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Consumer laws were idle daydreams then, but most municipalities insisted on peddlers' licenses. Grandad regarded these as insulting impositions. "I was arrested 10 times," he said. "I talked my way out of nine of 'em. The magistrates always treated me right. Some bought some steel wool themselves." Once he shined the tarnished brass fixtures of a courtroom while waiting for his case to be called. "But one time, the mayor of the town was a woman. She hit me with a $2.50 fine. The men always treated me right."
Christmas with Grandad up at the lake seemed, as Keats said poetry should strike the reader, "almost [as] a remembrance." Surely this was because my father had inherited Grandad's sense of occasion. My Christmases as a child always had oranges on the tree and recollections of how it had been in Pittsburgh. "It was always cold," my father said, "and we kids were sent off to bed on Christmas Eve without there being a sign of a tree or present. But in the morning there would be an enormous fir tree, with not many ornaments but lots of oranges and apples jammed in the branches. You could never get around the back of it. The top had been lopped off and it was held up with ropes and wires. Sometimes it was steady and sometimes it wasn't." Grandad's trees still were that way 45 years later. "I happened to be at the trolley stop," my father recalled, "when a streetcar opened its doors and a tree came out. It was 14 feet tall and beneath it was my father. The streetcar was packed with people, most of them hollering. How he had the guts to force that tree on at rush hour I can't imagine."
My father swam and dived for the Langley High School team and ran cross-country, finishing eighth in the 1932 city championships. The first time Grandad saw his daughter Wilma swim, she won the Pittsburgh city championship in the 100-yard freestyle. In 1932 Wilma finished second behind Lenore Kight in the Pennsylvania qualifying for the Olympic Trials, but couldn't afford to travel to New York City to try out for the team. "He encouraged us in sport," said my father, "but not with pressure or what you would call intense interest." Not the way he would have if the sports had been those of combat.
In 1917, at age 40, he tried to join up for World War I. "I think it took nerve to try to enlist with five children," Aunt Vivian said recently. "Well, I told them I only had two," Grandad explained, and added with a disgust carried across 60 years, "They wrote me a letter saying to 'hold myself in readiness.' "
Aunt Vivian, as curious as the rest of the family about the roots of his disposition to engage an enemy, any enemy, asked why he was so eager to serve in that war. "Why, I wanted the experience of a soldier," Grandad replied. "Everybody wanted to wear a uniform them days."
Grandad worked in the Pittsburgh mills until 1947, when he was 70. Then, on the urging of his children, most of whom had moved West, he came to Portland, where he took a job as a watchman in a boiler works. By then he and my grandmother were long separated. Besides the broken back, he endured a siege of arthritis, which stiffened all his joints. There was, and is, something of the medieval concept of scourge in Grandad's view of disease or affliction. The invader must be driven out. So, grim and sweating in his room, which he'd heated to 100�, he worked his hands up the wall as far as he could reach, first to his shoulders, then his head, clawing a little higher each day. For hours he squeezed rubber balls in his gnarled hands. Gradually, at great cost, the arthritis eased, astonishing the doctors. Grandad then uttered the phrase that would become the traditional pronouncement of a cure: "I beat that rap."
If there seems a disturbing fixity to these stories, a false clarity achieved by ignoring the reader's natural questions about what moved this man, it comes about because the stories were told by Grandad himself, and thus shorn of motive. He simply told what he did, and put a good face on it. But after he moved to the lake cabin, I was present occasionally to watch the working of his mind, to see things unfiltered.
He seemed always attracted to his opposite. Clearly this was true in his choice of a wife, and I saw it again as he charmed the many elderly widows of Lowell. His favorites were invariably the most religious, the most easily embarrassed, the most domestic. One late summer day, when the blackberry wine was foaming in its keg, Grandad called me from the house. "Trouble," he said, pointing at one full-skirted woman coming from town bearing a pie, while there advanced from the direction of the lake another carrying bread. I had to run out to the first woman, accept the pie and say Grandad was standing stark naked in the bath-tub but he'd be over shortly to thank her properly. He took care of the second. "Look, kid," he said when he had a moment, "make sure you stick a piece of adhesive tape on the bottom of these pans and put the right widow's name on each one. Ain't polite to return the wrong pan."
When he was 80, Grandad took his first spin around the lake on an aquaplane. Attempts at water skiing followed. He never really rose to the surface, but doggedly refused to let go of the tow rope even after his skis and baggy swim trunks had been ripped away by the rush of water. I remember the double take of a neighbor as a nude torpedo shot across his bow.
In his personal appearance, Grandad was often comically vain. On fishing trips, when my father and his friends grew beards, Grandad shaved daily, bending over icy streams or trailing a wake of lather behind the boat. For 85 years he has used buttermilk as an aftershave lotion, and beams when visitors tell him he doesn't look a day over 70. In fact, my father first explained the concept of vanity to me with specific reference to my grandfather. So the term, or the failing itself, has always carried with it a trace of the forgiveness we grant the elderly.