This is a bit of an unusual post but I felt like writing down a bunch of memories I had about my grandfather, pictured with me here in 2014. He passed away a few days ago after a nice, long life. I figure this might be relevant in so much as it could be a eulogy, so that's rhetoric, right? It really doesn't matter; there's no other venue so you are stuck with it being posted here.
It's also strange I felt like writing something about him but don't write at all about my mom's passing which will be 5 years ago this spring. I think that there are some things that perhaps are too close to you to write about, and others that are too far, or you force yourself to care to write about. Then there are events like this where it seems the only thing to do is write about it. I figure a good eulogy is one that chronicles a lot of good stories, good memories, so that's what I wrote.
Earliest memories are as a very small child in Arkansas, where I was born, driving out with him in a car that looked like this. I'm pretty sure it was a 1970s Ford Bronco and it was this bright blue color. This picture conforms to my memories but maybe not to what he really had. When I knew him, he was on one of many careers, raising cattle on the Levee next to the Mississippi river.
I remember going with him in this Bronco out to a place we called “The Levee” which I found out in later years was the fertile side of the dams constructed on the Mississippi river by late 19th century and early 20th century settlers of West Memphis. The Levee is a sort of earthen dam designed to stop regular floodplain activity, or at least control it so you can build. When the Mississippi – an American sort of Nile river – would regularly crest, the silt deposits and other detritus would remain when it receded, making the land full of grasses, plants, and other wonderful things for grazing on the safe side of it. Zeb raised cows on the levy, and I would go “help” him with the various tasks he had to do every day out there. Mostly I named the cows, ran around, and tried to catch frogs that had strayed too far from the river.
Zeb taught me songs about the Mississippi but the only one I can remember to this day is “Old Man River” which he used to sing in a very deep baritone voice from the driver’s seat of the Bronco. Jerome Kern would have approved. I wonder if this is the ancient, ancestral home of my love of Broadway music? I’m sure there were other local or traditional songs he sang that I wish I could remember, but nope, I just remember singing Broadway songs about the river as we drove along either coming or going from taking care of the cows.
The roar of the Mississippi River is not easily forgotten, it’s such a low rumble that doesn’t fit with what appears. Thinking back to the times where we went down to the shore of it – very few, maybe only twice due to the amount of mud, the indeterminable places where the land ends and the river begins, and how we’d have to leave the Levee and drive somewhere to get a good look at it. Not sure where we went, but it impressed me. Whitecapping like a sea but narrow like a river, muddy, and full of very large tree trunks and other things that had been snagged by it as it moved along. Still a great image in my mind, amplified by being so young and never hearing water make any other noise than rain, the Gulf of Mexico, or turning on a tap. It was, and remains, somewhat foreign and familiar.
It was the banks of the Mississippi where I first shot a rifle. I was around 8 years old, and had no experience at all with guns. Zeb had a very simple one, probably a 22 or something similar, and found a piece of cardboard and put it in the split of a trunk of a tree and then helped me aim. I remember pulling the trigger, and winding up on my back, looking straight up at the sky. There was simply a bang, then the tall trunks of the trees pointing skyward. Zeb’s head entered the circle of trees looking down at me. “You ok boy?” he said, then after seeing I was fine, “It has quite a kick doesn’t it?” And grinning.
He had more jobs than I know about. He did everything. His family was in the grocery business, and somehow sent Zeb to Arkansas A&M for college. Once I had a look at his freshman yearbook and saw a long dedication to him written by a leader of the debate team. “That was my roommate,” Zeb explained. He never did it himself, but knew the members of the team. Of course. I can’t have one aspect of existence untouched by intercollegiate debating. Maybe this post suddenly became relevant to the theme of the blog?
Zeb did not do well in college, and returned to the grocery business after a year or so. He told me that he heard about Pearl Harbor and saw the bombers flying overhead as he drove deliveries. This motivated him to sign up for the Air Force and learned to fly. He was assigned to fly “the Hump” – a supply route between India and China. Given today’s aircraft this is not a big deal, but flying prop driven bombers without radar through those peaks with only Sherpa-made maps and no weather forecasting ability was lethal. Zeb fell ill in the pre-deployment area and his team he trained with moved ahead to the base. After Zeb recovered, he arrived to find that not one of his team mates had survived their first two weeks of flights. He told me in an email he realized he was going to die there and there would be no coming back. He accepted it, and then began flying.
After the war, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but thought dentistry looked interesting. He told me a story of watching a local dentist carving a model of some teeth. But undergraduate, let alone dental school, seemed prohibitively expensive. Right on cue, President Truman signed the G.I. Bill, guaranteeing money for college for those who served in the military. Zeb graduated from Southwestern University (another famous debate institution) and then the University of Tennessee Dental College and opened his practice in West Memphis. Eventually he bought the office building he rented space in. He retired, worked in the city doing various things, became a rancher (the time I have my earliest memories of him), real estate agent, college professor teaching chemistry at a local Christian college in rural Arkansas, and finally real retirement that brought him to Texas to be close to his family.
The last time I saw him was that next year, when my sister brought my nephew up to Fort Worth from Houston to visit him. He was very excited to meet his great grandson, but also surprised to see me. “I never thought I would see you again, you old buzzard,” he said, same old grin. We talked about the university and life in New York. Nearly every time I spoke with him he’d ask the same question: “How are they treatin’ you up in Yankeeland?” Pretty good for the most part. But as I reflect on my time with Zeb, I’m very grateful for the Mississippi River, for the cows, for Jerome Kern’s song, for the time with him in that still very small town where I was born. I never spent much time there, but the memories I associate with Zeb are all Arkansas memories, a place that is obviously important in my life yet i know so little about. He was my connection to that place through these very simple events. And that's how I remember him.