By Lawrence S. Howe and M. C. Pehrson
Word count: 1275
Rating: PG (smoking)
Summary: Memories of Laurence S. Howe’s grandfather and the times they spent together.
My first few years were about normal for the early days of the 20th Century. I was burned, blistered, cut, trampled by horses, run over by a car, spilled off bicycles, beaten with a stick, charged by chickens, and pecked at by turkeys. I was presented with a sister, then a brother, then another sister. All in all I was ready for a tranquilizer or a new start, but I got neither. Instead, I got Grandpa Howe. When he came to live with us for a while, I found my first real friend whose kindness I will never forget as he introduced me to this strange world in which I had been placed.
My first memory of Grandpa was of him loading and lighting a pipe. It was an exercise in style, efficiency, and satisfaction. He was the first pipe smoker I had ever seen, and I loved to watch him get ready to smoke. He’d pull out his tobacco pouch, loosen the thong and draw it open, carefully place the pipe bowl in the pouch and gently press the tobacco into the bowl, remove the pipe and close the pouch holding one draw string in his teeth, and draw the other string with his other hand and close the pouch. Each movement was very deliberate, careful, and smooth. He placed the pipe stem in his mouth, put the tobacco away, then produced a match and struck it with his thumbnail. The match flared and he calmly watched it burn till the sulfur was consumed and the white pine gave a hot clean flame. Then he touched off his pipe with long puffs which ignited the tobacco, and the smoke smelled wonderful mixed with the scent of hay and grains out in the barn.
Mom and Dad had their natural place in this scheme of things, but I was with Grandpa much of the time, for he took me along wherever he went. He answered my questions and told me many stories that I later came to realize were really the history of my country. Whenever I smell the scent of fresh mown alfalfa hay, I remember how he would take a deep whiff and exhale with a look of satisfaction. There was something so fine and refreshing about the smell of freshly cut grass or the smell of the earth freshly turned by the plow. The world seemed good in those days, clean and quiet—and to a boy of four or five, it was some kind of magic.
We were living on a small farm in Bell, California. My first ride on horseback occurred when Grandpa decided to plow a section and plant corn and potatoes. He hooked the team to the plow, put me on the back of one of the horses, placed my hands on the brass balls of the hames, and picked up the reins. Then he flipped them over his shoulder and with a “Yeeeahh! Git up!” we started down the field leaving a neat, deep furrow behind us, straight as a drawn line.
With mouths snapping all over the place, a farm seemed the only way to keep everyone and everything fed. My family raised all manner of vegetables and fruit, as well as turkeys, ducks, rabbits, squabs, cats, and a dog. Grampa built all the rabbit hutches, chicken pens, and anything else that had to rise above the earth. He had worked for years making wagons for Studebaker, many of which the early settlers used to cross the plains in the settling of the West. He handled tools with an ease and skill I’ve never seen equaled. My first lessons on their use was given to me by him. He showed me how to make toys that I found more fun to build and play with than toys that could be purchased in the stores. Precision was his middle name when it came to making anything. It had to work smooth and easy, or out would come the pipe from his mouth, and a very serious and determined look would spread over his face while he got everything working properly. When Grandpa put up his tools and put the lid on the toolbox, the job was finished and that was a fact.
Years later, when Dad decided to do away with the stock, I was given the task of dismantling Grampa’s work. I attacked the chore with all the energy I could muster, but it was futile, so we ended up putting everything to the torch. You see, whenever Grandpa built anything, he thought he was building Studebaker wagons again. Everything was mortised and dovetailed or dowelled and made to fit like cabinetwork, then nailed where it had to be nailed. I’ve often thought that he must have descended from some ancient line of master Egyptian pyramid builders. At least they had one thing in common. The products of their labors were meant to last long after they were gone.
I remember when a friend of Gramps bought a Ford Touring Car—one of the first models. The gleaming roadster, with its polished brass trim, had an elegant appearance. As Henry Ford was quoted as saying, “Paint it any color you want, so long as it’s black”. And true to that frame of reference, “The Flivver” as it came to be called, was black with yellow striping on the body, fenders, and each spoke of the wheels.
Grandpa’s friend asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. Grandpa was cool. He didn’t seem to be impressed as he looked down at me and asked, “Larry, do you want to go for a ride in this thing?” Well, I was near out of my mind with desire to get in and go, and I said so.
Grandpa put me on the front seat, right in the middle, then he climbed in. I’ll never forget the smell of the leather seats as the car sputtered, backfired, and then finally caught hold and shook and coughed like it had a combination of malaria and asthma. There was a growling and mumbling and a lot of fancy footwork on the pedal, then what passed as a transmission finally took charge and we slowly started down the road. Away we went.
Most roads in the country were only graded dirt. Dust rose on the wind and rolled across fields and gave the ladies a never-ending job dusting furniture and everything else. Now, the yellow dust rolled out behind us like modern contrails as we sped along at about twenty miles per hour. I felt almost breathless as the wind pushed at my face and tugged at my clothes. Grandpa pulled his hat down low over his eyes, puffing on his pipe. It sure was exciting.
We left a wake of terror as we sped along like a bat out of hell. Chickens rose, flapping their wings, and then streaked for safety. Horses grazing in pastures gave us a sideways glance, flipped their tails, and galloped off for quieter areas. Bulls and cows, having cornered the market on stupidity, stood in the middle of the road, and we were forced to careen around them. Every so often the driver would squeeze the horn bulb and a loud honk-honk would announce the coming disaster. This usually provoked laughter as we surveyed the extent of the Flivver’s impression on the livestock. It was fun and it was tax-free. Oh, those were wonderful days. Yes, we had problems, but we managed partly because we were convinced that there was nothing we couldn’t do as long as we worked together. That was our philosophy, and it worked.