The Lessons Of Two Grandpas
Wednesday - May 11, 2005
“I tell ya, the country’s goin’ to hell in a handbag! Them damn politicians in Washington are a takin’ us down. You and I might not live to see it, but I feel sorry for this little kid here!”
My grandpa jabbed the cold stub of his cigar in my direction as he emphasized his point to a fellow rancher, and I tried to imagine what the wrath of Washington — whatever that was — might feel like coming down upon me.
Charlie Coffee talked politics at every stop along his “Ditch Tender” route as he allotted to his rancher neighbors the summer irrigation water from the major canals criss-crossing the orchards and groves and alfalfa fields around Modesto, Calif. He had the time since his 40 acres of peaches didn’t take constant attention. And he was a part-time deputy sheriff and jailer for the same reason. The extra money helped a lot because you could never tell for sure about the peach crop.
I loved going along on his route. Sometimes I’d sit in his lap and “drive” the car along the quiet country roads. After he had tended to all the business, we’d always stop at “The Corner Store” where I’d have a Nehi Orange, play the pinball machine and watch the men put salt in their beer.
When I turned 9, I began spending every summer on the ranch. Grandpa gave me my first summer job in the orchards tallying the boxes of peaches as the Mexican pickers would load them on the truck. They all knew, of course, that my count was superfluous — that was done for real at the cannery — but they humored me and taught me to count to 20 in Spanish. But for all I knew, if I turned in the wrong count in the afternoon Grandpa might not get all the money he was due for his fruit. He paid me every week so I could afford a Saturday matinee in town and a model airplane to build during the coming week.
Grandpa Coffee taught me how to catch, skin and clean a catfish; how to work; how to crop a puppy’s tail so the skin grows back over the end; how to tell if an irrigation ditch is clean enough to swim in; how to get a pocket knife really sharp and, with that same knife, how to neuter a kitten in a gunny sack with its tail pulled out through a hole.
Charlie Coffee’s opposite was Loren Wells. “Shorty” Wells was my mom’s dad, a hard-drinking, pipe-smoking lineman for Pacific Gas and Electric, and a more colorful Grandpa a kid couldn’t have. Some likened him to a banty rooster for his audacity and stubbornness. He called himself a “pole jockey.”No one could beat his time up a telephone pole with climbing spikes.
One night when I was about 6 there was a huge fire in a lumberyard, and some wires from a burned pole were arcing to another pole. I remember as if it was yesterday my Grandpa Wells high up on the pole, silhouetted against the billowing flames, and my grandmother at my side whispering her fears: “Oh, be careful Shorty, please be careful.”
Grandpa Wells contracted cancer on his lower lip from his constant pipe smoking. The excision left a notch in his lip and the doctor ordered no more pipe smoking. But, of course, Shorty found the notch a most convenient place to hang his pipe and that’s where it always stayed.
During World War II, Shorty was very proud to work in the Oakland shipyards as an electrician building Liberty Ships for Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. From that time on he would never travel anywhere without his electrician’s tools in his suitcase: You never know when there might be a short circuit!” When was 16 he was still challenging me to “foot races.” He’d badger me ’til I’d finally go out in the street with him in his dress shoes and race him from one light pole to the next: “Well, I think you might have jumped the gun on me back there at the start.” He never gave up.
My grandfathers left big impressions on my life, and big footprints for me to fill with my own seven grandchildren. And try as I may, sometimes I fall short. Times are different now with summers filled by summer school, little leagues and vacation trips, and grandparents are healthier and more involved in more things too.
But no excuses.
All I know is I was a very lucky kid to have Charlie Coffee and Shorty Wells in my life. They both died at 84 while I was in Vietnam.
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