1950s Archive

Roughing It with Gramp


Originally Published May 1955

We got to Dover, Delaware, at midnight, and what we saw of the town in 1920, when Gramp and Mama and myself were touring in our old car, is most likely what the town looks like today. Perhaps it's gotten bigger; perhaps there are larger electric signs or even taller buildings. But in the main I remember it as being like almost any American town between California and New Jersey. This universal sameness; was at first to irk me, then amaze me, and later to impress on my mind the gradual drift of the nation into a pattern of conforming, of accepting and enjoying the same morion pictures, the same magazines, shapes of hats, color of ties, and size of doughnuts. In Texas the boots would he high-heeled, in Ohio the hat brims narrower, in Boston the beans drier, and in Florida frying a little too easy. But in the main when you had seen one American town, you had seen them all.

We were let into the Dover Mouse late at night and, after tying my pet hawk's leash to the brass bedrail, I fell asleep at once. I awoke in the morning to find the hawk making noises in his crop and shifting from leg to leg. Gramp had gone off on some business relating to his copper company, which had been incorporated in Delaware because Delaware makes it easy to form a corporation. Mama, too, was gone, having left early to see about buying milk-glass vases and lamp bases and plate to take back home to relatives. I don't know if they make it any more, but in my boyhood milk glass was a while, opaque glass, usually covered with small white bumps. A milk-glass shade for a bronze or brass student lamp diffused a soft, pleasant light, and roses and their long stems took on added charm in a milk-glass vast. It had some value in those days, but today good examples of it are rare and cost a great deal of money. I hate to think how much of it Gramp broke when he used to start talking on some subject—“ Just expressing myself, damn it!” Gramp would attract the attention of the grandchildren by banging a steak knife hard against a milk-glass lamp. It was a rare piece of glass that could take more than three or four of Cramp's angry bangs.

But in Dover, when Mama was collecting the glassware, none of us knew its real value, or its dismal destiny. I went down to breakfast, brought back a chunk of raw meat for my hawk, and fed it to him with wary skill, having learned to pull back my fingers with speed and agility from his sharp beak. At noon the phone rang in Our room. More stylish than effective, it hung on the wall and was made of fumed oak and black rabber; I had to stand very close to hear. It was Gramp calling.

“High noon, boy, high noon. Rise and shine.”

“I've been up for hours.”

“Stop bragging. You hungry?”

“I could eat.”

“Hell, a growing boy should always be hungry. Sari around?”

“She left early to buy glass.”

“Well, you meet me at the Three Sisters for lunch. Bring my big cigar case in my tweed jacket. You get a hired car and tell him to take you to the Three Sisters. And don't forget the cigars.”

I quoted, “‘A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke.’”

Gramp laughed and hung up with a bang. I figured mint juleps had been passed out at the stockholders' meeting. I found the cigar case and went down and ordered a car and, on the way to the Three Sisters Inn, I dreamed what I would do with my share of the copper millions I would inherit. We all expected to ge: very rich from Gramp's copper holdings. I decided I would marry a red-headed actress with very fat thighs and very small feet, like the Iadies on the colored pictures they gave out with Sweet Caporal cigarettes. I would raise long-eared hound-dogs, I would invent a shower that flowed just warm, not cold or scalding, and I would go to Yale and wear a turtle-neck sweater, smoke a bent pipe like Sherlock Holmes, keep a bulldog and grow a mustache that could be twisted into curling loops. All this hardly seemed to make a dent in the millions I would get some day, and I gave up thinking and decided I was hungry. It was just as well, as Gramp's Copper fortune never came into being, and after he was gone we all had to go to work to pile up our own millions. I hove always felt capable of making a million dollars for myself; but always, when I was on the verge of concentrating on it, the idea bored me, and I have written a hook instead, or painted a series of pictures.

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