So I’ve decided to do what I’ve wanted to do for years: document the stories my granddad and grandma raised me on. The stories that were, and still are, pivotal to the person I am. (For better or worse.) At the moment there isn’t structure to this– it is simply a late Sunday evening whim that will, eventually, be fashioned into form. I’ve known all my life that my granddad and grandma’s stories were truly something special and, finally, I’m summoning the gumption to tell them.
My granddad passed seven years ago, which is the reason for this sudden nostalgic retrospective. One of my last, and fondest, memories is of him in the passenger seat of my car as I drove the two of us drove to meet family on the Coast. He’d begrudgingly forgiven me for buying a Volkswagen (the first in my family not to buy an American car– the wrath had been hot and hellish) and was happy to play with the car’s fancy stereo system. I was 22 and already an old soul, so it wasn’t surprising that I was playing a Tommy Dorsey CD. It made granddad sigh, brandish those famous suspenders of his, and lounge back in his seat. The California coast, on a spectacular blue Saturday, passed the windows and we repeated the words toget, softly reverent:
Never thought I’d fall but now I hear love call,
I’m getting sentimental over you.
Things you say and do just thrill me through and through
I’m getting sentimental over you.
Were his stories 100 percent true? Even when granddad was alive, reclining in his chair and brandishing his suspenders proudly over a rollicking good tale, their authenticity was suspect. HOW could ALL of that have happened to ONE person?
But we chose to believe. Oh, did we ever. And the light in granddad’s eyes when he weaved his stories to us grandchildren sitting Indian style on that Persian rug in a dimly lit family room, amber glow flickering from the hearth, those stories were as real as anyone could imagine.
* * *
Granddad came from Chicago. Well, Springfield to be honest, but from 15 on he was a Chicagoan in every sense of the word. My granddad, Glenn R. York, was born in 1917 and his early life was the stuff of Dickens. Orphaned at a young age, his rough years at the country orphanage were not eased by going to live with an indifferent Auntie and Uncle. This was Prohibition-era Illinois and by twelve he was working with a gin mill practitioner to earn money to support himself and his petulant younger sister, Bonnie. Electricity was also quite the booming market in the mid-west backwoods and there were many a story of makeshift services to run electricity to those old log cabins in the sticks. Hardly legal and, more to the point, hardly safe.
One of my favorite stories was of my 12 year old granddad, ginger haired and freckled (he was 2nd generation Irish) in short pants and lace-up boots, working as an underage rum-runner in Springfield, lingering to hear the stories told by gray-haired old-timers at battered old tables. He told us grand kids openly “I kick myself for not writing down those crazy tales they told. They were veterans, you know.” We’re talking Union soldiers from the Civil War, no less, and although those intimate tales are lost to time, they live in my memory of my grandad’s wide twelve-year-old eyes.
He had to fight for an education, which explains his nearly fanatical obsession with it later in his life. Always one of the sharpest tools in the shed, by the time he graduated from high school he’d resolved that the difference between a rich man and a poor man was, not just the amount of fight in his fiber, but the seal on his diploma. But even my granddad, dedicated as he was to higher learning, put everything on hold for what was, to most men of his age, the ideal career: serving his country in uniform. He was 21 when he enlisted in the service.
In 1939, how could anyone have known what lay just around the corner.
Apologies for the lack of photos in this post. They are all with my grandmother and I’ve plans to spend some greatly overdue time with her, pouring over their scrapbooks. Coming soon: Service in the Pacific (kinda) and law-enforcement in 1950s Hollywood. (Judy Garland, William Holden, Bing Crosby … check, check, and check!)