Monday, November 10, 2014

About Grandpa

This day when I turned in off the gravel at the bin, I could see the combines and thanked my lucky stars that the neighbor's beans had already been harvested.  I've been down here before, but not often; this field is only 23 acres, easy to miss in the scheme of meal deliveries over the course of two plus months.  The terrain is a crazy quilt of river bottom fields and patches of oak timber, overlooked by steep uncultivated fields of brush and rocky glacial till....what passes for waste ground in this productive country.

When Blake's grandpa Charles T Hurst came south in the '30s, these bottoms were more water than soil, a riparian thicket of cottonwoods and old river beds, the higher ground planted to crops.  He helped clear some of those bottoms, felling the trees by hand one brutal winter.  It was part and parcel of the tales he told us all, making the object lesson easier to take with his humor.  Grandpa was born on the eve of Theodore Roosevelt's first term as President.  Like T.R., Grandpa was never afraid of hard work; he was a prime example of T.R.'s "strenuous life."

Grandpa had a heart attack the spring after Blake and I were married.  We were still in Columbia, planning to be back on the farm in May after graduation and coming back to Tarkio every weekend while we worked to make the little tenant house on the newly rented farm livable.  It was March and the cattle were out on the neighbor's bottoms when we got home; I helped Blake chase those critters through the muddy woods: a new wife in a strange new life, with no knowledge of the lay of the land, and part of a family in shock and worry.  These many years later, I recall the abject helplessness I felt, channelling tears and frustration into Lord only knows what maledictions on Hurst cattle.

Grandpa recovered completely from that scare in his 78th year. He continued to go to auctions accompanied by a grandson, run a disk, and drive the combine every day of harvest until he could no longer get up and down the ladder.  Everyone learned to give his combine a wide berth in the front and stay out of his ever increasing blind spots.
 He and Grandma welcomed their first great grandchild in 1979 when Lee was born.
I don't know what he's telling little Lee in this picture but I can tell you how he spoiled his great grand children in ways he probably never spoiled his grandsons.  Blake learned many of his life lessons by working side by side with Grandpa, long before I was around.  I saw a man who delighted little babies by playing bumblebee, bumblebee with them (bzzz,bzzz,bzzz) in a most undignified way; who always had a HoHo in the freezer to share and whose face would never fail to light up when a toddler was around.

Grandpa did his bookkeeping on an adding machine and kept his photos and files downstairs in a freezer so they were safe from water and mice. He seldom threw anything away, on the assumption one might still get some use from it.  One of Blake's favorite tales has to do with fixing fence with Grandpa.  The wire was rusted and brittle and Blake asked Grandpa how old it was. "I don't know, "said Grandpa, "It was used when I put it up in the '30s...." One year Blake ordered him a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, but came to regret the gift when Grandpa used the news to tell him...often... about the impending doom of the next Depression.  Once burned, twice shy.  Grandpa didn't live in the past, but he never forgot it...

When Annie was born, we moved out of the tenant house into a house in town with enough bedrooms and heat.  Grandpa never said anything to me, but he wouldn't darken the door of the house either except to meet his second granddaughter.  Three years later, we moved out of town when we purchased a farm with a house on it....and back into Grandpa's good graces.  That spring he showed up at our door and put up my mailbox...a tacet benediction for the returning prodigals.

I am always surprised by Grandpa's thatch of black hair when I see pictures of him as a young man; I only met him when he was well into his 70s and white headed.  He always wore long sleeves and overalls.  Often the overalls were so worn they'd lost their pattern.  He turned his left foot over and wore his boots out on the inside....a trait I see every day because it has passed down to his eldest grandson.

Grandpa loved to take us all out to eat.  Sometimes that meant Betty's Hilltop or the Rulo River Club where we'd all eat fried fish.  A special occasion might mean a trip to Wheeler's in Auburn where they'd set up the back room with a long table to accomodate the nine adults and four wild youngsters that comprised the family in those days. Our little family didn't eat out much back then, but the chance to go to Wheeler's was still a mixed blessing; would we get to enjoy the good food or would one of the kids make Grandma Hurst nervous by throwing a fit, spilling their water, or just not sitting at all. As we loaded up, leaving the wreckage behind us, someone would put some more money on the table for a tip; Grandpa was always generous to his family, but not much of a tipper....

It was a November evening in 1998 that we got the call from Blake's folks to come to the hospital.  Blake and I were driving back to town from where he'd been running anhydrous on a farm north of Tarkio.  Grandpa left us a month shy of his 98th birthday with family surrounding him, with the harvest all in and a goodly portion of the fall work accomplished.  We still tell Grandpa's stories to his great grand kids, who remember him, and now to his great great grandchildren.  He was our generation's tie to farming as it was before self propelled machinery, before commercial fertilizers and seed, before flood control and terraces, before paved roads and electricity. He was our everyday example of how self discipline, frugality, and industry can overcome hard times. He and Grandma made 60 plus years of marriage; just more evidence of the virtue of stick-to-it-tiveness.He was good to his family, and had a dignity he had earned . Grandpa could be stubborn and set in his ways, but he covered it all with a smile.

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