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" 'Four years!' He said if I'd gone on that long there wasn't a chance of stopping me, so he just warned me always to be gentlemanly about it and pay some mind to where I would spit."
We now calculate that Grandad has gone through 18,800 packages of Beech-Nut, or about a boxcar full. "It has kept me healthy," he says. "Not a germ can pass my throat."
When I was 11, my father bought a cottage on the wooded shore of Dexter Lake, a new reservoir then filling on the Willamette River, 20 miles from Eugene. Grandad came to rid the land of its mounds of blackberry and poison oak. From then on I saw him often and spent summers at the cabin.
He was an elemental man. My mother disapproved of his housekeeping. Floors were acceptable to him dusty, glasses cloudy, tables becrumbed. He fell onto the furniture so heavily it cracked. He watched china mugs disintegrate in his hands.
He cleared tons of slash and debris from the property, frightening the little community of Lowell with the spectacular fires he built of it, until our lot was a deer park compared to the wilderness of the neighbors. He put in rhododendrons, a garden, flower beds, a gravel path. And through it all there was a bearlike roughness, as if after 78 years he still had not developed the skills to go with his strength. Time and again he fell in the lake, either stumbling in after hurling a log from shore, or pitching over his rowboat's outboard motor as he reached to free the propeller of weeds, or, falling asleep on the dock in a collapsible lawn chair, collapsing with it into the evening waters. Each time he would surface snorting and would calmly sidestroke in a wide circle, perhaps trying to imply some purpose to his dive, or taking full advantage of this unexpected chance to swim.
When my younger brother Bob and I summered at the lake, we were drawn into Grandad's routine. Before breakfast we would set out in the rowboat, powered by the tiny, temperamental outboard that would usually die in mid-lake. Having administered slaps and kicks to no effect, Grandad would pull out the oars and we would row on, trailing spinners and worms and the occasional dark patch of tobacco. When we reached the far side, we pulled the boat onto sharp black rocks and carried our fish—in its first years, the lake yielded several trout per crossing—across a highway and into a tavern, where the bartender would fry them for our breakfast, serving them with sausages poached in beer. There were sometimes words from the management about children in the tavern, but Grandad always said, "Those kids are with me and they ain't hurtin' nawthin' " with such indignant righteousness that action never was taken.
After Grandad concluded breakfast with a boilermaker, we fished on home. These returning journeys, with the sun on our backs and dizzying green eddies swirling behind the oars, were times to listen to Grandad talk of his youth, of being moved by an urge to get out and see the world, a need that would swell into a driving wanderlust. It seemed that his means to broad experience were two: fighting and selling.
"I was always sellin'," he said. "I sold all our market produce. When I was 15 I sold 39 gallons of oysters a week. I got them at the express office for 75� a gallon and sold them around Columbia for $1.20. I learned how to make six gallons out of five by adding milk and broth. And I sold the convent in Columbia a gallon every Friday." This he said with the satisfaction of having had an unfair advantage, a cartel.
The fighting also started around home. "My dad wouldn't let us work on the farm in the heat of the day, so he taught us how to box under the chestnut tree. Then later when I was weaving silk in Paterson, New Jersey, I took boxing and wrestling lessons with a professor at the YMCA. I'm a lefthanded man, and a lefthanded man has it easier in fights." This lefthanded man had a lot of fights. "I boxed in smokers in Paterson and Pittsburgh and all the little towns. I wrestled at carnivals, challenging the carnival man, and, mostly. I won. I was quick and agile and I liked to surprise people." I could vouch for that. When I brought two pairs of boxing gloves up to the lake when I was 14 and he was 81, he jubilantly bloodied my nose with his first sneaky righthand lead.
In my mind, the fighting and selling are connected. They were both an expression of Grandad's inherent qualities. Selling, he was always the demonstrator, the reasonable man doing a favor for the buyer. In fights, he was never the aggressor, or could not bear to describe himself so. Fights, in the telling, were always forced upon him by eager, coat-holding brothers, or by hotheaded friends who dragged him to their defense. "In New Jersey I was going to see a girl up to Summit, and in the saloon there Big Alec the loomfixer stood up.