Sunday, February 21, 2010

Ma's Pa

When I was only a singular digit of age, I thought Grampa was the most fun person to ever be around. I did not know that his oars didn't reach the top floor. That is to say his elevator did not quite touch the water.

I would only see Grampa in the summer, when there was no school, and Dad took his vacation. Grampa lived in New Jersey and we lived in Michigan. My father's father had died years earlier. I have the dimmest of a memory of him. My mother's father lived until I was nine years of age. Both grandmothers had died before I was born. My mother's brother, my Uncle Chet, had a trucking business in Manville, New Jersey. For lack of creativity, he called his business "Chet's Trucking." Uncle Chet was still single and he took care of his father, my Grampa.

Every summer my folks piled me into the back seat of the car, next to cooler filled with sandwiches and colas, and we headed east for the next week or two. I hated the 12 hour drive but loved visiting Grampa and Uncle Chet. I had a different name in New Jersey. When in Michigan I was called "John" or sometimes "Johnny", but in Joisey I was called "Jawn" or "Jawnny." The "aw" sound was stretched slightly: "Jaaawn-nee." I was always fascinated by their use of different words for familiar things. Bags were called sacks. Pizzas were called tomato pies. Pop was called soda. "Jawny, you want a soda with your tomato pie? Grab one out of the sack."

My uncle's house was on a street named Dukes Parkway. It was a long dirt road with a few houses scattered here and there only on one side. The other side was county property and on that side, about a half mile from Uncle Chet's, was the city dump. This was like Oz to a seven year old, and Grampa also loved the dump. He would walk me there and together we would scrap. Scrapping is the term he used to describe digging through garbage in hopes of finding something useful or fixable.

My Uncle Chet had bulldozers and steam shovels and other heavy equipment in the yard adjacent to his house. This was like a carnival to me. He would always leave the blades up on his construction equipment. I would climb into the driver seats, push the air release levers and lower the scoopers and blades. I wasn't able to raise the extensions. Air compressors, running off the engines, were required for raising. Uncle Chet did not give me the keys to start these machines. So I learned how to gently push the levers and I could lengthen the time spent dropping the gear to the ground.

One of my last memories of Grampa was the day that he went to the dump without me. I stayed behind to play on the metal dinosaurs. The steam shovel was a brontosaurus and the bulldozers were triceratops. After I had bested the beasts, I went to the road to look for Grampa. In the distance I saw him coming. He was pushing a shabby, wobbly baby buggy back home. I ran to greet him and saw the buggy was wobbly because it only had three wheels. I looked in the carriage and saw an odd assortment of gadgets and gizmos. This was par for the course. What surprised me was the dead flat bird laying on top.

"Grampa, what're ya' doing with the bird?"

"I'm gonna fix it," he told me. This seemed unlikely, but being seven, I wasn't going to doubt an adult. I still had a fear of the Oz flying monkeys although I was pretty certain that they did not exist. Who was I to say what was possible or not.

I helped Grampa push the carriage back to Uncle Chet's and into his garage. Grampa had a little work area in the garage where he tinkered with his found treasures. Next to his bench was a large pile of broken objects that he either could not fix or hadn't yet tried to fix. There were all sorts of interesting things he intended to repair. Clocks without hands, radios with missing components, rusted meat grinders, shovels without handles, shoes without soles, lamps without cords, corroded pots and pans, eyeglasses without lenses, smashed coffee pots, punctured inner tubes, and lots and lots of pieces of tinfoil among it all.

Grampa rummaged through the stack and pulled out a balsa wood toy plane. One of the wings was pushed straight up. He bent it back to the proper position and it cracked off. Next he swabbed the broken area with Elmers Glue and held the wing in place. As he waited for it to set, Grampa talked to me. I don't know what he said because he was talking in Polish. Grampa would forget that I did not understand Polish, and talked to me in his native tongue. His volume would go up and down, and I knew when he was making a point when his words rushed out and then stopped suddenly. I would put a surprise look on my face and he would nod his head to assure me that what he just said was the absolute truth. He may have been giving me worldly advice, or perhaps revealing a tale of his past, or maybe discussing the previous evening's Perry Mason episode. I never knew the meaning behind his words, but it did not matter. The important thing was that he was giving his attention to me. When you are an only child like I was, it was a rare occasion to find an adult that would talk to you without ordering you to do a chore or yelling about something you did wrong.

Grampa decided it was time to test the newly glued plane. As soon as he released it, the wing fell off again. He grunted and grabbed a roll of tape. He then tried taping the wing back on the plane. This had a little success. It was attached, but wiggled. Good enough. Next Grampa took the dead bird out of the baby buggy and set it across the frame. The birds wings stretched out over the plane's wings. Grampa taped the two together.

I followed Grampa out of the garage into the back yard. He held the bird mounted plane at shoulder level, pulled his arm back, and flung the flyer into the air. It went about ten feet before plummeting to the ground. He smiled his approval, retrieved the bird-plane and offered it to me. I took the thing from him. He patted me on the head, told me to enjoy myself and walked off. I stood there staring at Grampa's bizarre creation. Finally, I threw it into the sky and watched it go over the back fence. I took a moment to debate if I should climb the fence and retrieve it. I decided I was hungry instead, and went into the house to ask my mother to fix me something to eat.

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