Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Grandpa Mack

I have told you some about one of my grandfathers, now I will tell you some about the other. As I've said before, Grandpa Young was a hard worker in every sense of the word and knew how to earn a dollar and what to do with that dollar, but Grandpa Mack, the other one, would fit another description.
       He was born right at the turn of the century in 1901 in West Virginia. Grandpa Mack's given name was William McKinley Thomas. Named after the president, of course, but I don't know if anyone ever called him William except maybe his mother.
       Just in case you've never seen it for yourself, I will tell you now that there are few places anywhere as beautiful as those old hills of West Virginia. Not to take anything away from other parts of the country, or the rest of the world, but that is just how I feel about it.
      Grandpa Young- the hard worker- dug holes and planted trees, mostly hemlock, on the hillsides and made a good living at it. Grandpa Mack on the other hand, put it on canvas, in oils, and made works of art. He hardly made a dime much less a dollar, but he was passionate about it and dedicated to a life of trying to capture and express that beauty I told you about earlier. It was a life of study, contemplation, spirituality, and aloneness.
       He did other things, too. For instance, in World War II he was a tail-gunner on a plane. At least that's how the story goes and I believe it. I've seen a photograph of him in his dress uniform. At some point he was also a school teacher. My mother, his daughter, was one of his students in the seventh grade, I think.
       I don't know if he was a good soldier or not, and I don't know how he was as a teacher, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't fired from either of those jobs so I guess he wasn't too bad at fighting war or teaching English in school, but all along, from early on, he painted.
      There were articles about him in the paper from time to time and several of his paintings took places of honor behind pulpits in churches and over mantels in living rooms in West Virginia and even some in Ohio. I almost forgot to tell you-he was also, (from time to time) a fine preacher of the Gospel. Don't forget though, he was an artist above all and therefore as is not uncommon with artists, he was also fond of drinking rum (from time to time). In the last years of his life he was supported mostly by his sister, my Great Aunt Clara. She was wheelchair bound, but made a living as a telephone operator. She had a switchboard in her house and was very good with her money. She made sure Mack had paint, canvas, and brushes and she was proud of his art. As a matter of fact on of the last letters Mack wrote was to her and it said near the end, "Thank you for a supreme effort to make a Man." Grandpa Mack died in a sanatorium of tuberculosis. He was sixty.
        At the start of this story, I might have made it seem as if one of my Grandfathers worked harder than the other, but that is not quite true as I see it now. Grandpa Young worked hard at working hard and having some of the finer things in life, which he deserved, but Grandpa Mack worked just as hard at being an artist. At being a searcher. A bit of a gambler too, but mostly he worked at simply Being. I am sure there is some of both of them in me.

Pa Thomas

    That dern corn on his toe was just about to wear him to a frazzle, but he couldn't worry about that right now. His little granddaughter was here for a visit and he wasn't about to let a sore toe put a damper on that. In his long life, Pa Thomas had been through a whole lot worse things than a sore toe. In another century, the nineteenth, he came over here from Holland and fought in our Civil War. I'm not too sure about this part, but it seems like I remember someone in our family sayin' somthin' about him getting caught as a stow-away on a ship halfway between here and Holland and then having to spend some time as an endentured servant, doing some kind of farmwork. Anyway, he served for the North out of West Virginia. After that, all I know is he got married to Ma Thomas and they started having children. As automobiles came along later on, in the twentieth century, Pa Thomas would hitch-hike into Charleston on the week-ends to see his children, now grown, and that was a danger in itself. Especially since he stood in the middle of the road to do that. I'm sure the roads, the few there were back then, were really bad and maybe there was just no place to hitch-hike on the SIDE of the road. That must be it because I'm also sure that Pa Thomas was not doing it that way because he was just dumb. He was not. 
      On the day we're talking about, the day of the corn on his toe, Pa was getting his picture taken. He would be sitting on the front porch, not all dressed up, but nice and clean and tidy, and his granddaughter would be sitting on his lap, playing with his long, white beard and his long, white hair which came down past his shoulders. Photography had come a long ways by then and the picture is pretty clear. Pa is wearing glasses and one hand lays on his right knee and the other is on the small of the little girl's back. He is wearing suspenders so his shirt is tucked in. He is looking at her and she is looking back at him. It is a somewhat comical picture and it radiates a lot of love. It is a picture of my Great Grandfather and my mother.
      I understand that just a moment after that photograph was taken, the little girl jumped down off the old man's lap and took off running across the yard, chasing her dog. It was hot and Pa took out his hankerchief and wiped the sweat from his neck and forehead and commenced immediately to untie his right boot and take it off, then gently remove his sock. Then he stood up and reached in his pocket for his penknife, limped over to the edge of the porch and sat down there. His right knee was up against his beardy chest and his foot, the one with the corn on the toe, was planted firmly on the deck. The other foot was resting on one of the wooden steps. Pa Thomas then simply cut the dern corn off!
    In the end, that little toe really did wear Pa to a frazzle. It killed him. A few days after that lovely picture was taken, he got blood poison and died. 
     Mama always spoke admiringly and sweetly of that old man and I've always wished I could've known him. I've got some of his shoemaking tools and that'll have to do, I guess. Well, I've also got a nice little write-up about him from a local newspaper. Near the end of the article it says, "There were  three living Veterans of the Civil War and now, with the death of 'Pa Thomas', there are only two."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

St. Augustine

At age 18 I began hitchhiking all around this country and I kept it up untill I was 24, when I landed in Nashville. Granted, it wasn't always fun, but for the most part, the adventure and constant change outweighed the underlying sense of fear. It was worth the risk, I guess.
       Anyway, as I said before, a few years later I drifted into Guitar Town with the notion of settling down and writing songs for awhile. I worked real jobs during the day such as washing dishes and bussing tables. I was also a construction laborer for a couple of years. At night I played my songs in the cafes and bars of the city I'd developed a great love for. I had never lived in any one place longer than I had been in Nashville.
       I should've quit while I was ahead, but for some dumb reason, when I turned 30, I got the itch to travel again and began making plans to thumb my way to the oldest city in the country, St. Augustine. I had been there, but only in passing through. This time I thought I'd see it for real.
       In the old days of my rambling I would'nt have even considered carrying a backpack, but this time I decided to travel in style and went out and bought a nice one. I boldly and happily told my friends about my new plans. They were not impressed. "Duffy", they said, "it's dangerous out there. Why don't you just stay here and write songs about hitchhiking instead of actually doing it?"
       Well, a hundred miles or so and a day later, I knew in my heart that they were right. This time, right off the bat, the fear outweighed the adventure, but I couldn't turn back now, could I?
       Several short rides later I decided to get off the interstate and take the backroads. The "rural route" as the great Hank Williams would say. Pretty soon I was standing beside a scenic blue highway, like a drowning rat, cursing the pouring rain and every single vehicle that passed my by.
       It was probably around midnight when I finally got a ride. A nice man and his wife pulled over in an old pick-up truck and I put my backpack and my guitar in the back and crawled up in there myself and settled in for a nice, if wet, nap. Not to be, Twenty miles and thirty minutes later the nice man pulled over to the side of the road and said, "Well, son, we're goin' west here...so...uh...good luck. Here, let me help ya with that." He lifted the backpack out the truck and set it down beside me. He wished me good luck again, got back in the driver's seat and they took off, leaving me standing there wondering what the hell I was doing. Why was I not back in Nashville in my favorite bar, singing one of my original songs? No, not me. Instead, I was stumbling around in the dark, making my way to a railroad bridge in the distance, sitting under it, eating a can of sardines and mumbling, like a crazy person, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". 
       Next morning I walked the short way back to the main road  and stuck my thumb out. I was feeling a little better because the rain had stopped and the glorious sun was shining down again on me. Seven hours later I was burning up and cursing that glorious sun and, again, every car, or truck, that passed me by. Sometimes they waved. Those were the ones I used the foulest language on.
       I was never so glad to see a cop in my life. I was kind of hoping that he would haul me off to jail, but no such luck. He gave me a lift to the county line where he got on his radio and, before I knew it, another cop took me to the next county line and so on and so on. The police took me, in turn, all the way across the state of North Carolina! It's true, but they didn't do it just because they were being nice. A hitchhiker had been killed in a hit and run a few nights before and they were bound and determined not to let that happen again.
       Anyway, I finally made it to St. Augustine. I stayed in a small campground, in my tent, not far from town. I played music in a couple of different bars, hung out on the beach and had a pretty good time for about a month. Then, one morning, I walked a long ways to the Greyhound Bus station and bought myself a one-way ticket and hightailed it back to Nashville. Back to work. Back to play. Back to my friends. They were glad to see me and I was glad, and grateful, to see them. 
       I could still be wild and free. I just didn't need to be worn out and cold and lonesome to do it. I could be a Gypsy and a rover in my mind and not go around worrying everybody. I'm still a Gypsy and a hobo. A rambler and a gambler...and a writer.