Paul Prather: Reconciling my great-grandfather's secret isn't easy

Contributing ColumnistJune 6, 2014 

When he was a young man in the late 1800s, my great-grandfather, Lee Chestnut, got on the wrong side of the law. What crime he committed, I don't know.

But to avoid jail, he hopped a freight train out of southeastern Kentucky and fled to Montana, where he worked for another transplanted Kentuckian on a ranch near Bozeman.

My great-grandfather was an authentic cowboy.

Eventually, because his mother was ailing and there was no one else available to take care of her, Lee returned to Kentucky and settled in Pulaski County.

He married, purchased a farm. He built a new clapboard farmhouse to replace the farm's old log-and-plank cabin. My grandfather, Oscar, largely grew up in that newer house, and later so did my mom. My great-grandparents, grandparents and mother lived together under the same tin roof.

Lee died about the time my parents married in 1953. He was a yellow-dog Democrat. My dad's people were rabid Republicans. One wit in their community observed, "Alice married a Republican, and it killed Uncle Lee."

I heard that story from my mom, the Alice of the anecdote.

I heard many stories about Lee from her. She adored her grandfather. As he got old and his hands started trembling, she used to shave him.

When Mom was a kid, farmers always crowded into the county seat, Somerset, on Saturdays to shop, sell their wares and see movies.

Grandpa, as she called Lee, spent his Saturdays in drugstores. He loved patent medicines. He'd take them off the shelf one at a time, squint down his nose at their labels, go on to the next bottle, until he found something that looked promising.

He'd do this for hours on end, Mom said. By the end of the day he'd collect a sack full of remedies for his ailments, real or imagined.

Ida, his wife, often stayed home. When Lee came in carrying a bag bulging with pills, syrups and lotions, Ida would scowl and cry, "Good God a'mighty, Lee, what have you bought now!"

As he aged, he went nearly deaf. On Sundays at Oak Hill Baptist Church, he sat on the "mourner's bench" right beneath the pulpit, so he could hear.

If the minister rattled on too long, Lee would check his pocket watch, then reach up and, as the congregation watched, yank the tail of the preacher's frock coat to let him know it was quitting time.

Mom said that at night, just before Lee crawled into bed, she would hear him in his room, in the stillness of the house, asking God to protect "little Alice."

"That sweet old man," my mother would recall, her eyes moist. "Down on his knees by his bed, praying for me."

But I also learned another tale about my great-grandfather.

I was lying in the farmhouse's yard beneath a shady maple tree, next to my grandfather, Oscar, who I called Papa. I asked him what he knew about his dad's adventures in Montana.

When he was a boy himself, Papa said, Lee's favorite brother, Jack, had come to visit. That warm evening, Papa had been put to bed, and his father assumed he'd gone to sleep. Lee and Jack sat on the porch just outside Papa's open bedroom window, talking.

As Papa lay eavesdropping, Lee told Uncle Jack he'd done something awfully bad out West. He'd been riding his horse on the far reaches of the ranch where he worked. He'd happened upon a Blackfoot Indian stealing his boss's cattle.

He shot the Blackfoot down.

Then he rode back to camp and confided to his foreman. The foreman warned him to tell no one. Later that day, they buried the body, which was never found.

Lee said he was still sorry about that. He didn't understand why he'd shot the man. He'd give anything if he could take it back.

Papa never mentioned to his father that he'd overheard this confession; Lee went to his grave not knowing his son knew. Papa never even told my mother.

But he told me. Maybe he needed to unburden himself. He'd held the secret in for a half-century by then.

Afterward, I thought a lot about that story. Sometimes, Lee's youthful life of cowboying and gunfire seemed romantic, like an episode of Gunsmoke.

Other times, his killing of the Blackfoot was hard to reconcile. I held in my head conflicting images — the sweet old man who prayed each night for little Alice, the young delinquent who shot down a stranger.

That sweet old man carried a secret that stalked him.

As I became a man — thank God, I never killed anybody — I gradually understood that Lee was, as much as anything, a microcosm of humanity.

Nearly all of us soften as we age. Most of us find someone we love as tenderly as Lee loved his granddaughter. And many of us also live haunted, whether by a terrible wrong we once committed or a terrible wrong committed against us.

Paul Prather is the pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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