To [the old] all the past is not a diminishing road, A but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years."
—William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily
At Christmas, one need not be aged to wander that meadow. This is a time, inevitably, whether one is alone or tossed about in family gatherings, for reminiscence. And sometimes what begin simply as sparkling, well-turned stories, random in their selection, may coalesce, if one is lucky, into a sense of a life, a gift of character.
I have a grandfather, Fred Moore, who was born on New Year's Day 1877, less than 12 years after Lincoln was shot. My generation of the family has always called him Grandad, with its connotations of whiskey and vigor. I met him when I was eight and he 75. At that time he lived in Portland, Ore. and acted as caretaker for the house and grounds of an elderly lady. During late-summer harvest, forced to choose between saving a handful of ripe plums or grabbing a branch to steady himself, he inexplicably clung to the plums and fell 22 feet to earth, breaking his back in two places. My first clear memory of him is his arrival home from the hospital six weeks later. He walked from the car upright and proud, batting away the assisting arms of my aunts and uncles.
"Of course I'm all right," he said in answer to my question. "Just you souse me one in the stomach and see how tough I am yet."
My timid little punch brought my knuckles against a full-torso cast beneath his starched shirt. For a moment, as he roared with delight, I stumbled back in awe. Here was a man as hard as brick.
He was told to wear his cast for a year and a half. But he kept a penknife beside his bed and in the evenings whittled away a bit of plaster here and there, "to get at the itches." In six months he had only a little vest remaining. The doctors, not for the first or last time, gnashed their teeth and fitted him for a brace. A theme of his life had been played out in this episode. He had transformed a dumb mistake into a triumph by raw strength and energetic healing. This has been going on for 102 years now, through dozens of sports and labors and injuries and illnesses, this rage to keep his body his own.
I remember Grandad at Christmas, remembering. My family lived in Eugene, 110 miles south of Portland, and he would visit. After tramping the neighbors' sodden backyards, stealing the year's last walnuts, he spoke of his own boyhood. He was one of nine children of Samuel and Elizabeth Moore, born on their fruit and vegetable and turkey farm in Columbia, Pa., in Lancaster County. He left school after the fourth grade, and there followed years of farm work, but he omitted those. The stories were of him and his brother Archie astride two horses, each with a foot on each rolling back, galloping down the lane, scaring hell out of the Amish neighbors. "We had to make our own fun," he said. "We had a cross-buck sheep, a ram, and we trained him from a baby to butt. Sundays all the neighbor boys would make a ring, everybody facing out, everybody blindfolded. When the sheep was put in the circle, he'd knock someone down, o' course. Then the boy who was butted got to aim the sheep. Sundays ended in fights sometimes."
There was a game in which 20 boys brought nickels and put them in a coffee can, which was buried. "One was a fox," Grandad said, "and the others were hounds. The fox got a horn and a five-minute head start. He had to blow the horn every five minutes and stay within a radius of five miles. If he got back to that can, he got the dollar. If a hound caught him, he got it and he'd be the fox the next time." These chases could run all day and past sundown into the night, when the premium was on knowing the secrets of the 78 square miles of fields and woods and Susquehanna River bank that might be covered. "Oh, I was a fine fox," said Grandad. "I'd lay in the weeds and they'd run right by. I'd blow the horn out one way and then I'd run back the other."
When he was eight (in 1885), Grandad had a toothache, the first of many. "We had an old Civil War soldier about the place and he took notice of my crying. He cut a sliver from his plug of tobacco and made a little ball and put it on the cavity, and the pain went away. Now after a while I put my tongue back there, and thinks I, 'Why, that's sweet.' It wasn't long before I had a toothache all the time. The old soldier saw through it and wouldn't give me more. So I got into his pants when he was asleep and with a sharp knife I cut my own." When Grandad was 12, his father, reading in the parlor, looked out the window and saw him accept a wad of tobacco from a friend. "He hailed me in and said, 'Son, you done that with a manner of experience. How long have you chewed?'
" 'About four years,' I said.
" 'Four years!' He said if I'd gone on that long there wasn't a chance of stopping me, so he just warned me always to be gentlemanly about it and pay some mind to where I would spit."
We now calculate that Grandad has gone through 18,800 packages of Beech-Nut, or about a boxcar full. "It has kept me healthy," he says. "Not a germ can pass my throat."
When I was 11, my father bought a cottage on the wooded shore of Dexter Lake, a new reservoir then filling on the Willamette River, 20 miles from Eugene. Grandad came to rid the land of its mounds of blackberry and poison oak. From then on I saw him often and spent summers at the cabin.
He was an elemental man. My mother disapproved of his housekeeping. Floors were acceptable to him dusty, glasses cloudy, tables becrumbed. He fell onto the furniture so heavily it cracked. He watched china mugs disintegrate in his hands.
He cleared tons of slash and debris from the property, frightening the little community of Lowell with the spectacular fires he built of it, until our lot was a deer park compared to the wilderness of the neighbors. He put in rhododendrons, a garden, flower beds, a gravel path. And through it all there was a bearlike roughness, as if after 78 years he still had not developed the skills to go with his strength. Time and again he fell in the lake, either stumbling in after hurling a log from shore, or pitching over his rowboat's outboard motor as he reached to free the propeller of weeds, or, falling asleep on the dock in a collapsible lawn chair, collapsing with it into the evening waters. Each time he would surface snorting and would calmly sidestroke in a wide circle, perhaps trying to imply some purpose to his dive, or taking full advantage of this unexpected chance to swim.
When my younger brother Bob and I summered at the lake, we were drawn into Grandad's routine. Before breakfast we would set out in the rowboat, powered by the tiny, temperamental outboard that would usually die in mid-lake. Having administered slaps and kicks to no effect, Grandad would pull out the oars and we would row on, trailing spinners and worms and the occasional dark patch of tobacco. When we reached the far side, we pulled the boat onto sharp black rocks and carried our fish—in its first years, the lake yielded several trout per crossing—across a highway and into a tavern, where the bartender would fry them for our breakfast, serving them with sausages poached in beer. There were sometimes words from the management about children in the tavern, but Grandad always said, "Those kids are with me and they ain't hurtin' nawthin' " with such indignant righteousness that action never was taken.
After Grandad concluded breakfast with a boilermaker, we fished on home. These returning journeys, with the sun on our backs and dizzying green eddies swirling behind the oars, were times to listen to Grandad talk of his youth, of being moved by an urge to get out and see the world, a need that would swell into a driving wanderlust. It seemed that his means to broad experience were two: fighting and selling.
"I was always sellin'," he said. "I sold all our market produce. When I was 15 I sold 39 gallons of oysters a week. I got them at the express office for 75¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a gallon and sold them around Columbia for $1.20. I learned how to make six gallons out of five by adding milk and broth. And I sold the convent in Columbia a gallon every Friday." This he said with the satisfaction of having had an unfair advantage, a cartel.
The fighting also started around home. "My dad wouldn't let us work on the farm in the heat of the day, so he taught us how to box under the chestnut tree. Then later when I was weaving silk in Paterson, New Jersey, I took boxing and wrestling lessons with a professor at the YMCA. I'm a lefthanded man, and a lefthanded man has it easier in fights." This lefthanded man had a lot of fights. "I boxed in smokers in Paterson and Pittsburgh and all the little towns. I wrestled at carnivals, challenging the carnival man, and, mostly. I won. I was quick and agile and I liked to surprise people." I could vouch for that. When I brought two pairs of boxing gloves up to the lake when I was 14 and he was 81, he jubilantly bloodied my nose with his first sneaky righthand lead.
In my mind, the fighting and selling are connected. They were both an expression of Grandad's inherent qualities. Selling, he was always the demonstrator, the reasonable man doing a favor for the buyer. In fights, he was never the aggressor, or could not bear to describe himself so. Fights, in the telling, were always forced upon him by eager, coat-holding brothers, or by hotheaded friends who dragged him to their defense. "In New Jersey I was going to see a girl up to Summit, and in the saloon there Big Alec the loomfixer stood up.
" 'Moore, I hear you throwed the Armenian.'
" 'Yep, I did!'
" 'Well, so did I. We got to wrestle.'
" 'No. I'm going to see my girl. These are new trousers.' "
His brother Archie appeared, to hold Grandad's shirt, indemnify his trousers against damage and take bets.
"So I throwed Big Alec twice. And then he was hot and wanted to fight in the streets. And I couldn't get my shirt back from Arch because the bets were going higher. I liked that girl, but I missed her that night, with my knuckles all stove in."
He liked a lot of girls. When he was 20, he went to Carlisle, Pa., where in later years he would watch Jim Thorpe play football. "I wove the first piece of silk made in the mill there. It was downtown in the big store, with my name up alongside it." In Carlisle he met Gertrude Lloyd, a girl of delicate features and glossy chestnut hair. "She had sisters who died of consumption," said Grandad. "She said to me, 'Let's wait five years. If I haven't got consumption by then, we can marry.' "
Grandad's reply was characteristically blunt. " 'Five years!' I said. 'I ain't going to stick around here that long.' " They corresponded, and he went back to Carlisle three years later, to bury her after she, too, had died of tuberculosis. Still later, he named his first son Lloyd, after her.
In February of 1898, when Grandad was 21, the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor and the Spanish-American War began. "I went down to Philadelphia to enlist, but my teeth turned me down," said Grandad. "I thought, well, they won't be so particular in the South." So began an odyssey through freight yards, railroad camps, barges and boiler rooms that was to last only four years but took many lake crossings to tell to his grandsons.
"First, I had all my teeth pulled out. I got to New Orleans and the doctor said, 'Why you're as sound a young buck as I ever seen, but I've got to look in your mouth,' and it turned out they were just as particular as in Philadelphia."
The war was over in August, so he settled for riding a pony and delivering messages between railroad bosses as the Louisville & Nashville laid track into Knoxville. "It was rough in them camps. I saw a colored man killed by a working boss and not a word said. I got out of there." He stamped the "Ivory" on bars of Ivory soap in Ivorydale, Ohio for 19¬¨¬®¬¨¢ an hour. "I got the bars stacked up way ahead of the packers. The foreman said, 'We're taking your helper away and giving you a raise to 23¬¨¬®¬¨¢.' " That seemed a speed-up tactic to Grandad, or so he said as a pretext for leaving. He slung hash on the packet up the Ohio from Cincinnati. In Pittsburgh he worked at what would be his life's real labor, the heating of iron and steel, but the wanderlust still surged in him. In 1900, when he was 23, the largest ship in the world, the Deutschland, put into Hoboken, N.J., and much of her crew deserted. Grandad signed on.
"That ship was 662 feet long and had four stacks and 56 boilers. I was a fireman, a stoker. The boilers were so big they had a fire on each side. I had to splice fire, keep a high fire on one side of the boilers, a low fire on the other." He worked four hours on, eight off. "A boy with a bucket came around and gave us a drink of whiskey an hour after we went down, and again an hour before we came up." There were a number of fights between the German and American factions, Grandad having to flatten a few heads with his shovel, but enough steam was kept up to drive the ship to England in five days and seven hours, a record crossing. "We carried 50 first-class, 2,250 second-class and 800 steerage passengers," said Grandad. "The rich ones passed a hat and collected $5,000 as a prize for the crew. None of that reached the boiler room, you understand."
There were compensations, such as a week in Hamburg. It is his recollection that he was there when Kaiser Wilhelm displayed his troops before Theodore Roosevelt in Berlin.
" 'Ted,' said William, 'What do you think?'
" 'William,' said Teddy, 'If I had an army like that, I could stand off the world.' Of course Teddy was just being polite. How was he to know the fool Kaiser would go and believe him?"
Grandad, quizzed by tender grandsons, was vague about exactly how he spent his time in Germany. He tended to roll his eyes and say only, "There were six blocks of concert-hall saloons in Hamburg. And could those German girls drink! Hoi yoi yoi!"
The Hamburg-American line hired a full German crew for the return voyage, so Grandad did kitchen duty. He stepped ashore freed of foreign cravings, ready to go to work and raise a family.
When I was 13, I hunted with my grandfather. I walked through the Oregon uplands ahead of him, carrying a 16-gauge shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot, for pheasants and squirrels. My instructions on seeing a deer were to lie down flat in a hurry because Grandad brandished a double-barreled 12-gauge loaded with solid lead slugs. We never saw a deer, which saved me, as I surely would have stood transfixed before the muzzle of that elephant gun, and Grandad, inflamed with buck fever at 80, surely would have let loose.
Because my father had told me of his hunting with Grandad, these times seemed to have a certain resonance, the echo of generations. "Dad hunted rabbits around Pittsburgh," my father had said, "and we ate rabbit often. We took walks, hunting mushrooms, collecting May apples and poke and dandelion greens, and one of us always carried the old single-shot .22. Once, walking, Dad took my shoulder and said, 'Look, there's a rabbit.' I peered into the thicket he was pointing at, but I couldn't see any rabbit. He carefully described the limb I was to follow, the twig, the leaf that was just above the rabbit's ear, and told me to aim just below there. I fired twice, and nothing moved.
" 'You missed,' he said.
" 'Of course I missed, because there's no rabbit there.'
" 'Shoot again.'
" 'Can't. No more shells.' I started into the thicket to show him he was just looking at a lump of sod, but he held me and took a quarter out of his pocket.
" 'Run down to McKees Rocks and get some more.' So he sat down and chewed tobacco and watched while I ran the two miles to McKees Rocks and got the cartridges and ran the two miles back. And when I shot again, a rabbit came kicking out of there and died at our feet.
" 'Don't tell me about rabbits,' he said."
Lest such a story leave an impression of coldness, my father always added that Grandad was a gentle man. I, in turn, wondered at his choice of words. "He loved flowers and growing things," my father said. "He kept our vases filled with roses. He always wore a boutonniere."
"But he destroyed the plants in picking the tomatoes," I said. "The rose in his lapel was torn from the neighbor's bush."
"But the thought, the gentleness," said my father, a good son, "was in his mind, anyway."
At one time I believed that my grandfather had stolen my grandmother from her adopted family in Tennessee. The misapprehension arose from complaints I heard my grandmother, Delia Clark Moore, voice when I was small. In fact, though it was clearly a crazy match, she had come North with him of her own will. "But she was the essence of a Southern girl," says her first daughter, my aunt, Vivian Bristow. "The tragedy of my mother was that she was totally naive and protected, without formal education. When she was swept off her feet by this handsome, traveled, hugely energetic man—my father—she simply couldn't know what she was getting into." They were married in Pittsburgh on Dec. 23, 1904. "She was horrified at the life in the mills, the fighting, the drunkenness," says Aunt Vivian. "She would have left in a week if she'd had a place to go."
Instead, she produced a family of three girls and two boys, the youngest of whom was my father. Grandad is revered by his children, who remember him as a powerful presence in times of crisis. "During the great flu epidemic of 1918-19, my mother and four of the kids were deathly ill," said my father. "He spent his days nursing us, taking us back and forth to the hospital. He had his own aids for our recovery—a mixture of onion juice and coal oil was one—and his instructions were not quite orders. 'Drink this! Hold this on your chest! Now go to sleep!' If he wasn't gentle, he was deeply concerned."
Where Grandad had once settled only lightly into an employer's bondage, he now shouldered responsibility.
"I worked in 35 different rolling mills, East and South," he said, "but after I had a family I'd only leave when the mill shut down. I was never out of work." The family made Pittsburgh home but lived in many houses.
Grandad's craft was puddling iron, now a lost art. He stood before a furnace containing 600 or 1,000 pounds of molten, impure iron. The melting point of impure substances is lower than that of pure ones. At about 2,800° "the iron was like water," he said. As the sulphur and phosphorus burned away, and the carbon was reduced, the melting point rose and the iron began to solidify. "When it started to muck up, it thickened to butter." Working through a hole in the furnace door with a long rod ending in a paddle blade, Grandad divided the iron and rolled and packed it into two or three 300-pound globs.
"At ready heat, you opened the doors of the furnace and grabbed a ball with the tongs," said Grandad. These were 18 feet long, suspended by a chain from a hand-operated trolley. Gripping the medicine-ball-sized sphere of glowing, dripping iron, he ran and danced at the end of the long, counterweighted tongs through the mill to the squeezer, a machine shaped like a huge coffee grinder, which pressed the glob into a billet. If he had allowed any air bubbles to be trapped in the iron, he found out here as they exploded under the squeezing pressure, blowing fragments and sparks through the mill. "You got to duck your head," Grandad said, "you shake it off." Nonetheless, my father told of seeing Grandad home from his 10-hour shift with his shirt burned from his back, my grandmother using tweezers to pick bits of beaded iron from the flesh, muttering softly as she dropped them into Grandad's coffee-can spittoon.
Grandad worked 43 years in the steel mills, puddling, reheating billets for rolling and, during both World Wars, heating artillery shells. No part of him was unaffected by the mills. Perhaps he is here now because of the cardiovascular strength built and maintained by years of straining before the hearth, running with sweat, gasping that smoky air. Yet at present he is threatened by the natural habits adopted to cope with such a life. For almost half a century he salted his food as if he were throwing Parmesan cheese on spaghetti. Now the salt he loves causes fluid to collect in his lungs, straining that once-great heart. The steel mills made him deaf, and in his conversational shout I always hear the under-roar of the furnaces. He was hardened, too, and made fatalistic by the mills' danger. He saw men die. He once told of watching two dozen workers engulfed by a catastrophic spill of tons of liquid steel, men wallowing in a flaming river. "Some of 'em went down and raised up to their knees again, and then they fell and they were gone." When the steel cooled, the entire slab was buried.
The mills were unionized during Grandad's first decades of laboring. He was a union man, but was not caught up in the theory of collective bargaining. He was caught up in the fights. "The strikes in McKees Rocks were the worst. The scabs came in to take our jobs. You had to fight. Those Westerners came in, broke the strike. You had to always keep up your guard. I had a nephew, Cleon Bartch, he was always keyed up, on edge. In a saloon on the west side Cleon ragged some big guy, a black-sheep s.o.b. who said he was a puddler. He went for Cleon and I was in the way. He said to me, 'Are you a puddler, too?'
" 'I am, and I work in a union mill,' I said. 'I don't want to fight, but you ain't going to beat this boy up.' We went outside and he hauled off and I hit him a quick uppercut and knocked him down, knocked him cold on the concrete. Cleon dragged me away, and I went home to Duquesne Heights, and I couldn't sleep that night, but the next day I asked around, and it turned out he just had a fractured skull."
Grandad loved to be in the right and he loved to fight, and he used the one to do the other. "Dad was always a fighter for causes," my father said. "He used the code, the idea that fighting in self-defense, or to save Cleon's bacon, was all right." In truth, Grandad was capable, in his role of defending angel, of goading his victims beyond endurance. "He did tend to arrange his fights," said Aunt Vivian. "The justifications were sometimes pretty thin." My father remembers Grandad saying, "The guy hit his own woman, so o' course I sloughed him." Had he asked the guy, my father still wonders, whether he had stopped beating his wife?
When the mills were closed by strikes or, later, by the Depression, Grandad, scornful of WPA work, fell back on selling. He sold anything he could lift, but his talents were especially suited to the purveyance of steel wool. "I paid 190 a pound for steel wool and got 75¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a pound. And boy, I'd sell. I had to demonstrate, and when a sensible person saw what steel wool would do when I demonstrated, he couldn't buy enough." It helped, too, that most of his prospective customers were women, around whom Grandad has always been galvanized into soppy flattery. "In Pittsburgh, of course, all the brass doorknobs were black, from corrosion and soot. I'd ask the lady if I could clean her doorknob and I'd just fold that steel wool on there and do one casual quick wipe [using the several hundred pounds of pressure with which he gripped the puddler's rod]. Why that brass would gleam. I'd remind the lady of the uses she could put it to, the black pots that would shine, the stained floors that would be brand-new wood."
His imagination sometimes took flight, as when he sold steel wool to a man in a bar on the solemn promise that it would cure baldness. "They said he come in a few days later shouting for my blood. Said the scabs was something awful." Thus there was another code that Grandad took full advantage of: caveat emptor.
Consumer laws were idle daydreams then, but most municipalities insisted on peddlers' licenses. Grandad regarded these as insulting impositions. "I was arrested 10 times," he said. "I talked my way out of nine of 'em. The magistrates always treated me right. Some bought some steel wool themselves." Once he shined the tarnished brass fixtures of a courtroom while waiting for his case to be called. "But one time, the mayor of the town was a woman. She hit me with a $2.50 fine. The men always treated me right."
Christmas with Grandad up at the lake seemed, as Keats said poetry should strike the reader, "almost [as] a remembrance." Surely this was because my father had inherited Grandad's sense of occasion. My Christmases as a child always had oranges on the tree and recollections of how it had been in Pittsburgh. "It was always cold," my father said, "and we kids were sent off to bed on Christmas Eve without there being a sign of a tree or present. But in the morning there would be an enormous fir tree, with not many ornaments but lots of oranges and apples jammed in the branches. You could never get around the back of it. The top had been lopped off and it was held up with ropes and wires. Sometimes it was steady and sometimes it wasn't." Grandad's trees still were that way 45 years later. "I happened to be at the trolley stop," my father recalled, "when a streetcar opened its doors and a tree came out. It was 14 feet tall and beneath it was my father. The streetcar was packed with people, most of them hollering. How he had the guts to force that tree on at rush hour I can't imagine."
My father swam and dived for the Langley High School team and ran cross-country, finishing eighth in the 1932 city championships. The first time Grandad saw his daughter Wilma swim, she won the Pittsburgh city championship in the 100-yard freestyle. In 1932 Wilma finished second behind Lenore Kight in the Pennsylvania qualifying for the Olympic Trials, but couldn't afford to travel to New York City to try out for the team. "He encouraged us in sport," said my father, "but not with pressure or what you would call intense interest." Not the way he would have if the sports had been those of combat.
In 1917, at age 40, he tried to join up for World War I. "I think it took nerve to try to enlist with five children," Aunt Vivian said recently. "Well, I told them I only had two," Grandad explained, and added with a disgust carried across 60 years, "They wrote me a letter saying to 'hold myself in readiness.' "
Aunt Vivian, as curious as the rest of the family about the roots of his disposition to engage an enemy, any enemy, asked why he was so eager to serve in that war. "Why, I wanted the experience of a soldier," Grandad replied. "Everybody wanted to wear a uniform them days."
Grandad worked in the Pittsburgh mills until 1947, when he was 70. Then, on the urging of his children, most of whom had moved West, he came to Portland, where he took a job as a watchman in a boiler works. By then he and my grandmother were long separated. Besides the broken back, he endured a siege of arthritis, which stiffened all his joints. There was, and is, something of the medieval concept of scourge in Grandad's view of disease or affliction. The invader must be driven out. So, grim and sweating in his room, which he'd heated to 100°, he worked his hands up the wall as far as he could reach, first to his shoulders, then his head, clawing a little higher each day. For hours he squeezed rubber balls in his gnarled hands. Gradually, at great cost, the arthritis eased, astonishing the doctors. Grandad then uttered the phrase that would become the traditional pronouncement of a cure: "I beat that rap."
If there seems a disturbing fixity to these stories, a false clarity achieved by ignoring the reader's natural questions about what moved this man, it comes about because the stories were told by Grandad himself, and thus shorn of motive. He simply told what he did, and put a good face on it. But after he moved to the lake cabin, I was present occasionally to watch the working of his mind, to see things unfiltered.
He seemed always attracted to his opposite. Clearly this was true in his choice of a wife, and I saw it again as he charmed the many elderly widows of Lowell. His favorites were invariably the most religious, the most easily embarrassed, the most domestic. One late summer day, when the blackberry wine was foaming in its keg, Grandad called me from the house. "Trouble," he said, pointing at one full-skirted woman coming from town bearing a pie, while there advanced from the direction of the lake another carrying bread. I had to run out to the first woman, accept the pie and say Grandad was standing stark naked in the bath-tub but he'd be over shortly to thank her properly. He took care of the second. "Look, kid," he said when he had a moment, "make sure you stick a piece of adhesive tape on the bottom of these pans and put the right widow's name on each one. Ain't polite to return the wrong pan."
When he was 80, Grandad took his first spin around the lake on an aquaplane. Attempts at water skiing followed. He never really rose to the surface, but doggedly refused to let go of the tow rope even after his skis and baggy swim trunks had been ripped away by the rush of water. I remember the double take of a neighbor as a nude torpedo shot across his bow.
In his personal appearance, Grandad was often comically vain. On fishing trips, when my father and his friends grew beards, Grandad shaved daily, bending over icy streams or trailing a wake of lather behind the boat. For 85 years he has used buttermilk as an aftershave lotion, and beams when visitors tell him he doesn't look a day over 70. In fact, my father first explained the concept of vanity to me with specific reference to my grandfather. So the term, or the failing itself, has always carried with it a trace of the forgiveness we grant the elderly.
Grandad has played on this. "He's made a career out of his age," says my father, and nowhere more than in his poetry, which is terrible, and which everybody encourages nonetheless since he didn't begin writing it until he was in his 70s. "I am a daisy/I am a pet /I walk in the rain/and never get wet./The girls they all love me/the boys they all say/'There goes Fritz Bumanickle/ From Columbia, P.A.," is a sprightly example. Others, trite and sappy, are far less forgivable. It was horrible how the widows melted before them. If they didn't, he could follow with violin music—he played a soulful Red River Valley—or ear-splitting shrieking on a lilac leaf.
When he was 82, Grandad took a year away from the lake to work as caretaker of Emerald Park, near our home in Eugene. One afternoon, walking through the park on my way home from school, I noticed a gaggle of widows on the lawn, wailing. Drawing nearer, I saw an overturned rotary mower, a boot cut nearly in half and great russet stains in the grass. "He's killed himself," cried one of the most excitable. "He's crawled away to die." But the bloody trail led not to his corpse but to the house and telephone, the book opened to the hospital's number. "He sure can bleed," said the emergency-room doctor. No major nerves were severed, and the muscles and tendons healed within the year.
Grandad's father had lived to 89, his mother to 91. In 1961, when he was 84, he traveled by bus back to Columbia for a reunion with three brothers and a sister. Their aggregate age was 413 years. He was the most vigorous of this long-lived family, but, inevitably, Grandad began to experience the trials of real age. Having been a voracious reader of Western pulp and the National Geographic, he was stymied by a cataract when he was 87. "There is a beginning of a second one on your other eye," said the doctor, "but it will be 10 years before that one will occlude the pupil. You won't be around by then, so we won't operate on that side." Ten years later, when Grandad needed the second operation, the surgeon himself had died.
In his late 80s he had trouble with what he called his "prostrate gland," and went to see the doctor to discover why he couldn't urinate. He watched as a catheter was run up the urethra to clear a passage. Then he went out and bought a similar tube and used it himself, keeping it, when not in need, wrapped around his hatband. "Finally," he said, "I had 'em ream me out in there." At 97 he had surgery for removal of his gall bladder (which, when placed on the tray by the surgeon, fell to pieces). That scar, above his hipbone, which he unashamedly displayed, looked two years old when I saw it six weeks later. That was also the year Grandad took part in his last barroom fight, knocking over a mugger in the men's room of a Burnside Street dive in Portland.
Grandad has always followed sport, and it has always been a showcase for his quixotic stubbornness. Despite taking a beating betting on Woody Hayes bowl teams, he wagers on, undaunted. At 95, he leaned over the rail as I warmed up before the 1972 Olympic marathon trials. "How many racers are there in this, anyway?" he asked.
"About a hundred."
"A hundred! Why, you ain't got no chance."
The pleasure of tying with Frank Shorter for first was thus immeasurably enriched by Grandad's astonishment. "I didn't think you could do it, kid," he said. "But it's good you can run, because you sure can't box."
Grandad's remaining participant sport is pool, and he has a table in the basement of Aunt Vivian's house in Portland, where he now lives. He beats me about four games out of seven. When a reporter from the Portland Oregonian interviewed him a few days before he turned 100, Grandad either beat him so badly or rubbed it in so cruelly that the score did not appear in the paper.
I remember a conversation we had just before that 100th birthday, when I sought to warn him against the letdown that might follow. "I know, I know," he said. "All these geezers, they get to a hundred and the next morning they croak. Well, don't you fret none about me. I'm going for 110."
It gets harder for him. I have heard him on mornings when he has fluid in his lungs, when he has had to pop a nitroglycerine pill to relieve the pain of his angina. "It's rotten, getting old," he said.
Now that he has gotten old, and enjoyed it, and played on it, sometimes Grandad asks whether he has not overdone it. "All my old friends are dead," he says. At such times one wishes to set down for him the value of his life to the rest of us. Through sheer age he has invested himself with a remarkable power as an exemplar, as proof that some small fraction of us will survive a century of labor, of wars, social upheavals and personal loss. He is not mute testimony to antiquity, as is an Egyptian dagger, nor even a reliable history book, but simply a man, gotten this far by his wits and pugnacity. His is the message of the athlete: "Always get up."
"The one thing he has hated all his life," says Aunt Vivian, "is loss of control, loss of his dignity. Now he can't stand getting old, even though the reason he got this old is because he can't stand getting old." His pride, once his salvation, is his danger. Grandad still acknowledges no limits. After one painful morning, he danced and shadowboxed in the afternoon. "I always come back," he said, then mowed the lawn and dug up his tomato plants. Having done too much, he was in pain again the next morning.
Yet I write this knowing full well that Grandad will read it with a critical eye. And he is not yet beyond a poke at my defenseless nose.
So let him read no preachments on moderation. I will say only that his toughness is absolutely without end.