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My grandpa was a hell of an interesting guy. He had the mind, heart, and soul of a mechanical engineer and a self-taught education that far surpassed the expectations of a depression-era West Virginia farmboy. He came of age in an era where aptitude could carry you just about as far as certification. A light would glow in his eye and he’d get a particular set to his jaw when he came upon something that he could improve, fix, make, or make in order to fix something else. In his retired years, he’d take it elaborate projects upon himself wherein he’d have to make a tool to complete the job.

He built a spectacular cabinet that went over the top of the fitted refrigerator in their house up in the Sierras. This fridge was boxed in, and the resulting bump-out in the laundry room perfectly fitted the washer and dryer without a bit of space going wasted. The cabinet he build over the fridge could be accessed in either the kitchen or the laundry room, and its beveled doors perfectly matched the fitted cupboards throughout the rest of the kitchen. He had to make a special cutting bit for his router in order to accomplish matching bevels in the cupboard door panels and spent one particularly satisfactory day down in his workshop shaping a piece of hardened steel to the correct curvature with his prized milling machine.

He built other fabulous features into the house that he and Grandma built up on the hill. He had a motorized dumbwaiter which ran from the basement to the living room so that he didn’t have to carry firewood up to the fireplace. He installed an ingenious hidden entry button for the electric garage doors. He built graceful, tapering, octagonal pilings for the magnificent deck that wrapped three-quarters of the way around their house.
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This is the cabinet of the dumbwaiter in the living room.

On the left, there’s Grandpa loading the dumbwaiter with luggage, and the other shot is of the dumbwaiter’s counterweight.

Grandma & Grandpa's house
Here’s the front of the house looking up from behind one of Grandma’s flowerbeds. As you can imagine, a lot of work went into building this house, and my grandparents were justifiably proud of their accomplishment. Quite the digs for a retired ironworker and a retired hairdresser. They marshaled their resources cannily over the years and were willing to save dough by doing the vast majority of the work themselves.

I know I’ve posted this photo before, but I just really like how this picture of my grandparents had turned out, and now that they’re both gone, it is one of the ways I like to remember them, comfortable and happy at the house they built for themselves up in the Northern California mountains.

This is the signature stone in the center of the brick driveway he laid leading up to their garage. The lettering is brazing rod bent and pounded into grooves he’d incised into the stone. He was taken with the date 9-9-99 and planned to wrap up that particular project on that date so that he could cap it off as illustrated.

My grandparents often made their visits to my folks during the summertime, so as to take best advantage of their grandkids’ summer vacations, and also because my Grandpa craved a good thunderstorm or two. They rarely got thunderstorms in either San Jose, where he and Grandma had lived from the mid-60s until the early 1990s, nor indeed up on the hill. He’d grown up in the South and spent his young adulthood in western Ohio, where summers came with all the fixins: lightning bugs, big, fat, frosty watermelons, and thunderstorms of nearly Wagnerian proportions.

On a hot July evening, Grandpa would seat himself on the front step where a fine view of the north, east, and southern skyline could be had and cheerfully observe the panorama of natural, electric pyrotechnics along the horizon. He taught us kids to count 1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, 3-Mississippi between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing the thunderclap to estimate how far off the storm was. He would have LOVED a Kansas City summer – already we’ve been having whopping great thunderstorms and every time a particularly showy lightning strike or booming thunderclap rolls through, I think of Grandpa sitting on the step and enthusing about the various qualities of the meteorological lightshows we Midwesterners are particularly privileged to enjoy.

Because it was Summertime when my grandparents typically visited, there were free or cheap summertime festivals to attend, and attend we did. I think Grandpa genuinely enjoyed the oddments of smalltown culture; the street fairs, the extremely home-made parades, and the varieties preserves, pies, and fresh produce that could be had at bargain prices. The Ellis “Peabody” Hale Fiddling Contest (and Antique Tractor Pull) was a spectacular smash hit.

The Peabody Hale Fiddling Contest is a small town festival with all the stops pulled out. As well as the namesake and feature event of the fiddling contest and old-time music festival, there’s a quilt show that brings out the best of kaleidoscopic fabric artistry, there is a children’s penny-carnival, and of course, there’s the famous antique tractor pull, and honestly, the tractor-pull was the highlight of the day for Grandpa, Dad, and me.

The following video, isn’t from the tractor pull we went to, of course, that having been in 1987, but it’s representative of what we saw – iron juggernauts puffing and chattering and dragging a sliding weight that would steadily increase as they went along. It was awe-inspiring to watch these old tractors, some of them nearly a century old, gamely chug along and prove that although primitive, they sure had what counted.

They also had an antique thresher set up with a steam-tractor powering it and would periodically feed sheaves of oats into it to demonstrate how it cleanly separated the oats from the straw and poured each out of its respective appropriate chute. They’d had a baling machine set up, also, to take care of the oat straw, but it broke down early on in the demonstration. Still, I had the privilege and pleasure to see it poop out a couple of shiny yellow bales before it balked.

Grandpa had worked as a fireman on the railroad for a time when he and Grandma were living in Ohio. That’s from a period of time when working as a fireman could mean that you stayed nights in the firehall and put out burning buildings, or you were the poor cuss who had to shovel coal into the firebox of a steam driven locomotive. Grandpa had been that kind of fireman.

He had a lifelong interest in steam power and up until near the time that he died, had been working on a meticulously cast scale model of the engine he used to stoke. My sister and I visited my grandparents in ’05, and Grandpa had it to the point where you could run it on compressed air, and he was starting to weld up the boiler for it. After Grandma’s cancer diagnosis, however, he ran out of time and energy for the project. My uncle Frank, who is an accomplished professional welder, has toyed with the notion of finishing Grandpa’s final, grandiose project. Uncle Frank was the beneficiary of Grandpa’s mantelpiece steam engine, a tiny air-driven model steam engine that sat in a plexiglas case the size of a shoebox and silently churned away atop Grandma & Grandpa’s fireplace in both the old San Jose house and up on the hill. He installed a hidden line off his garage air compressor for the express purpose of powering his miniature steam engine.

So as you can imagine, with that kind of background, knowledge, and interest, Grandpa was having a ball with the old farmers and gear-heads who were conducting the antique-tractor pull. He recognized some of the tractors as being similar to ones he had driven or that neighbors of his had owned in the past. Some were akin to the mechanized workhorses that trucked coal out of the mines in West Virginia. Others were completely new to him, but no less welcome than the old-and-familiar.

My grandparents visited once down here in Kansas City, in 2002, I do believe. It was at the apartment I lived in before I bought my old house, and I know I closed on the old house in April of ’03. At any rate, my grandparents made it to KC for a visit and we visited a museum that I often take visitors to go and see; The Steamboat Arabia. If you’re not familar, it’s a showcase of goods salvaged from a sunken river-freighter that went down in 1856. Just about every kind of manufactured goods (and some raw materials) that would have been shipped out to the frontier back then was aboard the ship, and they have a broad and representative sampling of the minutia of daily living in 1856. Everything from roofing nails to perfume, canned fruit to workboots. It’s pretty fascinating to anybody who is at all interested in material culture, and my grandparents found it plenty entertaining. Once again, probably the highlight of Grandpa’s day out was when we came upon the hulk of the engine of that old paddlewheeler and he could get a look at what made the boat go. All of the antique tools, the well-preserved gumboots, and the mysterious vials of nostrum and snake-oil lost their luster next to the black, iron piston and boiler laid out behind a plexiglas barricade. Grandpa’s marvelous mechanical mind instantly began working out how the thing had run, what would have linked it up to the paddlewheels, what was present, and what was still lurking around somewhere beneath a century-and-a-half of silt. He shared his theory with one of the museum staff, who confirmed that Grandpa’s notion of how it had worked was very close to the truth.

Grandpa was the sort of fellow you sure could learn a lot from.

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