My Grandpa Fred
Trip Start Jun 11, 2005
33Trip End Sep 01, 2005
He worked on the railroad for years and years. My favorite image of him is him wearing his pinstriped overalls with matching cap. He's not smiling but his eyes hold some joy that is immediately apparent to you. He always manages to look stoic and respectable, yet friendly and approachable. How does he do that?
My mother's favorite story is how he rescued me on our first trip with my step-father's family. We all went camping - four adults and 7 kids. I was 5 years old, the youngest by quite a bit. Without going into detail, my new grandfather rescued me that day. He spent hours with me helping me climb the same mountain (a small hill) again and again for hours. He was the first to welcome me to this new family. And he's always been the man who made me feel at home. Isn't it nice to feel a part of something?
The last time I visited him I told him I had been reading Kerouac - On the Road and Dharma Bums. I told him that the characters often hopped trains from one end of the country to the other. I thought it was a magical time. And part of the reason that I could see it all so vividly is that I had my grandfather's stories in mind. I saw him working those trains, their dark smoke pouring from the engine, tearing through a rugged 1950's America. Jack and my grandfather were friends in my head. He was in those books too. He brought them alive for me.
My grandfather isn't the kind of man that is simply waiting for his turn to speak. You can see him digesting every one of your words. He's right there with you. Then, in the calm and detailed manner of a man telling a story about something he did just yesterday, he'll begin.
This is where he took me...
There was a hobo camp outside of Raton, New Mexico, where maybe hundreds of men lived. This is 1950's America. Kerouac's America. He remembered a one-legged man that used to hop trains. He didn't just remember that such a man existed. He knew his name. He remembered his face. He remembered their conversations. There was no moment of, "Let me see if I can recall." It was all there. The flawless film, from start to finish.
The one-legged man, even with his disadvantage, could hop trains with the best of them. My grandfather was just a brakeman at the time. He was in charge of walking through and making sure all the hobos got off the train. He did this. It was his job. He also went back down the train after the conductor was out of sight and told the men it was safe to hop back on. This was not his job. This was my Grandpa Fred displaying what is perhaps my favorite quality in anyone - compassion.
He also remembers a time when it hadn't rained in a while and the hobo community was short on water. There was a large water tower right in their midst, but it was under lock and key. The one-legged man (Grandpa knows his name, I sure don't), he approached my grandfather and explained the water situation. The water tower was railroad property, what could he do? Well, he could unlock the gate and give water to those who needed it. So, of course, he did.
My grandfather is sick. Very sick. He has just a few months to live. My heart broke when they told me. And it hurts even worse to have to write it down. But beyond my sense of personal loss, which is excruciating and total, I feel a real sense of sympathy for the world at large. The fear that his stories will go with him was the first thing to grab hold of me, and it still hasn't let go. His stories will disappear with him and the world will be a darker place because of their loss.
I think he may be the reason I feel such a need to write. My mind is not the vise his is. It's a bit of a sieve. And if I don't put these stories down in a hurry, they'll disappear forever as well. I only wish I had the stories he did. That leads me to something else.
I remember with great fondness when my grandfather started telling me stories. They were amazing things. They were of a time that I could barely imagine. They were of a world that was dead and gone, with many of their characters dead and buried as well. They were a living history that I couldn't get enough of. He told stories of cars that ran on kerosene, the Great Depression, a youth camp that was part of the New Deal. He ran from cops in Juarez, Mexico, policemen on the running boards of some 1920s car, he and his friends fighting off blows from batons, then crossing into the safety of the U.S. border. He was John Dillinger. He was Clyde Barrow. But he was always a good guy. He still is. He's as good as they get.
I knew that I wanted to live like that. With that passion and power. I knew I didn't want to watch the world through the filter of a television screen. I wanted to touch it, to change it, to have it change me in return. And I wanted to capture it all. But without his amazing mind at my disposal, I have to work with what I have. I take pictures of the things and people that tell some story to me, that may tell a story to others. I talk to locals. I talk to travelers who wander the world but are not lost. I tell my stories and sometimes theirs. It's paying homage to a man that transformed me with his experiences. I don't think I can ever do that for others, at least not on the level he did. But that doesn't mean I can't try. I wish I could tell him all my stories, but he doesn't use the internet. But he's got a shoe box full of post cards to let him know that I've been thinking of him through my entire journey. Through all my journeys.
I'm not sure what everyone else thinks of him. I never asked the other kids. It was never really important. But as his amazing life comes to a close, I wanted to make sure that all of you thought well of him. You really should. He's a hell of a guy.