Go Back
Print this page

1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

Originally Published September 1952

Colorado Springs in 1919, when Gramp and Mama and I were trying to cross America by car, was a very fancy place and very loud, and Mama was involved there with Chiefy, the local peace officer, who was trying to recover Emma, our stolen car. We had innocently come to the Springs. parked our car, and the next day it was stolen. We had our baggage. Gramp had his cigar case. Mama was having fun, but there seemed no hope that we would get our car back.

I remember the morning we came down the wide, red carpeted hotel steps, had our breakfast, and decided our car was lost for good.

“No use weeping over spilled gasoline,” said Gramp. holding his head (a small hangover, he admitted, “no bigger than a man's hand”) and looking over the menu. “It isn't like shooting a pet horse.”

Mama seemed amused and hummed a Victor Herbert tunc, and I could guess she and Chiefy had been out dancing the night before. “Really,” said Mama, “this is such a real outdoor place. One could spend a season here.”

Gramp rattled his menu. 'Now, Sari, we're crossing America, not spending a season in this hill country. You have a good night?

“Chiefy and I went dancing. Of course, we were looking for the car.”

“Why at a dance, Mama?” I asked.

“Now, baby boy,” said Mama, patting my head, “people drive to dances in cars,” Mama could be extra logical when she had to be.

Gramp motioned the waiter over. “What's to cat this morning?”

“Frontier breakfasts all during our Frontier Week. We're serving piping-hot hog this morning.”

“Please!” said Mama.

“Salt pork, ham, bacon ribs, headcheese, Hitches of bacon. liver pudding, chitterlings, scrapple. …”

Gramp sucked in air and panted. “No!”

“Smoked, pickled, brined. Bath chips all very nice.”

What the devil are bath chips? asked Gramp.

“The hog's lower jaw, sir, cured like bacon.”

“I'd rather eat buffalo chips.” said Gramp. “Lots of strong coffee.”

We were just nibbling on our flapjacks when Chet, one of the local railroad kings Gramp knew, came in. He wasn't looking too happy. He bowed to Mama and patted Gramp on the shoulder.

“Old hoss,” he said, “something has happened.”

“Frontier Week, I hear,” said Gramp.

“Worse, my boy Freddie wrecked a car last night near Denver.”


“Ruined the car. Wasn't his car. Was yours, old hoss.”

“Emma!” I shouted.

Chet nodded. “So I'm making proper returns. I just got me a spanking new Srudebaker from South Bend, and she's all yours. A beautiful riling.” Chet put down a legal-looking paper in front of Cramp and smiled. “All legal and proper. In your name, old hoss.”

Gramp rose to the event, napkin around his chin. “You're a yard wide and a dingdong sport. You're the prime goods and have the great hallmark. Chet.”

“This calls for something.”

“A great event,” said Gramp, “needs just a little throat clearing.”

“The car is outside,” said Chet, “and the bar is open.”

They went off arm in arm, and Mama said, “Just shows you, baby boy. what fools grown men can be. But the car is ours.”

“Let's go look at it.”

It stood there in the sunlight. I have a photograph of it before me as I write, and it was a beautiful tiling. We had that Studeboker for years and never could wear it out. wreck ir, or kill its great, roaring, gasoline-bathed heart. It took us over mountains and down hills; it stood us in good years and bad; it tame through when we had money and when we had none. It remains in my mind as one of the great stone markers in my life. Even today, when I think of it, I bow towards South Bend, Ind. (For years I never knew the name of the state was spelled in any longer form.)

Mama tested the tires by kicking them with her little foot. I tooted the horn, then got behind the wheel. It was one of the first of the sedans—all closed in. a big square, boxlike affair. The only thing that was streamlined at that time was a cigar or a small blonde.

“I like it.” said Mama.

Mama climbed in, pushed me aside and turned the key and shifted some gears, and “Stude,” as we at once named the car. shot off down the street, which was being turned into a frontier street for Frontier Week. We missed an Indian, chopped off the corner of a covered wagon, and almost destroyed a valuable sheriff. Mama drove, staring right in front of her, bent over the wheel, and holding tight to her lower lip with her little white teeth. I held on to my hair and whooped it up, and “Stude” went along the main street at a deadly speed. It was a grand ride.

Gramp was resting when we got back, and Mama was polite to him, but firm. She wasn't angry. Gramp had a right to test, only he tailed it “tapering off”—a frontier expression, I suppose.

Chet invited us to the Frontier dinner. It was in the biggest hall in town and everyone dressed in period garb: the ladies as dance hall girls and we men as cow hands, mountaineers. gamblers, ranchers, outlaws, and railroad men. I was an Indian, but Mama spoiled the effect by making me wear a warm coat over my painted torso. I had composed a mural around my navel and some ritual signs on my stomach and sported a complete rain-and-thunder chart on my chest. There wasn't too much of me in those days, or I would have added Chief Crazy Horse at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. I had more skin available, but decency seemed to call lor covering it.

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:

I can't keep open,

I'm gonna close up my shack.

The chief of police

Done tore my playhouse down

No use grieving',

I'm gonna leave this town!

“Must you sing that vulgar stuff?” asked Mama from under Gramp's bear-skin coat, the tip Of her nose blue as ice.

“It's real American, Sari, the real, lowdown Dixieland jazz.”

“For shame, such an old man and such a banal mind.”

“Sari.” said Gramp too kindly, “you don't know folk art when you see it. hear it, and eat it.” And he began again:

I'd drink muddy water, Lord.

Sleep like a hog

I'd rather drink muddy water, Lord.

Sleep in a hollow log

Than be in New York,

Treated like a dirty dog!

Mama began to cry. “Why, why did I come? I love New York; it's warm, it's clean. I'm cold, and I'm going to die here in the wilderness.”

Gramp cleared his throat and was sorry. He patted Mama's cold hands. “Now. Sari, one for all, all for one, that's our motto. I'll have you in a warm hotel and clapping yourself around some fancy grub soon. See any lights ahead. Stevie?”

“A few.”

“Salt Lake City,” said Gramp.

Mama sniffed with her small, perfect, and very cold nose, “I don't smell anything.” “


“You're supposed to smell the lake miles before you reach it.”

“No wind,” I said.

Mama sniffed again. “Salt Lake is very strong. I don't smell a thing.”

“Nose's shaped wrong.” Gramp said, and he inhaled, filling his eagle beak and snorting. “Well, I can smell it! I've got a nose full of salt. You're not built for smelling, Sari. Your nose is only a mighty handsome decoration. Pure décor.”

I said. “I don't smell anything either, Gramp.”

“There is a town ahead,” said Mama.

“Stude” reared, and we went ahead, and sure enough there was a big town with lights and people, and Mama cheered up and rattled her teeth politely in chilly chatter as Gramp made for the tower of a hotel.

A bump of direction was built into me, like the one God built into bees,“ Gramp said. ”You can throw away the compasses and maps. I'll sniff out the lay of the land. Isn't that a pretty hotel?”

“Yes, Gramp.” Mama said, as we drove up to a really neat-looking place. A bit Gothic, but with cheerful orange windows, full of warmth and light. The doorman opened the car door, and Gramp lit his cigar and said, “George, I hope you keep a good chef here.”

“We do, sir. Worked at the Waldorf.”

Gramp beamed, and Mama, looked at him and then out over the town, and she licked her lips with her little pink tongue as she crawled out of Gramp's bearskin coat. I knew Mama was getting ready for the kill; I knew the signs.

The doorman helped her out with care, as if she were rare china.

“Is he the best chef in Denver?” Mama asked.

“He sure is, lady,” said the doorman.

Gramp slowly took the cigar out of his month and looked at its glowing end, I had a feeling that if it had been a sword he would have fallen on it with a noble gesture. But it was only smoldering tobacco. “Denver?” he murmured in his polite, low voice.

“Welcome.” said the doorman, “to the Denver House.”

Mama walked slowly to the revolving doors and then turned and said crisply, “Will you, please, show the gentlemen which way is west?”

Gramp broke the neck of his cigar with a snap and threw it into the gutter. His shoulders sagged, and I knew suddenly the tragedy of old age, of the passing of time, and the crowding of years.…