Grandfather Free Verse

My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer.
My paternal grandparents trying to stay cool during a brutal Missouri summer. The handwritten note says, “100 degrees in shade..”

The Day the Call Came

The day the call came
We had just dished up the ice cream.
A special treat for a Friday farm dinner,
(Not to be confused with supper.)
Mother had made it early that morning in ice cube trays.
“Freezer ice cream,” she called it,
Vanilla, made with Junket tablets to keep it creamy,
Even as it froze.
Not as good as the real, homemade ice cream cranked by hand,
But a whole lot easier.
And America was just starting its long affair with convenience.

The call came over the telephone
Mounted on the farmhouse wall.
With two bells for eyes,
You spoke into its honking, beaklike nose.
The earpiece cradled appropriately
Where the right ear should be,
While a hand crank made a poor excuse
For a drooping left ear.
It was a party line,
So the snoopy widow woman down the road
Knew as soon as we did.

The call came, and the man on the phone
Said Grandpa had just keeled over dead
At the auction over in Poosey.

So, we all got up—Mom, Dad, Big Brother and me,
And climbed into the ’50 Ford sedan
Dad was so proud to own.
The first car he’d ever bought brand new.

By the time we got to the auction –
It was a farm sale, really —
Where the worldly possessions of one farm family
Were being sold off.
One at a time.
By the hypnotically fast-talking auctioneer.
Not as depressing as the foreclosure sales
That were all too common
Just a few years before in the Depression.
This was a voluntary sale,
But a little sad nonetheless.

Some farmer was getting too old to run the place,
And didn’t have kids—or leastwise kids who wanted to farm.
A lot of boys joined the service in those days,
Or headed to Kansas City to find work, and a little excitement,
Rather than stay and try to coax a living
Out of that hilly, rocky dirt.

The man at the auction told us
Grandpa had been standing there in the sun with everybody else.
They were just about to start the bidding on the John Deere hay rake
When he grabbed his chest and fell right over.

Years later, they told me when he was a grown man
Grandpa had gone down to the river,
And been baptized, and filled with the Holy Ghost,
With the evidence of no longer speaking in profane tongues.
For, it was well known Grandpa had been gifted
In the art of colorful language.
“He used to could cuss by note,” was how Mother put it.
But after the washing with water and the Word,
Grandpa was never heard to swear again.
I only knew him as a white-haired old man
With a merry smile, and infinite patience
With Grandma, who required it.

And that was it, really.
Nothing more to say,
Except for the understated condolences
Of the country folk.
Nothing more to do,
Except for my father,
Now lately promoted to the role of the family elder,
Who assumed the duties and made the necessary arrangements.
Although I didn’t know quite what had happened,
I felt a lurch … as something shifted beneath me …
And I was yanked one more notch forward.

By the time we got back to the house,
The ice cream had long since melted
And now was returning back to solid state,
As it curdled in the September heat.


NOTES:  I got the news this week that a friend’s grandfather had passed away. This death was expected, and from all reports, merciful in coming. But there is still grieving to be done and respects to be paid. You can be happy your loved one is no longer suffering, but terribly sad that they’re gone.

This all got me thinking about my own grandfather, and day close to 60 years ago, and a bit of a poem I wrote about that day as best as I could recall it. It seemed fitting to haul this out of the vault, dust it off and publish it again.

Back in the 1950s on the farm, we didn’t have air conditioning. Shoot, we had just gotten electricity a few years before.

So when the long Missouri summers dragged on and the humidity rose, folks headed outdoors to keep cool. When the nights were really hot, we’d sleep outdoors.

The poem is about a day pretty much like the one documented in this photo. In fact, the events took place not too many days after this photo was shot.

Father Haiku

Dad's shirt from his days at Reeder Auto Parts
Photo courtesy of Terry Ball

Greased-stained forever,
Dad’s shirt bore proof of hard work,
and so did his hands.


NOTES: Dad was a son of the Great Depression, accustomed to hard work. He didn’t have the chance to finish high school due to the need to find work to contribute to the family.  The work available was farm hand labor at a dollar a day.  Hoeing beans, putting up hay, stripping blue grass.  Good money if you could get it.

Too young for World War I, he got a pass for World War II because by that time he was the only adult male on his own farm.  The idea was to keep all the farms operating to provide for the war effort.  So while all 4 of his brothers-in-law went off to fight, Dad stayed home growing corn and soybeans and producing eggs and milk.

In the post-war prosperity, Dad prospered and saved his money.  Finally, in the late 1950s, he made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, sold the farm, and went into the farm implement business.

We moved from the farm to the farm town of Marshall, got a house with indoor plumbing and central heat.

Things went fine for a few years, but then something happened.  I was young and didn’t get the full story.  But either through some poor marketing decisions, or through some financial shenanigans by a partner, the business went into debt and had to be sold.

It was a defeat for Dad, but he didn’t let it defeat him.  He landed a job in the shop at Reeder Auto Parts.  It had to be tough going from the boss to being an employee again, but Dad never complained.

He just showed up everyday and kept chopping wood to do what it took to pay the mortgage and keep hamburger on the table. I recall a time when I was whining about needing a few dollars to buy some knickknack or the other.

My older brother Larry took me aside and gave me the older brother admonishment.  “Shut up and quit bothering Dad,” he said.  “Don’t you realize we could lose the house?”

I had no idea.

But, Dad kept working away.  Mom got a job baking pies at the MFA Grocery Story and we didn’t lose the house.

Let it be said that Dad was a master mechanic.  He made things work.  He also was perpetually marinated in grease and gasoline.

He would clean his hands with Goop grease cutter and then wash his hands with Lava soap.  But they never really got truly clean.

When I hung out with him I usually got the job of cleaning parts in gasoline.  I grew to hate the smell, and my mechanical ability has suffered accordingly.

He eventually went on to establish a freelance mechanic business.  He primarily served the farmers around Marshall, making house calls to repair balky tractors, combines, corn pickers, and hay balers right where they died out in the fields.

His services were in demand, and he had all the work he wanted.  Sometime the farmers would pay him in produce.  Like the old German farmer Ludwig who sent Dad home with a quart jar of canned horseradish.

As the family story went, brother Larry returned home late one night scrounging around in the refrigerator for something to eat.  Seeing a jar of something that looked like gravy, he unscrewed the lid and took a big snort.

Farmer Ludwig’s horseradish nearly blew the top of his head off.

I’d love to have some of that horseradish today.

 

Suburban Summer Sonnet

Suburban summer

Our Paradise

Wafting comes the mower’s comforting hum,
Assuring all is just as it should be.
Our gates and fences all are rightly plumb,
We celebrate our capability.

New curbs and gutters sluice away wild rain,
Alarms and locks protect our doors from breach,
Our lives arranged to minimize our pain,
Designed to keep us safely out of reach.

But wreaking roots upheave the sidewalk path,
And worms devour our precious woolen thread,
The black and red mold creep into our bath,
Insomnia disturbs our peace in bed.
Despite our engineering and our math,
Our paradise is something less instead.


NOTES:  Summertime has finally come to the Pacific Northwest.  It seems fitting to haul out this sonnet from last year.

Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate material comforts and modern conveniences.  Probably even more than most of my friends and colleagues.

I was born in the middle of the last century, and started out life on a farm that was primitive, even for that time.

How primitive?  Well, we milked our own cow, raised our own chickens for eggs, butchered our own hogs, and raised our own vegetables in the garden.

For special occasions and Sunday dinners, Mother would grab one of the slower chickens, chop off her head, and fry her up.

When we sold our farm to the Amish, they took one look at the house, and commenced on an immediate upgrading and remodeling project.

As for me, I was delighted in my new home in a Missouri farm town of 12 thousand souls.  For the first time in my life I had my own room, central heat, and indoor plumbing.

I could take a bath in something that wasn’t a galvanized wash tub in the middle of the kitchen floor.  In freshly drawn water that hadn’t been previously used by other members of the family.

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  I didn’t even notice that we didn’t have air conditioning, even when the Missouri summer visited its triple digit heat and humidity  upon us.

So, I am thankful for many things.  I am so  thankful I can enjoy sardines from Norway and wine from France.

I am grateful for antibiotics, and the miracles of modern medicine.  I missed the polio epidemic, but just barely.  Had I been just a couple of years older, I could have suffered withered limbs or worse, like the older brothers and sisters of some of my friends who were not so fortunate.

All of my ancestors as far back as I can research were dirt farmers.  I am grateful for a professional job in a meaningful enterprise.  (Inside work.  No heavy lifting.)

Many years ago, when I moved out to Seattle, we settled in the suburbs because — even then — the city was too expensive.  We made a serendipitous choice, because our little suburb has become a highly desirable place for Microsoft employees coming here to live from all over the world.

Heck, in one of those specious magazine “Top 15” lists, our little suburb was once ranked the “Most Friendly Town in America.”

Crime is low.  Violent crime is virtually non-existent.  The weather is temperate.  People take care of their property.  Unemployment is not really an issue.  You can walk or jog without fear.

Yet, sometimes it is good to remember that even heaven on earth is not really heaven.

Good Father, a Tanka

Raymond Ball gave me a good example of fatherhood
My father with one of his grandsons

 Father, all I ask —
unbutton your coat, and warm
my toes on your skin.

This weary world is so cold,
and I am a trembling reed.


Notes on the form:

Tanka is a type of Japanese short poetry that some believe predates haiku.  Rather than the three line 5/7/5 haiku for, tanka adds two more seven syllable lines to form a 5/7/5 7/7 pattern.

From what I can determine, the content tanka tends to be more personal than haiku.  Some are even love notes passed between lovers.  But many also express an appreciation of nature.

I chose the tanka form for this poem inspired by my own father, and written as a prayer.

Notes on the content:  The example of a good father

I had the most excellent good fortune to have been blessed with a wonderful dad.  Because of his example, I found it easy to comprehend the idea of God as a good and loving father.

One of my earliest memories goes back to a winter day when I must have been no more than 3 years old.  Word came to our farmhouse on the party phone line that something strange had been found in a tree a couple of miles from our place.

We all bundled up and went to the scene.  It seems that a large weather balloon had fallen back to earth and gotten snagged high up in the tree.  It seemed to me that it took forever for the local high school-age farm lads to determine how best to climb the tree and free the object from its captor.

As the proceedings dragged on and on, I got colder and colder, and my feet were freezing.  When I  complained to my dad, he scooped me up, took off my socks and shoes, and stuck my tiny feet inside his coat and inside his shirt to warm them up.

A bit about my dad

He was a provider.  He worked hard all his life to provide for his family the best way he knew how.  In his youth during the Great Depression, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day (and glad to get it!)  Then, after saving up, he bought his own 80 acre dirt farm, which he operated for many years.

I came along as a late child, as Mom and Dad were facing middle age.  When I was young, he sold the farm, made the one big entrepreneurial move of his life, and bought a Ford Tractor dealership with a couple of partners.  When that business ultimately failed, Dad kept one working, this time as a mechanic.  Through hard times and disappointments, he just kept chopping wood, and doing the best he could.

He possessed a merry disposition, quick with a story or a quaint country expression.  But he was capable of administering effective corporal punishment when required.  His boys learned early on that he was not afraid to use his belt to emphasize a disciplinary point.  I must say his spankings, while no fun, were short, undamaging, and few.

He was honest to a fault, even refusing to charge mark-ups on the parts he bought to use in repairing cars, trucks, and farm implements.  Even though that was standard practice in auto and farm repair shops everywhere, it just didn’t seem right, he said, to take that money for nothing.   It was known throughout the county that if Ray Ball couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed.

And in those rare cases when he could not get the  tractor to run or the corn picker to pick, Dad wouldn’t charge the farmer anything at all.

An example as a husband

Dad was faithful to our mother throughout his life, and he clearly adored her.  And when she declined in health past the point where he could care for her at home, he visited her in the nursing home every day, personally spoon feeding lunch to her.

Finally, Dad did his best to expose his four sons to faith and to the love of God as he had come to know it.  He had seen his own father undergo a dramatic adult conversion, which resulted in a softening and sweetening in the disposition of my grandfather.  This must have had  an effect on my own father, because he was always a gentle and kind man.

Although my brothers and I all initially rejected the faith of our parents, at least some of us eventually came around.  Dad passed away in 2000, but I would like to think that Dad would appreciate this little poem, if he were around to read it.