Thanksgiving Week 2: The Elders

Oh boy. I’m really having a good time with Thanksgiving this year, but that’s no surprise. It’s my favorite holiday. Since yesterday was our day of giving thanks to the kids, let’s take things old school and bestow some gratitude on our elders.

Here are a few excerpts from stories about the generations above me.  My big sister, my older cousin, my old boss, and of course, my father and grandfather. Formative influences on me, but don’t blame them for that! All life errors are my own.

(Seriously – my thanks to all of them. Enjoy the stories!)

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #2 – The Spy Drop:

At the corner of the house, Joel stuck his arm up the downspout and fished something out. It was a plastic Dynamints box, with a white lid and a faded label, and it didn’t have any mints, just a single sheet of notebook paper, folded and crammed inside. He surrendered it to my sister, who removed the paper and unfolded it as we gathered around and peered over her shoulder.

The handwriting was printed with a red pen, childlike but decisive:

A bucket of water we will throw on her head.

Tina and I looked at each other and gasped. My sister’s mouth was set tight.

It was 1977, and we were at war.

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #5 – The Motorcycle:

I signed the document I could not read and handed my life savings to the stranger. He grunted and held out a silver case.

My cousin didn’t smile.

“Take one,” he said.

“I don’t smoke.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’ll insult him if you don’t. He’ll lose face.”

I took a cigarette from the case and stuck it behind my ear. The man’s mouth formed something between a sneer and smile, his teeth stained reddish-brown from betel nut. Outside the window, traffic poured by, noisy and chaotic.

I was now the proud owner of a motorcycle. There was only one problem.

I had no idea how to drive it.

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #16 – The Laundry:

But the best weeks of all were the ones when we hauled our popcorn wagons to carnivals and boat shows and softball tournaments and county fairs, selling high-margin products through a small glass window. (Even now, the numbers of cotton candy and popcorn and sno-cones astonish me. Cotton candy was two and a half cents of raw materials including the cone and the bag, sold for a dollar-fifty.) Those days had a lot of slow afternoons. Jerry and I sat on overturned buckets in the wagon, listening to baseball and waiting for the stray customer to pass by. At night we’d stand in the back pouring Cokes out of sixteen spigots, sending trays of Cokes into the grandstand, a team of twenty hustling kids filling those white pails with cash that Jerry and I counted and bundled until long after midnight.

Jerry loved cash, both for the success it measured and the freedom it bought. Fifties and hundreds were deemed “vacation money” and went into the bottom of the cash drawer, later to be transferred to a safe in his bedroom and used for winter trips to Mexico, where he traveled among ruins, dreaming of the past. When I ran the route I had to memorize a hundred different places to pick up cash—envelopes in lockers, ones and fives and quarters tucked into shirt pockets. As he was teaching me the route he swerved down a one-way street in reverse; a woman came running out of a house and handed him six dollars and twenty-five cents through the window, the cost of her husband’s weekly laundering.

I shook my head at the ritual. “Can’t you get them to mail you the money?” I asked. “Pay you once a month or something?”

“Let’s go get lunch,” he said, dropping the cash into a box he’d been filling all morning.

The cash came in handy for the lunch trips to Taco John’s, where he ordered the same thing five days a week (even now I know his order by heart), and the follow-up stop at the Burger King, where we bought a plain hamburger for his beloved and pampered dog.

And all day long I saw an entrepreneur’s mind at work. It was intoxicating, even though I was headed for other things. When college began I alternated school years of Great Books with summers filled with trucks and nachos and cash. And when graduation came, Jerry made me an offer.

“Ever think about being the ambassador to Mexico?” he asked.

I admitted I had not.

“Okay. Second best job: why don’t you buy the laundry?”

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #21 – The Speed Trap:

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.


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