The last time that we visited Colorado was a few years earlier in response to one of my grandfather’s “I’ll be gone soon” bouts of melancholy. My father had no patience for his father-in-law’s years long death march, but I think I understood.
His wife, my grandmother, died when I was six years old. Hers wasn’t a sudden death, but rather one of those long, slow creepers where the cancer takes its time. She didn’t fall over, she withered.
When she was gone my grandfather became one of those old man road warriors in a western shirt and bola tie, piloting his Dodge camper around the country. Just keep moving, don’t look back. The man already had monkeys on his back prior to losing his wife: fierce addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and gambling. Now loss exacerbated those things.
He was a master carpenter who rarely worked due to his alcoholism, and a smart, charming, funny man who alienated most everyone around him. His misdeeds were legend. My grandfather was a fuck up, a loser, a drunk, an emotional abuser, and a son of a bitch, but his worst crime was that he wasted his talent. “I’ve never met a carpenter as gifted as Bill,” my father said. “But he pissed it all away with a goddamned bottle.”
I only crossed paths with Bill’s Mr. Hyde side once. For a short time I served in uniform, the Cub Scouts, to be precise. Although Vietnam was in full swing my den never saw any action beyond door to door candy sales. Every time I sold a Tootsie Roll bank, I’d stuff an ace of spades in the buyer’s mouth and cut off his ear to hang on my neckerchief.
The highlight of Cub Scout-dom is the Pinewood Derby, an annual event wherein each boy is given a block of wood and a set of plastic wheels which he then gives to his father for transformation into a kick ass model car that the Scout then must pretend he built. The cars are raced on a sloping drag strip, and winners receive the disembodied heads of the losers. It’s real character-building, fraternal order kind of stuff.
Grandpa was wrapping up one of his hobo camper visits just prior to race day. He hugged and kissed me before stepping into his home on wheels, and then he said, “You be sure to call me and let me know how the race goes, boy.”
It went well. My father’s entry that I pawned off as my own finished first in its heat and then took third overall. “Can I call Grandpa?” I asked as soon as we got home.
“Yes,” my mother said, and she dialed the kitchen phone for me. I pulled a Naugahyde chair over to the phone and sat on my knees.
“Grandpa! I got third place!”
“Hey, Margie baby!”
“No, it’s Jimmy. The race — I got third place!”
“Where you at, Margie baby? Come over here and give me a piece of that ass.”
“Grandpa, it’s Jimmy.” I looked to my mother. “He’s saying weird things,” I said. He continued laughing and asking things I didn’t understand. My mother took the telephone from me and placed it in its cradle. “What’s wrong with Grandpa?” I asked.
“He must have thought you were one of his friends,” my mother said.
But that was the closest I ever came to a personal encounter with Bad Grandpa. Others dreaded the sight of his camper pulling into the driveway. Part of the problem was that he had nowhere to be, so a short visit might turn into months, but more importantly the man burned bridges and packed so much baggage with everyone that their stomachs knotted when that Dodge rolled up.
But not me. For me those visits meant endless hours playing cribbage or fishing for bluegill while the old man talked. As far as I know he never wrote anything down, but that man could tell a story. Part of it was his masterful use of props: the thoughtful sip of coffee, the deliberate drag on a cigarette.
More than that, though, it was simply that he had such good stories to tell. “Oh, those were the funniest guys I’ve ever seen. I played hookie from school one day just to see them perform live in downtown Denver. (Big drag on his cigarette.) And you know something? All that stuff you see in the movies, they did all of that. (Head shaking chuckle, pick up the coffee cup.) Moe really beat the hell out of Curly and Larry.”
Tramping on a boxcar to Wyoming after high school graduation, winning big in Vegas, tales of life, love and death with the grandmother I barely knew. “I couldn’t believe that she was gone, didn’t know what to do. I was just a young guy of fifty.”
“You don’t think fifty’s young?” he said.
The thought of fifty as young hit me hard. Youth doesn’t have wrinkles, grandchildren, or hairless pates. Youth isn’t staring down the barrel of death, waiting for the click of the trigger. Yet all of that was true of Bill at fifty, a young man suddenly alone.
Years later I cast my grandfather as the speaker in a poem, standing at a literal crossroads that once were a peanut field. This fictitious Grandpa was back home for a funeral after many years away, telling his grandson how much things have changed:
Once we buried our friends there,
Where cars pause under yellow lights
And we extend our last vestige
Of languid Southern graciousness.
Before that we raised peanuts,
Ruddy red husks inhumed in dusty, umber hulls.
We planted them where once the cotton died.
The green grocer is still on the corner.
I will visit him soon, blue in my funeral suit,
Watch grinning children gnaw watermelons
made of old bones and confetti.
City lights mistake themselves for fireflies
And I am still as statuary.
But young men should not consider
These things. Our time is better
Spent by bluegill ponds, teaching
Grandsons silly games.
The teaching assistant who read the poem scratched through “young men” and added the following note: “Confusing image. Grandfathers are old men.” I wonder now if he still feels that way.
Regardless, my grandfather was now an old man riddled with cancer and living with his son in Colorado, his hobo camper dry-docked in the driveway.
That night I told Jody what was going on.
“How long will you be gone?” she asked.
“Just a couple of weeks.”
“I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” I said, and I kissed her. “Why don’t you come with us?”
“I can’t afford that.”
“We’re going in my father’s plane. It won’t cost you anything.”
“Do you think your mama and daddy will let me?”
I quit my job, not because I had to but because going to Colorado provided a convenient excuse. Paul tried to talk me out of it, but the thought of coming back and sitting next to yappy Marlene was too much. The next morning we packed up my father’s plane and taxied to the runway, Jody squeezing my hand and the twin engines vibrating our seat.
I’ll never know what it feels like to fly in a private plane for the first time. Growing up I witnessed my friends white knuckling their way through that maiden propeller-driven takeoff. The experience is in no way analogous to commercial flight. The scale of a small plane magnifies every sound, twitch, odor. As a passenger one hears the radio, sees the instruments, watches the end of the runway speed closer and closer.
The pilot manages the entire business with a steering wheel that moves back and forth and a pair of pedals upon which he or she lightly dances, wiggling the craft left and right, keeping it moving straight down the runway. One hundred years fall away. The illusion of modernity recedes as one watches the pilot control this powered kite that he or she foolishly boarded. Unlike an airliner, the ghosts of Wilbur and Orville are easy to sense in a little plane.
Maybe that’s the experience, I don’t really know. My mythology asserts that my father had me in the air at one week of age. Back then he owned a Taylorcraft, which truly was a powered kite. That little airplane was canvas, cables, and pulleys, its motor so underpowered that once airborne he could steer left and right simply by opening the doors on either side of the cabin.
I caught his next airplane, a Cessna 190, on fire just outside of Los Angeles. I was two years old, and apparently I crossed two wires beneath the instrument panel. This remains the most frequently repeated story from that Disneyland trip.
His next plane was my first love, a 1942 Stinson V-77 Gullwing used by Great Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II as a navigation trainer. It was such a beautiful thing, a flying piece of Art Deco. My entire family cheated death in that airplane one summer, when its tired radial engine gave up the ghost three miles from our hometown airport. My father was a brilliant pilot, though. He glided that old bird in, just missing the power lines at the end of the runway.
By the time he sold the Stinson my father’s dreams of a fighter pilot son were long gone. We barely even spoke, for that matter. But in my belly I still imagined the day that I would pilot that beautiful airplane, dancing on the rudder pedals while that big Lycoming radial rumbled, feeling her tailwheel lift off of the asphalt, the engine cowl tipping forward, and then the change in pitch when the landing gear broke free of the earth.
But it was gone now, that last material connection between my father and me. He owned a Cessna 310 now, the kind of generic airplane I looked past my entire childhood, eyes darting around whatever little airfield we were visiting looking for Staggerwings, Stearmans, and Bamboo Bombers. His Cessna was sleek, fast, modern — retractable landing gear and wingtip fuel tanks. The plane was practical and boring, a master carpenter with no rough edges.
Now it was Jody’s turn to white knuckle her first take off, hand in mine as Spartanburg fell away and we soared closer to her first and my last visit with Grandpa.