Riding along in Bessie and other business

When I came along, as their second grandchild, Grandpa was 48 – not quite five years older than his father had been at Grandpa’s birth. This might suggest Grandpa had experienced some of the emotional distance from his own father that I, in turn, felt from him.  That is, he was repeating a pattern he had absorbed as a child. There was, at least, something formal in the relationship between generations.

My earliest memories include climbing – repeatedly – up through his legs as he sat in his upholstered chair in their living room (in the days before the recliner) or of being bounced on his lap – the same chair he’d wind up snoring in after Sunday dinners. Curiously, I don’t recall the same playfulness with my own dad, although I carry a memory of riding home on his shoulders once, all the way from Wayne Avenue to our rental on Wilmington, and impressions of riding piggy-back from time to time.

Later memories have Grandpa sitting in the chair, teasing at a strand of hair – a nervous habit that left bald patches in his otherwise thick head of hair.

While his plumbers relied on a fleet of paneled vans, Grandpa always relied on a pickup named “Bessie,” no matter the make or model, or a nondescript car for his rounds. The vinyl seat-covers he proudly installed were sticky hot in the summer and stiffly cold in winter. During the years we were without a car of our own, Dad would sometimes borrow Bessie for the weekend so we could run errands or go out to the farm. In those days, we kids could always ride in the open-air bed, as long as we behaved ourselves. It’s been outlawed, at least where I live.

By the time I remember riding along with Grandpa on his plumbing rounds, he was well established and in his 50s. At that time in my life, chemistry experiments would have been more interesting, along with seining crawdads. But there was little explanation in these trips to the plumbing supply warehouse or the Ford dealer, much less the intricacies of one hot water heater over another, or the reasons we were popping into basements all over town.

As boss, he could combine business and pleasure. I remember his  stopping at a small grocery on Riverside Drive, the only place for miles that carried a delicacy known as pickled pigs feet. He bought several jars, and then found an excuse to be in another part of town where he could pull to the curb, run up to a door, and hand one to the woman of the house. “Surprise Ike when he comes home tonight,” he told her.

“Oh, James!” she shrieked. “You know how much he likes these!”

Ike was one of his black diggers. Or “colored,” as they said.

Me, I never touched the stuff. And, come to think of it, I’m not sure he offered.

Once, he let me open the mail when it arrived beside the dining room. I remember handling a check for almost seven hundred dollars and thinking it was an impressive sum. (In fairness, the average annual wage at the time was under $5,000.) I imagined Grandpa must be a very rich man to be getting checks like that. But another envelope had a cancelation mark saying HELP STAMP OUT SYPHILLIS. “Grandpa, what’s syphillis?” I asked innocently.

After some mumbling on his part, I never did get an answer. And another teaching opportunity and bonding experience went empty. Considering my age, he wouldn’t have to say anything about sex. He could have said, “When you get older, there are certain things you should do only with your wife – and if you do them with anyone else, you can be punished with some very terrible diseases.” And any “Like what?” follow-up questions could have then been deftly deferred.

Something in his evasion, though, made me remember.

*   *   *

In retrospect, managing a plumbing and heating enterprise looks daunting. The job of being a plumber can be hard enough, especially when working in cramped spaces or moldy cellars. Or, as they say, “You can tell a plumber by his bad knees,” which I heard that said of Leroy’s oldest son, who was a world-class square-dancer and caller as well. Still, being the boss carries its own hazards: lining up new business, bidding successfully on projects, scheduling workers as efficiently as possible and ensuring their supplies arrive on time, sticking to contracts, dealing with building permits and inspectors, maintaining quality control, seeing that your crews are actually in place and not goofing off, billing customers, and actually getting paid. That’s before dealing with hiring and firing, pilfering of supplies for their independent weekend jobs, or the inevitable troublesome employee, the one who says, “They don’t like you. I can quit and take them all with me.” There are a thousand ways a plumbing company can spring disastrous leaks.

Then there are emergency telephone calls on the weekend or during dinner or on holidays, hours when there’s no one to send out.

Grandpa rarely advertised. Didn’t believe in it. Or at least didn’t know how to do it and get results.

What he did was mail out calendars every Christmas. Nice big glossy landscape photos with his name and phone number. I remember helping  address and seal the envelopes at the kitchen table. It got out of hand, in the end, as printing and mailing costs both soared, along with the mailing list.

*   *   *

He could drive around and point out houses. Put in a new bathroom there. The basement flooded in that one. New heating system for that house. And so on. “We can fix you up.” A new kitchen. A new bathroom. A garbage disposal.

City building code required exterior pipe to be buried at least 24 inches deep. Grandpa insisted his diggers go six inches deeper. It’s just another spadeful, he reasoned. Be on the side of caution. After he retired, some unusually cold winters caused many lines to freeze and burst on their way from the water main to the house or business. But none of his did.

To my surprise, after all the dinner diatribes, Dad insisted Grandpa was proud his was a union shop.

It wasn’t, not by a long shot.

*   *   *

Among my possessions is an old-fashioned, bone-handled fork, one I often chose to use at my grandparents’ table. I always associated it with pioneers and log cabins, adventuresome and romantic to an Ohio boy who had no clue of how much of his ancestry had actually lived that way.

From the cellar stairway came another possession, a leather belt of sleigh bells, whose origin now puzzles: the old Brethren had specifically forbidden the use of such ornaments, and old Quakers would have agreed. But by my grandparents birth, the practices were changing. I do remember riding once with Grandpa through the countryside when he pointed to a row of fence posts and told me snow used to pile up that high. At the time, I thought he was joking: in that part of Ohio, snow rarely came to the tops of our buckle-up black rubber boots. In the late 1970s, though, when I was living in Washington state, Ohio was clobbered by repeated heavy snowfalls, unlike the Cascade Range that year, where snowpack provides essential irrigation for the desert orchards. So did my bells come down the Hodson side, by way of McSherry, or the Ehrstine side, by way of Rasor? Or did they ever adorn Prince, their horse of fond memories?

TJ clears this one up. They belonged to our wonder horse, Prince. He’s detailed in the earlier blogs, too. 



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