1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

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The dinner was grand. The railroad kings fed well and fed others well We opened with stuffed smoked ham with foie gras, aspic and stuffed eggs, small tarts of mushrooms in cream, and tomatoes niçoise. And the menu, which I cherished for years, listed bomard a l'américaine, and a Chambolle-Musigny 1900, artichokes vinaigrette, splits of Moët and Chandon champagne, and a series of saddles of beef and tournedos, And for the real frontier crowd there was miners' white beam and salt pork—maybe a lowly dish, but one of the best on earth in the big-tree country. This was followed by pêches Melba (the original Escoflier recipe the menu said), gallons of good strong coffee, and brandy in rich-looking, dusty bottles.

The age of such huge meals has gone, I fear, and certainly gone are the men and women who ate them. I feel like the last god in some flimsy opera by Wagner, waiting for the fake flames to burn down the fake castles on a very big. cold stage. It seems so hard to think that all this that was once in the just-gone past is almost forgotten now.

It was a gay night. Gramp and Chet latched onto two sisters dressed is dance hall girls, and Gramp's girl, whose name was Netta, was very charming and much more mannered than most of the ladies there. But, then, as Mama said in her ity little voice when Gramp displeased her. “After all, she probably was a real dance hall girl and knew how to take care of the customers.”

“Women,” Gramp would say, “how they hate each other.” and he would urn to me and whisper as loud as a stage call. “Stevie, you've come early to wisdom by watching your elders. Don't make all our mistakes.”

I should haw listened. I suppose, but I managed not only to make all their mistakes but also to add a few lulus of my own—some of which Gramp would have approved.

Anyway, Mama danced. and Gramp pranced, and I ate too much ice cream. My Indian make-up ran and I slept in it, and in the morning the sheets looked like a red, green, and blue masterpiece by a non-objective painter.

We left at noon with the Srudebuker shined up and cleaned, oiled, gassed, watered, and our baggage loaded in the back, and with Gramp looking over a penciled-in map that was to get us west through the mountain passes.

Chet and some of the boys came to see us off. Chiefy had a ten-pound trout on ice as a parting gift for Mama. And Mama sniffed at it, and realised he was the raw frontier type and didn't know that ladies preferred something in ice you could wear on your ears, mounted in gold settings.

Chet shook all our hands, kissed Mama, and looked at Gramp as if he would never see him again—which was true.

“God bless you, old hoss. Make much trail and live it big.”

“Take care of yourself, Chet, and knock the heads of mountains together.”

“Look, you Romans.” said Mama, “let's start. We don't warn to be caught in the mountains at nightfall.”

Gramp shot “Stude” into gear, the gallart car obeyed. Gramp's eyes misled over, and a wild cheer rang out behind us. Mama dropped the trout over the side, mattering something which for years I thought was the burial service at sea when (he body is slipped over the side. But I suppose that is only a childish memory, all wrong.

“I suppose.” said Mama in her most married voice, “you know where we are going?”

Gramp said. “Sale Lake City. Why?”

“That's west, isn't it?” asked Mama

“It always was.”

“We're heading north.”

Gramp looked out, looked up, and then said softly, the steam bearing at his safety valve, “Look, woman, I've stood enough! I've let you forgive, forgive, and forgive me for a long time—every rime I do something you think is wrong. I'm tired of your spirit of forgiveness. I am heading west.”

“North.” said Mama firmly, hugging me to her.

Gramp again looked out of the car. Service stations were in their childhoods, road maps were worthless in those days, and the Department of Highways did little to help the traveling crowd, except to see to it that the Bull Durham signs were set well back on barns and that the detour signs were only put up where the side roads were as mean as man and weather could make them.

Gramp pulled his head in and drove on. “I don't want to hear another word.”

Mama said, “Just remember who drove through Ohio, when he was in Kentucky all the time.”

“That was river trouble. Salt Lake City is west. I'm heading west. What do you think, Stevie?”

I said, “May I unswallow?”

“What did you cat last night, baby boy?” Mama asked.

“Everything. …” I moaned.

Well, rime passed and so did a lot of scenery—a lot of mountains, sharp as razors; a lot of streams, blue and cold; and a lot of trees in all sons of places, making all sorts of shapes and shadows.

We grew cold and tired, it grew darker, and the sun banged into mountain ridges and beat on mountain tops. “Snide” went on. the game iron heart and the game steel muscles driving us. moving us, onward—west, always west —with Gramp bent over the wheel. singing, and me holding his cigar while his voice echoed over the blue hills of night:

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