Dwight Peck's reprint series

The Phoenix

American Grandfather (1976)

The Phoenix was edited and elegantly printed by James Cooney at Morning Star Farm in Massachusetts, a venerable institution.

An American Grandfather

D. C. Peck

My grandfather hated institutions. From the start, I guess, he'd hated institutions. I know that early in life he took a job for a while as a bank guard until he decided the uniform he had to wear was causing him to break out in terrible boils all over his body. He tried a lot of other jobs, so I was told, but gave up on them all in time. Finally he became a farmer.

He had no real aptitude for farming. In fact, he had to learn everything from scratch and he struggled for many years during which his children were growing up. Eventually, however, by hard work he prospered, acquired more land and bought a tractor to replace his team of horses. To hear my grandmother tell it, he didn't do much work at all. About once a month or so - no schedule, just whenever he felt like it - he'd refuse to get out of bed in the morning, refuse to get up and do the chores, plowing, harvesting, whatever the season required, and would just lie there till noon reading The Last of the Mohicans, the only book he ever read but which he read at least once daily. "If I don't want to get up, goddamn it," he'd say to my grandmother, "then goddamn it I goddamn won't get up. Why do you think I stuck us way out here on this farm?" But actually, despite these minor rituals of protest, he was a very hard worker.

We used to visit the farm frequently when we were kids. My grandfather was the best grandfather there was - of course you'd expect me to say that - but it's nonetheless true. Dressed always in raggy overalls, he invariably livened his appearance with improvised bits of pleasing gaiety; a red kerchief wrapped around his head, or worn as a sash around his waist; or one of my grandmother's cameo brooches pinned to his dungaree bib; or a rakish powder-blue plume stuck in his hat. He enjoyed appearing each morning with some new extravagance to amuse us. One morning he showed up at breakfast wearing his overalls inside out; and then all day managed to find ways to carry nails and other necessary odds and ends without having to pay any notice of his lack of pockets. He always had time for us kids, though often enough the hours we spent with him were devoted to cleaning freshly ploughed fields of stones, repairing pasture fences, or re-shingling a shed roof. We never minded, though. We loved being in his company.

I guess he figured he had the system beat. He was almost always gay; congenial, and often exuberant. The only times he ever turned angry would be just after we'd arrived for a visit with my father grumbling about the tread-mill of the business world and the multifarious pressures of that grind. This would set my grandfather off. For an hour or more his booming voice would rattle the cupboards as he paced back and forth excoriating regimentation and rehearsing the decisions that led him to become a farmer. We kids had to listen and had to look attentive too, because he considered that his failure to get along with the complexities of modern life was a kind of wisdom, and he figured that, since he was the patriarch of the clan, it was his duty to reveal this to us.

How my father ever got into the business world I'll never understand, although my mother seemed to thrive on the social whirl and on the prospects of my father's orderly advancement in seniority. My grandfather's tirades must have been particularly trying for her. She considered him to be an eccentric old frontiersman. But I guess she figured that listening to the old man's indignation against the regimented world was a small enough price to pay for our summer vacations in the country.

As he grew older he did less and less of the heavy work, hiring farmhands to maintain the place. He remained active, though. But he finally fell ill. It didn't seem significant at first and he took his first involuntary morning in bed with good grace. He had a fever, not too bad, and a general weakness throughout his body which limited him to reading Last of the Mohicans all day. About suppertime, though, my grandmother began to get worried because his fever was continuing to rise. So she phoned my father from a neighbor's house - a telephone being one of the things my grandfather would never tolerate - and asked us to come on out, cautioning my father to make it appear a spontaneous visit.

We arrived early the next morning after having driven through most of the night. The younger kids and my mother went straight to bed, but I hung around outside my grandfather's bedroom while my father went in to see him. The old man hadn't slept at all, yet he was nonetheless in a good mood and his voice sounded hearty and cheerful. But my father - from something he saw or thought he saw in the old man's debilitated condition - got upset and said to my grandmother that they'd have to call a doctor. The only doctor, however, was Spearing, and my grandfather despised Spearing whenever he thought of him as a doctor - when he encountered Spearing in town or at the county fair as a fellow farmer, they were usually on amiable terms. But now Spearing would be appearing as a doctor and my grandfather began raising a prodigious fuss about calling the man in, about calling in any of the medical profession, actually. I could hear him almost shouting at my father, he was so agitated. Finally, unable to persuade him, my father just walked out.

A little later I went in to sit with him, figuring that what he needed most right then was somebody to listen to his wisdom. That was when I found out there were two institutions he hated more than all others. The first was the entire medical profession, from stethoscope to laser-surgery, though I don't expect he knew much about the latter. And the other was the unctuous funeral business. Spearing at least was a fellow farmer as well as being a doctor. But Hawkins, the director of the only funeral parlor in town, didn't have a farm and on Hawkins he vented his full scorn. It's curious how his hostility towards technology and the world of business was objectified by these two men - but don't think he wasn't fairly knowledgeable about the rest of the world, too. He'd never been inside Hawkin's funeral home. But his four visits inside a hospital, visiting my grandmother during one of her illnesses, had caused him to tremble uncontrollably and break out in terrible boils. And he stormed at great length about the indignities of sordid public showings of the body, elaborate rituals of burial, tons of obligatory flowers for unappreciative corpses, and staggering choices amongst kinds and designs of uniformly expensive caskets, all which humiliations he traced ultimately to the profit motive run amok amongst human misfortune. But this came late in his tirade, as a sort of morbid extension of the first half of his disquisition, which was on the subject of modern medical technology and hospital impersonality. He actually believed that they designated patients by attaching data cards to their big toes with wire. He raged against the general dehumanization involved in falling into medically trained hands and swore to me that he intended to die with his boots on.

Then Dr. Spearing arrived. He was a leathery old man with a wrinkled face, about ten years older than even my grandfather, slight, yet very sprightly. And he had a disconcerting habit of throwing himself abruptly upon chairs as if he expected them to flee from being sat on. His first words as he walked into the room were: "So how's the old sailor today? One foot in the grave, I expect."

My grandfather, infuriated beyond all measure, just glared balefully at him. Everyone knew he'd always wanted above all else to be a sailor but got abysmally seasick even on river barges - and I had no way of knowing which, if not all of the several insulting elements in Spearing's words and cheerful bedside tone he had found so offensive. He just glared up with his jaw set hard, staring straight into the doctor's eyes, and said:

"Get out of here Spearing! Or dammit, I'll throw you out!"

Spearing pulled a stethoscope out of his bag and my grandfather rolled off the other side of the bed onto the floor. Convinced by his weakness, however, that he couldn't fight off the whole family, he finally submitted to an examination while we waited outside. Twenty minutes later Spearing emerged to tell my grandmother and my father that matters were a great deal more serious than they had looked at first and that my grandfather would have to be hospitalized. My grandmother went in to break the news to him. After a short pause we heard an enormous roar from behind the closed door, the door flew open, my grandmother in her long black skirt cascaded out into my father's arms, the door slammed shut again and the bolt went clicking home on the other side. My father and the doctor began trying to reason with him through the solid oak door but the only response was my grandfather's bellowed:

"No goddamn hospital!"

My grandmother, of course, knew how adamant he was and so she left for the neighbor's house to telephone for an ambulance and several strong attendants. When she returned we all sat down in the hallway to wait. Every once in awhile my father would go to the locked bedroom door and whine:

"Please, Dad."

He received no response.

Finally three white-coated men came up the narrow stairs and conferred quietly with the doctor for several seconds. Then one of them banged on the oak door, but there was no answer. My father, thinking rather foolishly to outwit the old man, went up to the door and tapped several times lightly, then called out in a perfectly matter of fact voice which deceived only himself: "Dad can I see you for a second? I need your advice on something."

Of course, there was no response to that either. At last someone fetched an axe and one of the ambulance attendants commenced sinking shivering blows into the beautiful old door. When a hole had been made, he reached his hand inside and slid back the bolt. Then in we rushed.

The bed was empty - the window open.

God only knows how my grandfather got to the ground without killing himself. There was a shed roof not too far to the left of the bedroom window and he must have jumped onto that and then to the ground. Anyway, he was nowhere in sight. One of the attendants called out from the window:

"Come on back, Mr. Peck. Nobody's going to hurt you."

No one could see any sign of him, but I glimpsed a pajama-clad figure crouching down behind a low stone wall. I said not a word. The state police finally found him early that evening, about four miles away, sleeping in an isolated meadow of the farm.

The next morning we went to visit him in the hospital. Never had I seen such a sight. I suppose there must have been some reason for everything they'd done to him, but one look into his eyes made all medical reasons inadequate. He was draped in an old hospital gown - I could imagine what a struggle it must have been getting that on him - and lying forcibly in an awkward spine-curved bow, his head thrown back, with clear plastic tubes thrust up to his nose and taped to his face. On one side of this torture bed was an IV unit, to which he was hooked up, and on the other side, a vital signs monitor, to which he was also connected. The machinery looming all around seemed to overwhelm him and he seemed to be nothing but a connector between the IV system and the monitors. His eyes were the eyes of a trapped wild creature; if an eagle has expressions in its eyes, I would say the eyes of a trapped eagle.

Contrary to instructions, he insisted on speaking. No one could make out what he was saying, because of the horrible nasal plumbing of course, but at last my mother understood and translated:

"Spearing did this to me, that bastard!"

My father, rather unimaginatively I thought, immediately began explaining to the old man that Spearing had only been doing his job and so on, but my grandfather just waved his free arm impatiently. Then he signaled us all to clear out, including my grandmother - whose hand however he grasped for a moment before releasing her to the rest of the family.

My uncles and aunts and cousins all began arriving at the hospital too, for the medical authorities had decided he hadn't very much longer to live; so we made a pretty large reunion sprawled all over the hospital lounge. A short while later a nurse appeared and asked for David - which was me - saying my grandfather had indicated he wanted to see me. When I re-entered his room I saw he had a small notepad and a pen on his chest and that he had written:

Now you see what I meant.

I replied:

"Yes Grandpa, you sure were right."

Then I tore off the top sheet in case he wanted to write anything else. He did. He wrote:

All those hrs you wished I'd stop talking, now you see what I meant, rgt?

"Right, Grandpa, now I see what you meant."

He lay back for several seconds looking at me with haunted wild eyes, and then wrote:

David listen carefully. After I'm dead -

"Oh Grandpa you'll be out of here in no time," I interrupted.

He scrawled:

You bet yr ass I will. Deader'n a d'rnail. Now listen - and then waited for me to tear off the sheet - when I'm dead I want you to blow this hospital up. Finish it for good.

The idea didn't horrify me at all. I knew exactly what he meant, but I answered:

"Oh Grandpa, I can't do that. You know I can't do that."

He lay back and stared at me again with affection hidden deep in his eyes beneath all his humiliation and pain. Then he wrote on several successive pages:

Y're rgt boy, you can't do that. Now, the next note I write, don't read it, just fold it up and save it. Then, I want you to explain everything to yr g-mother for me.

He looked at me while I read this.

"Yes," I said, uncertainly. "But what should I explain?"

He just shook his head while he scribbled out the next pages, writing for a long time. Then he lay back with his eyes closed, breathing raspily as I folded up these pages, unread. I waited several moments silently, then said goodbye to him and slipped out of the room.

I joined the others in the lounge again to wait, just as before, for his end. They asked what he'd summoned me for and I told them he'd just needed someone to sit by him, never mentioning his notes. (It didn't occur to me until much later how keenly hurt my grandmother must have been by this white lie of mine.)

I whiled away the time trying to figure out what it was I was supposed to explain, since I took his commission to me - probably, I realized, his last commission - very seriously indeed. A half hour later, however, we were all interrupted from our thoughts and magazines by a nurse who came running up the hall from grandfather's wing yelling:

"Room 148! Room 148!"

That was his room. Other nurses and attendants came running and so did we, myself foremost, and I was the first of our clan to get there.

The bed was empty - the window open.

There was no mystery this time as to how a man could have gotten free. All he'd had to do was to detach all the intricate wiring and tubing with which he'd been tangled in place, throw open the window, and step over the sill out onto the ground. Nor was there any mystery about what a man would do next. The window was in the back of the hospital and there was a dense grove of trees not twenty yards away from it. The real mystery was not how any man, but how my grandfather, already written off as practically dead, had gotten out of bed at all. But that was my grandfather. And they were no more successful this time than last at rounding him up. We all joined in the search, the whole family and nearly all of the hospital staff; and later the police too, but not a trace of him did we find. And by now I began to get glimmerings of what my grandmother would need explained to her.

Eventually, sometime in mid-afternoon, somebody remembered that none of us had had any lunch. My father and my uncles, however, insisted on continuing the search without interruption. I recall not being able to understand their perseverance, since they'd all given him up for as good as dead anyway and they couldn't be hoping to save him from anything. In fact, I still don't quite understand it, though I agree that searching certainly seemed the logical thing to do. And perhaps that's why they were carrying on with it; they couldn't think of anything else to do. Nor could I. In any case, it was decided that my mother and one of my aunts should drive all us kids back to the farm for something to eat. Most of my cousins and certainly my own brothers and my sister were too young to be permitted to join in the search anyway and so were just in the way. They all were quite a bit younger than I was, and no one wanted them around when my grandfather was finally found. They were so young and unconcerned, in fact, that the trip back in the station wagon was like a jubilation all the way to the farm and I found myself feeling offended by so much laughing and shouting at what I took to be such a solemn time. I don't think my grandfather would have minded, though.

When we drove up to the house and piled out of the car, I was feeling useless. It seemed to me I should have been out doing something for the old man, yet there I was getting ready to eat lunch with a gaggle of laughing kids who were racing headlong into the kitchen.

As I walked along after them I thought I heard a sound. I couldn't tell what it was at first. Then I realized it was a motor of some sort. I was all alone in the farmyard at this time and just kept looking and cupping my hands behind my ears until I thought I detected the general direction of the droning engine. I climbed up onto the car hood of the station wagon and peered in that direction. There it was - three fields away - my grandfather's tractor, plowing around and around in a circle.

I took off towards it, running as fast as I could. I was halfway there when I saw that someone was driving it. At a hundred yards off I realized it was my grandfather. At fifty yards distance I knew he was dead.

The first thing I did was clamber aboard the tractor and switch off the motor. Then I jumped down and turned to look up at him. He was slumped back in the tractor seat, almost upright, except that his head hung limply forward. His hands were still on the steering wheel and his feet on the pedals. He was dressed in his absurd hospital gown but wrapped around his neck he wore one of my grandmother's violet woolen stockings and on his chest was pinned a small note on which he had scrawled:

Hi David

I shed no tears as I stared up at him.

Nor did I later when my aunts and uncles had regrouped and were trying to console my weeping grandmother as well as one another. Late that evening I remembered the note he had given me and I handed it over to my father, who proceeded to read it aloud to the whole family, and I'll tell you what it said in just a second. There's just one more thing I want to mention first, and that is that before we finally left the farm for home I asked my grandmother if I could have his old Last of the Mohicans and she gave it to me. Here's what was written in his note:

Being of sound mind, probably the only one with sound mind left in the whole world, I'm writing down my last will and testament. My wife Stella is to get everything. After her, the boys can fight over it. And here's my last wish: when I'm dead I want a public showing of the body in the most expensive casket that sonofabitch Hawkins has got and I want a full half-casket display with my body lying there face down. If it'll go down any easier for Hawkins he can hang up an engraved card saying, 'Position By Special Request.' If he won't do this there's only one other way I will tolerate - a half-casket display, feet end showing, no shoes.

bookpen.gif (2870 bytes)Please do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Published in 1976, posted here 9 March 2003.


16th Century reprints

Other stuff