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To [the old] all the past is not a diminishing road, A but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years."
At Christmas, one need not be aged to wander that meadow. This is a time, inevitably, whether one is alone or tossed about in family gatherings, for reminiscence. And sometimes what begin simply as sparkling, well-turned stories, random in their selection, may coalesce, if one is lucky, into a sense of a life, a gift of character.
I have a grandfather, Fred Moore, who was born on New Year's Day 1877, less than 12 years after Lincoln was shot. My generation of the family has always called him Grandad, with its connotations of whiskey and vigor. I met him when I was eight and he 75. At that time he lived in Portland, Ore. and acted as caretaker for the house and grounds of an elderly lady. During late-summer harvest, forced to choose between saving a handful of ripe plums or grabbing a branch to steady himself, he inexplicably clung to the plums and fell 22 feet to earth, breaking his back in two places. My first clear memory of him is his arrival home from the hospital six weeks later. He walked from the car upright and proud, batting away the assisting arms of my aunts and uncles.
"Of course I'm all right," he said in answer to my question. "Just you souse me one in the stomach and see how tough I am yet."
My timid little punch brought my knuckles against a full-torso cast beneath his starched shirt. For a moment, as he roared with delight, I stumbled back in awe. Here was a man as hard as brick.
He was told to wear his cast for a year and a half. But he kept a penknife beside his bed and in the evenings whittled away a bit of plaster here and there, "to get at the itches." In six months he had only a little vest remaining. The doctors, not for the first or last time, gnashed their teeth and fitted him for a brace. A theme of his life had been played out in this episode. He had transformed a dumb mistake into a triumph by raw strength and energetic healing. This has been going on for 102 years now, through dozens of sports and labors and injuries and illnesses, this rage to keep his body his own.
I remember Grandad at Christmas, remembering. My family lived in Eugene, 110 miles south of Portland, and he would visit. After tramping the neighbors' sodden backyards, stealing the year's last walnuts, he spoke of his own boyhood. He was one of nine children of Samuel and Elizabeth Moore, born on their fruit and vegetable and turkey farm in Columbia, Pa., in Lancaster County. He left school after the fourth grade, and there followed years of farm work, but he omitted those. The stories were of him and his brother Archie astride two horses, each with a foot on each rolling back, galloping down the lane, scaring hell out of the Amish neighbors. "We had to make our own fun," he said. "We had a cross-buck sheep, a ram, and we trained him from a baby to butt. Sundays all the neighbor boys would make a ring, everybody facing out, everybody blindfolded. When the sheep was put in the circle, he'd knock someone down, o' course. Then the boy who was butted got to aim the sheep. Sundays ended in fights sometimes."
There was a game in which 20 boys brought nickels and put them in a coffee can, which was buried. "One was a fox," Grandad said, "and the others were hounds. The fox got a horn and a five-minute head start. He had to blow the horn every five minutes and stay within a radius of five miles. If he got back to that can, he got the dollar. If a hound caught him, he got it and he'd be the fox the next time." These chases could run all day and past sundown into the night, when the premium was on knowing the secrets of the 78 square miles of fields and woods and Susquehanna River bank that might be covered. "Oh, I was a fine fox," said Grandad. "I'd lay in the weeds and they'd run right by. I'd blow the horn out one way and then I'd run back the other."
When he was eight (in 1885), Grandad had a toothache, the first of many. "We had an old Civil War soldier about the place and he took notice of my crying. He cut a sliver from his plug of tobacco and made a little ball and put it on the cavity, and the pain went away. Now after a while I put my tongue back there, and thinks I, 'Why, that's sweet.' It wasn't long before I had a toothache all the time. The old soldier saw through it and wouldn't give me more. So I got into his pants when he was asleep and with a sharp knife I cut my own." When Grandad was 12, his father, reading in the parlor, looked out the window and saw him accept a wad of tobacco from a friend. "He hailed me in and said, 'Son, you done that with a manner of experience. How long have you chewed?'
" 'About four years,' I said.