FEATURE — My grandpa Oscar always had a lot to say.
He was telling grandpa jokes when he wasn’t talking about the legacy of George Gabbitas (the sole convert on his Latter-day Saints mission) or lamenting about Park City, “Colorado” (on account of them acting like didn’t even want to be a part of Utah with their fancy skiing and Robert Redford stars).
You know the kind. Corny and self-deprecating. The two I remember him telling most often anchored how I perceived him: bald and self-made.
He was a son of a Scots immigrant and while I like to imagine him with a tinge of red hair (it was actually brown), I only knew him without any. He’d explain to me, “I used to have a crew cut, but the crew pulled out.”
Then, the corners of his hazel eyes would crinkle behind his gold-framed glasses, and he’d laugh. Every time.
Before he was bald, he was a boy on a farm in West Weber, Utah.
He milked cows at the break of morning; plowed the fields with a team of black horses named Babe and Bud; and, on his mother’s orders, delivered food to the family down the street who’d lost their own mother to Typhoid fever.
With all the planting and harvesting and do-gooding, my grandpa stopped his education short somewhere in the middle of high school.
Explaining this, he liked to tell us grandkids, “I went to the school of hard knocks – our colors were black and blue, and our fight song was ‘ouch, ouch, ouch.’”
Then, the corners of his hazel eyes would crinkle again, and he’d laugh. Again.
But what my grandfather lacked in formal education, he made up for in charm. And determination.
I never saw him as anything but a success. School of hard knocks or not.
But even still, I figured I’d have my own path. I figured I’d have my own alma mater, one that wasn’t campused on a farm.
I was a city girl, after all, with an educational future beyond the 10th grade.
What I didn’t know then, laughing along with my grandpa and his corny grandpa jokes, is that it’s not just the farm boys who are enrolled in the school of hard knocks.
Last Tuesday afternoon, my husband, isolation getting the best of him, took a run to our snow-packed cabin in the Uintahs. He brought along his dear friend, who’s been quarantining with our family while he goes through a divorce, and our family dog.
The plan was for the three of them to check the water lines in the house, soak up a little nature, and then return the next morning, emotionally refueled for the stressful telework week ahead.
As my husband tells it, after all of the obligatory checks, they were supine in the warmth of the cabin listening to vinyl records – he on the couch, his friend on the rug in front of the hearth – and talking life. Specifically, they were talking about how stuff doesn’t really matter.
Leave it to an impending divorce and weeks of a global pandemic to help frame the importance of things like relationships and health over things like, well, things.
And talk they did. Good, philosophical, deep talk. While listening to Van Morrison on a vintage turntable, with my husband’s childhood collectibles and most of his prized possessions an arms-reach away up the spiral staircase.
After all, my husband remarked to his friend, “you’ve heard how it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man into heaven.”
Then, the dog wouldn’t settle, and the philosophical talk stopped. My husband reluctantly took the dog out back for a potty break and his friend went out to the front deck for some sunshine.
When my husband came back into the kitchen only minutes later, sparks from a faulty electric baseboard heater had already engulfed the living room couch, upon which he’d just been laying, in flames, as well as part of the wall behind it and the ceiling above.
Seconds more and the black smoke hugged the living room and kitchen so tightly, he couldn’t see his wallet and keys on the counter just four feet in front of him.
And he knew the only thing to do was get out.
Another minute later, from the snow-packed driveway, my husband was watching 40-foot flames lick the metal roof of the cabin and dance behind the sliding glass doors. Without a coat. And in his socked feet.
I’m not sure he thought about my grandpa just then. He likely was thinking about things like the black and white childhood photo of his own father that hung opposite the couch.
But I’m sure my grandpa, and the first-place ribbon he’d earned at the 1917 Utah State Fair that was hanging in a frame in the cabin stairwell, were watching from somewhere. And they were probably saying, “ouch, ouch, ouch.”
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