He used to sit in his big chair and talk on his CB radio to a guy in Scotland who spoke perfect English. I thought that was pretty cool back then. He had this big microphone that was bigger than my arm. Of course I was only 8 at the time. I had a hard time trying to squeeze the bar on the side so I could talk. Sometimes he would do it for me. People called him Foxfire on the radio. I figured that was because of the books he was always reading. One day he told me I needed my own name on the radio. He said it was called a handle. I was so excited. What would I call myself? He walked with me, hand in hand, out the driveway to get the mail and we talked about what my special name would be and we decided on White Feather. His mama had given me some feathers from her Indian headband when I was littler and while we were walking we saw big white clouds in the sky. White Feather, perfect.
I used to sit in his big chair when he wasn’t home and listen to the static coming from the big silver box. I could never hear anyone so I would flip through the books he had sitting on his side table. The books were about butchering pigs, building houses out of trees and cooking outside among other things. We already did this so I’m not sure why he had books about it but they passed the time while I waited for him.
He worked on the railroad …with real trains. He would come home in his train clothes. He smelled funny so he would take a bath as soon as he got home. Then he smelled normal again. He bought me some train clothes once. Actually, he bought both my brothers and my sister train clothes too. They were blue and white stripes just like he wore on the railroad. I also had a red bandana that he would tie around my neck. My brothers and sister didn’t get a red bandana. He only had one.
I would run out to his truck when he got home from work and he would hand me his lunch box. That was funny. I had a lunch box too. His was all one color of grey. It was a lot bigger than mine. I would open it and find surprises in it. Things like Ho Ho’s and Twinkies. My lunchbox had pictures of Wonder Woman on it and I didn’t have surprises. His lunchbox was a lot better than mine. He even had a big cup that he had drinks in. I had to buy milk at school. One time, I got sick and threw up chocolate milk right through my nose. I wished I had a something I could put drinks into that fit in my lunchbox so I didn’t have to drink chocolate milk ever again.
He would wave at me when he walked out to his mailbox. I could see a far ways away and always saw him. He could see a far ways away and could always see me! I liked to swing on my swing set and sit backwards so I could watch for him. I always got my mail first so I knew he would be coming out soon. His house was clear up on the top of the hill. That’s because he was the King of the World! Well, maybe not but I thought so. If he was the King, that made me the princess. I would wrap a bed sheet around my shoulders and tie it in front. It was like a beautiful gown. When he walked out to get the mail and looked down the hill at me, I would walk across the yard with my long cape behind me and practice my princess wave. And the King always waved back.
I used to sit and listen to him play his guitar. Bluegrass. Always Bluegrass. He had a harmonica that he would play at the same time, without using his hands. When he wasn’t playing his harmonica he would sing long, sad songs about whippoorwills and songs about blue eyes that would cry all the time in the rain. He had this one instrument that looked like it came from Hawaii but I don’t think he ever had been to Hawaii.
He was always there when I needed him. I was pounding on his door so hard that it made my little hand hurt. I ran all the way to his house. I was so scared. Once he opened the door, I knew everything would be ok. I told him what happened. I told him the smoke was so thick I couldn’t breathe and there was this really loud boom. I told him my brothers weren’t with me but my sister was right here. He ran from his house that night and brought my brothers and my mom back with him. He made everything alright. We stayed with him that night, tucked under warm blankets and it didn’t matter that our house was gone.
He lived on a little piece of property at the top of a hill. As long as I can remember his house never had siding on it. You would have to watch when you stepped onto the front porch because parts of it were rotting. There was a cherry tree that sat in the front yard. One time he picked me up and I reached high up into the tree and picked some of those cherries! They were amazing! He planted that tree and he planted it right in front of his big picture window. He said it reminded him of someone. Something about lying if I remember right. I could never understand why a tree would remind someone about lying.
I used to wait for him to get home from town on Fridays. Fridays were special because he always brought home Long John Silver’s fish and chicken. He would carry big buckets of each into the kitchen and pile our plates high with French fries and a piece each of the chicken and the fish. He would then scoop tartar sauce next to the fish and squeeze ketchup beside the chicken. Never the opposite because that was just gross.
He would sit at the table in the kitchen in the same spot all the time. It was in a corner. There was a wall to his back and a window he could look out of that showed who was coming into the driveway. I always wondered why he just didn’t sit in front of the window. He had his medicines on the table by where he sat all the time. I would wipe off the table sometimes and line all the bottles up in a row and pretend like they were soldiers protecting him.
I painted him a picture of a dog. It had black velvet around the outside with just a hint of blue for the sky. It took me a while to paint that picture, but I had to. It was his birthday and I wanted to give him a present. This would be the first present I have ever given him. The dog looked just like Blue. Blue was his coon hound. Blue was allowed to come inside in the winter and he would let her sleep in his chair when it was cold outside.
He wasn’t home one time. He wasn’t feeling well. His belly hurt so he went to the doctors. I guess they decided he didn’t need things in his belly because he finally came home without some of it. He had to rest a lot so I didn’t get to sit in his chair as much because he was always there now.
I used to carry to him his cup of coffee. I got so good about it that I was also allowed to put the milk in his coffee. Not the sugar yet in case I got too much, but once the sugar was added, I did get to stir it. Sometimes it would spill over the side a little because I stirred really hard. But that was ok. He didn’t mind.
He used to load up my brothers and sisters and my mom and dad and my grandma and we would drive over to the Dairy Bar. We kids got to ride all the way in the back of the station wagon and get to jump out when we got to the ice cream place. He would then take us up to the window and let us order whatever we wanted. I always got an ice cream cone with hard chocolate all over the outside. I had to be careful because once I broke the chocolate the ice cream started melting really fast.
I looked one time to see what he got at the ice cream place. It had bananas and pineapple in it. There wasn’t even a cone! He told me it reminded him of faraway places. Weird. How does ice cream remind him of faraway places? He always had a handful of napkins which was a good thing. It took me a while to learn how to eat my ice cream faster than it would melt. There was a pump that water came out of alongside the parking lot of the ice cream place. He would take me over there and wash the ice cream off my hands. Once, he let me pump the water because I dripped some ice cream on his hands. He didn’t mind.
He had to go back to the doctors again. His belly hurt some more. The doctors took more away more of his stomach and I couldn’t sit in his chair anymore. He didn’t turn on his CB much either. He would just rest his head back and his eyes closed. We tried to be quiet and when we weren’t, we were sent outside.
I discovered an old truck of his one time when I was sent outside. It was down over the hill in weeds and trees hidden, like he shoved it down there to forget about it. It had fences around the back of the truck and some little doors built into the side of the fences. I pulled real hard and some of the little doors opened. There were rusty old tools in the boxes. Big tools! Like nothing I had ever seen before. I wonder why he had tools to work on really big things. He was probably working on Godzilla’s submarine. How cool would that be!
He took me one time under my great grandmother’s house. She lived next door to him. She had an underground room that had lots of glass jars with food in them on a bunch of shelves. They looked weird through the glass. He let me pick what everyone was going to have for supper. I picked green beans. They looked the best. He told me to pick something else but it just looked gross so I picked some more green beans.
I remember one time he forgot me. His daughter brought her kids over and there were so many of us. He wanted to go get ice cream but we couldn’t all fit in one car so he decided to take two. I saw the dust from the cars leaving down the dirt road. I just stood there. They finally came back and I got into a lot of trouble.
He and I drifted apart and saw less and less of each other. I used to look through old pictures of him and his life before we met. He grew up in a big family. A coal mining family.
I sat down one day and sifted through the pictures while I was sitting in his chair. His family didn’t have much. It looked like they hunted and fished for food. There were a lot of pictures of him with hunting dogs and guns. I remember seeing pictures of him when he was about 13. He was standing outside in the winter time with his dogs. In one hand he had a big long gun. In the other hand he had what looked like a big furry hat in his hand. I’ve seen those hats before on TV. I think a guy named Daniel wore one on that show my dad liked to watch. There were pictures with chickens and pigs running through the yard. There were goats too. They weren’t even fenced in. They obviously canned their garden since there were no grocery stores back then. He must have gone without new shoes when they had clearly outgrown the ones they had as there were a lot of pictures with him barefoot. I remember one picture that showed an outhouse! Can you imagine? There were pictures of when he was little and then pictures of him married to my grandmother. I would have to remember to ask him for the other pictures of when he was a young man as I couldn’t find any in the box.
He called us one night. It was really late. My dad had to go to his house right away. I stayed home with my little brother. My dad didn’t come home for a long time. It was daylight when my dad finally did come home. My grandmother had a stroke. The doctors weren’t sure if she would live.
I spent the summers of my high school years taking care of my grandmother. The stroke had paralyzed her left side. She could no longer walk or take care of herself. He came to visit her every day after we moved her into our house and sometimes he stayed all night. He would crawl up beside my grandma and snuggle her up at night. I watched him spoon applesauce into her mouth when she was hungry. Sometimes he would act like the spoon was an airplane and he would make noises. Sometimes he missed her mouth and the applesauce would spill down her chin. He always had a towel handy to make everything better. I bet he did that to me when I was a baby.
He didn’t come to my graduation. He had moved my grandmother back to his house and had to stay with her. He moved a bed into the living room in front of the big window. They could look at the cherry tree together. He would sit in his chair and they would talk for hours. I was there once when he lifted her up and put her on a bedpan. They had been married a very long time, as long as I could remember.
I fell asleep in his chair once. He wanted to go play some bluegrass music so I sat in his chair and talked with my grandmother while he was away. I don’t know when I fell asleep. He left me there and put a blanket on me when he got home. The next morning he friend some eggs and we had sandwiches. He sat in his corner so he could look out the window in case someone came down the driveway. He liked to put ketchup on his egg sandwiches. I helped him clean up the dirty dishes when we were done and we would put the dishes back away in my grandma’s cabinet.
He didn’t come to my wedding. He wasn’t feeling good. He had more stomach problems. It was ok. I didn’t get to see him much anymore. I knew he was busy taking care of my grandmother. I saved him a piece of wedding cake anyways.
I moved away after I got married. When my son was born, I took him to visit my grandmother and him. This was his first great grandchild. He held my son for a long time, talking baby talk to him. This big, strong brute of a man was so gentle with a wee baby. I wondered what he was like with his own children when they were growing up. I looked through pictures a long time ago. I saw one picture of my dad and he had no shoes. There was also an outhouse in the picture. Can you imagine?
He went outside to get a cup of coffee when I went to visit my grandmother in the nursing home. He had to put her in there because he just couldn’t take care of her all by himself anymore. She had requested my presence. When I was ready to leave, he hadn’t returned yet. I had to get to work so I had to leave and couldn’t wait for him. Later that night my dad called to tell me that my grandmother had passed away. I wonder if he had returned in time to be with her.
I had to find a dress for the funeral. This was the first funeral that I had ever been to. No one had ever died before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I knew he would be there. And I knew everything was going to be alright.
He didn’t even look at me. There were so many people there. I know his heart was breaking so why couldn’t I make everything alright for him like he used to do for me? Just one look. Please, just look at me one time. They lowered my grandmother into the ground and he just walked away without looking back.
I found out that he had gotten married. I didn’t care. I hadn’t seen him since the day of my grandmother’s funeral. He didn’t call anymore. My dad asked me if I wanted my grandmother’s cabinet since they were selling the house. Of course I did! I drove over and loaded it into my truck. There wasn’t much left in the house. His chair was gone. He wasn’t even there. I just drove away without looking back.
He died one day, that man who made everything better. I hadn’t seen him for years. He had moved on.
I dropped the rose into the hole awkwardly and raising my chin towards the sky, I could feel the soft mist fall ever so gently upon my skin. Life had changed so much, I thought. Turning around, I looked out over all the people arranged in tidy little rows, most with handkerchiefs or tissues in hand. Feeling uneasy about all these people staring at me, I looked down at my feet and noticed the green carpet that covered the freshly dug dirt. Carpet, geesh… the absurdity of it! Why can’t we just deal with reality anymore? From the dirt we came, to the dirt we return. Is this part of our masquerade of trying to be immortal?
There was movement that brought me back to reality. The men were moving the tent from overtop the coffin. The blue from the flag draped across the box shown ever more deeply. As with all military funerals, The flag was placed so the stars lay atop the left shoulder of the deceased. Little did I know at the time the tradition that I was witnessing held.
The custom began in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when a flag was used to cover the dead as they were taken from the battlefield on a caisson.
One will notice, during a military funeral that the horses that pull the caisson which bears the body of the veteran are all saddled, but the horses on the left have riders, while the horses on the right do not. This custom evolved from the days when horse-drawn caissons were the primary means of moving artillery ammunition and cannon, and the riderless horses carried provisions.
The single riderless horse that follows the caisson with boots reversed in the stirrups is called the "caparisoned horse" in reference to its ornamental coverings, which have a detailed protocol all to themselves. By tradition in military funeral honors, a caparisoned horse follows the casket of an Army or Marine Corps officer who was a colonel or above, or the casket of a president, by virtue of having been the nation's military commander in chief.
The custom is believed to date back to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed to serve the fallen warrior in the next world. The caparisoned horse later came to symbolize a warrior who would ride no more. Abraham Lincoln, who was killed in 1865, was the first U.S. president to be honored with a caparisoned horse at his funeral.
A group of seven men in military uniforms was lining up along the outside, each with a rifle. My Uncle was there along with two others, each proudly holding large flags. These men, no longer in their prime, wore an expression of fearlessness upon their faces, each knowing that their time was calling.
Once everything was in place, the blasts began. As each rifle was discharged, a little piece of me was thrown into the hole. I realized how little I knew about him, this man who now lie in the dark, cold ground. What had he done in his lifetime to warrant such a show of grandeur? Who the hell was he? He was always the man who made everything better when I was a little girl but right now, I felt like I hardly even knew him.
The blasts continued until all three blasts were complete. The old men, in their fancy clothes, snapped around in unison. I looked down the row at each of their sun worn faces, each one covered with deep sunken wrinkles that only a hard earned life merits. They each knew my grandfather. In some way, they each had a story to tell. And I needed to know what their stories were.
I glanced over at the casket and noticed a small breeze had ruffled the corner of the flag. Just then a lone bugle began playing and sadness stirred within me. As the notes from the bugle drifted upwards with the breeze, my sadness drifted away and was replaced with a sense of honor and pride.
Two of the men walked over to the casket, each standing on opposite ends. At the same time, they picked up the flag, centering it over the casket. They begin to meticulously fold the flag and one step at a time move closer together. The red and white stripes are finally wrapped into the blue, as the light of day vanishes into the darkness of night. Once completed, one of the men took the flag and approached an old woman in the crowd. She didn’t even stand up as he handed the flag to her. There was a well dressed women beside her who snatched the flag out of her hands. I remember feeling like I didn’t belong here with these people.
I felt a small hand slide into mine and without looking down; I knew I would make everything alright. I squeezed that little hand three times and felt the same three gently squeezes returned. Once the men had finished, I bent down and looked in the eyes of my son. “PaPaw would be so proud of you for being such a good boy!” I said. The little boy smiled with a puzzled look on his face. He had never met PaPaw. The pomp and circumstance was all but lost on this little boy as these people were strangers to him. “I’m thirsty!” the little boy exclaimed.
I gave my son a hug and stood back up, his hand still in mine. Glancing around, I noticed people were either gathering their belongings or were already paired into groups and chattering. Spotting my husband, I lifted my hand and waved to him. He nodded his head towards the car and I gladly accepted his offer of escape.
Over the following years, I thought of my grandfather often yet those other men in their fancy uniforms were long forgotten. Its funny how life works that way until it sneaks back up you like a tiger approaching its prey.
I remember I was in the living room of my in-laws house. Jack, my father-in-law was a collector of sorts. He visited estate sales often and brought back his bounty like a one eyed pirate back to his lair. On Saturdays and Sundays he opened his double garage doors so that the rest of the world could purchase some of the said bounty.
On one particular afternoon, Jack and I were going through some of his findings when I came across some old newspapers. Brown and fragile from time, they were hung from the middle over long poles. These poles would slide down then into a type of rack, much like a quilt rack, to keep the newspapers from being crumbled.
Carefully glancing through each newspaper, I noticed they were all local. Asking Jack about them, a local historian had passed on and the estate was put up for auction. “The sad thing is” Jack said “was that the people making the purchases did not understand the significance of what they were buying.” “You might know this person, they have your same last name”, exclaimed Jack!
Coming around behind Jack, I wondered what he was referring to. As far as I remembered, no one in my family would have been news worthy enough to be in a paper.
There on the front page was a story about two young local boys. They couldn’t have been more than 18 or 19 years old. The reporter was telling the story with pride as he referred to the two boys as local heroes. Looking at the date at the top of the paper, the story itself took place in 1944. No wonder the papers were so brown and fragile! Continuing to read through the story, I suddenly felt the world start to melt into slow motion.
I heard the voices calling to me but it felt like they were outside and far away. Almost like hearing someone speaking to you when you are underwater. It was an annoying distraction. Suddenly I realized they were grabbing towards me and full reality was returning as I discovered I was lying on the floor.
Gathering myself up and returning to my seat, it occurred to me what was so overwhelming that I passed out. There, on the front page of this old, worn paper, was a story about a local hero. My local hero. Here was a story about my Grandfather.
The coincidence of this happening was beyond calculation. I scanned the front of the paper, drawing in all details offered and began to read again, each word entering my brain like a morsel of food for the starved. My Grandfather decided to not wait for the draft of World War 11. He had taken it upon himself to volunteer to fight for his country. His love, that same love that he showed me all those years ago was the same love spoke about here. He loved his country and he fought to keep her safe.
So many questions were answered that day. Looking back through the years I now understood why he sat in the corner instead of sitting directly in front of the window. He always kept his back to the wall, it was safer that way. Reading through the article, I discovered that he would become a mechanic for large equipment that the army would use overseas. Remembering back to the truck I found, that explained the large tools I discovered hidden in the rear of the truck, no longer necessary in ordinary life. Later, he would put his expertise he learned in the Army to work and become a mechanic on large locomotive engines. Taking a deep breath, I realized that the men who talked to him on his CB were actually his brothers. Brothers not by birth but by blood and honor. These men fought to keep other alive and fought because their own life depended upon it. These men parted ways over the years but always managed to stay in touch. Later I found out that a couple of them played music in a band and it just so happened, that it was Bluegrass music. They sang about their lives and their voices helped to carry the pain from their bodies.
I knew why my grandfather was sick so often. The war was hard on him not only emotionally but also physically. Many a night he slept in the rain and mud and stayed awake by constant shivering in the cold. His toes and fingers could never be warm enough. Many a day the only food he ate was C-rations and making sure the drinking water was not contaminated was a less than stellar practice.
Tears streaming down my face, as I continued reading the story but my mind relentlessly drifted back in time. So much of this man made sense now. The Cherry Tree that was planted for honor and never lying. How a man who had seen the battles that he had and still be gentle lifting a small child up to grab a special treat was beyond me. He had overcome the demons and when I needed a strong hand to hold, he had always been there.
It made sense why he lived in the country and wanted to be self sufficient. He saw firsthand the devastation that a war could bring to a large population that was closely quartered. Destruction came swiftly to villages. He saw the starvation because supply lines were cut off and people couldn’t buy food from the grocery store. He fought to get those supply lines back open but tried to teach people how to have a simple garden to feed themselves so they didn’t have to rely solely on the stores. He saw families ripped apart and children left without parents and I remembered how he always held my hand so I didn’t get lost. I also remembered back to the day he was angry when he forgot me when everyone went to get ice cream. Now I knew why he was so angry.
I remembered the ice cream and more specifically the pineapple. Scanning the papers I realized that these two young heroes were shipping straight to Hawaii to begin their duty. My Grandfather had gone to Hawaii! He probably ate pineapple straight from the plant and he probably had juice that dripped down his chin as he laughed in the sunshine! My mind was spinning as I envisioned his life being spun before me. A life I knew nothing about until now. And like his life then, I now knew why he left when he thought he wasn’t needed anymore.
Later that week, I gathered my family and we took a drive to see him. I had to search to find his location as I had not been there since his funeral. There upon his headstone was a bronze star. I knew why he received that beautiful bronze star now and my heart swelled with pride. At his feet was a smaller additional stone that referred to his years in the service. I smiled as I laid the roses down at his feet. I understood now.
When I returned home from visiting him, I started digging for more information about him. There were two things that burned in my heart to find, his guitar that he loved to play Bluegrass music on and the flag that was draped over his casket.
Thinking back, I knew I had to track down the woman who was at the funeral. She presently was the key to getting the information that I needed. Snooping around the county records online, I discovered that he had gotten remarried not long before his death.
Writing down her name and address listed, I headed out on my mission. The women lived in a neighboring town so the drive wasn’t too bad but it did give me a chance to clear my head before I got there. What would I say to her? “Hey, I want my grandfather’s stuff!” I doubt that would go over well. No, I had to be respectful but still make her understand how important these things were to me. These belongings were things I wanted to pass down to my kids when I told them about the man who was their grandfather.
I pulled up outside of her house and just sat there in the car. The house was in various stages of neglect and it looked like the grass was being cut maybe every two weeks.
I walked up the walkway and stepped onto the porch. Memories flooded back as I thought about my grandfather’s porch when I was growing up. This was his porch for a while also. I wondered if he sat outside and waiting for anyone to come home like he did when I visited him so long ago.
I knocked on the door and waited. I knocked again. No one came. I decided to check around back. As I approached the rear of the house, an older woman from the house next door came out and asked me who I was. I fumbled for words as I didn’t know how to explain exactly why I was there. The lady next door told me the old woman had passed on about a month ago. My heart sank as she was my connection to my grandfather. The lady must have seen the despair on my face as she hurriedly told me that the old woman’s son in law came every so often to cut the grass.
I spent the next two weeks driving out to the house every day looking for someone cutting the grass. I had almost given up hope when I drove up and saw a truck with a wagon parked in front of the house. Hurriedly parking, I made my way around back and flagged down the man doing the mowing. Out of breath, I tried to explain who I was. The man dripping with sweat decided he needed a drink of water so motioned me into the back door of the house. We walked in through the kitchen and I waited patiently while he drank not one, but two glasses of water.
My heart beating wildly, I backed up and introduced myself properly. I then explained why I was there, my voice shaking while I spoke.
“Oh, you must mean that old flag above the fireplace!” He said as he motioned me into the living room. Taking a deep breath, I walked through the doors. There, on the mantle, was my grandfather’s flag. Someone had purchased a glass case trimmed in oak to keep it in. I walked over and ran my fingers over the top of the case removing a good amount of dust off of it. My grandfather’s flag. A flag he earned for the sacrifices he made for our country.
Asking about the guitar, the man pointed towards a closet. Opening the closet door, there sat my grandfather’s guitar case. I gently removed it and laid it out on the floor. Unsnapping the buckles, I lifted open the top. The familiar red velvet padded liner made my eyes swell with tears. I strummed over the strings and I heard the ache in my heart come to life.
The man was staring at me intently and when I looked up and met his eyes he shuffled around uncomfortably.
“Just take them” he said. “They are just sitting around in this old house collecting dust anyways”
I smiled and thanked him.
On my way back home, I thought about these family heirlooms of mine. How a chance article in an old newspaper had given me answers about my grandfather that I had buried in my heart for years.
I walked into the living room and walked to the fireplace. Upon my mantle now sits my grandfathers flag nestled with all my family pictures. Hanging on the wall is his guitar that, thanks to a new found love, still plays Bluegrass music.
~ The Apocalypse Cowgirl ~