Grandpa would call my name in a booming voice, “Scott, come over here,” and with a strong grip, place a handful of coins in my palm. A nickel looked bigger than Grandma’s blue china dinner plate and had enough spending power to buy a full size candy bar, so a handful of change meant major league cash.
In a Columbia City Five and Dime store, a top shelf displayed a box with a cellophane window that housed two holstered, silver six-shooters with a cowboy bandana and canteen. Grandpa must have seen my fixed gaze. He pulled the twin irons off the shelf, and asked if I wanted them. I could not speak or move, but only stare in unparalleled wonder as Grandpa placed the treasured hardware in my hands.
Grandma made a matching cowboy outfit, and I felt like the two boys in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath staring in the candy case, “—not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.” Life for a six-year old cowpoke reached a glorious high noon. Instead of cattle, this cowboy herded turtles. Grandma wove nylon net around a coat hanger, and Grandpa tied it to a long piece of wood siding from the garage, and I had a terrapin catcher and spent the summer herding snapper, painted, and pancake turtles.
Grandma and Grandpa also had a full fridge with Neapolitan ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry in a single carton) and stacks of bottled cola in their single car garage, which confirmed what I already knew—they were rich.
The cowboy life on Tri-Lakes did not last long. Grandpa had a stroke soon after my self-appointed election as Big Cedar Lake Sheriff. He never recovered. I got to visit him only once in the hospital and heard the strange words, “Grandpa is sick,” and felt the confusion as he no longer talked or acted like Grandpa. Two years later, he passed from this life. For his funeral, I served as an altar boy with my cousins, Pat and Danny. I could not hold back the tears (still have that problem) and my oldest cousin, Pat, put his arm around me and said we would get through the mass together. We did.
How soon such hallowed memories fade with the artificial invincibility and self-absorbed wanderings of the teen years. Dad gave me Grandpa’s golf club woods (Driver, Brassie, and Spoon), and without contemplating the meaning, I slung them into my golf bag and occasionally pulled one out with friends to tee up for the novelty: “Guys, check out this old duffer club.” Two decades later, with the maturity of age to see the sacred in common things, I took the clubs to Bobick’s Golf Inc., whose owner was a middle/high school classmate, and he restored them back to their original glory. As a gift, I gave them back to my dad.
A few summers ago at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland, Grandpa’s clubs reappeared at the family cottage in a special golf rack my dad built to display them. Seeing the clubs made me smile as big as a 1960s kid receiving a handful of change.
Next to the clubs, my dad placed a thick portfolio filled with congratulatory letters to Grandpa from his co-workers for his retirement in 1967, along with pictures and other mementos. I meant to browse through this album, but at the cottage when extended family get together, which doesn’t happen often enough, the time fills up with lake activities, and I’ve never gotten around to exploring Grandpa’s tribute collection.
This past summer, after my brother and his family left the cottage (vacations together end too soon), I stayed behind to sand and stain the decks and found myself alone for the first time at the lake. One evening I pulled down Grandpa’s album and read every letter, studied his job training certificates, and examined pictures I had never seen before.
One photo looked straight out the of the “Carpe Diem” high school hallway scene in the movie, Dead Poet Society: “Seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” Grandpa graduated from Central Catholic High School in Fort Wayne in 1922, and at 6’ 6”, a huge height for that era, he played center for their championship basketball team. I could not stop flipping back to this picture. Six strong, proud youth staring into the flash with their “1922 CHAMPS” basketball in front of them and a lifetime before them.
Reading over forty letters from friends and co-workers and absorbing the relatively few, but poignant pictures, I became aware of how little I knew my grandpa. He financed my early cowboy career, but as a child, I only saw him old, and not the self-assured young man in this 1922 basketball picture. What was he like as a teenager? What was he like as the father to my dad? How did the confident young man in that basketball picture become Grandpa? I worked through the archival collection and wrote down three pages of questions to ask Dad. I didn’t put the album down until well after midnight.
I spent the next three days having cell phone conversations with my father.
“Dad, I looked through the album you put together for Grandpa. He played basketball? I have a lot of questions…” I never considered Grandpa athletic (what child does?), but he must have been. If he had aspirations for sports, the reality of the era ended those dreams. Few went to college. The majority looked for work. Grandpa was no different. In 1923, the year after high school graduation, the center for the Central Catholic basketball team took a job at Fort Wayne General Electric on Broadway Street where he worked until his retirement 44 years later.
I asked my dad, “Did Grandpa work anywhere else?”
“No. In those days, if you got a job with a good company, you stayed there for life. Good jobs were scarce.”
In 1929, Grandpa married Grandma and the same year he buried his father who could not cope with losing everything in the Stock Market Crash that ushered in the Great Depression. I knew some of these stories, but now I wanted to know more. What happened to the Central Catholic High School senior in the center of that basketball picture?
“Did Grandpa ever get laid off in the Depression years?”
“He worked loading steel. G.E. cut hours, but not jobs, and I don’t believe your grandpa was ever out of work.”
Ironically, the build up to the war finally ended the Great Depression.
“During the war years, your grandpa never had a day off.”
“What? Not any weekends?”
“Not the holidays?”
This stunned me. Grandpa worked at G.E. every day, seven days a week throughout the war.
“Everyone worked. On Christmas Day, G.E. worked a half-day.”
“You didn’t get to spend much time with him as a kid?”
“No. He was always working. He had to. The sacrifice was made by every family.” My father spoke with no hint of regret. Those years were not lost or wasted, but spent serving in a conflict that bonded families and American communities together by duty and allegiance.
My dad called it the war effort.
I knew the term, but now it became real.
“Everything was scarce. Oil, tires, gas…sugar, lard, butter. Everything was rationed. No one kept lights on at night.”
Grandma had a Victory Garden in the backyard of 3506 South Harrison Street. Most of the neighborhood had them, all part of the war effort. Grandma would never frost a cake with more than paper thin icing. Living through the depression and the war kept her from such wild extravagance.
I could not wrap my head around Grandpa never having a day off, and like my frequent flipping back to the basketball picture, I kept circling back to this in my conversations with Dad.
“Scott… good jobs were hard to come by…opportunities were limited…as a supervisor, Grandpa had to be there…always working…”
Dad also mentioned the repercussions for those who stayed behind and the ill feelings felt by some families who lost sons. Grandpa was in his late 30s during the war, and men like him ran these production plants, “but some men came back with injuries, missing limbs, and resentments toward those who stayed behind…”
The scorch of war burns far beyond the battlefield into unexpected places and can sear long after the last fire ceases.
“Everyone made sacrifices and it didn’t end after the war as shortages caused demands, and soon after came the Korean War where your Uncle Jim fought, and in time, Vietnam…”
“Did you ever have a family vacation?”
Dad was in 5th or 6th grade, and they rented a cottage on Sylvan Lake in Rome City. Dad laughed as he shared Grandpa getting sunburned when they spent an afternoon in a rowboat.
I didn’t know this. One week together? Only one? Yet, I knew Dad and Grandpa were close, and my dad reiterated this in our phone conversations. Grandpa couldn’t spend much time with his son, but he expressed love in other ways. I suppose my dad was like his father. He raised me with military authority, and yet, he threw his arm around me often for a bear crunch and never hesitated to say he loved me. As a teen, I shrugged off such gestures, but they registered within. In our three days of phone conversations while I stayed at the lake, Dad mentioned that Grandpa was a hugger. My father learned it from his father and passed it on to me. Our family hugs.
My dad had placed his first set of golf woods next to Grandpa’s on the rack at the lake cottage. I asked if they golfed together. “Maybe a half dozen times.” By the time Grandpa could afford such a luxury, my dad was raising his own family and trying to establish a career. Dad followed in his father’s footsteps. He spoke of Grandpa with clear respect and candid affection. He understood Grandpa had to work. The times he lived in called for it.
Each generation has its own battles, but some live through and stand up to extraordinary adversity. My childhood visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s became fond memories, but I was clueless of the costs. As an adult, I never considered being the future generation of their patriotic toil, the benefactor of their protective care. I reaped the benefits of their unseen labor.
My grandparents’ small bungalow home on Big Cedar Lake is gone. Their huge willow trees have fallen and disappeared. Central Catholic High School is torn down. My grandparents are no longer with us, and yet, Henry Ward Beecher, an eloquent orator of two centuries ago, preached, “When the sun goes below the horizon, he is not set; the heavens glow for a full hour after his departure. And when a great and good man sets, the sky of this world is luminous long after he is out of sight. Such a man cannot die out of this world. When he goes he leaves behind him much of himself. Being dead, he speaks.”
The young man in the 1922 Central Catholic basketball picture with his life before him still speaks. I appreciate him more now than the kid sitting on the dock in the cowboy outfit catching turtles. Marred by family tragedy in his 20s, plunged into the Great Depression in his early 30s only to enter World War in his late 30s, and a few years after V Day, to have his eldest son march as a combat soldier in the Korean War, my Grandpa fought the good fight. He retired in the height of Vietnam. I’ve heard that the only truly great men are those who have children that grow up and call them such. My grandpa serves as a great example for a grandson who has never had to make such sacrifices. The letters in his portfolio describe a good man. I hope to follow in his steps.
In those 1960s summers, I loved sleeping on my grandparents’ porch and waking up to the singing of the birds. I connect with the Bible verse in Song of Solomon, the time of the singing of the birds has come, which reminds me of those mornings, and at times, I can still hear and smell the breeze rustling through the willows in their yard. Now I can add to those memories of Grandma and Grandpa. I can add the conversations I have about them with their son.
In our last phone conversation, Dad and I decided the next time he visits Fort Wayne, we will stop at General Electric on Broadway Street, and explore what’s left of it. We may attempt to walk through Building 4-6, where Grandpa worked—a place that housed a thriving community of men and women who have disappeared, but whose unseen sacrifice allowed my generation to enjoy what we have and gave us the opportunity to spend time with those we love.
Old houses were scaffolding once
and work men whistling.
— T. E. Hulme
“There has never yet been a man in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.” –Teddy Roosevelt quote on Allen County Public Library main hallway wall