A GRANDFATHER STORY
Carl Knight with his great grandson, Derrick Gaffield
Times, to quote Dylan, are a'changin'. Believe me Bobby Zimmerman, only change is eternal, but oh, so difficult to accept. Change is as natural as breathing, or falling in love. Change can be minimal over a long period, or maximal, instantly. Things are very very different now, from before -- and the change happened in a moment I remember only if I stop everything else and listen to the sound of the wind in the trees, or a baby crying a long time ago.
I received these pictures in the mail today; four different poses. One of them is like a card. The words "For Grandpa" are neatly set in bold red on a sticker in the empty panel next to the picture of a baby girl, with her mouth kind of open and smiling. She's a darling. Is she really smiling? The tiny left hand is waving at me so I wave back. This new grandfather feels real proud. The glazed look in her eyes must be the flash. She looks a lot like her father Chris did when he was two or three months old, but I guess all blond-haired blue-eyed babies look very much alike. The little bow in her hair. Wait a minute, what hair? An elastic looking ribbon, about an inch wide, goes all around her head to hold the bow there, like a bandanna. It must be the style.
I'm staying in a big old two-story three family house--built at least a hundred years ago in the village of Susquehanna, PA, when it was a thriving railway stopover for passenger trains to and from New York City. This old house has a working fireplace in the kitchen, behind a coal-burning cooking range, and many bedrooms with their own washbasins and toilets. Sitting in a rocking chair on the back porch I can hear the screaming sounds of teenagers and their families riding on a Ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl and twisting bullet ride. It seems at least half the town's entire population is enjoying the carnival excitement of the hot summer weekend. The Bingo numbers are yelled out from the tent in the large lot between the shopping center and the fire house--"I-19, B-25." If it weren't for the leafage of the maple and the oak, I could see everything between the porch and the river as I write. Now I hear a thud as a ball hits a bullseye, scream, splash, and the pretty girl gets dunked in a big old tub, "Ohhhh," and then applause swells up the hill. The Susquehanna River flows about 30 miles from here up to Binghamton, New York, where it meets the Chenango River and winds down to Baltimore to empty into the Chesapeake Bay.
Just about a half mile from where we lived when I was a kid in Flint on Pettibone Street, Swartz Creek wound its way through Mr. Morley's farm. We were forbidden to go that far away from home, but we did; my step-brother Denny and me. After the hero rode off into the sunset of the Saturday matinee, we half fell out of our seats, ambled up the aisle to the lobby, threw open the imaginary swinging doors and strode "bull-legged" into the bright afternoon sunlight. Immediately, as we reached the curb, horses would just materialize under each of us and we then galloped all the way over to drive herd on Morley's cows. During the winter we would sled on the big hills down to the creek and watch for the lights to come on in the windows of the farm house. In December when those lights came on it was about 5:30. That gave us just enough time to be home for supper by 6:00, without getting cuffed on the side of the head by my step-father as we entered the back door of the two bedroom bungalow.
Now, I look up and I don't see those warning windows anymore. I see the moon in the first quarter. Right next to it, three planets, Venus, Mars and Jupiter hang in a tight little triangle, bright in the almost starless, dark blue sky. Those lights moving near the tree tops are fireflies, way at the top. Just beyond my immediate, well, aura, but before the sounds of the carnival, there's a stillness, a twilight stillness chased by approaching darkness. An owl sounds like its recorded on "Memorex." A tired Robin, tummy full, chirruping, faintly calls to its mate. The night sounds of crickets, and a neighbor's dog howls far, far away. Then out of this deepening twilight, a fluttering movement--sort of a moth, but much larger. In flight just off the porch it draws figure eights about the size of two VW buses--up and around and disappears. Then it returns, same kind of flight-path only displaced, and again the patterns overlap. When it gets closer I hear the high pitched sonar warning system of a bat. Then silence--it's gone now because it got too close. Too close. A bell rings at the bottom of the hill as someone wins the muscle man prize and another cheer comes up from the crowd. Where's my dog? She should be in this picture.
The summer mornings I spent with my grandfather when I was 10 or 12--those times in the kitchen, after he and Grandma moved north to Gladwin--are very warm and happy memories. Sleepy-eyed times saturated with the smell of frying bacon fat and very hot pancakes, real butter melting on the top of the stack and sweet maple syrup cascading down the sides. The husky smell of coffee aroused my spirit of adventure, but each time I tasted it, I promised myself never to do it again. How could anyone drink that steaming hot, chalky tasting stuff? Two of my great uncles, according to my grandfather, were lumberjacks and they didn't use spoons with their coffee. He said they stirred hot coffee with their thumbs. Then my grandpa used a spoon to stir his with milk--no sugar.
He always made the pancakes so thick and big I could eat only two. They were absolutely scrumptious! I remember the sweetly abundant texture of the Jiffy 'cakes slowly dissolving as I chewed, and moving easily down my throat into the morning's empty belly. Why didn't Grandma cook breakfast? Probably she was outside hanging up the wash, if she wasn't canning grape jelly, strawberry jam, peaches, sweet corn or dill pickles. Swiss chard, as they called it, was a romaine lettuce-like green vegetable that only grew in Grandma's garden. Lunch and supper were her act, which she performed better than anyone in the world. Her homemade noodles with beef almost melted in your mouth. Her apple pie only had one competitor--her oldest daughter, my mother.
My grandma died from complications of a hip operation she needed after she fell on her way to the bathroom. She was not supposed to walk by herself after a mentally debilitating cerebral hemorrhage less than a year after my oldest son was born. The last time I saw her alive, she thought he was me and kept calling him, "Richard Lee" as she called me when I first lived with them and she watched over me during the day while my mother worked.
Grandpa died ten years later of a prostate cancer that demolished his spinal column. Living and trying to find work in New York City while the desease ate away at his body, I sent him a letter just before he died that tried to tell him how much I would miss him. The truth is we had unfinished personal business together and I couldn't deal with it and him dying. I never felt that he or any of my family supported anything I wanted for myself after I left Michigan for art school in Chicago at 17. Because he was more like a father than my stepfather, I still bring his lack of belief in my future along with me occasionally, as old baggage. I was half afraid of making promises to him I couldn't keep. I wish now that I had the courage to be with him then. The last time I saw him, before his illness was diagnosed as terminal, he seemed only half the man that I remembered. Even then his back was starting to give way to the pain he suffered. My mother who stayed by him around the clock told me that as he died his body gradually collapsed into the shape of a twisted pretzel.
If my grandma was the absolute best cook in the world, then my grandpa was the best story teller. He had many, many stories. When my grandparents lived in Flint, they owned and operated the Country Market on South Fenton Road, just a few blocks from the Buick plant where my grandpa worked in the 1930s. Before I was five years old I remember the bakery next door. When he took me to the store with him, he said that I was always facinated by the neon signs in the hardware store window across the street. There was a story that me and my two younger stepbrothers, Denny and Daryl, begged him to tell us at least twice-a-week, even after he movd "up north." If he wasn't too tired and he never was, we'd gather around him on the floor, on the sofa, and between his legs. Like I said, he had other stories, but there was only one we always wanted to hear. He said it was a story only for boys--our story.
He was four years old when his parents moved to Riley district outside Gladwin. Very soon, he became friends with two boys about the same age, who lived nearby. They had dogs and he wanted a dog too, but both his folks said, "No!" Sometime later in the same year the neighbor's kids who lived a mile away were feeding a stray puppy about three months old. The mother of the kids didn't like dogs, he heard, and one day she threw a pan of boiling water on the puppy while it was eating table scraps to try to make him go away. It burned him so badly over a small area of his back near the tail that his long yellow hair never grew there again. Well the story of the scalding of the young dog travelled down the road to the Knight's farmhouse. My great grandma knew Carl, my grandpa, would treat the dog with love, so they asked the lady if they could take him home. They called him Bobbie. Now my grandpa had a dog, too. Wherever they went or whatever they were doing, those tthree dogs and three boys were always together.
He told us his Bobbie dog watched over him and sometimes even killed snakes. Bobbie was only medium sized, but strong and no dog could "lick him" in a fight after he was full grown. One of us always said we were glad Bobbie was there to protect our grandpa from snakes and bad dogs. Bobbie was an all-purpose dog. Besides guarding Grandpa and Uncle Harry as they were growing up, he helped care for a small herd of cattle and catch rabbits. In those days, my grandpa told us, there were lots of rabbits and Bobbie would chase them so hard they would hole up in a hollow log to rest. If the log was too small for Bobbie to enter, Uncle Harry poked at them in the log using a long pole or branch. Grandpa sat bent over the other end, back to Harry, and caught them when they eventually ran out. He told us sometimes they would get two rabbits from one log, even if Bobbie chased only one into it.
A couple of years later the three of them went fishing at the Old Bush Mill on the Cedar River. All afternoon, while they were fishing, Bobbie was chasing rabbits in the woods nearby. After fishing for a long time, Grandpa and Uncle Harry waded downstream. After going quite a distance, they crossed the river and took an old road for home. Bobbie had been there with them many times. He knew the way home as well as they did. Well, that evening Bobbie didn't come home. So, the next morning their Dad took them in the "horse and buggy" to see if they could find their dog.
I remember one of us always stopped his storytelling at this time and asked him to take us in the horse and buggy too. He would say there wasn't any more room, because his Dad, Uncle Harry and he filled up the front seat, and we couldn't ride in the back. "Why," I asked. "Because the old dirt road is very bad, full of holes and ruts from the wagon wheels. You might bounce out," he said. After a little more persuasion, he'd let us climb between his big old bony knees. After we had arranged ourselves on Grandpa, he would put his strong arms around us. I can still imagine the leather reins in his big hands, between his gnarled, leathery fingers, swollen from arthritis. He'd call out to the horses as we hung on, conveyed by his bouncing knees and thighs, to find Bobbie.
When we, my brothers, Grandpa and me, rounded the last curve Bobbie was there on the river bank right where they always fished. When he saw us, he came bounding like a big yellow ball and landed on our feet in the buggy. "He was tickled to death," my grandfather would say, as his hands found our tender ribs and we laughed out of control sliding off his knees, the sofa and onto the floor, as the imagined Bobbie dog moved quickly out of the way. Bobbie was so happy to see us, he began lapping our hands and faces. I mean, the way Grandpa told it, we actually felt Bobbie's big wet tongue all over us. Grandpa explained that because they had waded in the river on the way home, Bobby couldn't pick up their trail, so he waited on the bank of the river all night. As he waited, my Grandfather told us, he maybe even worried about what might have happened to his friends, and owners, Grandpa and Uncle Harry.
Sometime later, when they were older, his Dad took the three of them rabbit hunting one New Year's Day. After they had enough for the week, Bobbie began barking into a very large hollow log, but didn't go in. They thought Bobbie was barking at a raccoon so they told him, "Bring it out Bobbie dog." Bobbie obeyed any command, even if he knew better. He went all the way back into the large, hollow log. After a few minutes of muffled scuffle, growls, barks and yowls, he came out dragging a large porcupine and dropped it at their feet. It looked though like the barbed defender had gotten the better of the furry yellow warrior. Bobby dog's throat was so full of quills he couldn't even close his jaws. The blood poured from Bobbie's mouth as he tried to remove the quills by scratching his throat on the outside with his front and back paws.
We stared at Grandpa as he told us, "Scratching cut his mouth even more." He told us the hunters were about three miles from home, on foot in the big woods, with no horse to take Bobbie home.
"Pull 'em out," we said all at once.
"Can't," he said, "because the long quills are slippery and as hard as we try we can't hold on to 'em with our fingers when Bobby moves and twists. It hurts him so bad."
"Carry him then," I ordered.
"Too far to carry him and he won't be still."
"Don't shoot him, please don't shoot him," we begged as we remembered this part of the story from last week, but the end of the story never changed.
"My dad," explained Grandpa as if for the first time, "decided there was no way possible to get Bobbie dog home alive. He was suffering, scratching, rolling and tumbling in pain. He had no choice but to shoot Bobby with his pistol to let him out of his misery."
When Great Grandpa raised the gun and pointed it at him, Bobbie quit scratching, lowered his head to the ground and looked up into Grandpa's face. He knew it was the "end of the road for him." He knew he had done something very wrong, although he didn't know exactly what it was.
"Don't shoot Bobbie," we each said again and again as loud as we could. Louder than last week for sure. One shot from the accusing pistol right between the eyes killed Bobbie, instantly, we were told. Then as tears flowed down our little boy cheeks, my grandpa's Dad filled the porcupine with bullets from his pistol. Then he gave it a load from the shotgun--for good measure, I guess. Young Grandpa would dream many times, for at least a year, that Bobbie was still alive and with him. His Dad gave him and Uncle Harry a big hound that spring, but he told us nothing ever filled the vacancy in his life caused by the death of his one and only Bobbie dog.
I can't wait to see my granddaughter, Toni Ann. I'll tell her this grandfather story. Then I'll tell her about the time I painted the picture of the trout stream, while my grandfather and step-brothers fished it. Or the time Denny and I accidentally burnt down the duck blind, pretending it was our very own tepee. What stories will she tell me, if I stop by her house long enough to listen, I wonder?