6.10.2004

Old Men

I've been thinking about my maternal grandfather a lot this week. Which is unusual - he died in 1988, when I was 14, meaning that for the span of my life he's now been dead longer than he was alive, and while I think about him occasionally it's usually fleeting and inconsequential. This week, though, I haven't been able to get away from his image. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from until I connected it to the Reagan thing. For a good portion of my youth, Reagan and my grandfather were the only old folks with any significant presence in my life - Reagan on television, Grandpa on his farm or in our little red house in Fargo. (I had other grandparents who I loved very much, but this particular Grandpa was the one who deserves the honor of capitalization.) My impression of Reagan has only sunk as time passes - his only true "accomplishment", to my mind, is being there in the final stages of the Cold War, but crediting him with the Shot Not Heard 'Round The World in that conflict is a bit much. Contrast that with the deregulation binges of his administration, some of his more ludicrous gaffes (every politician makes them, but Reagan's slips were more Freudian than most), and the damage done to organized labor on his watch - well. No point in speaking ill of the dead. The point is that while I was a child, I didn't know much about Reagan except that he was somehow connected to the constant low-level dread of nuclear annihilation that was one of the keystones of my formative years, especially since the fantasy of duck-and-cover had long been abandoned by the time I hit the public schools. The esteem in which I hold my grandfather, meanwhile, has only increased in time. Grandpa was an interesting fellow. He earned a good living as a farmer, on a farm that still remains in the family, having passed to firstborn son and then secondborn grandson (why it wasn't firstborn grandson or, furthermore, divided more evenly between Grandpa's twenty-three grandchildren, is a long and drawn-out tale for another time; suffice it to say that it wasn't his fault). What I'm coming to understand about him, more and more as time goes on, is how unusual a person he was, for the times - he was flexible and forgiving in a way we've come not to expect from rural farmers. Perhaps that's because he was raised a Dunkard but converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother, a pretty substantial leap of faith for the early 20th century. In the '50s there was a big push to consolidate a lot of rural schools in the Upper Midwest, moving away from the old-fashioned one-room schoolhouses to more modern facilities. (Note that this isn't integration - in North Dakota in those days there wasn't much of anyone to integrate, and in fact there barely is now. But the issue was such a big deal at the time that forty years later, certain parties on opposite sides of the debate still weren't speaking to one another - and this in a portion of the state where the only strangers are people who've stumbled into your town.) A lot of rural folks were opposed - they'd gotten a fine, fine education in the schools they went to as children, and were naturally distrustful of change. School buses taking their kids 30 miles each way every day wasn't their idea of progress. My grandfather, for his part, agreed with them - but from his position on the school board he could see that it was inevitable, and that early adopters of the consolidated model would have better facilities for their kids and a shorter bus trip every day. So he pushed for consolidation even though it would anger many people he'd thought of as friends - which, by all accounts, it did. It's this ability to take the long view, and his almost limitless compassion (found in family stories and personal experiences that, for the time, I'd rather keep private), that awe me to this day. He was a good man for many reasons and a great man for a few; under a different set of circumstances he'd have made a fine president. I probably wouldn't have known him as well under those circumstances; it would have been my loss and your gain.

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