Friday, October 10, 2008

Grandpa's Poetry

My grandfather is the kind of man by which I measure all others. It seems there was nothing he could not do or figure out. As a child I was fascinated by him, by the stories he told and the sound effects he injected throughout, the beeps and toots and whistles. He is a natural musician, playing the guitar, singing in his smooth tenor voice, learning the harmonica in only a day. It was my grandfather who taught me to whistle, and despite the fact that I whistle almost constantly, I will never be half as good as he is in his sleep. He knows how to fix things like cars and sinks and showers and toilets. He is an outdoors man and many of my earliest memories of him are centered around camping trips and fishing excursions or the places in-between, when he would set me on his lap and let me drive the turquoise green truck we took on so many of those trips, keeping a careful finger at the bottom of the steering wheel as I was hardly big enough to see over the dashboard. Grandma was kind enough to feign fear and cover her eyes as she squealed. But it thrilled me and Grandpa always made me feel capable and brave and I loved nothing more than when he'd rest his heavy hand on my shoulder and call me "son." He is a hunter with a tremendous love and respect for the wild places of the world. For as long as I can remember, when asked what he'd want if I were to become rich and famous he's said he wants a helicopter to take him to the most beautiful and remote places in Alaska where he could stand in a cold stream and fly-fish all day. When I was very young and got to spend a week with my grandparents, Grandpa and I had a routine that began the moment he walked up the front step. I would hide somewhere in the house and he would spend long minutes, tired and smelling of grease and the bus he rode across the desert to and from the I.N.E.L. where he worked, tromping back and forth through the kitchen and living room, down the hall to the narrow closet where Grandma kept the vacuum, peeking behind couches and under tables looking for me. I'd stay put, giggling into a clenched fist and chirping like a bird or squeaking like a mouse to attract his attention, and he would pretend not to see me, standing almost on top of me until I leapt out at him. He'd stumble back in shock and then hug me tight, tickling my ribs as he held me. And then, after he'd cleaned up, changing into a simple white t-shirt, he'd carry me downstairs in his arms and lead me through the family room to the stuffed antelope and deer heads mounted on the wall, which I would pet somewhat apprehensively, staring at my own reflection in their glassy black eyes. Then he'd lead me to the bobcat hide, tanned and hanging above the couch, which I would run my fingers through while Grandpa meowed softly in my ear. Then he'd set me down on the bearskin rug and let me peer into the eyes and open mouth of the thing, poke at the place its tongue should have been, trace the lines of its teeth. That mothball-scented basement family room is where I learned to love my grandfather and I think that was because it was his space. Grandma could do whatever she wanted with the rest of the house, changing and rearranging the furniture, making new curtains and drapes, painting, buying new lamps and fixtures, but the basement was his. It was where he kept his trophies, his hunting equipment, including the elk calls he'd occasionally let me blow into. Most importantly, though, it was where he kept the jars.

There were shelves and shelves of them, mostly old peanut butter jars, the glass kind, family-sized and heavy, thick so that when you peered into them their contents blurred and warped and refused to reveal themselves except by the red or green punch labels Grandpa had made and attached to the places where Grandma had washed away the paper Skippy or Jif labels. Elk, grouse, pheasant, skunk, they read; beaver, mule deer, roadkill, on and on, every manner of creature. And in those jars were bits of hide, colorful feathered wings, tails he'd collected. I spent many hours leaning over the arms of the rough-textured couch behind his work station, watching him open them and withdraw bits which he always let me stroke or caress with the back of my hand, fascinated not only by what they'd once been but also by what they were about to become. I don't know how he did it, but he spent hours extracting pieces of fur or strands of feather which he wrapped around a hook and mounted on a vice and spun and spun until after long hours he'd produced a bright and beautiful lure for his fly-fishing trips. My eyes lit up at the transformation and I wanted to throw my arms around him and congratulate him on his magic. Nothing was more wondrous than his ability to change one thing--something so alien, disconnected as it was from the thing it had been--into something luminous and more alive than all those heads and skins hanging from the walls around us. My grandfather could spin gold! And there is nothing I wouldn't give to sit in that basement and see him do it again.

This morning at the park Duncan followed close, almost behind me, near to my body, watching me as though waiting for something, his eyes wide and head slightly cocked, ears up. His ball was at home where he'd dropped it in all his excitement and bum-shimmying in front of the door while waiting for me to leash him up. I had nothing to throw his way. and held out my empty hands for him to see. He did a little prancing hop at me as though I was hiding something which he'd discovered and wanted. But I had nothing. Scanning the ground I spotted a large branch which had broken free of the naked and sickly elm above us. Moving quickly I snapped off the last brittle four feet of the thing. Duncan plopped down hard, his tail wagging beneath him, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Hardly able to contain themselves, his front paws danced in place as I worked, peeling the smaller leafy twigs off the main branch, shucking them and dropping them at my feet, until I'd finally fashioned the perfect throwing stick, smooth and nearly nub-free. As I tossed it across the park, watching it spin and arc in the air while Duncan chased after it, his head craned back and his tail sticking straight out, I thought of Grandpa and his flies, his taking and making, the way he taught me, without knowing it, how to write poetry and how to move through this life, looking at things exactly as they are but also seeing them for what they could be, should be. In my mind those flies, those scraps of long-dead animals and birds, are still humming and darting over the speckled lakes and rivers of southeast Idaho, more alive in their tethered flight than I could have imagined peering into their peanut butter jar-kennels.

I do not know how to tie flies, and despite Grandpa's best efforts, I never managed to catch anything fly-fishing next to him on the south fork of the Snake River. There are many things my grandfather knows which I will never be able to do but his whistle is not the only thing I've inherited. I can turn branches in flying toys and fulfill the dreams of my own "son."

10 comments:

traci said...

Beautiful post Curt. Thanks.

caboval said...

******sigh***** I loved it! I felt as though I was right there with you! Amazing grandpa!

Curt Rogers said...

Thanks, guys! I wish I lived closer because I'd love to hear my grandpa's stories. He's a funny guy who I miss every day.

Lori said...

What wonderful memories!!! I never had a grandpa like that... but my dad was a lot like him, I think.

merely me said...

Capable and brave! Loved the whole ding dang post.

NodakJack said...

I remember standing next to your Grandpa as he fly-fished the South Fork of the Snake River near Heise Hot Springs Idaho. He'd have a period of time when he wasn't catching anything. He'd stop. Look at the water and note what the fish were jumping to capture. He'd grab one of whatever bug it was, look at it, and, right there, IN THE RIVER, water swirling about his waders, would extract his mobile fly-tying gizmo with his bits of "stuff" and TIE ONE RIGHT THERE! He'd cast....and catch! He was magical.
Grandpa Fuger and Grandma Fuger are fondly entrenched in my memory banks. Your OTHER Grandma and Grandpa thought the world of both of them.
Thanks for the memories, boy.
Love, ya'.

Cheryl said...

Thank you for the nice walk down our memory lane. The trophy animals on the wall (and fireplace) belonged to Great Grandpa Fuger. I'm not sure but I don't think Grandpa was the "hunter" of these animals.

Sue said...

Another gorgeous post Curt. I loved it. The words seemed to flow from your fingers to my eyes and warm my heart.

Your talent is extraordinary, and touches my soul.

lisa said...

Beautiful. Thank you for the gift of your story.

Kevi said...

Beautiful. Thank you for inviting us in.