I watched as the old man sat on the couch slowly loading his pipe. Using “Virginny” tobacco from a red metal can, arthritic fingers made the process a slow one. He was in his very late eighties, I in my middle teens. It was the middle Sixties and I had driven my grandmother to visit her bedridden mother on Christmas Day.
“Ole Pap” had been celebrating the birthday of our Lord and was at least one nip past a “snoot full.” Drinking was not his holiday tradition unless every day was a holiday. Normally he did not progress to the one or two “nips past sober” side of the line. So adept at maintaining the perfect buzz, not quite sober, not quite drunk, I never realized my great grandfather drank until I found him sober one day. It was not a pleasant revelation. My grandmother was not happy with her father and left me to be entertained by his drunkenness.
We sat on a long and narrow porch, enclosed when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Wide windows lined the southeast facing wall and what heat had been generated by the midday sun had quickly left us. Still, we sat as he smoked his Prince Albert and talked.
In a slurred voice, he told me he had smoked since he was thirteen and taken to nipping at fifteen. Nipping had turned into something else entirely. Great Grandpa passed when he was ninety-eight and as far as I know, was tamping Prince Albert tobacco into his Medico Pipe right up until he died…along with drinking a pint of “store bought” brown liquor a day. Weaning him down might have been what finally killed him.
He could sit for hours, puffing silently on his pipe. Just puffing enough to keep it burning, staring off at who knew what. Half blind from cataracts, I’m sure he was staring back at the past. From the old pictures I had seen he was never a big man but seemed to be collapsing in on himself and shrinking before my eyes. The couch seemed to swallow him.
Rheumy-eyed and toothless in his very old age, the old man was still a hard knot, one I was terrified of. Despite his small stature, from the stories I had been told, he had cast a huge shadow. He was a hard man who lived in hard times. According to him, “A man had to be hard to survive” …Darwinism at its best…or worst.”
He had seen much history. The Spanish American War, airplanes, and automobiles. The Great War, The Great Depression, paved roads and the magic of electricity, World War Two, a man stepping on to the moon. Something tells me he wasn’t too concerned about those events…unless they related to scratching out a living.
“Ole Pap” ran a general mercantile store at a railroad water and fuel stop during the age of steam. In his free time, he hammered nails as a carpenter until he could buy a piece of land. I believe he was a bit of a hustler, anything for a buck kind of guy, including making corn liquor during the depression and prohibition…or maybe that’s a story from an overactive imagination.
He married a woman well above his station and helped her raise ten “youngins” to adulthood he said. “Raising his own workforce.” Ten children, he recognized and if my grandmother was to be believed, at least one that he didn’t recognize. I believed her.
He hoed corn and grew tomatoes until he was in mid-nineties. All the while consuming most of his corn from a jar or a bottle…a pipe stuck between his gums and a tin of Prince Albert stuck in the front pocket of his bib overalls when he wasn’t nipping.
I wish I had asked him more questions about the life at the turn of the Nineteenth Century. I had been taught that children should be seen and not heard…I took it too literally. Too literal and I was scared to death of him. I don’t know why he terrified me, he never mistreated me.
I’m sure he was tough on his children, maybe even cruel. All were hard nuts in their own rights, especially the elder ones. My grandmother, his oldest, certainly was a hard nut to crack…and she loved her father dearly warts and all.
I do have fond memories, mainly of large family gatherings, cousins galore. They seemed to always end on the narrow back porch…or wide front porch. Tales being recounted or maybe even created. Great Grandpa lightly puffing on his pipe, a can of Prince Albert somewhere close by.
If you liked this story you might wish to download or purchase “Pathways” or “Cornfields…in my Mind.” The can be found at https://www.amazon.com/default/e/B018IT38GM?redirectedFromKindleDbs=true
The image came from Argosy Magazine, November 1962