Friday, September 21, 2012

The Hungarian King of the Road

My Grandpa Roger died two weeks ago.

I've only had two jobs in my life: the one I currently hold and working on Grandpa's "farm." In the summers I would weed, mow, plant, re-weed (I'm not a detail-oriented guy), and in my last two summers at home I helped him with beekeeping. Grandpa sat with my dad at nearly every football game I ever played in. If I looked up in the stands, he and my dad stood in the back row next to the other blue-collar guys who favored the high vantage point, and honestly couldn't be trusted to behave themselves closer to the field. Grandpa once showed up by himself to watch me play baseball in the snow. I struck out to end the game (my teammates thanked me as we were being crushed mercilessly and freezing) and he patted me on the back and probably grunted.

To say he was rough around the edges is an understatement. He was the first adult I ever heard use the "F-word" (notably, about how I directed his truck into the planter we had just built: "Well, that was a **** up"). He once told me I had a good career ahead of me as a fireman (who, in Cleveland, work 24 hours then have 48 off): "You work for 10 minutes and then take a 20 minute break." He was a boxer when he was younger, and until he had hip surgery in his late 60s I wouldn't have wanted to face off with him in a fight (after the surgery I figured I had a chance to knock him off balance). When he hammered a nail he hit it once.

But I feel the following list of words are also understatements when describing him: Tough; I used to sting his back with bees a couple times a week because the arthritis in his hips was so bad. At first it was once a week, eventually more, and up to 4 or 5 bees at a time.The guy didn't flinch, even the time I accidentally dropped one down his pants. Smart; he invented a bunch of stuff. Some of his ideas and products were stolen by a shady business partner, some he used just around his house. A solar powered wax-melter was the one I remember the most clearly. Creative; he made Chief Wahoo windmills, taught himself small engine repair, and made beeswax candles. Mischievous; if he opened his mouth to talk he was probably messing with you. The last time I saw him was in the hospital, pretty hopped up on pain meds. When the nurse came in to take his vitals, Grandpa confused the hell out of him for five minutes because his humor is so dry. I'm not sure my wife ever had a conversation with him where she was sure if he was kidding or serious.

In some ways it felt that I was the least close to him of all my grandparents. He was not a very talkative guy. I can't imagine the onomatopoeia required to relate much of his language- grunting really is the best description, but different sounds meant different things. In truth, he was my closest relative outside of my nuclear family. I spent countless hours at his house; as a kid I would spend at least one weekend a year sleeping over, watching a movie or the Indians, working the land (an exaggeration in many ways, but that's how it felt) and making a cool 20 bucks. In high school I think I got $120 a week in the summer for three 8-hour days. When the church bells rang at noon lunch was provided. We would sit in the majesty of his air-conditioned house, first sitting together at the breakfast bar and eating ham salad sandwiches and pickles, then moving to the living room, he in his recliner, me on the couch. We'd watch the local 12 o'clock newscast silently, and when the hour was up, he'd get up wordlessly and I would follow.

If it rained I would "Rain-X" his car, or vacuum the garage... I honestly can't remember much else about rainy days, except that he would sit in the other recliner, in the garage, and I would do busy work and listen to his radio. WTAM 1100 was playing all day in the garage, first Paul Harvey, rolling into Rush Limbaugh, finishing with Mike Trivisonno talking sports. He never played music during the day while we worked. The most musical moment I can recall is that when I rode with him in the Caddy in the evening he might have played some country.

At the wake, my aunt made a slide show. I must have watched parts of it 20 times as it played throughout the day and at least 5 times all the way through. The pictures from before my birth were fascinating to me, and there were plenty from my childhood that brought back amazing memories. Roger Miller's "King of the Road" was the first song featured as background music. About the 15th time I was catching part of the video someone asked my aunt if he liked that song. I was surprised to hear her say it was one of his favorites. I had no idea that he had favorites. The last two times I saw him I planned on asking what music he liked and then chickened out: it just seemed like such an awkward question. I cornered my aunt and started asking about Grandpa's musical tastes. "Oh yeah," she said, "he would put on his little Bose real loud and sit in his chair." I had seen the Bose, but I'm not sure I ever saw it turned on. What did he listen to? "Frank Sinatra, Roger Miller, Glenn Miller... he was into that big band stuff and the Rat Pack. A lot of times he would play classical in the evenings. Oh yeah, he was really into his music."

I think the blood probably ran from my face right there, because when my wife told me to call him and ask, that I would regret it if I didn't, I really, truly, honestly did not think there was a chance in hell that I would regret it. He didn't listen to music, so what I would regret would be an awkward last conversation where I blabbed at him about music. I regret it. Maybe it would have been awkward: so many of my interactions with him were (always messing with people) but maybe I missed a golden opportunity to talk with a man, a provider of a quarter of my genetic code, who was as connected to music as I am. My mom has since confirmed that "Yes, he listened to music a lot." In the grand scheme of regrets, I can think of worse; I saw him many times in his last year even though I live out of town, spent so many of my formative years watching his example. I can't get too hung up on one missed opportunity. But I'm skipping around in the book now, and I'm branching well outside the list to hear the music my Grandpa considered his favorites.

Out of all the artists listed below I could have named one song at most from each (I recognize many after further listening, though). I'm glad that I at least am able to hear these songs and honor him in that way. He was a hell of a guy and I feel blessed to have had so much time with him.

1000 Recordings Entries
Frank Sinatra - Songs for Swingin' Lovers
Frank Sinatra - Sings Only for the Lonely
Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim - S/T
Sammy Davis, Jr. - I Gotta Right to Swing
Nat King Cole and His Trio - The Complete After Midnight Sessions

Just Grandpa's List
Roger Miller
Dean Martin
Lou Rawls
Kenny Rogers
Vic Dana
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra
Tom Jones
Englebert Humperdinck