"The Gypsies are here! Stay in the house," my mother ordered.
I was at my grandparent's small farmhouse in the tiny burgh of Lyman, South Dakota. Lyman was located just off old Highway 16, the main thoroughfare from Sioux Falls to the Black Hills. The date was sometime in the early 1950s. Lyman's population had dwindled to a few dozen people, but Eimer's gas and grocery store was still doing a brisk business selling their homemade ice cream.
A memory from those good old days was when the Gypsies came into my world. I remember peeking out the window watching Grandpa negotiate with an elder gentleman who was most likely the leader of the band. Two live chickens were sold, traded or given away. I also remember there was disagreement amongst the family as to whether we should have simply run them off.
My mother was one of life's more tolerant individuals, but she was scared to death of the Gypsies. I grew up believing that Gypsies were thieves who stole everything, including white babies.
Recently in Greece, a 5-year old white girl was taken from her dark-skinned parents because she "didn't look like she belonged to the family."
A few days later, embarrassing information surfaced that Greek authorities had acted on discrimination and profiling rather than facts. Unfortunately, Gypsies (Romanis) have long been the victims of prejudice. During WWII, much of the attention was given to the atrocities committed against the Jews (the worst case of genocide in modern western civilization) and the treatment of American POWs; both very legitimate issues. However, who among us has heard the tale of the ethnic cleansing of one million Gypsies by the Nazis?
Historically, Gypsies were people without a country. This was the natural outcome of living the life of traveling wanderers. I lived my Gypsy life in the early 1980s while travelling the Renaissance circuit. I sold handmade shoes and moccasins for our company, Beaver Tracks Bootery, which is still doing business today in Moose Lake, Minnesota. Many of the fellow artists and entertainers travelled and lived together in small campers in places like Nederland, Colorado, Kansas City, Scarborough Faire outside of Dallas, Nagadoches, Texas near Houston, and our best show in Shakopee, Minnesota.
Tony, the leader of a real band of Gypsies, provided the belly dancers at the festivals. They also had a real wooden-wheeled Gypsy wagon that they moved around the country on a flatbed trailer.
Ten years before meeting Tony's clan, I spent a couple days with some Gypsies who were travelling through Austria. I had just returned from a train trip on the Orient Express which took me through Albania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Greece to my final destination of Istanbul, Turkey. In Vienna, I met a couple Gypsy men who were in their mid-20s. I remember how cunning they were.
"We Gypsies work with our brains, not our hands," one of them stated.
I also remember their daring and courage. We were standing on a highway overpass about 50 feet above a raging river. On a dare, one of their clan climbed down the bridge structure to retrieve who knows what. All I remember is that it was a very dangerous act for a very small reward.
I also remember all the guys dressed in pressed slacks and shirts who could have easily been mistaken for door-to-door salesmen; and they all sported new watches. Only the women dressed like the hippies of that era.
They invited me to sleep at their camp that evening. However, after several glasses of beer and homemade wine, my mother's fears kicked in. I snuck off into the woods, my normal sleeping place while travelling throughout Europe that summer. I returned to their camp the next day and watched them pull up stakes. They were heading east to Romania where I had just been. Meanwhile, I was working my way west back to Amsterdam.
I left with the open invitation to "Come see us anytime. We are easy to find."
That was probably as true in Europe then as it was in the 1950s in South Dakota. Word traveled fast among the small towns and farms that "The Gypsies are coming!"
My ancestral history includes Great-great-grandfather Vit Fisher who had a dalliance with a Gypsy lady in Prussia. The family was disgraced and Vit was banished to America, bringing with him Romani blood to the Fisher clan. No longer travelling wanderers, there may be close to one million descendents of Romani heritage who have largely assimilated into American society.