Thursday, February 14, 2008


Papaw is what I used to call my Grandfather. His name was Marion Lister and he was one of the more influential people in my formative years. My parents divorced when I was young and both worked full time, so the grandparents wound up being the primary caregivers in my case. I've often thought that this gave me a different perspective than my peers who were raised by the baby boomer generation. My grandparents were from the era of the Great Depression and World War Two as opposed to having come of age in the time of Sputnik.

They would often talk about what it was like in those days and the difference between the world that they described and the world of the mid to late seventies was like night and day. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I was being raised by people who never imagined they would see a man walk on the moon, a world where not just television was unusual, but a world where radios were rare. They described the grinding poverty of rural Kentucky in the kind of detail that made an impression on one so young.
I think it was this sort of background that made my Grandfather one of the hardest working people alive. Sadly, he was saddled with a grandson interested in art and philosophy. (A nice way of describing sloth) I remember him saying things like, "Hard work is it's own reward." I would just scratch my head and wonder, "What the hell does that mean? Really? What does that mean?" I came to understand that it meant my Grandfather would rather be working than doing just about anything else. It also meant there would be certain expectations of work from me, and here lies the source of much angst, and frustration.

Papaw was going to teach me the value of hard work and the dollar if it killed him. Although he had retired from the RC Cola company some years before he was not happy to rest on his laurels. Nope, his idea of retirement was to start a small lawn care business. This would keep him busy and teach me how to sweat. Understand, at the time, I was ten years old. This was the era of Star Wars, Atari and Saturday morning cartoons. The people at Hasbro and Mattell were making sure there were all sorts of overpriced little plastic toys about and the TV assured me I couldn't live without them. As much as I hated pushing lawnmowers during summer break I was enjoying the cash flow. Without question, I was the richest kid on my block. In a typical summer I would make a few hundred bucks mowing yards with my grandfather... And I would spend like a sailor on shore leave as soon as I got it.I was feverish with the desire to make money. Getting enough meant I could buy all the Star Wars action figures and comic books in the world. This kept me hard at work pushing mowers through many a summer day that would have been better spent doing things other boys my age were doing. Fishing, riding bikes, playing football... Activities that eluded me as I was heading out to cut grass with Papaw. Of course, the grass is always greener on the side of the fence you aren't on. The kids in the neighborhood seethed with jealousy as I had toys they couldn't afford, but I wondered if it was such a good thing. The only time I ever saw those toys was when the rain poured and we couldn't mow. This taught me something at a young age that eludes many people their whole lives. If you don't have time to play with your toys, then what's the point of having them?

In time, the money failed to inspire, and the last thing I wanted to do was go and mow yards. I longed for sunny days that were my own. I would search the skies hoping for the kind of summer rainstorm that would keep us from cutting grass. A reprieve from the hard work that my Grandfather felt was its own reward.

On one such day I went across the street to play board games with my friend Anthony. The rain was coming down in a slow drizzle and there still seemed to be a chance that the weather would turn and allow Papaw and I the opportunity to mow. He wanted me to stay close and be ready. So as Anthony and I played Monopoly on the front porch, I watched Papaw tinker with his mowers on the tailgate of an old Dodge pickup. Tinker is really the wrong word. Papaw wasn't mechanically inclined. He mostly just beat on his mowers with whatever tool was handy while using words that were wildly inappropriate for children...often at the top of his voice.

As my friend and I played Monopoly (and committed choice phrases to memory) I began to realize that it was almost noon. Every day, no matter what he was doing, my Grandfather would drop everything and fix lunch for my Grandmother. She had yet to retire and was working in a textile factory called the Palm Beach Corporation. I could rail all day long about what a shit hole that place was but it's enough to say it was the sort of depression era anachronism that by then could only be found in the south. The steamy hell of that sweat shop would leave my Grandmother so spent she could barely walk. Forget about making it to her car and going somewhere for lunch. The whistle blew at exactly noon and blew again at 12:30pm. In that window, employees were expected to eat, relieve themselves, rest, or whatever they needed to do to prepare for more hours of hard labor in temperatures that pushed 115 degrees inside the factory.

My Grandfather was always sure to get to Palm Beach early enough to park near the front doors. That way my grandmother didn't have to walk too far to cool off, rest, and try and eat something. I remember the way Papaw would open the glove box of the old pickup truck and make a small table of the front seat so my grandmother could eat lunch there. I loved to watch him do this. He was always so focused and mindful of what he was doing. This was in contrast to the way he worked for money. That work was always manic and detached, a means to an end. Watching him make my grandmother's lunch and preparing a place setting for her was work that was loaded with meaning and significance.

This important business had slipped Papaws mind on that rainy summer day. I saw him check his watch and swear a few oaths as he ran into the house to throw together a few items for Grandmother's lunch. Pans clanged and cabinet doors slammed. Moments later Papaw emerged with a bag of stuff. He leaped into the front seat of the old pickup and revved the engine several times just show the old contraption he meant business. The tires squealed a bit as he slammed the stick into reverse, backed out of the driveway onto the hill and made ready to rocket off to Grandmother, lunch and glory.

I think this would be a good point in the story to talk about the importance of making sure your pickup's tailgate is closed before you tear off up a steep hill. It's especially important if you run a small business from the back of that truck and store the tools of your trade there. When Papaw put pedal to metal everything sailed out the back as if shot from a canon. Three lawnmowers, a spare tire, gas cans, oil cans and tool boxes briefly took flight, then surrendered to gravity. The ensuing crash was loud enough to be heard over the roar of the old pickups revving engine.

As the mowers had wheels and the spare tire and oil cans were round they didn't just hit ground and halt, they hit the ground running. The best was the tire, which had the added fun of bounce as it tore down the street and through the neighbors yards. Prized petunias, plastic flamingos and even a concrete lawn jockey were no match for Papaw's sling blade tsunami.

Anthony and I both leaped to our feet and watched slack jawed as the shit storm unfolded down Madison Ave. I remember turning to each other as both our faces went from surprise to glee. We realized that we were witnessing one of the funniest things we had ever seen...Hell, it might have been one of the funniest things anyone had ever seen. As you can imagine, Papaw felt differently about it. He slammed the brakes, got out and surveyed the damage. As the scope of the catastrophe registered the sound of two boys laughing reached his ears.

That really chapped his ass. He roared that I was in a world of trouble for coming across the street and pulling that tail gait down and that I had better damn sure have the whole thing cleaned up before he got back from lunch. I was agast. The injustice! How could he blame me for such a thing when there were witnesses to the fact that he was the one who forgot to raise the tail gate? Didn't matter. Adult right, child wrong.

This was the sort of thing that drove me crazy about my Grandfather. He knew better, but once committed to a position there was no changing his mind. Arguing with him was hopeless but that didn't stop me. For years we would have terrible rows over the "Great Tailgate Incident" as it came to be known. I couldn't let it go and neither could Papaw. Grandmother bore the brunt of this foolishness. She would get pissed and tell us both to shut up and say she never wanted to hear about it again. Grandmother was wise...She wasn't interested in justice. She just wanted quiet.

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