Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Family · #2026370
I rediscover my Great-grandfather
|Roots & Wings Historical Fiction Contest (2500 Words or less) Round 13 - Prompt 1|
A Box Full of Memories
Samuel L. Nichols
I’m into my seventies now, but I remember a few years back, just before my mother died she shared a large cardboard box full of vintage pictures with me of my relatives, most of whom were long since deceased. We made a concerted effort to label and categorize them, since many were unknown to me except in family folklore.
It was fascinating to get a glimpse of times long gone, now only seen in movies and vintage films in TV documentaries. Here living, breathing ancestors of mine were shown in the very act of real life, laughing, working, posing at weddings, funerals and Christenings. My mother showed me pictures of her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, all carefully posed together in neat family units.
Some faces were totally unfamiliar, but there were a few that seemed I should have known, although not as they appeared in the pictures. One in particular I picked from a group of young adults, two men and three women, and asked her if I’d ever met any of them when I was a child. She noted that I had my finger on one of the men at that time, laughed and informed me that he was my great-grandfather, Samuel Nichols, and he had actually baby-sat for me and my sister when we were toddlers many long years ago.
The reason she laughed she said, was that we toddlers were always getting away from him whenever he was ‘sitting’ for my mother, and he was always put out about having to chase us down. Eventually he figured out where it was my sister and I almost always ended, and would make a ‘bee-line’ for it whenever we failed to respond to his ‘muster’.
These were the years just after the end of World War II, and our two-story house stood just off the main highway through town, and on the north side of us was a small, family owned general store, operated by good friends of my parents at that time. They were very generous to their customers, as in the months just following the war, goods were still scarce, and hard cash even scarcer. It wasn’t unusual for customers to run up considerable tabs (in those days, anyway) until such time as they could repay in cash or barter.
The owners took a fancy to my sister and me, and would have sweet snacks and other candies waiting for us if we managed to make it across the yard to the store, offering to treat us as well as provide some sanctuary from our gruff great-grandfather. My earliest recollections of my great-grandfather was his scowl, and the clump, clump, clump of his cane and footsteps moving up and down the store aisles searching for my sister and me. To his credit however, I don’t recall his ever laying a hand on either of us, and this was the age of ‘corporal punishment’.
Barter was still common in those days, particularly in small Midwestern towns, and it was because of this I learned a bit about my ‘ancient’ baby-sitter. You see, Sam was apparently considered one of the towns legendary ‘horse-traders’, and had managed to accumulate considerable wealth, at least by our community standards over the years before he was forced into retirement by age. Think of your used car salesmen of today; the good ones are really good, and can wrangle the best possible price out of a beat-up, wheezing hack with a smile, and leaving the buyer feeling like they got a heckuva good deal.
Of course, by the end of the war he was well into his dotage, requiring the use of a cane because of arthritis, so there was probably little joy left in his life. Our great-grandmother had passed away in 1947 and quite frankly tending to two little over-energetic brats undoubtedly left Sam a bit bereft of humor.
My mother, having heard me voice these recollections, went on to tell me some stories about him and his life that gave me an entirely different perspective on his adventure through our quaint little town.
Our town in the early pre-war days, was driven by ‘seasons’. By that I mean with a population of a couple thousand nestled near the Mississippi River in the Midwest, the business of the town was primarily dairy and agricultural farming. Springtime brought out the planting of crops, cultivation and calving. Dairy cows predominated the farms, but there was considerable beef, hog, chicken and even a fair amount of goat husbandry being undertaken by the inhabitants. The odd sheep and goose pen made up the rest of the areas ‘exotic’ livestock.
Sam was a master at all of these endeavors, hiring himself out to perform as needed throughout the Beaver Creek Valley farmlands. Being a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’, Sam could operate AND repair farm machinery with ease. His knowledge gained from growing up in this rural environment made his general skills constantly in demand. Hands on experience in the handling of livestock of every kind earned the respect of the local veterinarian, and he was often called to fill in whenever the doc was otherwise preoccupied.
The summertime was taken up by cultivation and fertilization of crops, and the neutering of calves and pigs that had gotten to a certain age. In this respect he was a ‘circuit rider’, moving from farm to farm to ply his trade. In the meantime, he continued to repair and maintain farm equipment, farm buildings and pass on the latest farming ‘gossip’ and techniques.
Fall became a time for constant activity, as crops had to be brought in, hay reaped and stowed in barn lofts, wheat cut, thrashed and sent to the mills for grinding, corn harvested, and it was a time of inadequate labor because of the size of the farm homesteads. His time was scheduled well into the start of winter, and he made the best of those ‘earning times’.
My mother paused for a few minutes, sifted through some of the photographs, and finally came up with one showing a remarkable scene. Old, yellowed; the photograph displayed a somewhat panoramic scene of a long line of horses, paired in twos, eight in all, with a man standing alongside them, reins leading up to the first two pairs. Everyone else was standing off to the side, watching them.
They were harnessed to a massive sled, as this was wintertime, piled high with hardwood logs. She went on to explain that the man with the reins was Sam, and he was probably one of the first ‘horse whisperers’ in this country, because he was the only one in town who could control this many horses, and pull such a massive weight for the winter logging season.
“Yes,” she said, “the horses were his, and his reputation as a masterful horse-trader was well founded”.
Well, that definitely painted a much different picture of my great-grandfather, and I began to think of him as some kind of local hero, beset with all kinds of hardships, overcoming all odds to achieve the pinnacle of human experience; old age.
Of course I look at things a bit differently now that I’ve also reached that same, somewhat doubtful pinnacle; old age. Sigh! I can well imagine these days why his face always displayed a scowl, and why it irritated him to have to chase my sister and me while handicapped by arthritis, and having nothing but memories of more adventurous times and a life’s companion long departed to keep him company late at night before retiring to sleep.
His heroic image took a bit of a hit one evening when I was asking my mother’s husband, who also grew up in that small community, if he remembered anything about Sam. He looked at me and chuckled. “The only thing I’ll share with you is that you’d better make sure that you never get on the other side of a two-man ‘crosscut saw’ with Sam on the other end.”
Believe it or not, it took me a few days to translate that particular response. A two-man ‘cross-cut’ saw was used before chain-saws to cut down trees, especially large ones. One man pulled on one side of the saw, while the other pulled back in the other direction, eventually sawing the tree down for further disposition. My mother’s husband was implying that Sam was simply along ‘for the ride’, and that he’d not pull his side of the two-man operation.
Yeah, he was a bit of a ‘con-man’ in those days, but apparently he had the kind of charisma that allowed such behavior, he didn’t abuse it to the extent where it was harmful, and he did contribute much to the growth and well-being of his community. It was said of him that he could ‘charm the birds out of the trees…’
* * * *
I was invited to a football game the other day by my oldest son, now forty-four years old. Of course I accepted. Hell, I’m retired; there was nothing else on my calendar to get in the way, and a cold beer or two was a welcome respite to my daily efforts at writing. (Heresy? No; just enjoying a break from my routine… )
Since I’m nearly older than dirt, he did all the running for snacks and drinks; but I managed my own pit stop. After all—I’m not THAT old! Near the end of the game I noticed that everyone in this whole tier where we were seated knew his name and were exchanging comments back and forth with him! Somehow it seemed, he’d managed to engage all of these folks in such a way that we were all ‘buddies’ by games end.
Is this the legacy (curse) of his Great-great grandfather Sam Nichols? It could be a whole lot worse, I suppose; my son could be into ‘horse-trading!’
In Memoriam: Samuel L. Nichols (1870-1949)
The photographs below represent him as a young man, in his middle age, and shortly before he passed away