. Bureaucrats are known for being unflappable, but the image of Grandpa Fred showing full frontal and saying, “You again?” would’ve been something else. I’m pretty sure that somehow the government got what was coming to it.

Fred was sitting on his front porch one autumn afternoon when a Black man approached. There were very few Blacks in Nebraska or Wyoming in Fred’s formative years. Even Fresno, in the 1950s, was no bastion of inclusion. The man asked Fred if he had any work, any work at all.

“No,” said Fred, “I don’t have any work, but you can have that car over there.” Fred had a jalopy parked on the street in front of the house. It didn’t run. The man who’d come seeking work wasn’t sure he’d heard Fred right. “You mean, you’re going to give me the car?”

“Yeah, it’s all yours.” Twenty minutes later the man’s family showed up, two strapping sons, a daughter and a wife. “I’ll be godamned if they didn’t push that thing all the way home,” Fred used to say with a smile of satisfaction.

Though he was slow to boil, it was never a good idea to rile up Fred’s righteous anger. Once while driving to Yosemite with the family, a road out of Merced that was then a two-lane juggernaut with cliffs on one side and the roaring Merced River on the other, a gang of motorcyclists began crowding the family car, harassing Fred, looking to pass. Fred pulled a handgun out of the glove box and opened fire, scattering his tormentors.

One sweltering Fresno afternoon, my father, his brother, Monica and Fred were sitting in the living room, no air conditioning, dripping sweat. Fred got up and turned on the heater. Nobody said anything, because they knew what he was doing.

I accompanied my parents when they drove south from the Bay Area to assist Monica with Fred’s funeral arrangements. Monica told my father to take any remembrance of Fred that he wanted. Dad took a full grizzly skin, complete with taxidermized head, that had hung on the living room wall since Fred shot the bear in the woods around Casper Mountain. The skin inevitably rotted, but Dad preserved the head, and I took it when my father died. I keep it in the basement, and every time I see those fiery glass eyes, the protruded tongue, the bared fangs, I think of my grandfather.


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