Grandad has played on this. "He's made a career out of his age," says my father, and nowhere more than in his poetry, which is terrible, and which everybody encourages nonetheless since he didn't begin writing it until he was in his 70s. "I am a daisy/I am a pet /I walk in the rain/and never get wet./The girls they all love me/the boys they all say/'There goes Fritz Bumanickle/ From Columbia, P.A.," is a sprightly example. Others, trite and sappy, are far less forgivable. It was horrible how the widows melted before them. If they didn't, he could follow with violin music—he played a soulful Red River Valley—or ear-splitting shrieking on a lilac leaf.
When he was 82, Grandad took a year away from the lake to work as caretaker of Emerald Park, near our home in Eugene. One afternoon, walking through the park on my way home from school, I noticed a gaggle of widows on the lawn, wailing. Drawing nearer, I saw an overturned rotary mower, a boot cut nearly in half and great russet stains in the grass. "He's killed himself," cried one of the most excitable. "He's crawled away to die." But the bloody trail led not to his corpse but to the house and telephone, the book opened to the hospital's number. "He sure can bleed," said the emergency-room doctor. No major nerves were severed, and the muscles and tendons healed within the year.
Grandad's father had lived to 89, his mother to 91. In 1961, when he was 84, he traveled by bus back to Columbia for a reunion with three brothers and a sister. Their aggregate age was 413 years. He was the most vigorous of this long-lived family, but, inevitably, Grandad began to experience the trials of real age. Having been a voracious reader of Western pulp and the
, he was stymied by a cataract when he was 87. "There is a beginning of a second one on your other eye," said the doctor, "but it will be 10 years before that one will occlude the pupil. You won't be around by then, so we won't operate on that side." Ten years later, when Grandad needed the second operation, the surgeon himself had died.
In his late 80s he had trouble with what he called his "prostrate gland," and went to see the doctor to discover why he couldn't urinate. He watched as a catheter was run up the urethra to clear a passage. Then he went out and bought a similar tube and used it himself, keeping it, when not in need, wrapped around his hatband. "Finally," he said, "I had 'em ream me out in there." At 97 he had surgery for removal of his gall bladder (which, when placed on the tray by the surgeon, fell to pieces). That scar, above his hipbone, which he unashamedly displayed, looked two years old when I saw it six weeks later. That was also the year Grandad took part in his last barroom fight, knocking over a mugger in the men's room of a Burnside Street dive in Portland.
Grandad has always followed sport, and it has always been a showcase for his quixotic stubbornness. Despite taking a beating betting on Woody Hayes bowl teams, he wagers on, undaunted. At 95, he leaned over the rail as I warmed up before the 1972 Olympic marathon trials. "How many racers are there in this, anyway?" he asked.
"About a hundred."
"A hundred! Why, you ain't got no chance."
The pleasure of tying with Frank Shorter for first was thus immeasurably enriched by Grandad's astonishment. "I didn't think you could do it, kid," he said. "But it's good you can run, because you sure can't box."
Grandad's remaining participant sport is pool, and he has a table in the basement of Aunt Vivian's house in Portland, where he now lives. He beats me about four games out of seven. When a reporter from the Portland
interviewed him a few days before he turned 100, Grandad either beat him so badly or rubbed it in so cruelly that the score did not appear in the paper.
I remember a conversation we had just before that 100th birthday, when I sought to warn him against the letdown that might follow. "I know, I know," he said. "All these geezers, they get to a hundred and the next morning they croak. Well, don't you fret none about me. I'm going for 110."