I never much like being a child. It’s not that my childhood was difficult. Some were better, others worse. It was my role in life as a child I didn’t care for. I also really didn’t enjoy hanging out with other children. But in the world I grew up in, kids played with kids, and the adults hung out around the table telling stories, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.
I was usually more interested in what was going on around the adult table than the screaming and crying going on out in the back yard. Kids were loud, cried for no reason, and always wanted to change the rules.
If I tried to loiter at the fringe of adulthood, eventually one of them would detect my presence and I would here those words.
“Billy, go outside and play!” Oft times followed by. “Kids should be seen and not heard.”
But in those very early years, there was a very bright spot in my life, my grandparents. Particularly my grandparents on my mom’s side. I was one of those weird kids that had multiple sets of grandparents. There were two sets of Muir’s, with one those sets being great grandparents. One Hathaway set, and a solo grandma Hathaway. A solo great grandma Stein, and the aforementioned favorite set, the McDonald’s. Most of my grandparents were too far away to be a big part of my life at that age. Maybe that was one influence on my pick for favorite. I saw the Muir’s and Hathaway’s once a year if I was lucky, and grandma Stein was just plain scary.
Grandpa McDonald was my mom’s stepdad, that fact might give a clue as to why I had so many grandparents. For those of you thinking that I have just a we bit of Irish in me…um no!
Grandma and Grandpa McDonald introduced me to things in my young life I would never had experienced if they were not a part of my life. Grandma McDonald was the one who did her best to drive me nuts by telling me she was, “Playing pinochle with the boys down on Lake St.” She had another phrase she would use often that would leave me wondering what was wrong with the world I lived in. “Billy, you make me so mad, I could eat a banana, and I hate bananas!” To this day, I have no idea what that means, or how anyone could hate bananas. Especially a crazy old lady who always had a bundle of them on her kitchen counter top!
Grandpa McDonald taught me everything that mattered in life. He was kind, patient and let me stick around to ask questions. Never once did he say. “Kids should be seen and not heard.” I don’t think I was a big talker, maybe more of an observer. Questions only came when the wheels that spun in my head would not catch on an idea, or an answer. Most of the adults in my life answered questions with “I don’t know!”, but not grandpa. If he knew the answer, he offered it up.
They had a lake cabin in Wisconsin. It was there I learned what an outhouse was, and in the winter we melted snow for cooking. The sink drained into a five gallon bucket stowed below. I learned to swim at a very young age at this lake. Grandpa would toss me out several feet and tell me to swim back to him. It sounds harsh, but it was effective, and because of his demeanor, I never felt unsure. I learned to swim and love water because of that man, and his rustic old cabin.
I only saw him get mad at me twice in those early years. The first time, he kicked me out of bed because he was trying take a nap and allegedly, I was kicking him in my sleep. I woke up to him cursing and telling me to get out of his bed. At the time, I was devastated because I never saw him get that angry with me. Looking back, I probably had it coming.
A couple of my mom’s boyfriend’s introduced me to truck driving, but grandpa McDonald showed me what it was really all about. He was an auto mechanic in my first memories. Another thing he introduced me too. Then, when their youngest child flew the nest, they sold their house in Bloomington and bought a farm up north somewhere. I spent a couple of summers up there and learned the meaning of the phrase, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
But the farm soon went away and my grandpa bought a truck. At first, my mom’s boyfriend drove it for him until he could get his truck driver’s license. Later, when I had my own truck, I met my grandparents at a Hardee’s in Thief River Falls. Grandpa shared stories about those few short months that that guy drove my grandpa’s truck. Amazing how much of an ass one person can be. Let’s just say that blue GMC cabover wasn’t a welcome sight at many docks across the state.
It wasn’t long after grandpa started driving his truck before I was riding along. Truck driving sure seemed cool, until you spend three straight days in one! This was long before deregulation and air ride chassis.
Trucks in those days were not shiny massive vehicles that nearly blasted you off the road as they roared by. Most of them were just trying to stay out of the way! They rode like shit, and few if any had air conditioning. AC was too much of a drain on those under powered engines. Because of the shitty suspension, most of the stuff inside the truck didn’t work.
Rare was the day when grandpa had a working radio.
…and the waiting! To a six or seven year old little boy, it seemed as though truck driving was all waiting with a little bit of trucking in between.
But there was the cool stuff too. Somewhere up by Thief River Falls my grandpa loaded a load of “polish racing cars”, as one hand said over the CB. There was the time we went to South Dakota, I was a bit older then, and we drove by the Corn Castle. That was before interstates, and most of those trips took you right through the middle of small towns and big cities alike. My grandfather bought me a brick of Black Jack firecrackers on that trip. They were legal in South Dakota. I managed to get through the whole brick without me or my friends blowing our fingers off!
Speaking of before interstates. I remember my grandfather stopping at the top of the hill on what would have been old highway 61. That hill led down into downtown Duluth, and my grandfather was very nervous about it. He reached into his side box and grabbed a wrench. I followed two steps behind him as usual.
“What ya doing grandpa?” I asked excitedly seeing something different in this truck driving world.
“Adjusting the breaks Billy.” He replied in his usual patient way.
“How come, is something wrong?” I followed up with.
“No, it’s a pretty steep hill and I want to make sure the brakes are up to it.” He said as he crawled under the back axle of the trailer.
For those of you with no experience in the truck driving world. This was a common practice before descending any steep grade. Some states used to require that a truck driver stop and check his brakes before starting down the hill. Most modern trucks have self-adjusting brakes and engine retardation systems that helps slow them down, so you don’t see this groundwork to often anymore.
I watched my grandfather with real concern as we went down that hill. He was a different man, nervous, more careful than his already cautious self…scared. As he successfully came to a stop at the first stop light in downtown Duluth, it was as if a fog lifted from the cab of that truck, the apprehension leaving with a heavy sigh of relief from the drivers side of the cab. The smell of hot brakes filling that narrow street.
Later in life, I would clearly understand how my grandfather felt going down that hill with a heavy load pushing him the whole way.
Grain lines were the worse for waiting. We would haul something cool out to far away towns of Minnesota and the Dakotas’, and usually bring back grain. Then spend a whole day moving forty feet at a time as we moved up for our turn in the grain line.
But one time we waited, and I cannot remember where, or for what. It wasn’t a grain line; I think we were waiting for our turn to load. It was a hot, dusty, expanse of asphalt we passed the time on. Grandpa was tinkering with his truck and I was bored out of my mind. I sat in the driver’s seat helping when he needed it. Turn this on, turn that off, step on the break, and push in the button, whatever he needed me to do. I was thrilled to be helping my grandfather, but the boredom was there.
Thinking back, as I write this, I think the waiting had him a bit on edge too.
As I sat in the driver’s seat, grandpa reached into the side box to grab a nasty old shirt. He took of the one he was wearing, stuffed it in the side box, and shrugged on the other.
“Why you changing shirts?” My seven year old little self-asked.
“Because this next part can get a little messy.” He answered, again very patiently.
Now I was curious.
He crawled under the driver’s side fuel tank, just his legs sticking out from my vantage point. There was a pause, then the sound of high pressure air escaping hissed from under the truck. I felt panic grip me as I watched and felt the truck losing its precious air. Just as I was about to leap down and see if grandpa was all right, it stopped. Silence, once again blanketed the sun scorched tarmac.
Slowly my grandpa wriggle out from under the truck, as he stood I could not help the giggles that my grandpa’s appearance pulled from me.
Little black dots covered my grandfather from his waist to the top of his head. It was though he had a severe case of the black chicken pocks. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen on any of those trips with my beloved grandfather. The giggles gave way to gut busting laughter. I had to cling to the steering wheel to keep from falling out of my grandpa’s seat.
My grandfather wasn’t amused.
“So you think this is funny, do you…you little shit!” He growled at me.
I couldn’t catch my breath long enough to respond, but it was clear he didn’t find my laughter amusing. Later after he cleaned himself off, I asked how and why. He explained to me that oil and water get in the air tanks, which needs to be bled off occasionally. He usually tries to do it over a grate or something, but that bleak, sun baked asphalt offered no alternative to a case of the oily black chicken pox.
And for only the second time my life, saw that same grandfather get mad me.