1950s Archive

Roughing it with Gramp

Part IX

Originally Published January 1953

Going west from Denver in 1919, even in our new Studebaker, wasn't easy. The roads were a mockery of the word road. The weather consisted of rain, but the game car and its powerful motor kept us floating. Stude, as we called our car, never let us down, after Cramp had two bearded blacksmiths at the railroad yards hammer out a big hook which they bolted to Stude's front end. After that, if we sank into a mud hole, a rope tied to the hook and, hitched to any two passing horses, started us on our way again.

This time we were heading for Salt Lake City in earnest. We wanted to cross the desert country before the full blast of summer was upon us. Mama was wondering if there was such a place as California.

“I don't see how the covered wagons made it,” Mama said, as we changed a tire on a mountain road.

“They ate well.” said Gramp; “they ate one another.”

Mama knew Gramp was just trying to get a rise out of her, so she said. “It was better food than you get nowadays on the road.”

“Are people good to eat?” I asked.

“Some,” said Cramp. “Imagine Lillian Russell in a toasting pan.”

“Gramp!” said Mama, in her low, icy voice.

Cramp kicked the tire in place and said, “Of course, I'm not much, just bones and old scar tissue, but. now you, Sari, or even Stevie here with an apple in his mouth… .”

Mama said, “Gramp, I'm putting you in Coventry.”

“Now, Sari,” said Cramp, knowing he had gone too far, “I was just leaching Stevie history, about the Donner party that got snowed in and lived off one another, and you, Stevie, you know… .”

But I shook my head and pointed to my sealed lips. When Mama put anyone into Coventry, that meant no one talked to him until Mama, like a Pope in skirts, withdrew the interdict.

Cramp had been in Coventry twice on the trip, and he didn't like it. He liked to talk and be talked to. He lit a cigar, sighed, and pointed to the car. We got in and drove on in silence.

Mama hummed a little tune, I made faces at my reflection in the windshield, and the car ran on over bad roads, past sod huts and ranch fences, ran on, making the only real sounds after Mama had stopped humming a tune.

It was past noon, and I was hot, tired, and thirsty. I pointed to my mouth and swallowed. Mama tapped Gramp's shoulder and pointed to her small mouth, and then drank an imaginary glass of water and swallowed in a ladylike fashion.

Gramp held one hand to his ear and said, “Eh? Speak louder.”

Mama Cut something with a phantom knife and put it on a fork that wasn't there and swallowed again. It made my mouth water.

Gramp said. “Can't hear a word you're saying. Speak up. Sari!”

Mama folded her arms, scowled, and said to me, “If some people had any sense, they'd know we're hungry.”

Gramp said to his steering wheel, “If some stomachs could talk, they'd talk to an old man who never meant anyone any harm. Hut, of course, snobs and stylish people from New Brunswick, New Jersey, they're too good to talk to the likes of me. I'm just old American stock, fought in the Civil War, raised up a family of sons, and now in my declining years, I'm shoved aside, and who the hell cares!”

The last four words were shouted across the plains and frightened two steers who were rubbing themselves against a fence post.

“You win,” said Mama. “You're such a ham, Cramp. I bet you'd he bringing up a few tears next.”

Gramp grinned. “Hell and high water, Sari, a man doesn't like to think he isn't fit to talk to!”

Mama crossed her arms. “I withdraw Coventry.”

“Can I talk, Mama?” I asked.

“Yes, dear.”

“Gramp, we dropped our spare tire about a mile back.”

“Why didn't you yell out!”

“Coventry, you know.”

“I'll break your damn little… .”

“Gramp,” said Mama in her Coventry voice.

Gramp finished, “… little piggy bank and buy you some real cowboy boots.”

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