A Grumpy Old Man
My grandpa could be a right bastard at times.
I guess I loved him, in that way you’re supposed to love relatives you only see once a year or so, but it definitely wasn’t easy. He was a bear of a man, with a gravelly voice that always sounded as if he was either pissed off, or had just discovered that you were yet another member of a group of people he collectively referred to as “retards”. When I first saw the movie “Patton”, I I remember thinking, “Wow, how did they get George C. Scott to do such a good impersonation of grandpa? Did they know each other?” Scott’s performance captured the essence of grandpa, only dialed down a notch to keep it family friendly. He was a shouter, grandpa, and would argue the most ridiculous points in the loudest volumes he could muster. He would insist, absolutely insist, that certain shows like the Republican or Democratic National Conventions be watched on television, which, when you are a kid, is received as an equivalent to a request to execute your own dog. Nevertheless, he’d brook no debate, and whining was strictly verboten, so we’d all settle in for what was sure to be a mind numbingly dull evening, only to see him fall asleep in the first five minutes of his mandatory programming.
I know very little of my grandfather’s early life, and what I’ve learned since his death offers little clarity or insight into his actions or behavior. I know that he was in the Air Force, and that he flew bombers in the Berlin Airlift and Korea. I know he crashed once in the latter, and had three of his teeth knocked out by the impact. I knew he had a brother who looked a lot like him, and that the two of them – along with their friend, and constant whipping boy, Freddie – loved to hunt in the northern part of Minnesota, up near the Canadian border. One story has the boys building their own tractor out of spare parts to drag a hunting shack through the forest to the center of their “four forties” of land. A bear met them at their destination, and discussions ensued as to who the rightful occupant of this fortress of solitude would be. A compromise was reached, with the bear agreeing to take full-time residence in the form of a floor covering, while the three gents would recline on wrecked sofas only at certain times of the year.
While I knew of grandpa’s brother, I seldom saw him as he was still working, or hunting, or fishing, or off doing something that grandpa wasn’t. Grandpa’s closest friend, that I was aware of anyway, was little Freddie, a minuscule, yet cheery man hunched over with age, a cross between Puck and Quasimodo. Freddie always told the jokes when I was around, and grandpa always berated him for it, saying he wasn’t funny (he was), or that he was acting foolish (true, but no one cared – Freddie was adored by us kids).
Freddie and grandpa used to go fishing a lot and, this being Minnesota, this means a fair amount of of it was done on frozen lakes. Every year, once the freezing temperatures had generated a foot thick layer of ice, thousands of Minnesotans would hook up their trailers bearing ice fishing huts to car and snowmobiles and drag them out into the center of the largest lakes to form impromptu villages. These villages were something else; miniature towns with miniature houses complete with smokestacks, refrigerators, and cars parked nearby. While grandpa loved fishing in general, he was less fond of ice fishing as it got pretty damn cold in those sheds, and as he would often say, a man can only drink so much beer to keep warm. Freddie, on the other hand, loved ice fishing, and spent the majority of the season on the ice, trying to eke out every last perch or pike he could get a hook into. One year, however, he stayed a little too long in his favorite spot, and crashed through the ice. A helicopter had to be fetched to fish him out, and grandpa, who watched the spectacle from the comfort of his living room, loved to tell the story of how he recognized the pitiful figure being lifted to safety as his humpbacked, and completely hopeless friend. When Freddie fell through the ice again a few years later, grandpa teased him mercilessly about trying to to get attention in the worst possible ways. Freddie took a lot of shit from grandpa for these events over the years, both of which resulted in lengthy hospital stays, and I often wondered how Freddie could stand to be reminded of how close he had come to dying. Twice. It’s a wonder how the two men kept from coming to blows.
I know my mother and aunt were not fond of my grandfather at all, but that my grandmother still carried a soft spot for him even though she couldn’t always say why. Mom and her sister apparently caught some of the same treatment that Freddie endured, but being younger and closer, it hit them harder and with more emotional force. Freddie could always tell grandpa to go fuck himself, but mom always had a harder time doing so. He was too terrible to her, and her own fears, insecurities, and distrusts kept her at a distance that precluded any attempts at intimacy. She had a tendency to assume that because she was unhappy with grandpa’s character, no one else could possibly bear him either, and she hated the fact that grandma didn’t seem to feel the same way. Being a modern woman, mom couldn’t understand why grandma wouldn’t just up and “divorce the bastard”, and blamed my grandmother’s devout Catholicism for keeping her trapped in what Mom was sure was a loveless marriage. I don’t think Mom never came to understand that, even though there may not have appeared to be any love there, it was there all the same, possibly on a frequency that only grandma and grandpa could acknowledge. In any event, Mom certainly couldn’t see it, and she carried her resentment for my grandfather for many, many years.
When I was eighteen, my grandfather had a quadruple bypass that required someone give him home-based care until he could get back on his feet. As his immediate relations were also getting up in years, his children, by now scattered to the extreme south and west of the country, decided amongst themselves that the caretakers duties would be split up, with each child taking a couple of weeks in turn. Mom for obvious reasons, was not too keen on fulfilling her allotment of time, and since I had just graduated from high school, asked if I might mind going in her place. I agreed, mostly because I had no earthly idea of what I was going to do after graduation, and I thought the trip my help me sort some thoughts out.
When I arrived, the man that I met was nothing like the man I had known as a child. Instead of the blustery bastard of old, what I saw was a weakened and helpless old man, deeply disturbed by his recent brush with mortality. He was still grandpa, though, just as tough and stubborn and obnoxious as when I was a kid, but there was something else in his eyes that made me lose any fear I had ever had of him. I saw him as a man for the first time, not this mythic figure of dread and impossibility I remembered from my youth. As I helped move him about the house – lifting him from wheelchair to lounger to kitchen table – cooked his god awful TV dinners, and cleaned up after his accidental “messes” (which sent him into helpless paroxysms of rage) I began to glimpse the human beneath the facade. I realized that grandpa, for all his bitching, was just like everyone else. He was simply trying to live in a way that didn’t make him feel, or look, weak to others. He was trying to be strong, trying to be what he had been taught was a “man”. I came to see him as an equal, and though he would never admit it, I think he was aware of it.
We had one final fight before I left for home, and what would end up being one of the most disastrous and enlightening summer of my life. True to grandpa’s form, it was a ridiculous argument, over frozen pizza. After two weeks of eating nothing but Swanson frozen dinners, I had a overpowering desire for deep dish pizza, and I had found a coupon for the store up the block. On my suggestion that we order out for a change, grandpa informed me that he had a frozen pizza in the freezer and that it would be just as good as anything from a restaurant. Blame it on the stress of care-taking, or the unreasonableness (to my eighteen year old mind) of his statement, I exploded, and for the first time really ripped my grandfather a new ass. I cursed him, called him retarded, and told him I was going to eat whatever fucking pizza I wanted to eat whether he wanted it or not. I ordered, and waited, and when the pizza arrived, I sat him down at the table and opened it in front of him and began eating. It was heavenly, and the smell of the cheese and meats filled the kitchen. About my second slice in, grandpa reached over and slowly lifted out a thin slice for himself, raised it to his mouth, and after taking a single bite, looked wickedly at me and said with a smile, “It taste just like the frozen pizza.”
Grandpa – “I don’t want the damn flower!”