It seems an opportune time to reproduce part of the book I wrote about my relationship with my Grandfather. Written for my Grandmother's 79th birthday this chapter, appropriately enough, was originally entitled 'August 17th" . . .
In the middle of August 1983, little less than three weeks before he died, my Grandpa and I took a road trip together.
It was my idea. I had asked him if we could spend the day together, take in some local sites, and maybe take a short drive. He agreed. So the night before we left I took a map and circled a half dozen cities without any concept of distance or travel time. I showed the map to him as he sat watching TV in the living room.
“You’re crazy!” he said.
We went anyway.
We pulled the car out of the garage at 8 o’clock and drove down to the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory – better known as the Domes. It was our first stop for the very practical reason that admission was free on that day, provided you arrived early enough.
There are three glass domes, greenhouses really, that stand a few stories high. Inside, each of the domes features a different botanical landscape: one desert, one tropical, and one much like our Wisconsin scenery.
We took our time walking through the Domes, spending a lot of time in the desert landscape. My Dad had worked there in his teens and we’d visited only a few weeks before, so I tried to impress Grandpa by pointing out what plant was what. Nevermind the little identification cards stuck right next to each plant – it was important he hear it from me.
Ironically, what I remember most from that stop is that Grandpa had to use the restroom. I was stuck waiting for him outside the stall, keeping an eye on the cane he draped over the side.
As we were leaving the parking lot Grandpa pointed to a building across the street. “See that?” he asked. “I helped build that in the fifties. It used to be an insurance building, but now they just rent out the office space.” Having a Grandpa that could point out a building and say, “I made this” made me proud, and bumped him up even further in my eyes.
We took 27th Street up to Forest Home Avenue, passing Paul’s Diner along the way. Paul’s was a tiny hamburger stand that had been on that corner since the invention of ground beef, and I’m sure Grandpa had downed a meal or two there. “You hungry? We can stop for some burgers,” he said.
This became one of those silly moments that take on too much importance in life. I was hungry, and I wanted to stop for a burger. In fact, I thought it would be neat to eat at the old diner, but . . . somewhere inside I got nervous. I had never eaten there before. What if the burgers were nasty? What if the place was dirty? I shook my head no.
Obviously, far from an important decision, but it bugged me for years. What if we had stopped? Would the day have lasted just that much longer, instead of ending when it did? Would I have another memory to treasure forever? How could I have been so scared?
Well, we didn’t stop, and I doubt that if we had it would have altered the course of human events. And I did eventually eat at the diner – with my wife, who happened to have waitressed there in her teens.
Our next stop was the Experimental Aircraft Association museum out on Hwy 100. Later that year the EAA would move the museum to their home in Oshkosh, where it became a mammoth display of aircraft that stretched for hangar after hangar. When it was in Franklin t was just a single large building packed to the rafters with flight memorabilia.
Here Grandpa was in his element. Most of the planes were WWII vintage, and he’d been trained, as an anti-aircraft gunner, to identify all of them by sight. We didn’t have to get close to the plaques on their sides – he’d stop ten paces away and say, “That’s a Zero. It was made by Mitsubishi, the same guys that make cars now,” or “That’s a P-40 Mustang. That John Wayne movie, The Flying Tigers? That’s what they flew, but they painted shark teeth on the nose because the Chinese thought that was lucky.”
There was a replica of Fat Man, the atom bomb that dropped on Japan, and actual pieces of the Hindenburg. We’d just got done watching a movie on the dirigible, and in one of the display photos was a passenger describing the even. In the movie he was played by the French guy from Hogan’s Heroes.
Hanging from the ceiling was a model of Lindbergh’s plane, and again, Grandpa, consciously or not, combined cinema and history to teach me something. “You remember that Jimmy Stewart movie, Spirit of St. Louis? Can you believe he flew across the ocean in that thing?”
Amelia Earheart was mentioned too, and lo and behold, we’d seen a movie about her too. (God Bless the Late Late Show on Channel 6 – how do history teachers manage without it nowadays?)
Grandpa stopped and talked to someone with the same love for the aircraft, and picked up a souvenir card that featured an optical illusion that spelled out EAA. I still have the card, but I have more trouble spotting the letters nowadays.
Afterwards Grandpa took me to the one hamburger joint I’ve never turned down: McDonald’s.
It was a beautiful restaurant compared to the one we frequented, with crisp white paint and new tile. It was five minutes from home but seemed a world away, just me and my Grandpa on the open road. It was marvelous.
The restaurant was packed for the lunch hour, but we found a seat. I had my standard hamburger, milk, and fries and Grandpa had a large coffee (his cream and sugar milkshake) accompanied by an oar-shaped stirrer that’s permanently burned into my memory.
To my left sat a family. Mom, Dad, infant child – and Japanese exchange student. It was his first day in America, and the family wanted to treat him to some genuine Americana. They would ask him a question, he would feign understanding, and then they’d all laugh and ask another one. This went on for the entire meal.
On my right was another family, identical but minus the exchange student. They were trying to feed their crying child an ice cream cone, but the kid just wasn‘t having it.
Midway through our meal the infant on the right had enough, cocked his arm, and launched the cone in the air. It landed upside down on the floor by Grandpa. All three tables were quiet for a moment. Then the Japanese student spoke.
“Ahhhh, ice cream!”
We all burst out laughing.
From there we hit the open road. We went to St. Francis, Cudahy, New Berlin, and from there we ventured outside the county. It was more or less what I’d planned: a haphazard route that went nowhere in particular.
We found ourselves driving past Lake Donoon. “When I was a kid your age we’d go swimming in that lake,” he said. I looked out at the vacation homes strangling the lake and wondered aloud how he could have afforded it.
“Oh, it was different then. This was fifty years ago, even before the war. You could just come up here and swim with your buddies. You didn’t have to worry about who owned what back then. It was just a lake, and we were kids. We didn’t know any better.”
We drove for an hour, maybe two, but nothing else sticks in my mind. I just had fun riding shotgun with Grandpa, watching the Wisconsin countryside go by in the last great summer of my youth.
We had one more scheduled stop, the Boerner Botanical Gardens in Whitnall Park. If you forget the fancy name, the Gardens were just what they advertised – a huge public flower garden run by the County.
By this time Grandpa’s legs were hurting him, but he still followed me up and down the path. In truth, the Garden’s always bored me a little, but he seemed to get a kick out of them. He always had more of a green thumb than I did.
As we were winding down our tour he stopped and talked at length with one of the County gardeners. The subject was, of course, plants, but the guy did interrupt to scold me for scraping my shoes on the gravel. “That’ll ruin your shoes son”. Yeah, well buy me a new pair or mind your business old man.
Grandpa apparently missed this proof of the man’s ignorance and continued talking to him. He loved a type of plant that, to my eyes, looked like it had been splattered with a florescent paint. I’ll give the guy this much – he seemed to give Grandpa some good tips on how to make the plant flourish.
By then it was nearing late afternoon, and Grandpa treated me to an early supper at Denny’s. He stopped and bought a paper on the way in – it would wind up tucked beneath his recliner by morning – and we sat down to eat.
When dinner was over Grandpa graciously allowed me to get desert. Remembering the boy at McDonald’s, I ordered an ice cream sundae. “One scoop or two?” the waitress asked. Two, I said.
Gramps waited for her to leave and then jokingly kidded me for emptying his wallet with the other scoop. “She asked me! I thought the second scoop was the same price!” I said. Gramps laughed and told me to relax, that he could certainly afford another scoop for the Piper Man.
We came home in late afternoon, and Grandpa stretched out his tired legs on the couch. We watched Laverne and Shirley, then MASH. It was the episode where a undetonated bomb lands in the camp, and Hawkeye and Trapper have to defuse it before it’s too late. They approached the bomb carrying mattresses over their shoulders.
“What are the mattresses for?” I asked.
“In case the bomb explodes,” he explained.
I thought for a minute. “So, what do they expect the mattress to do, break their fall?” I replied sarcastically.
Grandpa roared with laughter, and I felt proud to have made him laugh.
A few weeks later I started the fourth grade, and for the first and last time in my academic career I actually had to explain what I did over my summer vacation. I chose Grandpa’s Day as my theme - our day deserved a title, just like any other day you want to celebrate each year. On a sheet of drawing paper I made a collage of our day, start to finish. It was pretty darn good, earning me one of the few A’s I’d receive in that troubled year.
A week later, Grandpa was dead.
It’s a tradition, at least in my family, to include with the deceased mementos of his or her life. Notes from a loved one, pictures, and perhaps a small cherished object. Among the notes and pictures placed inside Grandpa’s suit was that art project. I wanted him to remember, as I always will, how much fun we had that day, and how special it was to me.
For a few years I celebrated Grandpa’s Day by recreating the spirit, if not the actual itinerary, of our trip. In 1984 Mom took me out; in 1985 Grandma and I went to see Back to the Future and ate at a pizza parlor. Then, as my memory began to blur, I pushed the day aside. I’m not even sure of the exact date anymore - it’s either the 16th or 17th - and it really doesn’t matter.
Midway through each August I think of Grandpa. Sometimes I visit his grave, other times I treat my wife to a special dinner out. In 2001 my wife’s baby shower was scheduled for Grandpa’s Day, and in return Gramps successfully petitioned God to turn off the rain long enough for the picnic to be a success.
When my daughter is older I will ask her to climb in the car one hot summer day and take a look at the lake where her Great-Grandpa once swam in the heat of an August sun. God willing, decades from now her son will do the same.
And each summer, from now until the end, I will think of that day we spent together. Even if it was a crazy idea.Comment on this Post (non AOL) View Comments