A long time ago I had a friend from Kentucky. His great grandpa had seen Jesse James ride past. It was a family ritual he was lucky enough to be just born long enough ago for this very old man to do his party piece, the same way he’d told the story to his own son, and to his grandchildren and probably anybody else who would listen, the way men do.
The little boy was lead into the old man’s presence the same way other little boys had been for the past fifty years.
“Listen, great gran’pa’s gonna tell you ’bout the time he saw Jesse James…”
Like a lot of American heroes or maybe heroes anywhere, Jesse James had what might be called interpersonal relationship issues.
He was born in 1847 in Missouri and got pulled into the Civil War as a teenager. It wasn’t like the song. It wasn’t big battles and flags and sad bugles, but a gang of people who went after another gang of people, preferably on their own, or at least hopefully vastly outnumbered and taken by surprise. James was fifteen when that started. After the war he took the skills he had, which were mostly killing people, and used them to rob banks and trains. Eventually one of his gang members called Robert Ford did the sensible thing and blew a hole the size of a tea-cup through him while he was hanging a picture in a house he’d rented.
There were popular stories which had the James gang as latter-day Robin Hoods, but the people they robbed didn’t think so. The ones who survived, anyway. It was a time when there weren’t police, interstates, paved roads in Missouri, cars, indoor lavatories or pretty much anything else we have now.
So the little boy, like generations of little boys before him stood in awe at the old man’s knee while older men, his brothers and uncles who’d all heard the story at the same knee stood there and smirked, waiting to hear it again.
“Did I ever tell you ’bout the time I saw Jesse James? I was about as big as you are now when he rode past me on his horse, about as close as you’re standing. I could’ve reached out and touched him.”
And the little boy’s eyes went wide and the older boys and men nudged each other and winked and waited as the little boy said, the same way they’d said for half a century and more, “So what did you do, g’paw?”
And the old man paused and maybe looked around the rest of his audience, judging the pause even though it was a true story, before he thought the time was right to tell the little boy about outlaws and the people who weren’t before he said quietly:
“I hid in the ditch.”