Frantic footfalls in the forest. A dirt trail. Trees, tall slender trees that didn’t offer much protection but provided plenty of obstacles. Heavy breathing and confusion. And panic. The runner, looking behind him, looking for the chasers, the pursuers. The catchers.

Maybe it was dusk with its gray skies and gray light. Maybe the beginning wisps of fog began to settle around, taking hold at the end of the day, beginning to erase its edges and details.

Running in the forest, he was fleeing the country after killing a game warden. With a pitchfork. Maybe it was Austria. Maybe it was my great-grandfather. The details are sketchy. All these decades later, only snippets, imagination and a handful of facts survive.

The act was this: killing a deer. Not just any deer, though: the king’s deer. And country-wide famine or not (and there was), you don’t kill the king’s deer. But he did. And now the game warden came to arrest him for it. Instead of the arrest, though, came the pitchfork.

So he made his way to England with the king’s men at his heels the entire way. If killing the king’s deer got you arrested, killing the king’s game warden… well, one can only imagine.

In England, he changed his name, borrowed a passport, and boarded a steamship bound for America, land of Amnesia, home of the Home Free.

He made his way to Pennsylvania, new life ahead, old crime behind. Let’s imagine him in Germantown. Same guttural language spoken by familiar-looking people, apple-cheeked with round faces.

Did he escape the king’s men or did they find him in this newly adopted country — filled, with the most part, of men just like him? Men without details.

Whatever the reason, he left Pennsylvania and made his way West, that storied and mythologized land of new beginnings, no questions asked, no answers given. In the West, everyone is from somewhere else — heading to somewhere else. We are, at the very least, a country on the move. On our way from what was to what is — without looking back.

It was in Montana that the landscape took on shades of familiarity. The jagged mountain peaks with their snowy-capped tops. The alpine quality to the air — dry, brisk, crisp and thin. Everywhere in America looks like somewhere else. Our own landscape is the world’s landscape: remarkably familiar everywhere you look.

Montana — land of outlaws, criminals and people who don’t want to be found. Even more than in Germantown, he fit right in.

Walking now. No more running. Just a walk into the mountains, maybe to shoot a deer — not for a starving family but still for food. It wouldn’t be an act of desperation and survival anymore. But always the act of shooting a deer would mirror that other act, the original one that put into motion the creation of his now American family. A whole future family who would never know his real story — hear from his own lips the tale of how he came to America.

Would he have ever expected the story to be known — in pieces and parts let alone in full detail replete with names, dates, and color of deer, type of gun, shape of pitchfork? Probably not. It was probably a story meant to be forgotten even as it was being lived.

2 thoughts on “The Making of an American

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