Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Happy Birthday Eli

Eli and I at Marnie's Wedding
Tonight was my grandfather's 83'rd birthday. I wish you all could know him. The only problem is you won't see the man I've known for the vast majority of my 36 year old life. You'll see a very old man with a hillbilly accent and a bum right arm that's the result of a stroke during emergency heart surgery about 5 years ago. You won't see the man that could work nearly every other man I've ever met into the ground, including this one.

Fortunately you will see the man that has always had a twinkle of mischief in his eye. You will see the man that has never met a person he didn't like unless they really tried to be unlikable. You will see the man that has a colorful euphemism for just about everything that can happen in life. You will meet the man that, even if he does tell you you're a "bad egg" or a "mean rooster", loves every last one of his family members with a quiet, unconditional passion.

Tonight we met at Texas Roadhouse to celebrate. Unfortunately we couldn't all sit together at one table so I didn't really get to talk to him much. I'll make up for it with a visit this weekend. As he was leaving with his gifts he playfully gestured like he was going to smack Levi on the top of the head and said, "I should smack him on the noggin' good. It'll toughen him up." That's Eli for "I'm tickled pink Levi's here. He sure is cute." He's always kind of hid his passion for us behind this gruff sense of humor. Case in point . . .

One of my earliest recollections of my grandfather was him sitting on me and pinning my arms down on my side so I couldn't move. Then he'd play slap me on the forehead and say, "You're a bad egg, you know that? A mean rooster. We should send you back." Of course the whole time he's doing it he's got this Cheshire cat grin and a playful glint in his eyes. Even at 3 or 4, I knew he was just kidding around. The only time he ever really hit me was when I was about 7, and it was because I scared him.

When I was little we all lived in Monticello and I would often spend the night at grandma and grandpa's. One Saturday morning he needed to run some errands and brought me along. It was always a big deal to go anywhere by yourself with grandpa. For one, he was like a rock star in Monticello. He'd given so many guys their first jobs as foreman at the Viobin and he knew many more people from when he used to house paint and tenant farm. Couple this network with his irresistible charm and it was little wonder that you couldn't (still can't) go anywhere with Eli in Monticello or Champaign and not get stopped.

Anyhow, on this particular morning our mission was to run by the barber shop and then Buy-Rite to get a few things for grandma. For some reason we were in my parents beater Fiat that had a manual transmission. Before we pulled out of the driveway grandpa had been horsing around before starting the car by making race car noises and shifting the gears while we were just sitting there. It made me laugh but also just a little too curious. As we were leaving the barber shop, as usual, grandpa got stopped by some old friends. While they were catching up I waited in the car sipping a can of 7-Up grandpa had bought me. As the minutes dragged on I became incredibly bored until I remembered the little race car "game" grandpa had played in the driveway.

So, I grabbed the gear shift and pulled. Now had this been in grandpa's driveway nothing would have happened. It was level. The barber shop/Buy-Rite parking lot, however, was most definitely not. To my surprise and my grandfather's horror the little Fiat began to inexorably roll backwards down the parking lot, at a fairly alarming clip, towards the busy street behind it. I remember looking helplessly into his frightened eyes as he sprinted towards the car. He caught up to it and flung open the driver's side door nearly tearing it from its hinges. He dove into the driver's seat, yanked on the emergency brake and then smacked me over the top of the head causing me to spill 7-Up everywhere. "What's the matter with you!" he screamed. I couldn't answer because I was sobbing my eyes out. Not so much because he'd hit me, but because I'd never seen him that upset before. It scared the hell out of me.

We drove home in silence. Well, not complete silence. I was trying my best to stifle my sobs, but to no avail. I was a tear streaked, snotty mess by the time we got back to grandma and grandpa's. Of course grandma saw me crying and immediately wanted--no demanded--to know what happened. While grandpa told her I retreated to the inside of the house. Eventually grandma came in and hugged me back to "health".

That evening when I was returned home, I expected the worse. I thought for sure dad and mom were going to pound me for nearly wrecking the car. Instead they just gave me a big hug and told me they were glad I didn't get hurt. I think grandpa had explained to them I was only mimicking what I'd seen him do earlier. They did ask me, somewhat rhetorically, if I knew I shouldn't do that again. Later I cornered mom and asked in a trembling voice if grandpa was going to stay angry with me. After all, the thought of having one of the greatest men in the world angry with me was more than I could bear. Mom just smiled and said, "Honey, you really don't know why grandpa hit and yelled at you?" I shook my head. "You scared him baby. Scared him bad. He thought for sure you were headed into the street and was scared to death you were going to get hit." She then proceeded to tell me another time I "scared" him.

When I was two, I had to have a bi-lateral hernia operation. This was pre-laproscopic surgery so they basically had to cut me across the entire length of my tiny lower abdomen to open me up. After surgery I spent a few days in the hospital. I don't recall any of this, but apparently grandpa came to see me one day. As the story goes, when I saw him I pulled myself up on the edge of my crib but couldn't stand all the way up because of the stitches. She said I held my arms out and begged him to take me out of the crib. To take me home. No one was allowed to pick me up until the stitches healed. Mom said it was the first time she ever saw him cry. She said he just stood in the doorway and said, "Hon, I'd take you out of here in a heartbeat but they won't let me." and then he walked off and disappeared for few minutes.

It's funny, but just about all of the hard nosed, hard working, "tough" guys I've known in my life have almost always been some of the most sensitive men I've ever met. Eli is one of them. But that's just one facet of the man. There is so much more I could tell. Maybe I will. Not all of it would be as Hallmark movie as this, but I can guarantee it'll be interesting. Very little about my grandfather isn't. At least that's what I think anyway. Like Ernie K Gann says, you write about what you know. Well, most of what I know about greatness I learned from Eli. Stay tuned for more.


Anonymous said...

I wish I could have been there for the "party"...I've only known Eli for a short time (well, I guess 10 months actually) and I already love him as much as if he were my grandpa. Both of my beloved Grandpa's are in heaven, but I'm so happy that in marrying you I get to enjoy another wonderful grandpa! How cool is that? :)

Just one other side note: Uncle are a pretty wonderful guy yourself, so I'm guessing all that time at the "feet of Eli" when you were young (and maybe even not so young) has "taken" to you! :) Sorry to be so sappy, but I want the WORLD to know! (& sometimes you need to a little reminder too!)

Anonymous said...

LD, I met your Grandfather on his birthday last year. I only met him for a second but it's funny reading this, it all kind of fell into place. I read your entry and thought "wow, I met this guy for a second but reading this makes me feel like I know him." In just meeting him for that brief moment, I could tell what kind of man he was.

I also had 21 stitches in my right hand at the time I met him. This made the act of hand shaking nearly impossible. I didn't want to insult your Grandfather so I went ahead and shook with my injured hand. Like any good man should, He grabbed hold of my injured hand and gave it a good ol' shake. I'm sure I had a smile with a hint of immense pain behind it. Luckily the stitches stayed in place.

Anonymous said...

Grandfathers are awesome. With all that life experience they really know how to cut to the chase.

Anonymous said...

- Scott

Anonymous said...

LD, your story about the rolling car is a lot more funny if you replace "Grandpa Eli" with "LD", replace "beater Fiat" with "LD's airplane, Niner", replace "Buy-Rite" with "Mattoon Airport" and replace "young LD" with "McKee".

ah, i guess that's ridiculous...there's no way McKee would drink a 7-Up.