Learning From the Old-Timers: A Reflection On Life
Dredging up Memories
That’s what my grandfather would pay me after I sat on his lap and listened to his stories.
I was five at the time, this being 1953.
He was, gosh, well, he was just plain old.
He would talk about farming. He would talk about factory work after the Great Depression. He talked about World War One, the war to end all wars. He talked about his family moving from the Bowery in New York City to Iowa, about the prejudice against the Irish, and how a man makes his way in the world one step at a time, working sun up to sun down, expecting nothing from nobody but always willing to lend a helping hand.
Truth be told, I would have paid him for the joy and privilege.
Next Door Neighbors
Sam and Delores Conrad, the old couple next door to us . . . we moved into that house on North 18th Street in Tacoma when I was five. The Conrads were already firmly established, the patriarch and matriarch of that neighborhood, kinder people you will never meet.
They both came to Washington, as little children, in a wagon train over the Oregon Trail.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I spent several years living next to two people right out of the history books.
Wonderful hosts they were, inviting a little boy into their living room for milk and cookies, telling that little boy about Indians and six-shooters, about logging days in the town of Morton and horse-and-carriage rides on Sundays, ax-throwing competitions and skinning beavers.
Married seventy-five years, they were, and still held hands with each other towards the end of their journey, marvelous people who made a little boy feel like royalty.
The Wilds of Alaska
Uncle Jim Haggarty came home from World War 2, married my Aunt Lois, and found work in Alaska dredging harbors. Work three months, come home for three months, on and off for years, always returning with presents, arrowheads and antlers, and stories of grizzlies and moose roaming through the tiny towns, as much their towns as the citizens, weather so cold your skin froze, he said, and showed me pink patches of his skin to prove it, me wondering how you breathe in such cold, amazed by it all.
And those giant machines, digging out harbors, dumping the mud into waiting trucks, hauled to who knows where, the advance of civilization into a territory that could not be fully-tamed, a man with a ready smile, a hearty laugh, that was my Uncle Jim, always good for a joke or ten, always treating young Bill with respect, admiration, and love, an explorer of sorts, he was, into the wilderness for adventure and cold-hard cash, a hard man with a soft heart, me soaking up every word and wishing to be such a man.
The United Nations in Tacoma
That’s what it seemed like, at times, visiting my dad where he worked, Pioneer Sand & Gravel, a company of maybe fifty men, men with strange accents, Karl and Oly, Fritz and Sven, Tony, Pierre, and even a Wilbur, all transplants, all from distant shores, Sweden, Germany, France, and Denmark, off at Ellis Island, spread into the Midwest, try trades, work hard, fail on farms, and move west, the mantra for so many years, Go West Young Man, where riches abound and empires are born, only to end up in Tacoma, Washington, running machines, digging gravel out of hillsides, working themselves into early graves in support of families, heavy smokers, heavy drinkers, and all willing to share a cookie from their lunchboxes when young Billy paid a visit.
Lunchtimes were good times at “The Pit,” all the men sitting outside on sunny days, trading bullshit stories, Sven got kicked in the head milking a cow once, showed me the dent, laughing so hard they coughed hard, “coughing up a lung,” more truth than fiction in that statement, strong men, men chiseled from stone, hardened by life, men who realized they had hit the dead end of their journey and were now just making the best of a stagnant situation, and they ruffled my hair, asked me about school, “better do well there, Bill, or you’ll end up like us,” me thinking that’s not a bad thing, ending up like them, good men who laughed freely, but their warnings were good as gold, their intentions heartfelt.
And the Women
Belva Lockwood O’Dowd, my maternal grandmother, look up that name, a piece of history, not her but two generations further back, women’s suffrage, way ahead of her time, education is important, Bill, don’t waste it, make us proud, stand on the shoulders of your family members and rise above our legacies, it’s a proud name, always treat it with respect, it was hard-earned and it is now a part of you.
Part of that legacy was service to others, that grandmother and my other, in Iowa, spending every Sunday at church, handing out meals to the poor, working at the secondhand clothing store, helping those who can’t help themselves, that’s our purpose, Bill, and you best remember it, you weren’t put on this earth to stand alone or ignore your neighbor, and there are other ways to be rich besides dollar bills.
Your name is William, pay attention now, after Saint William, Saint William of Perth, patron saint of adopted children, that’s you now Bill, you’re special because you’re adopted, don’t you ever forget it, special for the amount of love given to you, from the ashes you rose, and God has big plans for you so get that education and never forget, our wealth is measured by our acts of kindness.
And Mom nodding her head, and Aunt Lois joining in, putting an old 78 on the turntable, us all singing gospel songs in three-part harmony, me not sure of the words but damned certain of their meaning.
So It Was
Hundreds of others, there were, Sally Norlin across the street, a Svenska flicka, a Swedish woman, and Streitz across the street, German immigrants, and the Pignataros and Angelinos and Bancrofts, all with accents, all with stories to share, sometimes in story form, but most often told in their daily actions, the way they treated others, the timber of their words, the kindness spoken by their eyes.
And I can’t leave out Uncle Lester, long-haul semi-truck driver, oh the stories that man had, always told with a cigar in his mouth and a twinkle in his eye, maybe 50% b.s. but always entertaining.
They are all gone now. It seems strange to write those words. They are all gone now. Only I remain standing, Bill Holland, the survivor, the carrier of the torch, the listener of stories, the chronicler of those earlier lives, the man given the eternal flame, given the job of making damn sure those histories, and those lessons, are not forgotten. Sometimes I write about them, but most of the time I let my daily actions tell the story, a compilation of thousands of stories told in another time, in another place, all adding up to this day, this time, and this old man.
The Caregiver of the flame!
The Teller of stories!
Pull up a chair. Let me tell you a story. When I’m finished I’ll give you twenty-five cents and send you on your way, but promise me you’ll remember the stories because one day you’ll be given the job of caregiver.
It is a sacred job.
Treat it as such.
2018 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)