At work, one of my rather mindless tasks is to test books for pH levels. This requires the demanding duty of placing a small amount of water on the page of a book, and placing a sensor tube in the drop of water. Then I wait a few minutes until the pH level registers, and record that level on a piece of paper. However, despite this riveting work, I am able to read while I do it.
One of the books I’ve been reading lately is Victor Davis Hanson’s Fields Without Dreams, in which Hanson, a classicist specializing in early Greek warfare and agriculture, describes the decline of his family’s fruit tree farm and vineyard, and those of the surrounding area, near Alma, California. Reading that book really brought to mind my late grandfather, Clifton F. Healy.
Grandpa was, as far as the family knows, the third Clifton in a row in his family (after Clifton Dwight and Clifton Arthur, his grandfather and father, respectively). The pictures I’ve seen of grandpa as a young man, make me envy him. He was handsome, built and exuded masculinity. He was a farmer and known for his hard work and industry.
One of these pictures of grandpa show him holding my dad (Clifton Howard) in his arms. This was a shock to me when I first saw it. Not him holding my dad, but that he had two arms. I only knew grandpa with one arm. When my dad was eight or nine, he and grandpa were out in the field cutting corn, when the cutter got jammed. Grandpa stopped to clear the jam. For some reason or another, dad had gone off somewhere, likely to fetch some tools so grandpa could do the job right. In attempting to clear the cutter, grandpa’s arm got drawn up into the machine, mangling the arm. He called for help, but over the noise of the engine, and being a distance away, dad didn’t hear him. Then grandpa threw his cap up into the air. Dad saw it and turned the tractor around. (Yes, dad operated heavy farm machinery at eight or nine years old.) They got a friend to help, and dad accompanied grandpa, bleeding and fading fast, to the hospital.
But if there’s one thing grandpa was, he was one stubborn cuss. They sowed his arm up. He recovered. And I got to join him on the farm in the summers. Having one arm didn’t slow him down hardly at all. He just developed special helps and equipment to make the job a bit easier. I recall his knife/fork utensil he used for meals, and his special card rack he used for playing pinochle. And when this city kid had tried long enough to drive a fence post into dry Kansas soil, grandpa positioned the driver, and one-handed, in a matter of a few swings, drove that stake deep. But then again, I was only twelve.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get as close to my grandpa as I now would wish. He was an imposing figure for me as a kid. And that respect didn’t wear off when I hit my late teens and twenties, even though his physical presence was much more frail. Grandpa was the stereotypical uncommunicative midwestern farmer. And his legacy lives on in my dad and me. Neither of us are very good about sharing our inner selves. Though both of us are pretty good about giving out a piece of our mind. Despite his habitual stoic solemnity, grandpa was a fairly merciless tease. He’d goose grandma as she passed through the kitchen. Her exasperated, “Clifton!” still rings through my memory.
Grandpa wasn’t, at least from what I knew as a kid, much of a churchgoer. His devotion to keeping the farm running was a seven-day job. But he and grandma read from the Bible often, and the good ol’ King James cadences rolled from his tongue when he said grace around the family table.
I miss my grandfather. He lives in my memory as a responsible, hard-working man. Serious. At times playful. He raised food that people ate. He raised three kids whose own successes are witness to his legacy. He had his failures, as do we all. But he was a man. One to emulate.
I wrote this poem shortly after his funeral.