Some advance warning: I’m going to stop this story and start over because it’s the only way I can figure out how to tell it.
So it’s 1980, morning in America, and I’m riding in a car with my grandfather. We are on the way home from the golf course. It’s sunny and we’re in Wisconsin and the car is, I believe, a 1974 Gran Torino. Anyway I’m sure it’s a Ford, because my grandfather bought all his cars from Barney at the Ford Garage, which was just up the road from his house in the small Wisconsin town where he lived.
As we reach the crest of the hill, we see a police car stopped by the side of the highway. He has caught a speeder. Another car—a Ford, no doubt—sits in front of the squad car. The officer of the law is walking toward the driver.
I know what my grandfather is going to say. In fact, I’m about to blurt it out. But I don’t.
Here’s where I have to interrupt myself. Because I was wrong about what my grandfather would say, and it matters, but first you need to know what I thought and why.
A few hours before this trip I had been taken over the exact same hill by my father, who was dropping my sister and me off at the course, where we would spend the afternoon with my grandfather. And as it happened we had also seen the squad car parked behind a speeder. This was a speed trap: the officer sat there all day, catching cars who came down the steep hill and let their cars race past fifty-five miles an hour into the sixties and seventies, which was when the red revolving lights came on.
A speed trap. Speeder caught. And we drove by.
“That’s what you get!” my father said, shaking his head at the other man’s folly.
It was so him to say that, and to say it in his grim but essentially happy voice. It was the voice of a teacher—which of course he was—disappointed in the student who had turned in work that was copied from someone else. For him, it was simple. Actions had consequences. You speed, you break the law, you pay. His worldview in a nutshell.
“That’s what you get!” Knowing shake of the head. Soft chuckle.
He may have been voicing this in order to teach me and my sister a lesson about the world, how to separate right from wrong, and how life is easier when you are honest and don’t do things like break the law. It was less a moral judgment than practical advice. Risk might be tempting, risk might be more fun, but you pay the price.
It’s like this in all areas of life. Lying, for example, catches up to you eventually, either because others don’t trust you, or because you have to remember what you said and who you said it to and whether anyone has figured it out, and before long you’re spending all your time worried and under unnecessary stress. And breaking the law, even in a minor way like speeding, leads to fines or increased insurance premiums or being late for where you’re headed or losing your license or spending a night in jail or any number of bad consequences.
He may have been instructing us. But I suspect he’d have said the same thing if he were alone in the car. “That’s what you get!” It was his genuine reaction. Don’t make life hard for yourself. As I said, it was not a moral judgment, but in the end it amounted to the same thing, I suppose.
After we saw the speeder, he dropped us off for a round of golf with my grandfather and his friend Tony. The contrasts between my grandfather and my father were just becoming clear to me.
They were both teaching me how to play golf, using completely different methods. My father gave me a few instructions when I was first starting out. After that, he would just watch me play. I would hit shot after shot after shot, slicing, hooking, scruffing the ball along the ground. I’d be all over the place, knowing that my swing was a wreck, and he would patiently watch. He gave NO unsolicited advice.
Finally, exasperated—he was a golf coach, after all—I would turn to him. “Why am I slicing so much!”
“Your grip might be rotated a little too far to the left,” he would say, as if that were something he had noticed hours ago (which he probably had). “Try shifting your hands back to the right.”
And I would do that, and it would work. And I would be thankful and appreciative and relaxed and suddenly in possession of the ability to hit the ball straight, at least for a little while. Not too much tinkering. Not too much advice. And—more important—the father-son relationship was still strong. I didn’t feel like I had disappointed him or that he had been overly intrusive in my development. He was there, a gentle guide, not an oppressive coach demanding I improve or suggesting that I had failed him in some way. This was just golf. People had all different levels of skill. We should enjoy our time out here together.
My grandfather would watch one slice and chuckle. “Ooooh, good luck finding THAT ONE in those trees!” he would say. But he was only amused once: a slice on the next hole, into the trees again, would make him hop up and down with anger. “Jee-zus, kid! If you hit it like that every time, AIM LEFT!”
Then he would grumble to himself, shaking his head, confused by someone’s inability to learn from their mistakes. Why would you want to play sports at all, if you couldn’t be bothered to correct your flaws? Did you want to spend your whole life digging the ball out of trees? That wasn’t how to win. That was barely even how to play. Didn’t you care?
And I’d be a little frightened, but I’d also be inspired to get better in order to keep up. And until I could straighten out the slice, I’d aim to the left, and wind up in the fairway. It was not as good as hitting it straight, as my father did (EVERY SINGLE TIME), but my grandfather wouldn’t see it that way. For him, it didn’t matter how you got there. You just had to get where you wanted to go—which in the world of golf meant you needed to get the ball in the hole in par, with now and then a chance for a birdie.
Next to my grandfather’s house was an alley. My father never drove through it: why would you, when there was a road nearby? Sure, the road took a little longer, but the alley was kind of like cheating. It wasn’t the right way. And sometimes, when someone had left their trash cans out behind their house, you had to stop to drag them to the side, and the route would take longer. You thought you’d save a minute or two, but you paid the price. Thought you found a shortcut? Well, that’s what you get.
My father NEVER took the alley. Not once.
My grandfather took the alley every time.
“Grampa!” I cried the first time I barreled through with him, the gravel crunching under the car wheels, dust flying everywhere, the neighbor’s chickens squawking at the roar of our engine. “Is this legal?”
“Hah?” The question surprised him. “It’s a shortcut.”
Which did not answer my question, at least not directly. It was a shortcut. Why ask any more questions?
The two of them, these men who raised me, had a fascinating relationship. In many ways they were alike. They had the same profession and many of the same hobbies and passions. But they were both very strong in their own way. Their differences, I came to learn, were instructive.
My father never went fishing, which was unusual enough in Wisconsin, and even more so because it was my grandfather’s other great passion (besides golf). It was not until I was older that I heard the story: apparently, my grandfather had taken my father fishing when he was five years old. Something or other went wrong, and my grandfather yelled at him.
“I don’t need to do this,” my father had replied. And he never went fishing again.
Stubborn? Yes. They both were, in their own way.
One was intense and fuming and desperate to endure the harshest that life had to offer. The other was mild and gentle and just as determined and unyielding.
One was like a rigid tree, battling the wind: proud, fierce, determined not to break, enjoying the struggle as a kind of test.
The other met the wind by swaying, willing to bend until the wind finally subsided. A different path to victory, certainly. And maybe a different victory as well.
In the car, on those trips in 1980, I didn’t really know this the way I do now. Then I was just a kid with his dad, and then his grampa, first eager to drive the golf cart and later looking forward to some powdered-sugar donuts back at the house.
But even at that age I was starting to sense a difference. Grampa did things I could not imagine my father doing. He played cards for money. He drank a little “hooch.” When we went to the Casino, the local restaurant known for its Friday night fish fry, he and my grandmother hung out in a lounge with blue lights, a well bar, and carpeting on the walls. We would venture in there sometimes to tell him our table was ready. His friends, who were a little faster than my father’s, would greet us with a cheer. Sometimes we got to sit in there with them, drinking kiddie cocktails. It all felt very swanky.
It was around this time I heard a story from my aunt, about how she had been five years old and an older boy, a bully, had knocked her down on the skating rink and sent her home crying. And Grampa stormed over to the boy’s house to talk to the boy’s father, and she was so scared she hid under the kitchen table.
I have no doubt that my father, had this happened to my sister in 1974, would have resolved this dispute effectively using peaceful means and with the same smile he had worn throughout the Fifties. My grandfather, in 1949, raised in a hardscrabble immigrant’s house during the Depression, wound up tackling a man a foot taller than him and thumping his head on the sidewalk.
What can I say? Justice was rougher in 1949.
Grampa was never proud of this story. He didn’t defend his actions.
Nor did he apologize. He just grumbled, still bitter, about how that guy had argued with him, refused to accept blame, wouldn’t back down…
The rest of us laughed, but my grandfather didn’t. He couldn’t. So he just shook his head, muttering to himself that the guy “had it coming.”
Even so, I thought I knew what my grandfather would say when we saw the speeder. He was a teacher too, and moral, and lived according to rules. He taught me and my sister many things about how to live an honest and decent life. And of course, there was the example of sports, where he was a stickler—much tougher about it than my father.
If someone cheated a little, let’s say they kicked a ball a few inches out of the rough to give themselves a more favorable lie, my father would shrug. You could read in his shrug the attitude he silently bore:
I saw that. It’s not how I would do it, but your conduct is up to you. If that’s how you want to play, fine. You won’t have my respect; maybe that’s not important to you anyway. So go ahead, make your next shot easier, have fun, live your life that way if you want. I’ll just be over here, playing by the rules, and if in the end I lose, I don’t care. We’ll both know why, and I’ll at least be honest with myself about it, and that’s enough for me.
If my grandfather saw someone kicking the ball out of the rough he wouldn’t be able to contain himself.
What the heck are you doing? This isn’t any fun if you CHEAT! How will we have any FUN? How will we ever know who WINS? Why should we even play?
Only he wouldn’t think this quietly to himself. It would burst out of him, as incredulous as it was angry.
Once I heard him shout at a fellow player, who had played a ball from out of bounds, “Well, nuts to you, you can either count the penalty strokes or not, but I’m counting it on my scorecard, and that’s the one we’ll be using from here on out!”
Given this example, and my limited understanding of grownups, I had every reason to expect that he too would use the sight of a speeder, apprehended by an officer of the law, as a teaching moment. That’s what you get. Nuts to you, speeder.
What I had not yet come to understand is that life was not the same as sports. The goals in life were more complicated, and that meant that the rules were not as clear.
We are approaching the hill with the speed trap. Another driver sits stuck in his car, waiting for the cop to write him up.
And I think I know what my grandfather will say because my father has just said it: “That’s what you get!”
In fact, I’m about to say it myself. “I guess that’s what you get, huh Grampa?” I’m about to say that very sentence, to show that I know the right response. Wise beyond my years, he will think. Kid knows how the world works. Kid knows right from wrong.
But something stops me. Maybe it’s the expression on my grandfather’s face. A firmness to the jaw. A narrowing of the eyes. A surprising look of empathy.
“Poor devil,” he mutters.
It was the same road, but I learned to see it in two different ways. There was the highway, plain and efficient, where my father rode 100% of the time. And so did my grandfather—almost always.
But where my father’s eyes stayed on the road ahead, my grandfather’s always darted around. Checking the conditions, checking the side roads. Looking for an angle. Maybe a little turnoff. A little gap in the hedges.
A little risk. A little excitement. A little freedom, you might say.
Those were my two models, both present on that day. I learned from my father the importance and efficiency of staying on the highway. It was great advice, to be sure.
But I also learned from my grandfather that sometimes you need to look for the shortcut. Why?
Because sometimes you need to take it. That’s the most obvious reason.
And sometimes—and this is something I only learned after many years—you just need to know it’s there.
O for a muse of fire…or at least public golf courses and drinks in tall glasses (Old Fashioneds!) and the big backyard with a garden full of asparagus and a burn barrel to take care of most trash (except no burning on Sundays, by town ordinance). And the M&M, the greasy spoon restaurant down below the street where fries came in a cardboard tray and burgers were served piping hot on a sheet of wax paper. And the green swimming pool and “Jimtown,” the dark and frightening stretch of farms we drove through at night on our way home, the spooky silos and farm equipment hulking above us, and wild packs of dogs barking at our station wagon like demon hounds.
I could write about this stuff all day! But who would read it? My sister, maybe. So I turn to more universal topics, like the other 100 Objects, all available for free here on the website. And my cheap little books The Race and The Promotion, which both have Wisconsin stretches at their core (but do not wallow in nostalgia, oh no, these are books for and about grownups). Let’s see…the sister makes a grand appearance in #2 – The Spy Drop, another story about life in the small town all those years ago. More father figures in #16 – The Laundry and, I suppose, in #1 – The Padlock and #10 – The Spitwad. Or how about taking a break from Jacke’s fiction and reading about a great poem by Auden, who it turns out was an extremely nice guy? Onward and upward, people…onward and upward…
Image credit: texasescapes.com