At Granddad's funeral, an earnest but misdirected soloist sang a modified version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" that included the line, "I never once heard you complain." Rob gave an almost-imperceptible eyeroll and whispered, "This woman obviously didn't know my grandfather."
Granddad might have been something of a complainer, but God knows he had a troubled life. After his first wife was institutionalized and subsequently divorced him, he had to put his two children into temporary foster care while he simultaneously worked punishing hours and tried to find a second shot at familial harmony. About a year later, the family was reunited with a new matriarch and later grew by another son.
His job was tough. For decades he arose early and layered up to go out to the railyards, connecting and disconnecting cars to and from each other and sending them on their fore-chosen paths around the country. He didn't particularly like it; in fact, he took an early retirement as soon as he could, raising his youngest son in the gentler climate of a North Carolina beach town.
But he did like trains. He often bored my husband, the apple of his eye, with tales about how they worked, their speed and efficiency. In fact, he loved trains so much he would only go on vacation if he could take a train to get there -- which, as you might imagine, severely hampered their vacation plans on more than one occasion. Rob complained often about their family's inability to go to California or the Bahamas: "Why can't we all just fly there?!"
Eventually Granddad explained the real reason he preferred ground transportation: he had served as a tailgunner in the Air Force during World War II. On one of the many times (or maybe every time) he had boarded a plane, unsure his feet would touch the ground again, he had sworn that once the war was over, he would admire the skies from afar. Trains were just fine by him.
His firstborn son honored him in choosing a similar line of work -- operating boilers very similar to those on old steam trains, but for a grounded chemical manufacturing company. And his grandson has eventually matured a little, enough to be interested in the mechanics of trains for the same reason Granddad himself loved them: the simple, mechanically-perfect beauty of a machine that does exactly what it's supposed to. In fact, when we had an opportunity to travel on the narrow-gauge railroad that still runs from Durango to Silverton in Southwest Colorado, my husband said "yes" before my brain could even connect the ideas of modern vacation and old-fashioned travel. But I'm glad he did, because it was more fun that I could have ever imagined. The scenery passed quickly, but not too quickly; natural wonders abounded where roads couldn't follow; and even the soot on our faces and hair was part of the overall charm.
About six months before Grandpa's funeral, he stood up abruptly in the middle of a family prayer service to say, “I know everybody’s worried about me. But I want you to know that I’m not afraid to die.” He went on to exhort us to make sure our souls were right with God.
Zing. That was Grandpa: always making sure you were paying attention. Sometimes it was a spiritual maxim; other times, a slightly off-color joke. He operated on sarcastic humor and a grumpy sort of goodwill we all learned to love. Subtlety, however, escaped him. One of his favorite lines was, "Whaddya call THAT?" which he would deliver in a stage whisper immediately after we passed someone on the street who had pink hair, plaid pants, an eyebrow piercing or something similarly shocking.
A rare combination of a musician at heart and a musician by trade, he played the organ for years on the radio program "Haven of Rest." He also installed and assembled a huge pipe organ in his own house, which seemed to us like the largest toy imaginable: we used to beg for him to do the siren effects, and the old-fashioned aaawwwOOOOOOOgaaa! car horn. Although his family scattered to many corners of the country, he and my grandmother visited often and always had a joke or some other treat for each of us.
Grandpa also served in the Navy during World War II, but the war ended before his unit shipped out and he never saw battle. However, he saw plenty of ugliness, mainly between and among sailors who had enjoyed one too many on the house. He vowed privately never to touch a drink, and he kept this promise for life (and wasn't above setting you straight about your choices, either.)
It was perhaps this service to his country, coupled with a lifelong interest in history, that inspired his retirement hobby of lead soldiers -- especially those of the Civil War. He bought molds and paints in order to fully produce each one himself, filing off the rough bits and applying painstaking details by hand with the thinnest slip of a brush. These also seemed like toys to us: the boy cousins had endless battles and the girls tried, usually in vain, to involve them in more domestic dramas. He did try to interest a few of us in taking up the hobby with him, but after the fun of handling molten metal came a lot of careful grunt work, and none of us had the fortitude to stick with it. I like to think, though, that his twin loves of precision engineering and musical creativity trickled down into the family he left behind -- a family full of designers, writers and musicians who all have a soft spot for bathroom humor.
As we got older, we appreciated the less-obvious details of his craft: varying shades of gray in the homemade uniforms of the Confederate soldiers, or a neat mustache on a Union general who got up a little earlier each morning to shave before donning his brass buttons. I never asked him about it, but I have to imagine he felt a lot of gratitude for those men, having undergone some of their trials himself.
We have some of his soldiers on a shelf, a memory of him, but I had forgotten all about them until the end of our Silverton trip, when we wandered into the Durango Railroad Museum so Rob could take some photos. Suddenly, there were two whole walls of tiny lead figures -- thousands and thousands, produced and willed to the museum by another retired soldier.
It was as shocking as seeing your kindergarten teacher in the grocery store: we had come in after one grandfather and met another along the way. As I thought about this in the days and weeks after the trip, it occurred to me how much these two men had in common, and how sorry I was that I didn't have more time with them both.
This artist was far more methodical and less choosy than my grandfather: he had battle scenes from every Western conflict imaginable, from the British Camel Corps in Egypt to the U-boats my grandfather would have served on if the war had ended just a few months later.
And of course, the Civil War was there. I had to blink back tears at the sight of the familiar full beards and gray wool, the flag-bearers and high boots. Grandpa could have stayed here all day, I thought, pointing out details I would have missed. So could Granddad, wandering amid all the shiny restored engines with Rob. And then it occurred to me that maybe they had -- maybe they were there, that day, with us. By special dispensation from the Center for Complaints in the Clouds, where I'm sure they have moved up the ranks with unprecedented speed.
What a mystery, this life we live.