My great-grandfather was a coal miner from West Virginia.
Not really, but I used to tell people that when I was a kid.
He was, though, a rail road worker from West Virginia, and the rest of what I say about him is true as far as I know.
Grandpa hated school. He once put a dead skunk on the furnace in the basement of his schoolhouse, filling the classrooms with a sweet aroma. He also liked to stick a straight pen through his shoe, point sticking outward, and jab the girl who sat in front of him. After he told me that story, I tried it. The boy I stuck told the teacher, resulting in a trip to the office.
One day grandpa came home, only to find a locked door. He was somewhere around thirteen, and that’s when he left home for good.
I don’t know how old he was when he met and married my great-grandmother, but they had lots of adventures together. She was a preacher’s daughter, and from the stories they told me, she lived up to it. She was a load of fun her entire life.
Grandpa liked the ladies. He decorated his tool shed with centerfolds from the 60’s and 70’s. Even at five or six, I was fascinated by those golden goddesses. And hanging on the inside of the towel cabinet door in the hall bathroom was a 1967 playboy calendar that I spent hours staring at. I remember best the blond in the beach sand, the red-head on the pool deck, and the brunette partly wrapped in fur.
When I was eight, I told my grandpa I had a girlfriend.
“Is she fully stacked?” he asked.
“Oh, hush, Robert!” my grandmother responded.
He also asked me if I ever “Went around behind the woodshed.” I had no idea what he meant, but he split his sides laughing, my grandmother would tell him to hush, and my aunt would say, “Oh, shit, daddy, leave the boy alone!”
Grandpa was the only man I knew who had a tattoo. It was a heart pierced through with a dagger on his forearm. When he wore a shirt, it was a white V-neck undershirt. But usually he was shirtless and sweaty, working in his yard which he kept immaculate. There were flowering trees, flower beds, cactus beds, and plastic pink flamingos. To a boy, it was the greatest place in the world.
Grandpa was a Roosevelt Democrat who hatred for Republicans was unsurpassed. Always, on the way to visit, my sister and I would tease my parents: “We’re going to tell Grandpa that you voted for Reagan!”
My mom would say, “Don’t you dare!”
Grandpa’s face turned blood red and he’d mumble a string of curses when President Reagan was on TV, and my sister and I would give my parents a sly grin as a threat. I remember exactly what he sounded like when he used one of his favorite phrases: “That son-of-a-bitch!”
Grandpa lived a hard life, but he had a strong capacity for love. My grandmother’s death changed him. I remember him sitting quietly, watching us all with a big smile and tears in his eyes.
As a boy, I inherited my grandpa’s mischievousness and was greatly inspired by his tales. I also, at times, prove that his inappropriateness rubbed off on me, much to my wife’s dismay. And without a doubt he passed on his love of beauty. I hope, too, that I have whatever he had that made him love my grandmother, and all of the rest of his family, until his last day.