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.

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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.

 

Father haiku

Dad's last bottle of Old Spice

Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
I’ll wear some today.


NOTES:  One of the most precious mementos I found as we prepared my parents’ home to be sold a couple of years ago was a bottle of my father’s after shave lotion tucked away in a bathroom cabinet.  He must have purchased this particular bottle just before he went into the nursing home because it was still nearly full.

Dad had been an Old Spice man as far back as I could remember, and the rich fragrance stirred up a host of memories.  You see, this last bottle dates back to the 1980s and it smells completely different from today’s weak sauce sold under the Old Spice brand.

Proctor & Gamble bought the Shulton company in 1990 and started changing things.  I noticed that the glass bottles gave way to plastic.  The grey stopper changed to red.  But worst of all, the new owners messed with the formula of the lotion itself.

When I found that old bottle of my Dad’s and took my first whiff, I was shocked at how much stronger and complex it was compared to the modern recipe.

I hadn’t smelled that classic fragrance for decades, and there is something powerful about the olfactory sense that connects us with the past.

Dad had taught me how to shave lathering up his Old Spice shaving mug and soap and brush.  I scratched off my thickening peach fuzz using his heavy-duty razor, the kind that took the old style disposable blades.

Of course, I nicked myself and he had to show me how to staunch the bleeding with an alum stick.  Thank goodness he didn’t use a straight razor.  I probably would have bled to death.

Dad taught me how to change oil and change a tire.  And though he was a master mechanic, he never was able to get me beyond the most basic level of automobile repair.  My fault, not his.

Dad taught me more important things, as well.  Things like keeping your word and doing an honest day’s work.  Things like owning up to your mistakes and saying you’re sorry.

Although the Great Depression short-circuited his education and forced him to drop out of high school to earn a living, he never stopped learning.  He left behind a robust collection of books including the writings of ancient historians and early church fathers.

He took his faith seriously, and didn’t make it too complicated.  The most worn of all his books was his Bible.  It was literally falling apart from use, held together with duct tape.

Of course, as a teenager, I was much too smart to go for my father’s myths and legends.  It was only after pursuing my own path and hitting some rough dead ends that I wound up pretty much where he had been all along.

It was amazing how much wiser the Old Man seemed to me when I was 28 than he did when I was 18.

He taught me perseverance in hard times.  When his one foray into business failed when I was in grade school, he swallowed his pride, got up the next day and went to work for someone else to support his family.

When my brother Bill died in a scuba-diving accident leaving a wife and 3 young kids, my Dad flew halfway across the country to handle matters.  In the midst of what must have been his own inconceivable grief, brought that little family back with him and took care of them until they could get back on their feet.

The most poignant lesson Dad taught me was about faithfulness as demonstrated by how he treated my Mother.  Theirs was not fairytale romance.  When they got married in the depths of the Great Depression, Dad was working on a farm crew for a dollar a day.  He had to talk his boss into giving him Saturday off so he could have the whole weekend for a honeymoon.

They started out dirt poor, and only very gradually worked their way into what might be called the lower middle class.  It was a great day when we moved to town and got central heat and indoor plumbing!

But, to me, theirs was a great love story.   Dad always treated Mom with affection and respect.  There was never any question about his loyalty to her.  And, when Mom eventually began her long slide into dementia, Dad cared for her personally.  And when she finally had to enter a nursing home, he visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

So, a couple of times a year, I pull out that grey stopper from Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice and splash some on my face in his honor.  All day long I catch whiffs of bay leaf and clove and cinnamon, and I’m reminded of what it means to be a good man.

 

Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.

Ancestor haiku

Charlie Barlow and his team

Generations tilled
to eke out a meager life. Now I
scribble in comfort.


Notes:  I have to go all the way back to England in the 1600s to find an ancestor who had a desk job.  To the best of our family research, my great-great-great (etc.) grandfather was a clergyman back in the old country, who had the poor judgment to raise the ire of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In those days it didn’t take much to get your head separated from the rest of you.  Heretics and troublesome free thinkers could easily meet the same fate.

My forebear wised up in the nick of time and caught one of next boats after the Mayflower to the New World.  We are not sure if he stayed in the preaching business in his new surroundings in the Connecticut Colony, but as far as we can tell, all of those who followed him were dirt farmers.  (Which probably seemed like a safer line of work back then.)

Several generations later, after my great grandfather Frederick Ball narrowly survived the Civil War, he came back  home to find Connecticut getting crowded.  So, he headed west for the promise of cheap land and opportunity.  He wound up in southern Iowa, got married, acquired some land, and raised a family.

One of his sons was my grandfather, and he, too became a farmer, moving to Missouri to chase opportunity.  When my father came along, he showed considerable mechanical aptitude and had hopes of going to school to study engineering.  But the Great Depression dashed those dreams.  Dad had to drop out of school before he finished high school.  To  help support the family he became a farmer.

And  who knows, except for a twist  of fate or two, I might have followed right along and farmed myself.

But  my father had a bit of a mid-life crisis in his 40s.  When I was in first grade, he sold the farm and went in with his brother-in-law and a neighbor to buy a Ford Tractor dealership.  It was his one big entrepreneurial gamble in life.  And for a few years, it looked like it might pay off.

But some lean times for farm prices and some skullduggery by the neighbor-turned-business-partner, and the operation went broke.  They had to sell out cheap, and Dad was forced to fall back on his mechanical skills to make a living.

What this meant for me was that I spent most of my formative years in the town rather than on the farm.  So, while there were centuries of agrarian instincts bred into me, it didn’t take me long to adapt to indoor plumbing, central heating, and really close next-door neighbors.

And I certainly didn’t miss getting up early to gather eggs, milk the cow, or slop the pigs.

Oh sure, I still hoed beans, bucked bales, and detasseled corn as a hired hand in the summer.  But that was a job — not a way of life.

Even if my father had never left the farm, odds are I would have eventually left anyway.  That was the demographic trend during the whole last half of the last century.  The kids went away to school or to a big city for work, and tended never to move back.

It’s been hard on the farming communities.  And I know it was hard on the old folks left behind as their kids fanned out across the country.

When I stop to think about how much different my life has been from the generations before I marvel.  I have no explanation for why my entire adult career has been all inside work with no heavy lifting.

My father’s body bore the marks of a hard life in harder times.  He was kicked in the head by an ornery horse, and had headaches for the rest of his life.  His leg was caught between a hay wagon and a wall, and he walked with a limp.  He even had a few scars from surviving what he believed to be a mild case of small pox.

If the American Dream involves working hard and ensuring your children have a better life, then my parents and their generation certainly did their part.

Thanksgiving haiku

clothes-pin-bag
We may have been poor
but we always had clean clothes.
Our mother made sure.


Notes:

I hadn’t seen a clothes pin bag like this is decades.  But, recently, in Sonoma of all places, in the laundry room of a little house my family had rented, I found this item from the past.  It was identical to the one my mother used all through the 1960s.

It seemed to be just another part of the retro-nostalgia vibe of the décor.  It took me back in time.  Back to that little house on East Mitchell Street, where a Missouri farm family found their slice of the American Dream.

My mother used to wash our clothes in an electric wringer washing machine that was more wash tub than machine. I’m pretty sure my dad must have proudly ordered it back in the 1950s from the Montgomery Ward catalog to make life easier for his wife, our mother.

The modern feature was the wringer that squeezed the excess water out of the clothes to speed up the line drying.

I suppose it was a big step up from the washboard down by the stream, but it still required considerable manual labor.

One day, my mother absentmindedly fed some clothes through the wringer and got her left hand caught.  I remember blood and crying and a bent wedding ring.

But, all in all, that was a minor event in the grand scheme of things.  We knew more than one farmer who had lost a whole arm in a disagreement with a stubborn corn picker.

When it became apparent that the first location of the clothesline in the back yard was interfering with the natural layout of the whiffle ball diamond, my dad relocated the clothesline, even though uprooting and transplanting the poles amounted to considerable work.

Is it my imagination, but is there nothing like the smell of clothes dried on the line in the July Missouri sun?  It’s a fragrance Proctor & Gamble can only wish they could duplicate.

Bounce just doesn’t cut it.

Hot car haiku

Raymond Ball and Ralph Ball

Strategic brothers,
knew the key to a girl’s heart
involved a hot car.


Notes:

My father  got in on the ground floor of the automobile revolution.  He learned auto  mechanics by hanging around the only garage in his small Missouri farm town.  He cut his teeth fixing Ford Model Ts, and kept learning from there.

Although he spent years trying to make a living as a farmer, and then as a businessman, he ultimately returned to mechanic work.  It was really his true calling.

He could fix things, and make them run. He didn’t buy new cars.  He bought old cars in need of work and fixed them up.

When it became clear to him that he was going to be a mechanic for the rest of his life he went out in his back yard, and proceeded to build himself a proper workspace.  It looked just like a barn, because that is what he had built before during his days on the farm.

But he built it himself from scratch when he was well past 60 years old.  Of course, he used reclaimed lumber scavenged from various tear-downs.

In his later years he ran a mechanic repair business out of his new garage.  He was the only mechanic for miles around who would make house calls.  The farmers all over Saline County knew that he could be depended on to fix their tractor, hay baler, or corn picker.

The photo at the top of this post shows my father, left, and his brother, Ralph, in front of one of the hot cars of the day.