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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

On the Internet, You Live Forever

NOTE: Some of these posts are just for me. This is one of them.

My maternal grandfather died last Thursday. He was 86.

My parents were divorced when I was just a few months old. For the first year of my life I lived with my mother's parents, and so they were especially fond of me, and I loved them because they loved me.

I wish now that I'd had a video camera, so I could have "recorded" him. He used to do this routine of slow-motion comic astonishment, rearing way back and opening his eyes wide as if you'd said the most shocking thing in the world. When I was a little girl this annoyed me, because I thought he was making fun of me, rather than just making fun. Wish I could see it again.

He used to pretend to flirt shamelessly with waittresses, even into his eighties. Naturally, when I was a teenager I found that embarrassing. He flirted with the nurses at the old folks' home, too.

Grandpa's left hand was not much use, and it handled things clumsily, as if he were wearing a thick mitten. When I was little his left thumbnail was black half the time from being hit, unfelt, with a hammer. Even in his casket the hand lay curled and obstinate. Despite that, he made fine cabinetry, and worked as a mechanic, carpenter, electrician, machinest, pipe-fitter, bricklayer---anything like that, he could do it. I'm not sure they make guys like that anymore.

When I was a little kid, he worked as a mechanic for a man who owned several Sinclair gas stations. Grandpa drove around in a green truck with a red dinosaur on it, and brought us Sinclair doo-dads, mostly inflatable dinosaurs. That is Kid Heaven. We rode with him often in the green truck, which smelled of grease and metal. At the funeral, my sister leaned over to me and whispered, "I can sometimes smell Grandpa's truck." To this day the smell of a mechanic's garage makes me calm and happy (until I get the bill).

When my mother was in high school, Grandpa built a beautiful house, and had a pond (actually a small lake) dug and stocked with fish. Then he built a suspension bridge over the pond. My stepdad said he remembered the day the bridge was finally completed. Grandpa had made a mistake, and as a result the span had a graceful arch to it, rather than being flat as intended. But I figure that successfully building the bridge was pretty damn good for a man who'd never made it to high school.

He used to sit out on the back porch of the house in his undershirt and drink beer. At his funeral my sister and my cousin put up a bulletin board of pictures, making sure to include one of him in his undershirt. I used to sit on his knee, and he would commit child abuse by giving me little sips of beer. If Papaw was drinking it, that was what I wanted too! Thanks to my grandfather, today I really hate beer. (Grandpa, if he knew anything, knew the value of a dollar, and so bought the cheapest available beer.)

And when the house and the bridge were finally done---he kept building. He was always wanting to be building something. They moved from that house in the late '70s, and into a house trailer. (Grandma said the house was getting too much to take care of. I think "How long ago that was! They must have been very young, still!" But Grandpa would've been about 62.) It was big, as trailers go---a double wide, and a fancy one. But he couldn't stop building, so he built a room onto the house trailer. Now, since a mobile home has to be mobile, and since they can't be longer than a certain length to travel on the roads, there was a bit of a problem. So grandpa made the room so that it would "telescope"---sliding onto the rest of the trailer, making it only slightly larger than it had been originally.

They eventually moved back to their hometown, and bought a house across the street from the one in which my mother was born. After Grandpa finished fixing it up, he went around fixing things for the neighbors. When my paternal grandfather died, my mother's parents went to the visitation, even though the families had little contact for decades. My father asked Grandpa what he was doing to keep busy, and Grandpa replied, "Oh, I go around and help out some of the old folks in town." He was on the high side of 75 at that time, and hadn't meant it as a joke.

Just a few months ago Grandma told him how a neighbor had taken care of some small repair around the house, and Grandpa complained that there wouldn't be anything left for him to do when he came home. (He kept believing he'd eventually get out of the nursing home, when we knew he wouldn't, and it broke our hearts.)

Grandpa was in WWII. He was a Navy mechanic, and was sent to the South Pacific. He was on Okinawa after the fighting there was (mostly) finished, and was in the hospital there when the war ended. Now, on TV we often see pictures of people celebrating by firing their guns into the air, and as us physics types know, if it goes up, it has to come down. When the end of the war was announced, many of the men celebrated by firing their guns into the air, and the bullets did come back to earth again---some of them through the tent roof of the hospital.

Unfortunately, that's about all I know of Grandpa's military service. He Didn't Like to Talk About It, you see, which was very common, and we didn't press him.

On Sunday, the funeral home was packed, making the funeral director testy. The procession must have stretched over a mile. They draped his casket with a flag, and at the cemetery half a dozen old gents from the local VFW showed up to offer a rifle salute, and play "Taps" on a tape player.

Grandpa's mother died when he was five, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother. In his last months he began to "see" her. He told my grandmother that his came to him in dreams, and that he'd gotten up in the middle of the night to call her on the phone.

When I am old and wandering, I will see him and Grandma. We will sit on the back porch on hot days and sip beer, and look for duck eggs and dinosaurs by the pond, and ride to town in the old truck to get ice cream bars, and in the evening Grandpa will barbecue some ribs.

But, frankly, I'm hoping I won't live that long.