Anthony sat on the narrow ledge of a rice terrace. He looked gloomily down on the thatched roofs of the huts in the tiny Asian village below. This was supposed to be the happiest vacation of his life, but it was turning out to be one of the saddest.
Grandfather was a hero who had hidden American soldiers in these mountains during World War II. He had kept one soldier alive with native medicines until he could be rescued. When the soldier tried to give him a silver watch, Grandfather had hurried away and returned with his twelve-year-old son—Anthony’s father.
“No watch,” he had said, tears finding salty paths down his cheeks. He thrust his young son in front of him. “Take boy. Make U.S. boy.” When the soldier looked puzzled, Grandfather repeated, “Make U.S. boy,” and put the boy’s hand into the soldier’s.
That was over thirty years ago. The soldier had managed to get Father to the United States, where he had gained his citizenship and a good education. But he longed to return to his homeland to visit Grandfather. On Anthony’s twelfth birthday, Father gave him a watch of his own and the exciting news that they would make the long-awaited journey to his homeland to spend a month with Grandfather.
Two days ago Anthony’s dream of meeting Grandfather had finally come true. But now it seemed that Grandfather wasn’t the man Anthony had been dreaming about at all. How could an old man with only one, blackish tooth be a hero? Why, if Grandfather could stand up straight, he still wouldn’t be as tall as Anthony!
Grandfather’s bones stuck out. His skin was as tough and wrinkled as an elephant’s. His bare feet were so wide that they looked almost like a duck’s. His pants were tied about his waist with a piece of twine, and the pockets had been torn off to patch holes.
How Anthony wanted to be back home! He didn’t like the hut he had to climb up to, to go to sleep. It was more like a playhouse than a real one. He didn’t like having to sleep on the hard wood floor, sandwiched between people who knew only a few words of English. He didn’t like eating rice for breakfast. He didn’t like eating from dishes “washed” with grass “rags.” He didn’t like everyone in the village pointing at Father and calling him “U.S. boy.” Most of all, he felt uncomfortable around the old man who was Grandfather.
“Anthony.” Father’s voice came from the direction of the village. “Grandfather and I are going to the cave where he hid the Americans. Do you want to come too?”
At last! Thought Anthony. Maybe there’ll be a little excitement.
It was a long walk to the cave. His feet were beginning to ache from following Grandfather and Father over the hundreds of terraces. Anthony’s sneakers didn’t curl around the terrace ledges as Grandfather’s bare feet did. Looking at his birthday watch, Anthony noticed that nearly two hours had passed since they had set off for the cave. Would they ever get there? Grandfather is probably lost, Anthony thought.
Suddenly pain shot through Anthony’s leg like lightning. He turned, screaming, and saw a snake slithering into a rice paddie. In the same instant, Grandfather’s knife whizzed past, slicing the snake’s head off.
Anthony’s leg was already throbbing, and dizziness sent him stumbling from the sturdy ledge to the oozy ground nearby. He heard Father and Grandfather jabbering to each other in that strange language. Then Father started to run—away from Anthony.
Anthony wailed in pain and terror as he twisted in the mud of the soggy terrace. “Father! Don’t leave me! Please! It hurts! Oh, it hurts! Don’t leave me!” But Father kept running.
Grandfather quickly retrieved his knife and wiped off the snake’s blood on a clump of grass. Opening a small bottle that had been attached to the twine around his waist, he poured a smelly liquid on the knife. Then he knelt and looked into Anthony’s eyes. “U.S. boy—stop cry!” he ordered. But Anthony continued to scream for Father as if he hadn’t heard.
Grandfather gripped Anthony’s shoulders tightly. “U.S. boy—stop cry!”
This time something in Grandfather’s tone pierced Anthony’s fear. He knew that Grandfather was right. He must stop crying and lie still so that Grandfather could help him. Clenching his teeth and fists against the pain, he choked back his tears and held very still.
Grandfather took off Anthony’s T-shirt and tied it firmly above the bite. Then he cut Anthony’s swollen leg with the knife and sucked out as much of the poison as he could, spitting blood and poison onto the ground. The pain made large tears spurt down Anthony’s face, but he bravely allowed Grandfather to do what had to be done.
When Grandfather finished, he carried Anthony to a dry spot and gathered grass and dirt clods to prop under his head. With another firm look, Grandfather commanded, “U.S. boy, stay! I get medicine.”
Anthony nodded feebly. He awoke as Grandfather patted a mixture of leaves and mud onto the wound. The mixture seemed to relieve the pain a little, and Anthony dozed off again. When he next awoke, Father and two other men were moving him onto a stretcher. As they traveled toward the village, Grandfather jabbered with the men. Several times Anthony heard him say, “U.S. boy” with tones of both concern and pride.
Over the next few days, all the villagers came to help Anthony recover. Several boys near his age showed him the games of their village and taught him a few words in their language. The girls brought him bananas and special mixtures of rice and vegetables. The women showed him how they wove beautiful pieces of cloth.
Grandfather bragged to the villagers about Anthony’s bravery and called him a hero. But Anthony knew who the real hero was.
Each day, Grandfather brought a small present that he had made and wrapped in a banana leaf. After the present was unwrapped, Grandfather gave Anthony a lesson on weaving small baskets or carving wood trinkets.
The day that Anthony no longer needed to rest, Grandfather gave him a knife in a beautiful, carved holder.
Anthony had a surprise of his own. “Close your eyes Grandfather.” Then he buckled his birthday watch onto Grandfather’s wrist. When Grandfather opened his eyes and Anthony saw the look of joy and pride on his face, Anthony knew that he had the best grandfather in the world.