My Grandpa was a farmer, a rancher and a highway construction worker. He lived on a farm, raised some cattle and worked full-time bulldozing and operating a crane on highway construction all across the state of Oklahoma.
He worked on the original Shield’s overpass to I-35 that survived the May 3 tornado. And for ages he worked on the Little River, first excavating for the lake and then building the Little River Dam, which resulted in Lake Thunderbird here in Norman. He never missed a day of work. On the iciest, coldest snowiest days he got up extra early in order to be at the job site on time—no matter where it was. More than once I got up to find him in the kitchen having coffee with mom after going to the job site to find out work was called off for the day.
Grandma and Grandpa moved from Oklahoma City to a farm east of Lexington, Oklahoma when I was nine years old. I just recently learned the move was prompted by the Cuban Missile Crisis. They immediately planted a large garden and started putting up food in order to be self-sustaining. If things went bad they wanted to have food enough to feed us all.
Shortly after the move I spent a week with them. It was the first of many such weeks on the farm. After a tiny bout of homesickness, that first week on the farm with just me, Grandma and Grandpa was fairly eventful.
I got my finger pulled into the rollers of the wringer washing machine while helping Grandma do the wash on the back porch. As she put it, “Purt near broke it.” Grandma’s padded bra saved me. That’s what I was feeding into the wringer when I got caught, with my index finger sandwiched inside.
I asked Grandpa to wake me up in time to see the sunrise on Saturday… in the days before Daylight Savings Time, sunrise came at about 4 am in the summer. Grandpa and I sat on the tailgate of his red Ford pick up and watched the sun come up over the horizon while Grandma made breakfast. A hearty farm breakfast of bacon, eggs over easy cooked in the bacon grease, gravy and toast or biscuits filled us for a good start to the day.
After breakfast I helped wash the dishes and clean the kitchen while Grandpa started on the porch we were going to build that day. The house was about 3–4 feet off the ground and we had to climb a set of steps made of concrete blocks to get to the front door. At the time it was the only door into the house.
I’m sure I wasn’t a lot of help, but Grandpa made me feel like I was. I do recall him asking “How come you say ‘How come’ so much?” Evidently I talked a lot and was full of questions. He built an old-fashioned deck-type porch on a base of concrete blocks. The decking was 1 x 4 slats and I hammered all day long with my swollen and bruised index finger still wrapped and bandaged from the wringer incident. The porch was a temporary fix since the house would soon be moved to another location. As I recall, we were nearly finished by the time mom and dad and my brothers arrived later in the morning. The porch was finished by the end of the day and coated with barn red paint.
Grandpa only had part of his right hand. He lost most of his thumb, index and middle fingers in a crane accident. My brother knows more about how that happened than I do. It happened when my mom was a girl, so by the time I came around Grandpa was totally at ease with the parts he had left. There were very few things he hadn’t figured out how to do with the 8 whole fingers he had left.
That first summer on the farm we found out Grandma was severely allergic to wasp stings. Each sting put her in the hospital a few days, and living so far from town and alone all day it’s really a wonder one of those stings didn’t kill her. Grandpa was her knight in dusty overalls. As soon he heard that familiar bzz he would grab the offender and kill it with his bare hands. He received a few stings, and as painful as wasp stings are, I’m sure it didn’t hold a candle to having half his hand ripped off. Everything is relative.
If he hadn’t smoked, there’s a chance my Grandpa would have celebrated his 102nd birthday yesterday. I heard he started that nasty habit when he was 14. He smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes (LSMFT for those old enough to remember cigarette ads on TV). He developed emphysema and had a stroke which he recovered from fairly quickly. Another stroke just before Memorial Day 1985 put him in the hospital in Purcell. Memorial Day the whole family gathered together to visit him. He couldn’t talk very clearly, but he knew all of us and had a bit of a conversation and even cracked a few jokes. We thought we were there to say goodbye, but it didn’t seem like he was ready to go yet.
Soon after, he was moved to a nursing home in Norman. Grandma drove up from Lexington every day to visit him. Mom visited almost every day. The rest of us visited every week or so. He’d finally quit smoking, although not by choice. If he could have managed on his own, he would have smoked until the last day. As it was, he continued the gesture of bringing the nub of his thumb and forefinger to his lips in the repetitive movement he’d made hundreds of times a day for over 60 years.
It was on my dad’s birthday, July 10, that we got the phone call he was gone. He was only 76 years old. I think of him every time I slide a pan of raw peanuts in the oven to roast them. He always had a bag of roasted peanuts and a trash can close to his chair in the living room. If he was sitting in front of the TV he was smoking a cigarette or shelling and eating peanuts.
Wish he’d eaten more peanuts and left the cigarettes alone.