It starts with joy

Because where else would it start?

But if we unravel that a bit, if we rewind, if we trace it all back to the root, it starts with a man. My grandfather, Cecil.

Cecil was born in 1923, in the town of Hart, Michigan—the same town in which he’d raise his five children, and the same town in which I’d be raised. He was one of eight children (he had three brothers and four sisters) and from what I understand had what was at that time a fairly standard upbringing in rural America. And by that I mean: it wasn’t easy.

Farming, I can attest, generally isn’t easy. Early mornings. Long days. Sore bodies. But tack on the fact that from age six to age sixteen Cecil and his family endured the worst economic crisis in modern history (which, though the initial wave of the Great Depression didn’t hit the Midwest in full force until 1931, hit Michigan especially hard), and, yeah, in many ways I’m sure it was no picnic. Sure, an argument of, “Farmers had it easier because they could produce their own food,” could hold some water. But not much. In many cases, farmers seemed to have had it worst.

Regretfully, I don’t know much else about Cecil’s childhood. I don’t know much else about it because, well, I never asked. And he never offered that sort of information up, at least not to me. Maybe as old people he and his siblings sat in lawn chairs and reminisced, revisiting the core memories that bonded them. I hope they did. But if they did, I was not part of those conversations. If they did, I suspect I was off on a distant patch of grass, playing and laughing as Cecil believed all kids should.

Despite the obstacles of his time, I do suspect that Cecil’s childhood consisted of at least some of the same things mine did. Work, yes, I’m sure he did plenty of it. School, too, though I believe he stopped going after the 6th or 7th grade. But also: games, and pranks, and crushes. The pushing of boundaries. The trying of new things, and getting many of them wrong. Finding one’s way.

There are four things I do know from Cecil’s early life, however, and they are as follows: 1) he loved baseball, 2) he was a fast runner, 3) he wanted to have his own farm, and 4) he loved my grandmother.

I know that he loved baseball because as an old man he wore a dusty Detroit Tigers cap anytime he was out in the sun, which was often. (Plus, he always seemed to have a game going on the radio.)

I know numbers three and four from above because I know that marrying my grandmother and starting a farm of their own was the vision he had for himself before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1944, that off he’d go to the European Theater, but to that quiet life he’d return.

I know that he was a fast runner because it was his speed that helped make him so valuable to the Army. I believe Cecil’s primary role was that of an assistant machine gun operator. But secondarily, when needed (i.e. the radio wasn’t working), he was used as a runner—a person who could deliver messages between fronts quickly, and nimbly.

And I know he was doing exactly that one day when a nearby Stielhandgranate (a German stick grenade) went off, sending shrapnel into his leg. Whether from the blast itself, or from the pain, or from a combination of both, Cecil went unconscious.

When he woke up, his leg was gone. Amputated just above the knee. Beyond saving.

This happened in April 1945. In just a couple weeks, Hitler would commit suicide. A week after that, Germany would unconditionally surrender to Allied Forces.

And Cecil, not yet 22 years old, would soon be on his way back across the Atlantic, unsure of whether or not his dreams had been severed as well. Whether he could ever farm again and, if so, how much he realistically could handle. And more importantly, whether or not the person he loved most would ever see him the same way, the way she had before combat.

German soldier tossing a Stielhandgranate in WWII. Photo Credit: Public Domain / via Wikipedia.

To place myself entirely into the shoes of my grandfather here is impossible. At 21 years old, I was studying creative writing at a liberal arts school and getting hammered drunk on weekends with my friends—all within 75 miles of where I grew up. Where he grew up.

Every time I’ve tried, what I arrive at is just how furious he must’ve been. How much rage must’ve been swirling around in his stomach and chest.

I also think about how so much of that rage must’ve been how he’d learned to package deeper, more nuanced feelings. Shame. Embarrassment. Self-consciousness.

Because how could he not feel that—when hobbling toward the love of his life for the first time since he’d shipped out eight, nine months ago; when being fit for a prosthetic that would for years dig into the flesh of his stump; when reuniting with old friends who wouldn’t stop insisting on catering to him; when walking into a farm and feed store and being looked over as if to say, “You? You’re a farmer?”

I know I’d feel that. I know that I’d be really fucking mad at the world. This was not what I signed up for. This was not how my life was supposed to be.

I think in a lot of stories this would be the point where the author would say, “But not my grandfather. He stood strong; he stood above all others. He battled through. He overcame every obstacle and was able to see from his new perspective that all of those obstacles had been blessings in disguise.”

Perhaps if my grandfather were alive today I could ask him and his answers would lean in such a way. I don’t know. I won’t know. So please do understand that what I’m about to say isn’t me trying to speak for him.

From what I know of my grandfather, though, and what precious little I know of life, I can say with some confidence that thrusting my grandfather into some triumphant Hero’s Journey would be inaccurate, and unfair.

He did go on to marry the love of his life, who would become my grandmother. I remember as a kid hearing the two of them talk about someone who’d made a crude joke about my grandfather only having one leg, and how they’d each absorbed the blow, but retorted with something along the lines of, “Legs don’t make the man.”

Which breaks my heart in my many ways. But, whether or not my grandfather was in a state wherein he could believe her, I think from the get-go my grandmother tried to make it clear that she wasn’t leaving him, and that she never would, certainly not over the loss of a leg.

Together, they brought five children into the world, including my father, the fourth-born. And my grandfather, despite the physical obstacles he knew he’d have, did go on to own his farm—modest acreage he could realistically and sustainably operate. He also became a key member of his community. In his church. In 4-H groups. Among his friends, of which there were many. Looking back, even as they entered their 70s and 80s, my grandparents remained very social, hosting or attending weekly card games with people they’d known since the Depression days.

So don’t get me wrong: I think there certainly was joy throughout my grandfather’s life. Lots of it. But I know there also was pain, much of which I believe stemmed from the loss of his leg. Physical pain, sure, phantom pain, too, but I’m talking emotional pain, pain that I think nobody within his circles really knew what to do with.

Men, in particular, I’d add, until very, very recently, have always been taught via words and action to channel emotional pain of any kind into anger. Talk about it? Sure, briefly, to maybe your partner once a year, and do so in stunted code. But cry about it? No way. No, you feel sad, you feel depressed, you feel embarrassed? You bottle that shit up and when the pressure is too much to bear, get big, get loud, shout, display, take control of the goddamn thing.

"And he dealt with it the way he knew how, the way that had been modeled for him. Which was: he stowed it all inside until the vessel just couldn't hold it any longer."

Add that kind of mismanagement to emotional pain as deep as what I suspect my grandfather’s was, and you get a scene where he throws a pitchfork at the hands of my then-teenaged father, who stands ten feet away—a scene my father has referenced several times over the years. One of many instances where my grandfather, “flew off the handle.”

I don’t remember what offense my father had committed, but I do recall him snickering at the memory and saying, “I probably deserved it.” Maybe he knew it wasn’t normal. But to him that behavior was kinda normal.

Another “flying off the handle” moment that I’ve heard on numerous occasions, which speaks more to the threat of my grandfather’s anger than a display of it: one morning my aunt, the baby of the family, made some sort of mistake while pulling into or backing out of the single-stall garage, severely damaging one of the walls. My grandfather was at work for the day (the farm couldn’t pay all the bills so he worked in a dental office as well). I think one and maybe even two of the other siblings had moved out by this time, but my grandmother and my father sprung into action. My father called his closest friends over, and he, my grandmother and my aunts stopped everything they were doing—seriously, just dropped it all— to fix the garage wall before my grandfather could come home and see it.

Because if he came home and saw it damaged, there’d of course be hell to pay. He wouldn’t hit anybody, not like that kind of hell, but he’d scream, and he’d throw things. He’d inflict damage upon inanimate objects and just generally vacuum up all the feelings in the room.

“He had a hell of a temper,” my father and his siblings have said on many occasions.

And, I tell you all of this about my grandfather—I swear I’ll land the plane soon—I tell you all of this about how he handled the pain and obstacles of his life to say: aside from my daughter, who is at the time of writing almost three years old, the Cecil I knew was the gentlest person I’ve ever met.

He was calm; he was quiet; and he was patient.

Shouting only occurred over the sound of an engine, in an effort to simply communicate. I never saw him throw a hammer, wrench, or any other tool. And if I had something I didn’t know how to do, I knew that I could ask him to help me and that my question wouldn’t be met with anything but an eagerness to teach.

I mean, when I think of my grandfather, the images that come to mind first include just how gentle he was with animals. He loved them. I don’t think my grandfather ever despised humans, but why wouldn’t he? Animals didn’t start wars that then took legs.

The main barn on the farm housed stray cats for as long as I could remember—cats that migrated from farm to farm in search of mates, or birds and mice and the like, but cats he insisted upon feeding and watering each and every day after other neighbors scared them off with BB guns.

And then there was the stray dog he took in, a brown and white spaniel-something-or-other he’d affectionately named Goofy, as she was, well quite goofy. Once she found my grandfather, Goofy didn’t venture too far off of the farm—or even my grandparents’ yard—but one day she must’ve seen something across the road she was interested in. Because onto the road she went, and into her backside plowed a vehicle. I believe the driver knew my grandfather in some way, or my mother or father (Hart is a very small town, after all), and if memory serves me right they were very shaken up by what had happened, and were very apologetic.

I was eight or nine years old at the time, so I don’t remember the exact sequence of events—at what point the area’s lone vet was called, who helped transport Goofy, etc.—but I know that Goofy was not in good shape.

Not like, “this dog’s suffering needs to be ended now because there’s no hope,” kind of shape, but more of a, “here are some pain medications she can have and from there what we can do is give her time” kind of shape.

I do recall that Goofy was next moved into the barn, where she could be comfortable. And I do recall visiting Goofy on several occasions alongside my grandfather, who I’d later learn would walk with his cane out to the barn some-eighty yards away at 2am and 3am just to sit and talk with her, keep her company.

Which makes me think of 21-year-old Cecil, leg gone, lying in a hospital room overseas, visitor-less.

“He’s all shook up,” I remember my grandmother saying, in reference to his behavior. “He’s barely left her side.”

So yeah, whenever my father would tell my brother and me that our grandfather had a hell of a temper, our response would be something along the lines of, “No way. No chance. But you, on the other hand—”

My father is a former marine and retired police officer, who, if he had it his way, would’ve spent all of his work time farming and not, say, responding to yet another report of domestic violence at so-and-so’s address. The timing of doing so, I think, was just off. The world changes fast, you know?

When my grandfather was a kid, in many ways there was only farming. Twenty years later, as a grown man he couldn’t just farm for a living. Fast forward another thirty to forty years, and my father was facing a whole new dilemma. I just don’t think there was a way to make the economics of it all work.

Photo Credit: Zeynep Sumer via Unsplash

So, my father became a police officer, something I think may have excited him at some point. But over the decades spent working twelve-hour shifts in a rural county—often from 6pm to 6am—wherein he and only one other officer would cover 495 square miles of land upon which ~29,000 people lived, I watched it take a toll on the man.

To this day, my father won’t talk much about his time patrolling, but I remember a story I heard secondhand, from either my mother or my brother, where he was the first to respond to an early-morning motorcycle accident wherein the operator had lost control and been impaled by a tree branch.

So yeah, the guy was a little stressed. To call it “his own war” would not only be inaccurate. It’d be silly. Working as a police officer is nothing like being thousands of miles away from home but only fields away from groups of people whose sole goal is to annihilate you.

But that doesn’t mean that my father didn’t experience intense trauma on the job.

And he dealt with it the way he knew how, the way that had been modeled for him. Which was: he stowed it all inside until the vessel just couldn’t hold it any longer. Until it burst.

When it did, inanimate objects: watch out. He never struck us. But believe me, at a lean yet sturdy six-foot-three, with hands and arms and shoulders that’d been shaped by decades of labor-intensive farm work, from a very early age I had no doubts over my father’s physical strength.

Once, when I was maybe ten or eleven years old, I saw him bend a metal golf club into a U with his bare hands.

My father, in effect, was someone many people feared. My friends certainly did growing up. Or, if not feared, he was definitely seen as someone who you really didn’t want to fuck with. His height, sure, his stature, but also the way he could be still—how long he could be still—how when he talked his voice was his deep and steady. The way he shaved his head bald. Even the Tom Selleck-y mustache, which though it’d look comical on someone else, seemed to add to my father’s generally masculine aura.

I certainly feared him on occasion. Not always; once he’s able to relax a bit, my father is a very warm person, and someone you can absolutely fuck with. But I learned early on how to walk on eggshells around him, to feel out what state that vessel could be in on a daily basis, or an hourly one.

Does this all sound a little familiar? A little like what my father seemed to witness of his own father? A little like what my father may have felt as a kid, if he’d received permission to share his feelings instead of stow them away?

It’s been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but that it does rhyme. And I tend to agree.

So picture this, then, knowing what you now know of my grandfather and my father:

It’s a Monday morning in the middle of summer—hay season. I’m eight years old, out of school, and therefore walking through the field, alongside my father, to the farm. My father has just worked 12-hour night shifts on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This morning, after work, he’d slept for maybe two hours, and now, because farming is all about cooperating with the weather—and the past few days have been perfect hay weather: dry, hot, and windy—the hay that my grandfather cut just yesterday is ready to be raked this morning, and then, assuming the forecast holds, baled this afternoon.

My father is quiet the whole walk there, all two hundred yards between our house and his childhood home. When we arrive, my grandfather—without so much as a one-minute phone call to confer with my father about the day’s plan—is already in the shop, preparing one of the tractors for its task.

“Morning,” the two of them say to each other, almost without even a glance.

“Morning, Gare Bear,” my grandfather says to me.

And there is no other conversation. My grandfather works at the tool bench—in silence. My father greases the tractor—in silence. And I standby—in silence—awaiting the one-sentence instructions given to me when either of them are in need of another hand.

This is how it goes for hours, even after my grandfather musters all the core strength he has to swing his prosthetic leg over the tractor seat and putters off to the field.

“Twine,” my dad will say when we’re preparing the baler. “Feed it through.”

I do, and I do it well enough to not set anything off, to not disturb whatever frail balance is currently in place. When the baler is ready to go, and there isn’t anything left to do in the moment in regard to the hay effort, my father finds me some menial task to do around the barn or shed. Pulling weeds. Sweeping. Something to remain productive while killing time. He does the same; some odd job that hadn’t made its way to the top of his to-do list in the last weeks.

When another hour later my grandfather returns from raking the hay, we all meet back in the shop. The tractor that was just used won’t be the one used for pulling the baler and wagon, so my grandfather and father work to put it away properly. Again, I standby, in silence, while my grandfather relays what it is he saw out there and felt. Sentence fragments. Hay jargon. Shorthand.

But now we have hours to wait for the just-flipped hay to dry in the sun. And whether it’s because of this fact, or because the feeling of having spent the morning productive opens him up in some way, my father steps out on a limb.

He brings up some film, one he’s watched recently. A western that my grandfather has also seen. Each have read the book the film is based upon as well.

And, for the first time today, there’s music in this shop.

My grandfather quotes something from the film. My father delivers the next quote, imitating the character’s voice—an octave higher than what’s natural to him. There’s an argument about character choices made halfway through, an inconsistency pointed out between the two mediums, and a suggestion on what could have been done to make the film more effective.

There’s back and forth.

There’s praise.

There are smiles.

There’s laughter.

And there I am, never having seen the film, never having read the book, soaking all of this in. Not so much the material, of course, but the response.

There I am, witnessing the power story can have, how it can drill through the stress, and the trauma, and the stoicism, and go on to animate the hell out of the two most important men in my life.


This is how I fell in love with story, this is what laid the groundwork for it.

If I trace it all back, this is why I think I do what I do, why since I was eighteen years old I’ve been trying to make a career of telling stories.

End of article

The link has been copied!