Chapter 1: THE OSAGE WAR SHIELD
1945. That’s the year we sat glued to our radios as announcers told about the surrender of Germany and Japan. World War II was over! But me, I’ll always remember 1945 as the year it looked like Papa might go to jail and I almost had my head taken off. But I guess I need to start at the beginning.
It was Monday, September 3: two and a half weeks after Japan had surrendered. The town had gone crazy for a while, but things had settled down some by the time school started.
I was in the gymnasium with several hundred kids and teachers—all twelve grades in one assembly. I spotted Mama up front with her first graders. I thought maybe I saw Papa peek in a side door.
Early September in Oklahoma was soggy hot. Mama said, “Horses sweat, men perspire, and women glow.” There was a lot of perspiring and glowing going on in that gymnasium—and even some heavy-duty sweating.
I wasn’t excited about school starting. I was at a new school and had no friends. Papa always thought the grass was greener on the other side of the county line. So my family had moved almost every year since I was born. I was always the new kid.
But what made it worse that year was that I didn’t get any new clothes for school. Around me, girls had new dresses, guys had new shirts and pants, and ’most everyone had squeaky-new shoes. But not me. The war effort had rationed everyone to three new pairs of shoes a year, but hard times had rationed me to none. Mama quoted, “Be content with such things as ye have,” but contentment faced a rocky, uphill climb.
Some kids were sneaking looks behind us. I looked back. A big man with a big head and a bigger frown stood behind us. I wasn’t sure who he was, but I didn’t want to call attention to myself. I tucked my scuffed, outgrown shoes under the front rung of my folding chair, scrunched down in my seat, and tried to look invisible.
There was a stage on one side of the auditorium/gym where we were sitting. We said the pledge of allegiance and then a little man in a suit went up on the stage. He had slicked-down hair, an over-sized nose, and a poochy little tummy. He signaled for us to be quiet.
“Good morning, boys and girls,” he said. “I’m Superintendent Jenkins. Before we start, let’s give thanks that the war is over. And let’s pray that our troops will be home by Christmas.” He bowed his head. They prayed in school back then. Out loud. Not just kids praying to themselves before they took a test.
The superintendent continued, “Welcome to a new school year at Red Eagle. We especially want to welcome our new students.”
He looked over the crowd like he was looking for someone. “We are privileged to have a new student who, though still young, has made something of a name for himself academically . . . .”
What? Surely Mama hadn’t bragged to the superintendent! Surely she wouldn’t do that!
“. . . During the last school year, this young man scored 99% on the state-wide test given to all sixth graders . . . .”
She did! She blabbed! I glanced at Mom. She had an ear-to-ear smile. I prayed for a hole to open up and swallow me. But the Lord gave me a “No” answer. Mama says those are good for me.
“. . . so I am proud to introduce to you Henry B. Rosser. Henry, wherever you are, would you please stand up?”
Trapped! Blown out of the water! Sunk! No place to hide!
My intention was to set a world record for the shortest stand-up in history. I tried to jump to my feet. One of my tucked-under feet cleared the rung on the folding chair but the other didn’t. I stumbled and grabbed at the chair for balance . . . which made it start folding up . . . which made me lunge for it . . . which made it collapse with me on top of it.
My chair whacked the feet of a very large girl sitting behind me, and my head landed in her lap. I yelled and she screamed. If she’d had a big rock, I’d be dead right now.
Laughter started from the pile-up and spread to the gymnasium walls. Two guys on my row were rolling in the aisles. One was a snappy dresser—new slacks and loafers—while the other looked scruffy. They evidently thought I was the funniest thing since the Keystone Kops.
I struggled to my feet, fought the double-dealing chair to a draw, and sat down. I glanced at Mama. She glared at students as if to say, “Haven’t you seen anyone have an accident before?” Then she looked at me with her poor-baby-I-need-to-comfort-you look.
I caught a glimpse of the big man behind us. His eyes were narrowed. Whoever he was, ten minutes at school and I was already on his bad side!
The superintendent quieted the unruly mob—sort of. Snickers kept erupting here and there in the crowd. But he was able to go on with the opening assembly.
He signaled to one side of the stage and got the attention of a guy on the curtain rope. The front curtain opened with a scre-e-e-ech. In the middle of the stage was a pole with an old Indian shield hanging on it. Beside the shield sat a kid with a drum. On each side stood cheerleaders. The kid began to beat on the drum.
Suddenly, a blood-curdling cry came from the back of the room. “YO HAY! AH HEY YAH HO! YIP YIP YIP!” I jumped a foot off my chair, and it skittered beneath me. I could feel the glare from the girl behind me. I grabbed the chair before it dumped me again.
An Indian kid with braids came shuffling and dancing down the aisle to the stage. He had on a red shirt, black trousers, moccasins—lots of beadwork. He had a tomahawk in one hand and a spear in the other. Something red and black and spiky grew out of the top of his head. In the middle of the spikiness was a big feather.
The superintendent made a dramatic gesture toward the kid. “The Red Eagle warrior!” Lots of applause. A gesture toward the shield on the pole. “And the Osage war shield!” Pretty good applause. “Used as a model for the flag of Oklahoma!” Scattered applause—with muffled groans. They had heard it all before.
But I hadn’t. Normally, I would have listened up because I loved to learn new things. But I was scrunched down in my chair again, feeling sorry for myself. From time to time, Snappy Dresser pointed at me, whispered to Scruffy, and both giggled. Really. Like a couple of girls.
Anyway, all I heard of Mr. Jenkins’s speech on the shield was bits and pieces.
“. . . made of buffalo skin . . . .”
“. . . more than fifty years old . . . .”
“. . . belonged to Chief Red Eagle . . . .”
“. . . used as a model by Mrs. George Fluke when she designed our state flag . . . .”
“. . . offered $500.00 by a museum in Tulsa, but we turned them down! . . .”
It was the Osage war shield . . . the famous Osage war shield . . . the shield that would make big trouble for Papa.