This is a series of vignettes that make up the larger piece that is Papa and Me. I wrote this a little while ago, and I had it posted on another blog, so I thought I’d move it here. It should also be said that this piece won me the Grand Prize from Bergen Community College for Creative Non-Fiction, an honor I dedicate specifically to my Papa, Joyce Wensel Schmidthuber.
Papa and Me
To say that my start was a rocky one might be an understatement. My parents were married young and I came into a family of alcoholics and addicts. Inevitably, the relationship went downhill and my mother called home to her parents for a way out. They bought us a plane ticket, and put us on a plane home when I was only six months old. Now of course I don’t remember any of this, but my mom tells me that the flight went well and that I wasn’t fussy on the plane at all. An older man sat next to my mom and I on the longer of the two flights and when she was given her meal, he held me and kept me entertained while she ate. It’s funny to me now, but my mom seems to remember that the man looked exactly like an actor that was in a Norelco Shaving commercial. She said she wanted to ask him, but never did. She’s been curious ever since.
While it was the beginning of our journey west, to California where I would be raised by my mom and her family, it was what happened after the plane landed that set the tone for the rest of my life with a man that changed it completely. The plane landed at the Ontario airport, and because my mom was carrying an infant, she was allowed off of the plane first. As she got down the stairs and set me in my stroller, she turned to get her carry-on sorted. When she turned back she was greeted by my grandparents looking down at me. My fists waved in the air as I looked up at the giants towering over me. I imagine two big silhouettes, dark against the bright blue California sky, and wondering what they could possibly be. My Papa looked down at me and smiled, I immediately burst out laughing. He smiled even more broadly.
“There’s my boy.” He said it, and I’m not sure if he knew right then that we were going to be as close as we were, but he did always seem to know the way things were going to turn out.
The man I met that day, would shape the rest of my life. He always seemed impossibly tall, even next to my uncle who was a few inches taller. I remember being up on his shoulders and thinking that I could barely see the ground. He always had a glow that clung to him like a fog. His smile was ever present and was always a testament to the mirth behind his eyes. He had salt and pepper hair and beard when I was very young which eventually went completely grey. He went bald at an early age, but always had a halo of hair around the crown of his head. When I was very young, I remember telling my mom that when I grew up I wanted to “cut my hair like papa’s”, when she asked what I meant, I put my hand on top of my head and said “No hair here, like Papa has.”
My mom was adopted into a loving family. They never treated us like we were adopted but the evidence was always there. My mom and I were just different in some ways. We looked at the world differently. I’m not saying that they ever loved us any less, but Papa always seemed to be the only one who really understood that we were just a little bit different.
My grandmother was always the strongest person I had ever – and maybe will ever – know, and I give her credit for my back bone. She and I would sit around the table and argue about anything we could chew on, and she never gave me slack for being young, and I never wanted it. I love her for that. My relationship with Papa was just special. Everyone could see it, and I loved spending time with and learning from him.
We were inseparable from the day I landed at that airport, and our relationship was beyond special. I was his first grandson, and as such, always got his attention. He loved all of my cousins and showed that on every occasion, but Papa and me were always different.
Like a Big Wall
My legs swung freely on the long wooden bench swing I sat on next to him. He held a small book and pointed to the symbols on it, telling me what they stood for. I was still too young to go to school, but I was already learning what words were and how to use them.
“You already know the alphabet right?” He asked looking down at me patiently. I nodded, we had been singing them over and over for a week or so now. “Ok so the alphabet isn’t only a song Justin. They are letters like these here.” He pointed to the book again. This was the skinniest one, I had seen all of them in the box earlier, they looked old.
“When you put the letters together in order, they make words. Like what we use to talk. Understand?” He was going slowly, but I was understanding him. My mom and him had been reading books to me for forever.
“When we read these books together they will show you that words aren’t just big things, they are groups of little things.” I just wanted to play with the big tools in the garage.
“It’s like a big wall. If you can’t climb a big wall you are stuck behind it. If you break the wall down into little pieces you can step over it without even trying. Make sense?” How could he want to look at these little pictures instead of playing with the saw or the fire in the garage?
We sat there every day for a few months. Progressing through that first skinny book, then on through the set, each new volume thicker than the last. I learned phonics and grammar. Then punctuation and sentences. He taught me to read and write before I entered kindergarten and I never really understood why.
“Hey Papa. What made you decide to teach me to read when I was little.” I had always wondered why he hadn’t just waited until I was in school.
“Well I remember reading in the paper that the kids weren’t learning to read the same way anymore. I think they had stopped using phonics, and that’s how I learned.” I watched his eyes search around him and I could see his brain remembering. He looked over at the swing, swaying gently in the breeze and smiled. Always smiling.
We were refinishing a dining room table for my mom. Using little pieces of sand paper to take the old varnish off and smooth the dents and nicks out of the wood before treating it and refinishing it. It was a beautiful piece with a diamond pattern made out of mahogany and ash, that made it great to look at, but since the two types of wood were laid out with their grains going in opposite directions, we had to sand it by hand. My fingers were raw and killing me at this point. I knew better than to complain.
“Make sure you keep blowing the wood dust back, Justin. Too much dust and you won’t make as much progress.” I did it and the beautiful smell of wood sprayed through the air.
Saving Private Ryan
The bullets flew through the air like hot angry wasps. They smashed into steel, they cut through water and flesh with much the same veracity. The water turned bright red as rivers of blood poured off of the beach to pollute the gentle lapping waves of the French coast. I was 14 and watching one of the most visceral scenes of my young life. He sat next to me, quiet throughout the entire movie. I think I saw him wipe away a few errant tears but I can’t be certain. The movie had just released and it was the first time in a while he had asked me to go with him. I was entering high school and we didn’t go on our adventures as much anymore, but this was different. We sat through the one hundred and sixty-nine minutes completely struck by the events on the screen. After it was over, we sat until the lights came up. I had never quite seen the look in his eyes that he had right then. Normally they always twinkled brightly, like he was thinking of some joke that was too bad to say but good enough to make him laugh to himself, but not now. They looked far off, like he wasn’t with me anymore.
On the drive home we took the long way. The back roads through Del Rosa and Highland always took longer than the freeway, but they were just more pretty this time of year. About five minutes into our drive he started to talk.
“I was only about 17 when I joined up.” He was talking quietly, like he was only just remembering something and talking to himself.
“At that point there were quite a few older guys in my company, none of them wanted to get to know some green kid just coming in.” He laughed a little but it wasn’t the same laugh.
“I always got to walk point. They figured that if I got shot by the Germans then at least it wasn’t one of their friends.” The car stopped as we reached a red light and we sat there idle for a few seconds, the silence returning.
“I remember this one time, when we were in North Africa with Patton, I was told to go check over the edge of this hill to see what was on the other side. It was about a mile away and covered with this thick cactus. It wasn’t like the cactus here, it grew a foot or so above the ground with only the roots coming down every now and then. You could crawl underneath it and it made for pretty good cover.” He was making motions with his free hand to illustrate his point.
“So I go low crawling underneath this cactus for about 500 yards, and just as I get to the top of this hill I realize that I can’t see through the cactus and that I would have to poke my head up through the top of this shit so I would be able to see. Now mind you, the thorns on this cactus are about this long,” He holds his fingers about two inches apart, and my eyes widen.
“So I go poking my head up through this cactus and I get about 20 cuts just trying to do that, and when I finally get my head out where I can see, all I do see is about three hundred Germans and a few tanks so I immediately hit the ground and start high tailing it back through the cactus.” He was laughing a bit as he talked, the mirth finally coming back to his face.
“I guess they saw me because there must have been 3 or 400 bullets flying inches above my head, and the cactus was getting shot to shit and dropping thorns and cactus guts all over me. I was hauling ass off back through that 500 yards of cactus and it seemed like they were on me the whole time. By the time I got out I was covered head to toe in scratches, my own blood and cactus. I go sprinting back to my company Sergeant and tell him that I saw Germans over the hill and all he did was look at me and say, ‘No shit!’” He laughed out loud at that one and I was chuckling along with him, picturing him covered in what must have been a sloppy mess. He finished the only story about his war experience he ever shared with me with a simple, “That’s just how it was over there sometimes.”
He was quiet about his service. Quiet but proud. He never told stories except for that one time. He never made himself out to be a hero, and maybe he wasn’t. Humility was a lesson I didn’t learn until after he passed, but he taught it to me just the same – with every day that he lived his life as a man that was great but never told anyone about it. I hope that one day I can be great, and that if I am, I have the intelligence to not tell anyone about it.
The axe felt like lead in my hands as it did my best to whip it through the air. The smooth wood of the handle sliding through my palms and shaking hard as the head bit deep into the roots of the small tree in front of the house. I pulled hard on the axe-handle, but grasping hands of the root system was doing its best to keep me from having another go at them. They clung to steel blade like a murder victim pleading for it’s life. I pulled again, nothing. I wiped the sweat from my brow and put my hands on my hips for a second. I looked up at him and started to say I didn’t think I could get it out, but before I could even start he cut me off.
“Just twist it back and forth a bit, don’t work hard – work smart.” He was squinting in the bright summer sun, his eyes hidden just beneath the short brim of the hat he wore to keep the sun off of his bald head. He always had spots that the doctor had to freeze off so they didn’t turn into cancer, cancer was something that we had had enough of in this family. I always thought it was weird that Papa had to have his head frozen to stop cancer.
I twisted the handle back and forth, and just like he said it popped free. I hefted the axe again, this time sure that they had to make smaller axes for people my size. I let the handle slide through my hands again, letting the heavy blade and the speed of the long arm do most of the work for me. Smart, not hard. It punched through the back of the thick root and sunk deep into the soil. I felt that it had hit a rock. I twisted the axe free and set it next to the hole I had dug to get to the roots of the tree.
“Papa why don’t we just cut the tree down like normal?” I asked him, trying to get as far from the work as possible.
“Because that would leave a stump, and then when you cut the yard you’d have to cut around it. Trust me, when you’re cutting the yard you’ll thank me. Now start on the big root.” He pointed back to the hole. I turned my head to follow his pointing and saw that there were at least three thick roots I had to get through before we were done.
“But wouldn’t it just be easier to pull the tree out with your truck or somethin?” I asked again. At this point I’d try anything to get out of this sun. The heat of California is great when you have a swimming pool to jump into, or a air conditioned house to relax in, but working outside in it was torture.
“Just keep going. Builds character…”
He said it.
It always ended every whining fit I would throw against any amount of work I was trying to avoid. How could you argue with something that you had no way of knowing whether or not it was true. I mean sure, now as an adult I can say that all those summers spent in the yard, or in the garage made me realize what good can come from doing things yourself, and taught me skills to keep the handyman away through most mishaps, but at the time – builds character was cryptic and meaningless.
I picked up the axe and adjusted my footing to get to the new root. “Who needs character anyway?” The wood slid through my palms again, steel biting into wet rubbery wood. “I think i’ve got enough character already.” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “And even if I don’t…” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “How is swinging a stupid heavy axe going to build it?” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “I’ll mow around it, I don’t care” Twist – pull – swing – thud. New root. “It’s not like its that far out of my way.” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “Why can’t we just do it in the evening when the sun gets lower so its not as hot?” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “Builds character… I am a character” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “At least that’s what my Mom always says.” Twist – pull – swing – thud. Last one. “It is so hot out here.” Twist – pull – swing – thud. “I wonder if Aunt Vicki will let me go swimming later.” Last swing, Twist – pull – swing – thud. “Finally.”
He looked down at me and smiled, taking the axe and the heavy stump out of the hole. “Now fill that hole in, I’ve got a piece of sod to put on top when you’re done.” He went back to the shed with the old dead tree and I was left to fill the hole.
As the years went by, and I cut that lawn every single weekend throughout my teen years, I realize that he was right. Going around that stump every time, then having to clean up the edges with the weed-eater would have been a pain.
But now, as I look back on that impossibly hot afternoon, feeling like a slave in a hole with an axe. I realize that he wasn’t trying to torture me, or even get me to do something he himself couldn’t do. That whole time he really was building my character. So now, when I see people who are complaining about the world around them, but have never had to really work hard to earn what they think they deserve, I think of all of those summers spent working for my Papa. All the lessons I learned. All the character I built.
The Voice of an Angry God
I grinned stupidly as the force of the blow nearly took me off my feet. A hearty laugh came from behind me as well as a hand on my upper back, stopping me from falling over completely. My ears rung. My shoulder felt like a small car in a head on collision, but hot-DAMN! That was fun.
“Just remember to hold it in tight to your shoulder, and pull the trigger, don’t squeeze it.” It was my grandfather’s voice, and he was smiling behind me and watching as I reloaded the heavy shotgun and pulled it back against my shoulder. He grabbed the butt of the weapon and pulled it firmly into the muscle of my shoulder. I pulled back the fore-stock, chambering another round, and set my feet. He patted me firmly on the back and I nodded before pulling the trigger.
The sound that thing made shocked me even the second time, but man I loved it. I missed again, not that it really mattered. I was in love with this matte-black fire maker. When it barked it sounded like the voice of an angry god, and made you feel like you were holding on to a kicking mule, but it was fun.
When I looked up at him he was smiling down on me in the way that he always seemed to be. His cheeks hiding his eyes behind his dark lenses, and his pearly teeth showing generously. Who cares if they were fake, his whole face smiled. When I looked at myself in the mirror, and thought about how much I hated my smile, I always wished that I had his.
I chambered another round without waiting for his approval or his instruction and this time took firmer aim at the pulverized washing machine he had chosen for target practice. I knew it was a washing machine only because he had told me it was. It’s twisted and bullet riddled metal shell had more holes than metal at this point and made me think of atoms. How there was more space than matter in the things we could see every day. It always made me wonder how I never just fell through the world.
I pulled the trigger and this time the little balls of metal rocketing out of the front of my rifle struck home, tearing even smaller holes in between the various polka dots in the steel. The laugh boomed out from behind me and after he patted me hard on the back I heard him crack another beer in celebration. It felt as good hearing that laugh as it did destroying that war torn washing machine. I turned around and he was still smiling. He always seemed to be.
I remember waking up that morning. My mother was shaking me awake and saying my name over and over.
“Justin. Justin wake up we have to go.” Her voice wasn’t right. There was panic – a timbre I hadn’t heard before. “Get out of bed we have to go right now.” She repeated it again, and I finally opened my eyes. What I saw in her face was enough to pull me completely out of sleep.
“What’s wrong ma?” I asked, instinctively already doing my best to comfort her, even before I knew what was wrong. Her face was lined, making her look much older than the young vibrant woman that had raised me. Her hair was a mess, which told me she had also just woken up. She hadn’t the time to run a brush through it, which she had a habit of doing just after waking, so I knew it was sudden.
“Grandma called…” she began, her voice cracking as she did her best to pull the words from a place she had dreaded aloud for years. Before she could form the rest of the sentence, I knew. There was no reason for me to know, he wasn’t sick. The family had just had a barbecue the day before and no one noticed anything amiss. But still – I knew. I knew from the wild panic behind her eyes. I knew from the flaming hair which sprung from every direction on her head. I knew from the canyon deep worry lines creasing her forehead. And, oddly enough, I knew from her stark lack of tears that it was permanent.
“…she said she found Papa dead.” The words fell from her mouth dejectedly, and she looked down almost as though she was looking for the words to gather them up and take them back. She looked back to me and I could tell she was waiting to console me, but right now we really needed to move. Even in this, I could tell what she was thinking.
I didn’t say a word. I threw the blanket back from my bed and threw on a pair of shorts. I slipped into my shoes and grabbing the keys from my nightstand, ran to my car. She was right behind me and climbed into the passenger seat immediately.
I always drove more slowly when my mother was in the car, but not this morning. Her tears had finally started to come, and she was saying over and over. “Oh please God Jesus Help us. Oh Please God Jesus give my boy strength today. Oh please help us today.” She kept repeating it, but the words only seemed to float in the car, never quite reaching me. She never complained as I pressed my car to slide around the corners that stood between my house and my grandparents. She closed her eyes and prayed aloud, and I never slowed down.
I pulled into the driveway, stopping suddenly enough to leave two tire marks on the cement. We both ran into the house immediately. We saw my grandmother at the kitchen table where she always sat, but she never looked like this. She was making noises I never thought I would ever hear a person make, and just holding her head in her hands. She didn’t look up when we burst through the door. I looked at my mom, asking her what to do without saying a word. All I knew was that I had to get here, I hadn’t worked out what to do after. She started towards my grandmother to let me know she understood.
I still can’t figure why, but I burst down the short hallway and into his room. It was cold inside and he had his comforter pulled up under his chin like always. His teeth were in a glass on his nightstand, we never saw him without his teeth, but that wasn’t the only thing. He was always a tall, proud man, who always seemed to be standing in the only ray of sunlight on a cloudy day. Not now though. He was sunken, and for the first time in my life he looked old to me. It wasn’t my Papa laying there. Sure it looked like him, but I could tell in an instant that he was gone. Only the husk of what he was lay there now.
I walked back out of his room and shut the door as though I was afraid that I would wake him. I walked the few short steps into the living room and stopped. I was frozen as I finally started to realize what was going on.
What I had lost.
What I would never have again.
The tears came through gritted teeth and clenched jaw. I felt my fingernails bite into my palm, cutting the skin as I balled my hands into corded fists.
But I wasn’t angry.
It wasn’t until years after that morning, until I sat in front of my computer, three-thousand miles away from home, writing down these moments that we shared, that I truly realized who my Papa was. He wasn’t just a grandfather, or a mentor, or a father figure to a boy who desperately needed one. He was so much more than that. He was the epitome of what a person could be. He was flawed, and made mistakes, but still stood head and shoulders above every crowd he was in. He taught me then how to be a man, and I am still learning those lessons every time I think about him. There is no way that I can thank him for the things he has done for me, and now that he is gone, I can only hope that he accepts this tribute as whole-heartedly as I give it.
You gave me a gift as a very young man, the gift of words. You taught me my whole life how to love them and use them to change the way the world appears to be. I now find, that words are the only thing that I can give back to you now that you are gone. Every word that I write, from today, until the day I can’t press keys or scribble ink, I owe to you. Thank you, and I miss you.