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My Grandpa and the River

My Grandpa was my first hero. He took me for walks on the steamy brick streets of Illinois just after a rain. He built me a wagon and a cart, (he could build or fix anything) and he allowed me into the mysterious world of his workshop; an ill-lit shed with cardboard flooring that kept the dust down and made your feet whisper when you walked. I watched as he created machines from old found parts and made them run. On occasion, he would lift up a flap of the cardboard flooring and produce a bottle of Hiram Walkers Peach Brandy, take swig, and put it back with the soft admonition, “You don’t need to tell your grandmother about that.” Of course the most excruciating torture would not have revealed this secret between us.


He wasn’t a talkative man, so his actions were powerful. He carried a pocketknife in his bib-overalls where he also kept a large Tootsie Roll when I was with him. He sucked on horehound candy, wore long-johns all summer through, and smoked a pipe (only out of doors). I’ll never forget him cutting pieces of the Tootsie roll with his pocket knife; how he pared off a wedge with the blade as it bit into his age-creased thumb, extended it to me- still on the knife blade- where I was allowed to pluck the morsel off by myself and eat it. I was in awe of this process. He didn’t mention that it was dangerous, or to be careful, or that I’d spoil my dinner. My grandmother, whom I loved equally, would never have allowed me to partake in such a blatantly hazardous act.

I will also never forget when Grandpa lit his pipe, sitting out on the side of the house on the porch swing, just he and I. Long, quiet moments passed as I simply watched him go through the ceremony of loading, tamping, and finally lighting his pipe. I’m sure that I must have asked questions, (it would have been unusual for a young boy not to) and that he must have answered, but I can recall no conversation between us; only me observing my version of a deity as he removed a wood match from his pocket, (a pocket that seemed designed for the purpose) struck it afire with his thumbnail, and touched it to the tobacco. I looked on as if perceiving a natural wonder as he puffed long, pointed flames from the bowl. I watched the tobacco glow red-orange and smelled its sweet, musty incense fill the summer air. And then, without having to ask, instead of waving the match out, he offered the match toward me where I was able to blow out the fire, thus ending the ritual.

My Grandpa taught me how to pound a nail with a single strike of the hammer, and how to straighten a bent nail (of which there were hundreds). And when I had a sore throat he gave me a teaspoon of Hiram Walkers Brandy mixed with sugar or coffee- which would ensure an almost instantaneous healing. He showed me the beauty of a polished buckeye and an apple, and taught me respect for animals. In the evenings after dinner I often sat on his lap as he revealed the contents of his small, personal drawer in the sideboard: there, in the midst of other assorted treasures, he had a 1922 Liberty Silver Dollar in a blue coin case. Upon my request he would flip the coin and make it ring in the air. I was amazed, and he said that the silver dollar would be mine one day. The silver dollar is in my drawer now and I made it ring for Matthew and Katrina when they sat on my lap many years ago. I will pass it onto them and let them flip for its possession.

Elmer Coleson was not a fisherman, at least that I knew. We never spoke of it that I can recall. I’m not certain what he might have thought of my fly fishing passion, though I somehow think he would have approved. He died when I was too young to understand death as anything but sadness and separation. I recall playing in the yard with my brothers and sisters as my mother and grandmother wept in the kitchen. It was not possible in my child’s mind to imagine that I would not see him again on this earth. 

But he has lived with me ever since.

My grandpa might not have been a fisherman, but he helped me become one because he took time with small, seemingly unimportant things. He taught me how to listen to the quiet that lies between moments. And I think of him often when my soul is still and I’m near the river.


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