Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: He Just Called Him Grandpa
I used to travel to horse shows with Tom Eliason, sharing the driving and storytelling along the way. Tom did a lot of judging, and I always learned a lot about horse confirmation and performance when I traveled with him. One trip was to Medicine Hat, Alberta, by way of shows in Belgrade and Helena, Montana, with a show at Sidney, Montana on the way home. We soaked in the scenery of Montana, asking ourselves why we lived on the prairies of South Dakota when we could live in the mountains of Montana. We agreed that we could live anywhere, but it was family that kept us rooted in South Dakota.
We visited the Capitol in Helena, admiring all the Charlie Russell original paintings hanging on the walls, then drove to Great Falls, spending an afternoon at Charlie Russell’s home and studio. Tom bought two books of stories written by Charlie, and as I drove towards Medicine Hat, he read those stories to me, or at least tried to, between fits of laughter. Tom loved a good story, and Charlie told some great ones.
Medicine Hat’s show was a big one, covering two days and going well into the nights. I enjoyed the first day and night, watching the different events, but my job was to sleep during the second day so that I could drive that night after the show while Tom slept. We had to be in Sidney early the next morning, and it was going to be a five hundred mile drive. We left Medicine Hat around nine that evening, and Tom fell asleep before we were ten miles down the road. The next six hours were the darkest six hours I think I ever experienced. There wasn’t a light, town or farm until we were close to Moose Jaw and the sky started to lighten in the east. The ditches were full of cars, pickups and campers where people had just pulled off to sleep.
As I sat in the stands that first day in Medicine Hat, I heard the announcer call out the next contestant, “Roy Heintz.” I strained to see Roy as he rode into the arena. He was dark complected, with black hair, and could have been my uncle Willmer’s twin. I caught up with him after he had run his pattern and explained who I was and where I was from. He didn’t seem too interested until I mentioned South Dakota. He said he had met a lot of Heintzs he wasn’t related to, mostly from Washington State, but never any from South Dakota. He said that is where his grandpa had come from. By now I was sure I had discovered a long lost relative, and asked Roy what his grandfather’s name was. He paused, then said “I don’t know. We just called him grandpa.” Did he know anything about his grandpa’s family? No. Did his parents ever talk about grandpa? No. I looked at him, wondering how could he not have known anything about his family’s history? How could he not be curious about his South Dakota heritage? I got Roy’s address and told him I would send him some Heintz family history, hoping it would interest him enough to try and find a connection to his grandpa. I wrote to him several times, but never heard from him. I did research on my end, hoping to find a connection, but never did. That disappointed me, but the fact that Roy didn’t seem to care is what really mystified me. It also brought me back to the conversation Tom and I had about family and the roots we develop. The need to know our heritage seems to be gaining importance today, with DNA kits being sold on TV and genealogy research becoming a favorite pastime for many. Where we came from helps us understand who we are today. I never knew my Grandpa Heintz, and barely knew my Grandpa Bohannon, and there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t regret that. To know about their lives and families would have been a treasure for me. It makes me sad that Roy, who I am sure loved his grandfather, never mined the family treasure of memories his grandfather held, and could only remember they “called him grandpa”.
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Earl cartoon by Big Dry Syndicate for the Sept. 18, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News