S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Backspace,” Park thinks about his family tree and the impact we have on others.
I read Stan Gerding’s first Big Smoke column and thought, What a great idea! He’s telling his grandson about his life! I’d have loved a history like that from my grandparents. Hell, I’d have settled for a note from my dad, one of those Greatest Generation stoics who, as a consequence of World War II, went silent instead of crazy.
But he did thirty-seven missions over Europe and, as a ball turret gunner, had a bird’s eye view of the Dresden firebombing: in my estimation he could do whatever he wanted afterwards (including drink). His father? He was a farmer straight from the fjords of Norway. He died in the 1919 Flu Epidemic before my dad was born and all that remains is a single faded photograph. He’s standing in a barren winter landscape and looking like he belongs there; one of those big-headed Scandinavians who wrestles his mule for laughs.
I doubt we’d have been close. Any more than I was with his replacement, my grandmother’s father, who was effectively my great grandfather, but who we all referred to as “Gramps.” Due to unusual circumstances he basically raised my dad and was a card-carrying Scottish scrooge, a hustler who’d arrived in America as a teenager, determined to make his fortune. He did it with a plumbing company and we knew, as kids, that he was responsible for the business my father managed, so we respected him for that.
Otherwise we couldn’t stand each other … he was as grim as a Puritan and never smiled. Time and meanness had shrunk him into a gnome and I trace my lifelong meditation on “wasted space” to the guy. I think of him, in fact, whenever I see the Far Side cartoon of God atop the earth, adding seasoning from a can labeled “Jerks.”
When he finally died I was five or six years old. For some reason, perhaps so we wouldn’t have to attend the memorial, my father took my two younger brothers and I to view Gramps in his casket. They were the first to look and barely glanced inside: if you couldn’t play ball with it they didn’t give a shit. They retreated so quickly, in fact, that my father went after them.
Which left me alone with my great grandfather. I was burning with curiosity: he’d seemed like a corpse in life, so what would be different now? There was a little stool next to the casket and I stepped up on it, leaned in so my nose was inches from the old man’s. Quickly drew back in horror. My God! I thought, He’s smiling! They stitched a grin on his face!
This offended every sensibility I had. When my father returned he found me half inside the casket, trying to pull down the sides of my grandfather’s mouth. It was the moment, he told me later, when he realized his cartoonist son was bent. (My mother’s aha! moment came a decade later, as she, the dentist and two nurses carried me to the station wagon after my molars were extracted. They’d given me a bitter downer to swallow and, according to her, I slurred the same thing over and over afterwards: “I’ll walk home … fill the car with this stuff!”)
Which leaves my mother’s side of the family. Here was the true gold. My great grandfather on the maternal side came straight from County Cork and, though I never knew him, I’m convinced he bequeathed me everything I like about myself. There’s only a single photograph of him, too, but he’s got a twinkle in his eye and a cigar in his mouth and looks every bit the Irish bullshitter. (He sold real estate until he was ninety-four.) We would have gotten along famously, I think, as I did with his daughter Pan, my mother’s mother. Her first husband was the oldest son of Captain William Matson, the shipping magnate, another immigrant who came to America as a teen. He was ostensibly from Sweden and claimed his parents had died in a mining accident there, but extensive genealogical research has produced no evidence of him or them. What’s more he was named the Swedish counsel in San Francisco in his seventies even though he couldn’t speak a word of Swedish! My fantasy? The Laplanders who roam the cruel frozen tundra to the north, herding reindeer, only give birth in the Spring, Summer or Fall. If a child arrives in winter, it’s wrapped in blankets and dropped on the nearest doorstep. I like to think that was the Captain, a tough, no nonsense s.o.b. who was the first to put oil in tankers and send cruise ships to Hawaii. The third floor of the Honolulu Maritime Museum is devoted to him and when I visited there I looked around and thought, Laplander makes good!
His son Walter, my mother’s father, died at fifty of phlebitis, but the Captain had disinherited us by then, anyway. The widow Pan was left to raise five children by herself, and once my mother, the youngest, was out of the house, she became a racetrack habitué. She loved her grandchildren, horses and Liberace in roughly that order, and was the second brightest light of my childhood.
The most prominent was the character she married, a tall liquor salesman named Louie. He was a gentleman alkie and bon vivant who drove a butter colored ’56 Cadillac. He must have been in his seventies when I was a boy but, step grandad or otherwise, we were attached at the hip. Unlike my marvelously coordinated younger brothers I was an awkward, clumsy kid who couldn’t walk and dribble a ball at the same time. Even the simplest physical task was beyond my capacity, particularly bike riding. I’d have still been using training wheels in sixth grade if it weren’t for Grandpa Louie: my father gave up after weeks of watching me topple over. (As I noted in The Grass Is Greener it was little different a decade later, when I failed my driver’s test five times.)
One of my earliest memories is of him padding along beside me in his slacks, dress shirt and loafers. Never tiring, always encouraging, catching me every time I fell until finally, one hard won day, I managed that Schwinn by myself.
But Louie? One of my earliest memories is of him padding along beside me in his slacks, dress shirt and loafers. Never tiring, always encouraging, catching me every time I fell until finally, one hard won day, I managed that Schwinn by myself. As a reward he took me to The Bit Of England for lunch, the popular local watering hole. No kid was supposed to be in there, but they made an exception for Louie because I sat next to him at the bar, sipping Shirley Temples and Roy Rogers while he and his cronies gulped the real stuff. We did it often thereafter and—much as that bike may have baffled me—I was a natural on a bar stool. I’ve even wondered since if Louie, with his liquor salesman’s eye, recognized and encouraged the young rummy in me.
But I’ll never know because—like all the forementioned—he left no words behind. I, on the other hand, the black sheep with no heirs, will leave little else (whether anyone will actually read them is another matter). I have a very talented goddaughter I rarely see, and a nephew and niece who, much as I love and respect them, probably think I’ve shared enough already. During their childhood I was the beanpole who showed up every Christmas, told a story or two, then disappeared back into the ether. They were thirty when High & Dry was published and (after much deliberation) I gave them each a copy. Until they read it they had no idea I’d spent their lifetimes growing and selling marijuana. It was something of a shock, particularly for my niece: she’d become a cop by then, and spent her days chasing pot growers from a helicopter.
Fortunately she has the High sense of humor and appreciated the irony. Her brother, a gentle but laconic farmer, never mentioned the book to me afterwards. After a couple years I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Say, Jake,” I said, “what’d you think of my memoir?”
He took a bite of his sandwich, chewed slowly. Washed it down with a swig of beer. “Well,” he said finally, “I understand now why we never visited you.”
I’ll take that. Just as I will what my friends’ kids think of me. I gave a Book Release Party in Portland last October and invited some fifty boomer buddies, forty-six of whom were out of town traveling. In desperation I reached out to their grown children and a good dozen showed up. I was touched: a guy like me thinks he’s passed through life as a ghost. Instead those kids surrounded me afterwards and, while I signed their books, told me how much I’d meant to their childhoods. How I’d paid attention to their problems, drawn them cartoons, given them money and advice and, most importantly, free pot.
“Ahhhh, it was nothing,” I said, embarrassed by their attention. “I had no kids of my own.”
“Of course not,” said one of them. “You’re Uncle Whack Job!”