2000-12-12 - 18:49:11
He's a hero carved out of rock to me - as an adult I recognize the unswerving and stoic resolve with which he tackled the world and brought back fortune and security to the family. He had a long and successful career working as an engineer on such projects as The Manhatten Project, the development of sonar, and the navstar sattelites that generate signal for GPS systems. He is an archetypical icon of his generation - stern and untiring, generous to his family and stoic to the world. He is a man for whom the greatest compliment that another man can be paid is, "competent". Even his face seems chiseled from rock, with hard lines everywhere, softened only by sparkling blue eyes, and a boyish cowlick in his hair over his temple - one that I've inherited,and will always thank my grandfather for.
But when I was a boy - Grandpa was more than just an engineer and provider. Grandpa was a scion of a secret world of men who could BUILD things. Cool things, like rockets and planes and satellites. Everything that soared through the air, or rocketed up into space - those were the magic things he conjured. He was intensely involved in the building of things -- everything from the model planes he designed and built from scratch, to the perfect chess problems that he would recreate on his board, over which he meditated nightly in the living room.
And yet, this silent and solid man, born of the generation that fought Hitler and Japan, would upon occaision participate in matters of sheer fun with such childlike abandon it was a wonder to behold. Each winter heralded the promise that Grandpa might be up for some fun - and with each falling snow, I would eagerly run down to the crawl-space and drag out the old Flexible Flyer "Yankee Clipper" sled, with it's brilliant red runners and polished wood planks. I would set it on the back porch - ready 'just in case'.
If it snowed, I would ask, "Can we go sledding?" and Grandpa would suck in air through his teeth, and with one hand in his pocket step onto the back porch in his shirt sleeves. Often his answer was "Snow's too powdery, it won't be wet enough." Crestfallen I would divert myself in other ways - perhaps by throwing snowballs at my sisters, or trying to build a snow-robot, or playing in the woods on the hill behind my grandparent's house.
But sometimes, he would say, "Might be alright, let's see after I get the driveway cleared." Anxiously I would wait for the shoveling to be done, trying my best to help, to hurry along the process. Being called in to dinner was an agony... a needless delay to the sledding.
Well worth the wait though, when I burst out onto the porch to find my grandfather polishing the runners of the Yankee Clipper with a piece of sandpaper. After all, we had to take care of our tools... and especially our toys.
When all was ready (an eternity when you're young and impatient) he would put on his galoshes, his furry hat and leather gloves, and walk with me out to the hill that ran along side our street. As steep as a ski jump, Steuben Hill stretched for nearly a quarter mile of sledding delight. At night after a snow, before the plows had cleared the streets and there was no traffic -- it was the perfect sledding sight.
Grandpa and I would trudge to the top of the hill dragging the sled, our breath fogging in front of us in bigger and bigger clouds as we tired out getting to the top. At the top, he would flex the runners back and forth a few times to test it's action... then carefully set the sled down perpendicular to the slope of the hill.
His usually stern expression would suddenly break into a grin as he would lay down on his stomach on the sled, and I would clamber on to his back... a seven year old backpack giggling with anticipation.
He would announce somberly, "Now hang on, it gets pretty slick." and push off from our perch at the top of the hill.
The snow would crunch as the runners packed it down, and at first, we would both shove with all our might to pick up speed and break our inertia. But soon our speed would get faster and faster, the snow turning into a blur beneath us, the wind a cold and stinging roar across my face as freezing tears whipped along my cheeks and into my hair.
I thought for sure if I just flapped my arms we would take flight, departing the hill in a blaze of red runner, wood, wool hat and laughter. My grandfather would whoop in delight as we sped down the hill. He would move the control bar of the sled back and forth, making us slalom down the street in a dizzy rush through the snow.
We were so fast - hurtling so recklessly through the night air I was convinced we would never stop at the bottom of the hill, but would instead roar through the intersection at the bottom, straight across Keebler Road, through someone's front yard and then crash through the front window of the house across the street, landing in a confused but laughing heap on someone's couch.
When we finally did come to the bottom of the hill, we would gradually coast to a stop, the runners of the sled burying ever-deeper in the snow. Reluctantly I would get up off Grandpa's back and stand beside him. His whoops would fade to chuckles as he stood up.
As we trudged back up the hill to our house in the middle of the slope, he would gradually turn back into the stoic man I saw depart for work each morning before sunrise, and return tired each night.
But for a while at least - for a few moments - we whooped together, two boys free of gravity and the cares of the world, on the back of his Yankee Clipper.