Listen To My Grandpa’s Stories Or You’ll Die

My grandfather tells a very aggressive story.  He means well; it’s clear that he wants to get some kind of moral across, but the exaggerated lengths he goes to tend to discredit his stories, and that’s why I love them.

Grandpa is a rather conservative gentleman named Colin.  Colin worked for a living, and carries his days as a miner on his sleeve wherever he goes.  He’s as Irish as you please, a bit red-faced after a drop of the ol’ whiskey….and come to think of it, I’m not sure if he’s ever not red-faced.  When convenient, he’s a very staunch Catholic.  Most importantly, in his eyes, he is a very hard worker.  He’s got a big nose and two giant ears.  When he tells stories he leans towards you and always looks at you slightly sideways so he can get you with his piercing blue eye.  Doesn’t matter which eye it is, he’ll squint the further eye from you as he talks.  My sister and I used to sit on either side and take turns asking him questions in order to see his shifty-squints.  His voice is a deep bass growl, always a few decibels above what is comfortable to listen to as he shouts his stories.  The rather cheery Irish and Minnesotan mixed accent the rest of my family has sounds harsh and accusatory when it comes from his throat.  It’s more a growl than a voice.  He once told me, at the age of five, that he had been raised by bears, and that’s where he got his voice.  I believed him.

Grandpa’s stories were always made up on the spot.  He was visiting my hometown in Iowa and was reading the newspaper.  I was 13 at the time, and I saw him eyeing me suspiciously across the room with his blue eye.  He looked at me, back at the paper, and back to me.

“What is it, Grandpa?” I asked.

He beckoned me forward and pointed aggressively at the newspaper.  It read ‘Teen Pregnancy Rate Up In Des Moines County’.  He pushed the paper to me so I could read the story.  At this point I had to fight off a fit of laughter.  Clearly he thought this was my fault, and while I appreciated his confidence in me, I knew it was misplaced confidence.  My charisma could barely handle conversation with a girl without me blushing; it was nowhere near where it needed to be to get a couple hundred girls pregnant.

“I knew a young guy that got a young girl pregnant.  Do ya’ know what happened to them?”

I did, of course.  It was the same thing that happened to all the characters in his stories.  Still, I shook my head ‘no’, because he wanted to tell me.

“They died!  She died because she made bad choices and lacked responsibility!  He died because he didn’t listen to his grandpa, and her dad shot him dead for lacking decency and morals.”  Grandpa fixed me with his icy stare, evaluating whether or not I had gotten the message to stop impregnating girls dozens at a time.

“Did they arrest the dad?”

“No!  They let him go free because the boy needed to be taught a lesson!”

I doubt the boy learned much from being shot to death, but that’s the way it was with grandpa’s stories.  Severe consequences arose from minor infractions against his blue-collar, Irish Catholic, hardworking decency.  I never heard about my family’s history from him.  The closest I’ve gotten was the story of how all my ancestors died because they didn’t have enough food due to their laziness, despite the warnings of their grandfather.  A secondary story about my great great great grandfather also surfaced.  Zachariah Benzedecker Bishop was his name, and he was a prison guard in Vermont.  One day an inmate tried to start a riot to protest the abhorrent conditions of the prison (rightfully so), and my great great great grandfather shot him dead.

“Ya’ know why he did that?”  Grandpa asked in his usual growl.

“To stop a riot?”

“He shot him because he wasn’t behaved and didn’t listen to authority, or your great great great grandfather!”

I tell you all this so I can share my grandfather’s second most entertaining story.  His first and best story was about Justin O’Reely and how he only had one testicle.  It was an uncharacteristic story for grandpa and unfortunately I wasn’t there to hear it, but he had everyone in tears that Christmas Eve dinner.  His second best story was told in his car, where I was the only witness.

Grandpa wasn’t a good driver.  He still isn’t.  I’ve told him many times that he needs to be a safer driver by either paying more attention or to stop driving altogether.  He didn’t listen to me that day like he usually didn’t.  After cutting off another driver (twice), the driver whipped around and gave grandpa the finger before speeding off down the road.

This infuriated grandpa!  Some 20-something no-good kid had dared to disrespect him, a good and honest blue-collar Irish Catholic hard worker, and he did it in front of his grandson.  I saw his knuckles go white as he tried to catch up to that car again to show him who was boss.  Grandpa had accelerated to five miles below the speed limit instead of his customary fifteen below, but that 20-something was gone.

“Did ya’ see that?”
“Yes, Grandpa.”
“That’s a bad idea.  Ya’ know why?
“No, Grandpa.”

And for once, I saw him struggle for the story.  I didn’t know if it was the multi-tasking, the frustration of being flicked off, or that he couldn’t fix me with his blue stare while he was telling the story.  His bad driving was getting worse.  I knew it was going to be a good one.  The anger was stewing in him, fermenting, because he couldn’t get even with that punk kid.

“When I was a young boy in Minnesota, my grandma died.  We held mass for her because she was a goodhearted decent Catholic lady, God bless her soul.  We loaded her up in the hearse and the funeral procession followed.”

I was enraptured by the story.  Grandpa never went into such detail, and I had fully expected great great grandma to have died to some rather common vice.  This was different.  He was drawing from himself this story that he needed to tell.

“We were in a procession a mile long, your great great grandma was so loved by everyone.  The whole town showed up.  Well, there was this one jerk, some moron 20-year old guy that got behind us and started flashing his lights at us and honking his horn.  He had no respect.  He stomps on his gas and gave everyone in line the finger!  Me, my ma, the line of everyone, the hearse driver, and even your great great grandma, God bless her soul.”

Grandpa was fuming.  At this point he’d run a red light (3 seconds after the yellow winked off) and had started speeding.  I was getting scared, I asked him to slow down and pay attention, but I also wanted him to go on with the story.  Maybe he was equating these two 20-year olds despite the 50+ years between these two incidents.  We drove on in silence, until we made it into the country of Iowa.

“Ya’ know what happened to him?”
“No, Grandpa,” I said, though I was pretty sure.
“His car broke down.  Flat tire or something.  There he was on the side of the road out in the middle of nowhere Minnesota.  Ya’ know what happened to him?”
Now I wasn’t sure.  “No…?”
“Every last one of us gave him the finger! Baam!  One after the other.  Finger…finger…finger…finger…a whole town of middle fingers except your great great grandma, God bless her soul.”

A smile crept across the old man’s face.  “And when we left the cemetery after the funeral, we all did it again!”
“Did anyone stop to help him?”
“Of course not!  He was disrespectful and crude.  Ya’ don’t swear at someone like that.”

I wasn’t sure if giving the finger was the same as swearing, but I let it slide.  Grandpa’s mood had lifted.

“So what happened to him?  This was before cell phones.”
“It was before all phones.  What do ya’ think happened?”
“He had to walk back to-“
He died!”
In hindsight, I should have seen that coming.
“And ya’ know what?  He didn’t get a Catholic mass.  All’s he got was a tombstone that said ‘Good-For-Nothing’ in the shape of a middle finger.”

I’m pretty sure that at some point, grandpa had lost the truth of his story.  He knew it, I knew it, but it was still funny.  Still, Grandpa lacked closure for this recent case of being flicked off, and he settled into a kind of a mood.  Then, I saw a familiar red car in the left turn lane.

“Grandpa, that’s him!”

The situation was something like this: we were on a two-lane highway cruising in the middle of nowhere Iowa.  The red car was in a 3rd turning lane, stopped and waiting for an open spot to drive on.  Grandpa pulled his car to a stop inches from the other vehicle.  Keep in mind, this wasn’t an intersection, it was a highway, where we were expected to be going 50mph.

Grandpa rolled down his window and reached out with his hand, thumping the red car’s passenger window twice.  The 20-something was unaware of us until that point, but his reaction as he snapped his head around was priceless.  The thumping made him jump, and his shock went to terror as he turned to see an old man and his grandson leaning out the window and flipping him the bird on four different hands.  Grandpa stomped on the gas and sped away.

It’s my fondest memory of my Grandpa, as it is the one time I heard him laugh with complete triumph and comradery.  He was a good guy, albeit stubborn and gruff in his own way.  I learned a lot from him.  Unfortunately, he died later on because he didn’t drive carefully and he didn’t listen to his grandson.

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