I never knew my grandpa Jones. He drank and ate himself to death before I was born. One night he ate a meal including an entire pork roast, complained of gas, drank a 7-Up, went to bed and died.
Naturally there are times I feel deprived. Mostly, I'm told, he had a problem with drinking and was sometimes abusive to my grandmother and, maybe, his children.
There were times, though, when my father would reminisce, showing that grandpa had the capacity to love children and to be playful.
One of my favorites involves a practical joke he played on dad and dad's friends.
There was a dirt-floored shed at the back of the yard and grandpa, in one of his rarer moods, buried some spare pipe with one end sticking up from the dirt floor of the shed and the other end sticking up behind a bush a short distance from the shed.
When he had the project completed, he sat on the porch waiting for dad and his playmates to come around.
Pretty soon they did and he called them to the porch.
"Boys," he said, "come with me. I have something to show you."
Naturally they followed as he led them back to the shed.
"You see that pipe sticking up from the ground?"
They said they did and he continued.
"I came out here this morning and discovered that. You know, last night, the devil put that pipe there.
"Do you know what it's for? It's a talking tube. That pipe goes straight down to hell and you can talk to the devil himself through it. And if he has a mind to he'll talk back to you."
Wide-eyed the boys looked at each other, each wondering if the other believed what grandpa was saying.
Knowing their curiousity would have to win out, grandpa slipped out of the shed, crept behind the bush at the other end of the pipe and put his ear next to the opening.
He could hear the boys being boys and daring each other to say something.
Finally one of them bravely shouted into the pipe. "Is that really you down there devil?"
Speaking into the pipe in a deep voice, grandpa said,"Who is that? Who has the nerve to bother me? Boy, I'm going to make you pay for this...."
Laughing to the point of having tears in his eyes, my dad recalled he and his friends ran just as fast and as far from that shed as they could get, certain the satan himself had just had direct communication.
Anyone that inventive and impish can't have been all bad and I regret I never got to know him.
Pink paper and string
Being but a small boy, my view was a little bit bent since it was through the two layers of glass in the porcelain white counter. Peering across big white trays filled with hamburger, sausage, tubes and loaves of luncheon meat.... Sprigs of parsley neatly bordered each tray.
There was no shrink wrap, no "sell by" dates and sanitation that would never pass today's muster.
The top of a huge wooden butcher block centered behind the counter was concave from the cleaving and cutting of tons of meat. The floor was a bed of sawdust.
The butcher disappeared into a walk-in refrigerator then reappeared with a large chunk of beef.
"How thick would you like those cut Mrs. Miller?"
It's their anniversary, so Mrs. Miller wants two T-bone steaks, "about an inch thick."
The steaks won't be charcoaled, outdoor grills have not yet become a way of life. These will sizzle and pop in the broiler, down under the oven.
A high-pitched whine fills the air as the butcher flips the switch on a large band saw and a final scream of protest issues forth as the saw cuts through the bone.
After a ritualistic dual between steel and butcher knife which could have been the inspiration for Aram Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, he asks how Mrs. Miller would like the steaks trimmed.
Like a trophy, a large white scale perches proudly atop the meat counter; a grid-like tag across the top calculates the cost based on the price per pound. There's one on each side.
he butcher deftly pulls at a wide roll of terra cotta paper, tears off a piece and lays it on the scale. Next he pulls a small square of waxed paper and lays it on the pink sheet, then a steak, then another sheet of waxed paper, the other steak and a final square of white waxed. With the speed and skill of a baker kneading dough he folds the edges of the pinkish paper, three flips this way, two that. Without looking, his hand is pulling a length of string from a tapered spindle hung overhead. End-to-end, side-to-side, the bundle is neatly packaged and he has already pulled a red grease pencil from his blood-speckled apron and written the price on the package.
"And will there be anything else today, Mrs. Miller?"
Dedicated to my friend Pat Schaub who is a meat cutter in Gautier, Miss., And almost certainly is too young to know these earlier manifestations of his trade.
Chalk on walks
With the crisp, cool air, I'm reminded of my youth and wonder at how dramatically things change in what seems like such a short period of time.
Walking home from school I work my yo-yo, a Duncan deluxe with a row of four rhinestones on each side. I pass houses with sounds and smells of supper being prepared wafting from screened windows. Clutches of children are here and there, playing together in yards, vacant lots and playgrounds.
Sidewalks are marked with a series of chalked boxes drawn on them and a rock or broken bit of brick lies nearby. Hop-scotch, nimble-footed children hop their way to victory or defeat.
Over there a group of boys is gathered around a bare spot on a lawn. Old socks bulge irregularly with marbles. Some are not quite so full. They'll compete until they've lost their marbles, their mother calls them home or their thumbnail is worn to the point of pain.
Another group, a bit older, is gathered in similar fashion playing mumblety-peg with their pocket knives.
Snap, snap, snap... the rope rhythmically slaps the pavement and young girls chant favorite rhymes as they jump rope. Trios, or more, with single rope and double Dutch, or solo, like a boxer in training.
A gathering of younger children sits before another youngster — the teacher — playing "rock school," seeing who can advance to the top step first.
"Mother may I?"
In a field two lines of children face each other, one line chanting, "Red Rover, Red Rover send Willie right over" and Willie charges forth to break through the line of hand-in-hand opponents.
Over by the dugout, at the ball diamond, a young man is swinging his playmates by one arm, holding a hand, then releasing it and the child being spun is to freeze and hold that position: "Swing the statue."
Grass-stained knees, abraded elbows and cut fingers...
The smell of pork chops and cottage-fried potatoes mingles with that of burning leaves...
Sounds of laughter and joy ring from every quarter. A middle-aged man's recollections of the "good old days."
And indeed they were.
John Penman Jones
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