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Fabric of Life - The Greatest Generation

My maternal grandparents shaped my life… and my brother’s as well. From an early age, we worked on the 200 or so acres my Grandfather cropped ‘on the shares’  in rural West Tennessee — the same ground for 50 years.   In other words, he was a tenant farmer and 1/4 of the crop went to the landowner.

My Grandfather on the left, Uncle Bill on the right and their parents seated Ca. 1932

He became a man during the Great Depression.  He often told me he was fortunate to have work during that period.  One of the long standing jobs he told me about was cutting railroad cross ties by hand for 75 cents a day.  In a fight with one of his brothers before he was 25, he was cut with a knife from the middle of his chest to the middle of his back.  The ragged scar looked like they sewed him up with jute and a knitting needle. He told me he was ‘bad to drink’ back then and offered no further explanation.  I always thought my Grandfather was the life of the party with his sense of humor and outgoing ways  — until Uncle Bill showed up.   Uncle Bill was a rake and a raconteur.  Always a pretty woman on his arm and a story that would make a 10 year old’s eyes go wide with amazement.   He rode Harley Davidsons well into his eighties and you never asked him for a ride twice.   He drove 100 or nothing and always had his head turned sideways talking to you as he hurtled down some narrow  County Road.  Once was usually enough for any growed man.   Seeing the Harley riders of today all dressed up like part time pirates just gives me a chuckle.  Uncle Bill was the genuine goods in polyester and zip up boots.

There was something about being with my Grandfather that made you feel like you really counted for something. He worked hard every day from daylight ’till dark and he expected us to do the same; it didn’t matter if you were only 9 years old and your feet didn’t reach the pedals on the Ford 801 tractor. He taught us to drive on an old ’57 GMC pickup truck with three on the tree. If you were sitting in the middle of the bench seat, at some point he would say ” You take her boy.” and you would scoot over and steer the old truck down the road. He taught us to ride – the first pony was a one eyed Shetland that he traded a pig for. Little matter that we were too small to set the saddle on that pony’s back. He would set the saddle on the top rail of the fence and my bro and me usually managed to get that pony up beside the fence and slop the saddle on to his back. I don’t remember alot of things these days but the memories of ol’ one eyed Nubbin are still strong.  We trailed along behind him on the big Quarter Horse stud he sat named Gus McCue.  He dearly loved that big  horse and Gus was part of his daily life for 28 years. He taught us to shoot a rifle and how to swim in an old green farm pond that the summer heat had warmed past the temp of bath water. He admonished us to watch out for snapping turtles ’cause they “‘would latch on to your little pecker.”  Who could concentrate on swimming with that thought in your head?

He taught us what pride and integrity really meant without saying a single word.

My first honest to goodness, paying,  manly man job was driving an 18 wheeler at the naive, know it all age of 21.  I lived once again in that small town in Western Tennessee – and even lived with him for a time.  My Grandmother told me after my Grandfather was gone that he kept a big U.S. map taped to a cork bulletin board and each time I called from the road he would put a colored push pin in the city I was in when I called.  I never knew that and he never owned up to it as long as he was alive.  He would have been in his early 60s at that point and I can only guess that he was dreaming of travels that might have been, of open highways and distant cities far beyond the borders of Dyer County, Tennessee…. and of a life that was waning.

That generation that was born around the time of the Great War, that matured during the Depression and WWII really was the Greatest Generation in my book.  No equivocating, no whining and no excuses.  Old School in every sense of the word.

The Grandparents - Sometime in the Late 1940's on a beach in Texas.

He died June 3rd of 1986;  trying to start an old gas combine in a neighbor’s barn when the engine caught fire. He grabbed up a 5 gallon bucket and made several trips through knee high wheat to a water trough to put the fire out. He was afraid the fire would catch and burn the neighbor’s barn down. The heat and exertion and adrenaline were just too much and his heart gave out on him in its’ 71st year. When I received the news in South Florida, it was the last time I remember crying.  Even after almost 25 years, those memories are still very close to the front of my mind.   He was starting to slip a little there at the very last.   General forgetfulness and telling the same story 30 minutes after he finished it the first time weighed heavy on me.  I was sure it was the early stages fo that Old Timers disease and it hurt me something terrible.  Better for him to go out in full stride than to die with a whimper.

I remember looking at his hands in the casket and how the knuckles were freshly scraped.  I thought that I was glad the Funeral Home didn’t try to cover that up with make up.  My hands look much the same right now.  Honest, working hands; not soft hands.

Last Thursday, my bro and I got word my Grandmother had died just short of her 95th birthday.   When my Grandfather died, she sold the crops in the field, the machinery at auction and promptly moved to town.   “Enough of living out in the middle of nowhere”  she declared to any that asked.  She outlived him by 24 years and a month – 2 months short of her 95th.

My brother and I had been expecting this circumstance and  packed our bags to head to Western Tennessee.

More on that in the next blog entry.

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1 comment to Fabric of Life – The Greatest Generation

  • Ron

    Wonderful story about your grandfather. And omg no way I could swim after knowing turtles would be hunting down my worm. Lol. Loved that part

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