The second in my series of stories my grandfather tells. This will be about my Grandfathers childhood:
My grandfather grew up during the great depression. As a child he remembers people in soup lines because there was no food, people trading services for food that they grew because there was no money and he remembers the Hobo’s. Growing up, my grandfather used to frequent the hobo camps. He would sit and listen to them play harmonica, tell stories, eat their food and generally have a good time. He described them not as the Hobo’s that we think about, but as honest men that were just traveling place to place looking for work. Sometimes they would steal crops or chickens to eat, but that was because they were hungry and there was no work to be found.
He said that growing up his family never went without food. When he was young and his dad was a lawyer in Cleveland, he would trade his legal services for food. Some people would pay in vegetables if they grew vegetables, if they raised pigs they might pay with a slaughtered pig, etc. Later on, after moving to California, my great grandfather was able to provide food through working and my grandfather would provide food from hunting and other means. One of these other means was road kill.
Back then the bumpers of cars were a lot higher off the ground than they are now, and the speed limits were a lot slower. My grandfather says that these cars would be going down a road and hit a bunch of “prairie chickens.” Evidently these birds had long necks, which put their heads at just bumper eight of the car. The car would go by at 30mph or so, and “Thwock!” the bumper would start hitting the heads of these birds, killing them but not harming the bodies. My grandfather would gather them up, take them home, clean and dress them. Dinner is served.
If he didn’t get his birds this way, he would get them with his rifle. At the age of seven my grandfather received his first rifle, a .22 Iver Johnson self cocking safety rifle . As he states, his father didn’t believe any boy should pass the age of seven without a rifle. My grandfather said that he immediately went out and shot all the glass insulators off the telephone poles. My great grandfather found out and immediately took the bolt out of the rifle, hiding it in a drawer somewhere. My grandfather said that some months later he came across the bolt, put it back in his rifle, and went on his merry way. My great grandfather of course knew, but never said or did anything.
I know in the previous segment I wrote about my great grandfather, recounting my grandfather’s stories. However, I didn’t tell the ones that specifically detail some of the interactions between him and my grandfather.
When my grandfather was young, he always went around barefoot in the summer time. Shoes were expensive and as a child he would have out grown them or wore them out too easily. He said that one time he stepped on a board that had a very large nail in it. The nail went in the bottom of his foot, out the top, effectively nailing the board directly to his foot. His brother and his friend Billy (who I will talk about more, directly) helped him in the house and sat him in the kitchen. My great grandmother put a big enamel wash basin under my grandfather’s foot to catch the blood, then went and brought my great grandfather in. My great grandfather kneeled down, looked at the board and then looked my grandfather in the eye, pointed at him and sternly said “Now don’t you cry.” He then proceeded to pull the board and nail away from my grandfather’s. My grandfather says the he sniffled, but never cried.
My grandfather often speaks of his friend, Billy Masters. Billy lived in a severely abusive household and many times my grandfather remembers Billy having bruises and welts all over his body, received by his father for some offence that had been given. My grandfather often tells a story about the two of them playing out in the woods one day and Billy missing his curfew. My grandfather repeatedly tried to get Billy to go home, but Billy was having too much fun. The next day when Billy came over, he had been beaten black and blue. When my grandfather tried talking to him about making it home on time, Billy just said “I was having fun. Besides, a beating only lasts a little bit.”
One day, while out in a farmer’s field, they came across the farmer’s tractor. He and Billy jumped on the tractor and started it up. The tractor started rolling along and my grandpa looked at Billy and said “Do you know how to drive this thing?” Billy of course applied in the affirmative. Well they went rolling along and pretty soon were heading to a swamp at the back of the farmers property. Billy said that he couldn’t stop the tractor, so both the boys jumped off. My grandpa said that the tractor ran itself in to the bog, the turning back wheels digging it deeper in to the mud, until it eventually sank almost the whole way in. When I asked my grandfather if the farmer ever was able to get the tractor out of the swamp, he said that he doesn’t know. He did say however, that whenever he and Billy would pass by the famer’s house, the farmer would watch them like a hawk.
One of the Billy Master’s stories that my grandfather tells more than the rest is about the time that Billy sold my great grandfather a lock. Evidently my great grandfather had just finished building doors for a big barn like shed. It may have even been their garage. Standing there he said that all it needed was a lock. Billy Masters heard him, went over to him and said “Mr. Heath, I have a lock I will sell you.” My great grandfather told him he would look at the lock, so Billy went home and retrieved the lock.
My grandfather says that his dad looked at it, pronounced it a brand new lock, and asked Billy what he wanted for it. Billy told my great grandfather that he only wanted a nickel for it, so my great grandfather gave him a nickel for the lock. He then put the lock through the hasp of the doors, locked it and began to walk away, when he stopped and asked Billy for the key. Billy looked at my great grandfather and the exchange went like this:
Billy Masters: “Why Mr. Heath, there isn’t any key.”
Beverly: “WHAT?! NO KEY?!”
Billy: “No Mr. Heath, you don’t need a key, just these.”
At that point Billy produced what my grandfather says looked like a couple bent nails. He walked over to the lock, stuck them in the tumbler, stuck his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and proceeded to pick the lock with them. When he was done he handed the bent nails to my great grandfather. My great grandfather laughed at Billy and said “Take your lock and give me my damn nickel back.” He then walked away, shaking his head and smiling.
As my grandfather grew up he was separated from Billy. He often states “I wish I knew what happened to him.” My mom and I looked the name up some time ago, and we found a few different ones that might be him. Unfortunately they all turned out pretty bad, so we never said anything. We don’t even know if any of them were the right Billy Masters anyway.
My grandfather didn’t need Billy Masters around to get himself in to mischief, even as an adult he has a mischievous streak a mile wide, though it has been tempered with age. One of his favorite stories is about the time he took a bucket of grease and brushed it up and down the railroad tracks. He said a steam locomotive came along, hit the grease and that was it. The tires started slipping and the train wouldn’t go forward. Of course me grandpa was standing there, smiling sweetly up at the train engineer. The train engineer looked down, smiled back and pulled a lever. The lever opened bins of sand underneath the locomotive, which covered the grease. The locomotive was then able to move its way down the track.
As a side note, not knowing this story, I did something similar as a child. I’ll save that story for a later date though.
As my grandfather got older he became a fighter in school, a smaller guy (he didn’t get bigger until about 18) that bullied and fought the big guys. He actually caught the eye of a man named Gus Gursing (Gurzing?), a gym teacher who had at one time been a professional boxer. He taught my grandfather how to fight, which may have been a mistake because he just found himself in more fights after that. Always beating up bigger kids, or putting up enough of a fight that it just wasn’t worth fighting him.
He gained a well-deserved reputation as a trouble maker and hung out with the same. He likes to tell the story of how he and his friends would go to the gas station next to his high school at lunch where they kept bottles of beer and various kinds of soda in a barrel of ice. Of course the ice would melt and become ice water. He says that the bottles of “Dad Old Fashioned Root Beer” looked just like the bottles of generic beer that were floating next to it. The ice water would make the labels on both the bottles loose, so he and his friends would switch the labels and buy the beer to drink with their lunches. He says that after a while the gas station caught on and stopped putting the beer in that barrel.
My grandfather said that early in his school career he had been held back a year, so his senior year of high school he was already 18. He was still very much a trouble maker and getting in to fights, when one day someone picked a fight with him, not the other way around. Even though he did not start or want the fight and the gym teacher went to bat for him, the principle of my grandfather’s school told my grandfather that he was being expelled and transferred to another school. I do not remember the name of the other school, but it is where they sent all the juvenile delinquent types; my grandfather says it was more of a prison than a school. Being 18, my grandfather said “Nope, I’m not going.” He walked off school grounds and that was it.
He says that two months went by before anyone noticed and called home to see where he was. His father answered the phone and talked to the school, with my grandfather right there in the living room. My great grandfather said something along the lines of “Well he’s 18, so he doesn’t have to go if he doesn’t want to.” Though I am sure my great grandfather was disappointed in him.
Next up, the years between school and Korea.