My grandfather would have been 136 years old today.
Of course, that’s a ridiculous statement. No one outside of the hinterlands of Russia or some village in China lives that long, if anyone ever has, other than in science fiction novels or comic books. He was a crusty old bugger at times, but even he couldn’t have lasted that long.
His name was George, but I called him Gramps, and I’m not mentioning his last name here, due to the mildly shocking nature of this post. Don’t worry, I loved the old bastard, probably more than I did my own father. I think of all my family members, I take after him the most, on many different levels. And that’s why I always remember him when June 6th rolls around.
That’s me at 10 months old on Gramps’ lap in his living room on Easter Sunday, 1956, wondering why those people are waving at me in the mirror.
I was the sixth of six grandsons for him, and the last little surprise to make it past his doorstep. Truth be told, I was supposed to be a girl. My mom was sure of it, right down to the name she picked out for me: Joyce. Somehow she was wrong, and I became Gary. I’m not sure if it had something to do with Gary Cooper or TV personality Garry Moore, but if the latter was the case, she dropped an R. She never explained where my name originated.
But my middle name is George, after my grandfather, so right off the bat there’s that namesake, that level of kinship, beyond just grandfather and grandson. We were also born 3 days (and 75 years) apart, so we had that Gemini thing going on, too. He was a fairly prominent citizen in our small (but at one time bustling) hometown. He owned his own business, a printing and stationery shop, and prided himself on his Hallmark greeting card franchise, an exclusive not only in town, but the entire coal region of eastern Pennsylvania for a number of years. He did a lot of rotary press jobs: raffle tickets, fire department event posters (block parties, dances, raffles, etc.), wedding invitations, brochures and booklets. Besides running the place, he ran a Linotype machine, a huge monstrosity that melted metal into bars of set type, like a giant typewriter from Hell via the liquid metal of the Terminator 2 movie. He was on the board of directors and a founder of the local library, and was the secretary of a volunteer fire department. People loved him, and called him “The Governor,” a nickname that caused me no small amount of perplexity as a child.
We would visit him twice a week, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and I would go to his house every Friday for lunch when elementary school was in session and my grandmother was still well enough to cook. (His house was less than a block away from my school.) Some Sundays and in the summer, when the weather was nice, he would take me down to the “shop,” always admonishing me to stay away from the electric paper cutter, which, of course, made me want to touch it even more. He would constantly buy me things, and each item came with my own special set of questions: “Can I keep it? Can I take it home with me?” He got me my first library card, and helped me pick out my first book (Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff). People would stop him on the street and talk to him and make a fuss over me, because, let’s face it, I was such a cute kid. One time a woman offered me a quarter and I refused to take it. He was incensed and after she left he asked me why I was so rude. “Mom said never to take money from strangers,” I said. “She’s not a stranger if I know her,” was his rejoinder.
He was impatient, irascible, frustrating, opinionated, sarcastic, judgmental, and abrupt. He was also kind, generous, concerned with his increasingly doddering wife (who was 4 years older than he was), and infinitely lovable. He was a complete and complex study in contrasts, all of which had a major impact on me, even though he existed in my life for less than 15 years. He still has an impact on me.
One of many Polaroids I took with his camera. That’s my mom on the left with Gramps in our backyard, probably during a picnic on either Memorial Day, 4th of July, or Labor Day, in the late 1960s.
He was an early-adopter of the burgeoning world of personal technology. He had one of the first Polaroid cameras, and he bought me a Polaroid Swinger camera for Christmas (it was one of the last presents he gave me). He would take a photo and make a big show of getting out the “pickle juice” (fixer) you had to put on it after it developed. He had one of the first remote-control TVs, in a time when there were only 3 or 4 channels (but he was also an early-adopter of cable television … you had to be where we lived, between 2 signal-busting mountains). I remember watching The Wizard of Oz with him each year around Easter, and being terrified of the flying monkeys. Sunday night had us watching The Ed Sullivan Show before we journeyed up the hill to our home. On one occasion the Motown group The Temptations were performing, and he came into the room and asked abruptly, “Who the hell are these …?” (Racial epithet deleted—but not the one you might think.) And when we told him they were The Temptations, he instantly replied, “Well, they’re tempting me to turn them the hell off!”
He was an almost constant smoker, usually a pipe (he owned hundreds of them), but also cigarettes (and it didn’t kill him, surprisingly enough), and an inveterate reader. It’s hard for me to remember a time when he didn’t have a paperback book either in hand or nearby, and therein lies my tale.
A few years before he died, I started to become fascinated by some of his reading material. He read mainly Westerns, and bought stacks of paperbacks from the local news dealer, with whom he was friends. The covers were wildly illustrative, rugged men in cowboy hats with guns drawn, horses rearing on hind legs, the occasional bullwhip or bloody body or saloon girl with overflowing decolletage. Every once in a while, a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming would float by (the ugly 1960s Signet ones with tiny illustrations and big type), and he was into the Fu Manchu reissues put out by Pyramid (with very cool covers that had a similar look for each volume), written by Sax Rohmer. His den upstairs, where he kept his voluminous pipe collection, also contained a number of bookshelves. He had some old Edgar Rice Burroughs hardbound editions, but he was the kind of person who threw out the dustjackets, sorry to say. He also read a lot of magazines (including the incredibly stupid—even for a 10-year-old—Readers’ Digest), and got 2 Sunday newspapers, the New York Daily News and the New York Journal-American (until that one died, and then he got the Philadelphia Enquirer, with its “Rotogravure” comics section).
Once I was at the newsstand on one of my twice (or more) weekly comic book runs, and one of the clerks said to me, “Tell your granddad his books are in.” And I replied, “Okay … his Westerns?” And the guy said back, “HA-HA! Yeah … his ‘Westerns,’” in a voice dripping in sarcasm. I didn’t know what he meant, and for some reason it stuck with me. I eventually found out exactly what he was talking about.
Gramps died in early 1969, 13 days after my grandmother died. He just couldn’t stand to live without her. They were married for over 50 years, and as a child I thought they hated each other. They constantly bickered, something my parents never did. Actually, he did all the bickering. I don’t recall my grandmother—who could never remember my name without running through the names of all 5 of my fellow grandsons first—ever saying a harsh word to him. She just endured.
Right after he died, during one of those interminable funeral-planning meetings where brothers and sisters and assorted in-laws begin to argue about who gets what (there was a lot of what, since Gramps owned a business and 2 houses), I slipped upstairs into his den. The room still smelled of him, a slightly sweet, cherry-smelling tobacco smell. I wanted something of his, some little memento that I could keep. I looked through the drawers of his giant desk, one of those with numerous cubbies and shelves, and found a small, slim pearl-handled pocketknife, that he sometimes used to tamp down the tobacco in his pipe. I looked around this room that was so indicative of him, and nosed through his books one final time.
The penknife, which I still have.
His den had a stairwell to the third floor attic, and neither he nor my grandmother ever went up there, so he used the stairs as a depository for his books, placing the paperbacks on each step in small stacks against the wall. Each stack had some Westerns on top, but if you dug down a little bit, you found something else.
They didn’t call it porn in those days. Well, maybe the police or the district attorney or the courts did, but in a small town like ours, they were called “adult novels,” or just plain “dirty books,” maybe. At the newsstand, they existed on a separate rack, far back in the store, with lurid covers that would melt your brain if you stared too long. If you lingered back there, you were told to “move on, kid, that’s not for you.” I was in the 8th grade when both my grandparents’ deaths and this discovery occurred, just developing an interest in girls and aware of the fact that most of the kids my age were starting to wonder about … “things.” And I made a split-second decision that evening. As the discussion between the siblings about Gramps’ funeral arrangements was winding down, and my mom called me to get ready to go home, I grabbed one of the books and shoved it down my pants.
Insert your own joke here.
The book was a sleazy paperback novel with no photos, just an illustrated cover of a shocked young woman wrapped in a towel, and a man barging into the bathroom, but it was very explicit, in that 1960s kind of way of not using many “bad” words … just very … descriptive ones: “His turgid member throbbed with unbridled lust,” that kind of thing, dirty but … polite. That book went far and wide in my eighth grade class, passed around surreptitiously between a few friends, boys and girls (“Hey! Look what I found!”), until I finally got it back. It ended up where so much small town, found or stolen porn ends up, wet and withered in the woods we sometimes played in, in one of many shabbily constructed “huts” that we enterprising young architects built in some feeble attempt to have a place to call our own. It eventually disintegrated into so much pulpy dust, along with a copy of a Bonnie & Clyde movie tie-in paperback that had a sex scene in it, which caused much consternation among some of my female classmates (“Let me see that book again …”). That one I bought myself, off the “normal” paperback rack at the newsstand. I had seen the movie, much to my parents’ chagrin.
Yes, that was me … the eighth-grade pornographer.
My purpose here isn’t to denigrate the memory of an old man I—and others—loved so much. He’s the one person in my life who gave the most to me: my ongoing and deep love of books (minus, I assure you, the salacious content showcased above), my career as a graphic designer and writer/editor, my love of photography, my quiet, curmudgeonly demeanor. All that came from him, as did what I like to think are my better qualities, the ones my closest friends will hopefully vouch for: my generosity, my devotion, and my occasional flashes of something resembling quick wit. And as someone who produces 3 or so printed pieces a year (a book and 2 more publications that more closely resemble magazines), I like to think he would be very proud of me.
The photo at the very top of this post, taken by a neighbor before I was born, is how I remember him best, dressed in a suit and tie, cigarette (or pipe) in hand (or mouth), reading a book on his front porch.
I have recently become fascinated with vintage paperbacks and have literally amassed a small collection of about 200 in a few short months. I think this is because of him, some attempt on my part to recapture a personal moment of nostalgia. Maybe it’s those lurid Western covers I was exposed to at an early age that have inspired my sudden obsession with these books. I half expect to smell a blast of cherry-scented tobacco smoke when I receive a new musty paperback in the mail, cracking open the browning pages with their red, green, or yellow painted edges. These books remind me of him, for some strange reason.
And I still love him for that and everything else he gave me, including a strange, funny, little memory of how he left us something just a little bit shocking and what I did with it.
One of the last photos he ever took of me. That’s me sitting at the end of his long porch (my aunt and uncle lived next door to my grandparents in a row house) and he felt compelled to caption it by sticking it in his omnipresent typewriter and typing “Lonesome Charley.” I think this was taken probably in the summer of 1968, about 6 months before he died. There’s a strange air of prophecy to this photo.