This is a Character Memoir I wrote for my Creative Non-Fiction course.
The Cap Called Integrity
It sat perched atop his head, on a bed of thick and wavy, silvering hair that would have made even younger generations envious of its robust sheen. You rarely ever caught him without it. "It," was his trademark - a blue and white striped, engineers' cap - and to me that cap was a symbol of the rugged, no-nonsense masculinity and integrity that was my grandfather.
Born February 22, 1900, as Sylvester Hoffman, was a man of strong moral values and principle with incorruptible virtue. A fiercely loyal husband and father, he raised six successful children, as well as countless "strays" in the form of dislocated family and friends taken in by my grandmother, the warm-hearted humanitarian of Swedish descent. My grandfather and grandmother were married in 1933, after driving a Model-T sixty miles to Minot, North Dakota. They were poor dirt farmers that gave of themselves to all in need, frequently more than they had. That was the unwritten code of the era, doors remained unlocked and helping your neighbor was not an obligation, but an honor. Through his and grandma's teachings, their children acquired the same impeccable values that were present in each of them.
Their main source of income came from acreage of rich soil and the seeds planted therein. Although grandpa used horse drawn plows when he first began farming, my earliest memories are of him sitting high up on the old green John Deer, Model D and bouncing along at a snails pace. The old tractor held such fascination for me. I loved to watch as he started it. A large cylindrical shaped flywheel protruded from the side of the engine that functioned as a drive belt for the pull-behind thrashers. It was also the primary method used to start the two-cylinder engine. Grandpa would wrap his big mitts around the flywheel and give it a forceful spin, much as if it were a World War I bi-plane. The large twin cylinder had a long stroke causing an unusual rhythm that exhausted from the stack jutting upward from the shroud above the engine. When first starting, it fired - THWUMP - and spun a few revolutions without firing. It would fire again - THWUMP - a few more revolutions . . . THWUMP- THWUMP - both cylinders firing this time. The rpm's slowly increasing. . . THWUMP . . . THWUMP . . . - THWUMP . . . THWUMP THWUMP, a short pause . . . THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP THWUMP, another short pause. I remember the first time I heard the drumming wings of grouse in the forest as they performed their mating ritual, I thought someone on a nearby farm was starting their old John Deer. Grandpa looked somehow bigger than life slowly moving along on that tractor and I remember how big it seemed to me at the time. I was half as tall as the monolithic rear wheels of that implement.
Not too long ago I had the opportunity to stand next to a Model D on a lot selling used farm equipment; the feeling of disbelief was eerie as I stood next to the machine in my memories. I now towered over the large rear wheels and could see clearly over the top of the entire machine. Heaviness settled into my heart as I gained perspective between past and present - a reminder that all things are larger than life for a small period of our young lives but as we grow older, the world becomes much less magical and vast. It shrinks as we grow. The magic of Christmas slowly fades and the closest we can get to that feeling as adults is to see the joyous twinkle in our children's eyes as they experience that same magic that we did at their age.
Seeing the John Deer transported me to a time when I was once again five years old and at the farm. 'Grampa, can I ride the tractor?' He was on his way to the pasture with the hay wagon to feed the cattle.
'Yep, but you gotta hep me feed the cow's.' He replied as he boosted me high above the ground to the floor next to the seat. Apparently, the wait could be lengthy for the cows to come home to eat, as explained by grandpa, which is why we needed to go to them. He climbed up and sat on the springy seat, then sat me in his lap. He shifted the rolling giant into gear and we began to move, pulling the hay wagon behind. He let me grab the steering wheel and help him drive as he said he would get pretty tired if he had to do it all by himself. I felt like I had been given enough responsibility to ensure that from that point on I would be considered a 'big boy,' not quite understanding the added responsibility that would accompany a promotion to that title.
We rolled through the pasture on our way to the latest cow hangout. I was amazed by how much faster it felt when on the tractor as opposed to watching it from a safe distance on the ground. When we reached the cattle, grandpa shut down the tractor and helped me down. He put me up on the hay wagon and I fed the cows, which were brave enough to approach, handfuls of hay as grandpa pitched large forkfuls over the edge onto the ground. The mooing finally stopped as they chewed their dinner.
Crops were the main source of income, but during the off-season, they milked cows by hand for cream and butter they then sold in town at the supermarket and local creamery. Grandma tended the chickens, gently coaxing the hens from their roost to get at the eggs, which would be sold to local grocery stores. They also raised pigs for butcher, whatever that meant. Lastly, grandpa bred collies, both for companionship, and for sale. Over the years, he raised three generations of collies starting with a purebred that was gifted to him, named Ranger Cain Collin III, then Princess, and finally Prince.
A side to my grandfather, not often seen by those outside the realm of family and close friends, which rounded out all of his serious personality traits, was his unpredictable sense of humor. His moods were ever changing depending on circumstances or setting and one never knew when the intermittent river of humor would flow. He had the uncanny ability to contort his face into exaggerated expressions of counterfeit emotions enhanced by a mouth void of teeth. Dentophobia precluded him the use of dentures and was cause for combinations of elastic expressions and toothless dialect that served as a gateway for hysterical fits of laughter that put even the hardened and humorless in tears. To complete the package, he had a gene that gave him an independently articulating scalp. This genetic peculiarity allowed him the ability of wiggling his ears and moving his scalp as if attached only by a thin membrane of muscle that he could control at will with the ease and lack of thought as an involuntary motor function. The combination of gesticulations, and the resultant animation as his cap came to life - as if a separate entity - was a wondrous and delightful event. The cap would become a symbol of his essence and persona, as well as a trigger for long stored and presumably forgotten memories.
One such recollection is playing with the farm's resident mutt, duke, in the blazing heat of the midsummer sun. The men were throwing hay bales they had brought in from the field that morning. My father and uncles were in the loft of the barn, my grandfather, a younger and spryer version than occupies most of my memories, on the hay wagon below. The heat was oppressive and sweat dripped from the men's bodies. Dark sweat-stains formed in 'U' shaped arcs from their collars on the fronts and backs of their shirts and under their arms. Grandpa threw the heavy square bales from the wagon to the waiting men in the upper level of the barn where a door for this purpose was located above the main sliding doors. I paused for a moment from my play and watched in amazement at the sight of the sinewy man propelling bails upward with graceful ease to the waiting men above.
There was another side to grandpa that some may have considered melancholy, but I interpreted as introspection. His eyes had an inherent light of sadness in them that as a child I never associated with depression. It has been suggested that the look of sadness was related to the plight of the American farmer - working diligently day-in and day-out, never gaining, merely surviving. I prefer to think that he was simply a deep thinker and at these times of quiet reflection, he was reliving the happiness and satisfaction gained from the labors of the farm and the six little people that he and grandma brought into the world. I like to think that as he gazed out the window he was seeing those children engaged in a competitive game of kick the can or stick ball. Seeing it as a superimposed layer placed over the present day backdrop of the farmyard, as a hologram would appear. The youngest of the children, little Mikey and Kathy rounding the bases - their tiny legs thrusting them forward on a modified track - not quite in line with the bases as their older siblings pretended they could not quite catch them for the out.
Their home on the range was an early nineteen hundreds two-story farmhouse built in a stand of trees on a gradually sloping hilltop. He would sit at the head of the kitchen table, the smell of the crops and rich soil carried in by the breeze, and stare out the window, held open with a used paint stick. He could stare out that window for hours and never speak, looking off towards the barn, its red paint weathered and peeling, leaning prominently to the west, as if bracing itself against the next bout of high winds. The silo behind it, with its shiny domed top reflecting rays of sunlight, standing as straight and proud as the day it was built. The sound of the old windmill creaking melodically as it rotated in the wind on the steel girders of its tower. Mourning doves cooing back and forth, the melancholy sounds of their song carried away softly on the North Dakota winds. Deep within himself, he would occasionally remove the cap and unconsciously scratch his scalp, as if trying to think of a way to end world hunger, or something of an equally challenging aspect. He would sit there, as if spellbound by the natural beauty of the rolling hills. Hills that, in the summer were covered with fluffy golden wheat dancing playfully to a rhythm only it could hear, and in the winter, a blanket of the tallest white snow drifts conceivable.
I remember, even at a young, age being aware of the beauty of that same simple, yet peaceful setting. The beauty of the landscape and all of the sensory stimuli that, when encountered today, brings all of the old memories associated with them flooding back in a sort of vivid virtual slide presentation. As a child, making semi-annual trips to the old farm, grandpa would always be right there at the head of the kitchen table, without fail, staring intently out the window, eagerly waiting for us to appear as we crested the hill and turned up the long, heavily rutted drive. Concern was as much a part of his makeup as any of his attributes. He sat for hours before we were due to arrive wondering if we were having car trouble, or had been in an accident. Upon arriving at the farm, my dad would navigate carefully back and forth up the long drive, careful not to tear the muffler from the car by hidden rocks in the overgrown grass between the two ruts. Ruts created from years of farm equipment going to the fields and home again, the sun, a giant red orb slowly disappearing on the horizon behind the lumbering tractor. Grandpa's collie, Prince, would run alongside the car barking gleefully, until the car was parked and he could receive the scratch behind the ears that made his life worth living.
My grandfather would make his way from the kitchen to the yard to greet us; his forward leaning stance became more pronounced with age and gravity slowly working against his towering frame. He was a very large man, descendant of German immigrants escaping Hitler's tyrannical rule. At around six foot two, he weighed about two hundred, fifty pounds. However, His large stature and advanced years did not keep him from enjoying the out doors.
He would take walks around the perimeter of the yard, and I was never far behind. We would meander slowly around the barnyard, he in front, and a five year old me behind, as if glued to the giant striped man, stopping occasionally to survey the lay of the land, inspect a cow pie, or spit. He would spit a stream of brown tobacco juice and I would follow suit, with only foamy saliva conjured for ammo. After a few messy mishaps, he instructed me on the delicate intricacies of spitting tobacco juice, namely never into the wind.
The boyhood memories of my grandfather and I walking around the farm, and many others, linger in the recesses of my mind patiently waiting for a smell, or some other similarity to act as a trigger indicating to my internal processor that a file has been called up for access from somewhere in the database. I remember him with fondness, and those memories always include the striped engineers' cap and bib overalls he wore to the very end. It will always be there, on my wall, as a reminder of who he was and the important role he played in my life. Although he could be moody and a bit obstinate from time to time, he was always a man of great integrity and moral fiber who had a deep love of family. For this reason, I keep my grandpa's cap displayed proudly, where I can look at it often and reflect upon it, as a symbol of the qualities in him that I admired and hope to one day possess.