Thinking about Grandpa Perce this Christmas season

Nostalgia is one of the hallmarks of the Christmas season.

We reminisce about Christmases past, and the people that made them worth remembering. I’m thinking these days about my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Perce. Aliases: Percy, P.O., Percival Orlando.

He was 55 when I was born, so I can’t envision him as a young man, although I’ve heard enough stories to spark my imagination.

(Dad told me that if he had been named after Grandpa, he wouldn’t have been the last one. I’m grateful not to be Percival Orlando Morain III.)

I can’t think of Grandpa without smiling.

He was a small, slight man, and somewhat frail by the time I came to know him. He was a mechanic all his life, first working on bicycles back in the days when they first became popular, then switching to cars and tractors around World War I.

For as long as I knew him, he and Grandma Myrtle lived in the house across the street east from where the South Grade School now is, on West Madison, a block west of the United Methodist Church. The home was only 2½ blocks south of the auto repair shop that for decades he co-owned and co-operated with Pete McLaughlin.

He and Grandma mortgaged the house in order to send Dad to the University of Iowa.

Grandpa was a quiet man, dedicated to his work, and totally kind to his family and to those around him. He had his opinions, but rarely expressed them. When he did so, it was in pithy comments that we all treasured. When Grandpa said something, it was worth listening to.

Dad and Mom bought the house where we kids grew up (and where Kathy and I now live) in 1944 or 1945, when I was about 4 years old. Brother Bill was 3.

A day or two after we moved in, Grandpa showed up with his tools in the back driveway. The home, built in 1901, has a concrete slab at the base of the back steps, in the middle of which is the round cast iron lid of a subterranean cistern where in 1901 the original owners used to draw water. To make sure that we couldn’t lift off the lid and accidentally fall in, he drilled holes and bolted (maybe welded) the lid permanently in place.

I’ve always wondered what the cistern is like below the lid, but I’ve never been able to satisfy my curiosity, which would probably have induced me to at some point in my youth to do what Grandpa was protecting me against.

Over the years he developed a visceral dislike for Fordson tractors. That was because of the many cold days and nights he would be called out to a farm to repair a balky one. I don’t know that Fordsons were any more prone to trouble than other makes, but I remember the set of his jaw when the subject of Fordsons would come up.

One year a family vacation took us and Grandma and Grandpa to Dearborn, Mich., and its Henry Ford Museum. It was like a step back in time for Grandpa, and he lingered at each vehicle as we walked through, a faraway look on his face.

In the 1930s he had a near-death experience one wintry day in the shop. A hose leading to the outside from a car under repair didn’t do an adequate job of exhaust, and he lost consciousness from the carbon monoxide. He was carried outside and brought around, but he never fully recovered from the damage, and coupled with his longtime smoking habit, the result was COPD that plagued his lungs for most of his life.

I’m sure he aggravated his condition when, after retiring from the shop, he took up pouring lead into Linotype pigs at the Bee & Herald.

My brothers and I, when we were young, used to love to go to Grandpa’s shop to watch him make sparks off a strip of steel against his emery wheel grinder. On occasion we would find a cylinder of ball bearings behind his or someone else’s shop, and he would pry it open and clean the “steelies” for us, with which we wreaked havoc playing marbles on the school playground at recess. He had an unlimited supply of Hershey bars at his house when we visited, and he would sometimes take us to Louie’s Candy Kitchen or Gately’s Dime Store and spend a dollar letting us pick out 10 comic books.

Grandpa did not graduate from high school, but he enjoyed reading, particularly history and Westerns.

When my former wife Clay and I were being married in her home town of Richmond, Va., my family and Grandpa and Grandma drove there from Iowa. Grandpa would have been 79.

As they turned south from the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I learned later, Grandpa commented, “As we used to say with Grant, ‘On to Richmond!’” One of my brothers needled him about what Lincoln was really like, and Grandpa responded, “I didn’t know Abe personally, but I liked his parents.”

On Sundays we usually had dinner at Grandpa and Grandma’s. One Sunday we were discussing fishing at the dinner table, and the question arose of how you tell a largemouth from a smallmouth bass.

After Grandma went out to the kitchen, Grandpa said quietly, “The largemouths are the females.”

We were all out for a drive one day in our station wagon, and we took the River Road between Jefferson and Scranton.
As we approached the Devil’s Towpath, a gravel road that heads north off the River Road about two miles east of Scranton, Grandpa said softly, “Remember that road, Myrt?” Grandma sharply shot back, “Perce!”

We would have given a great deal to know what had occurred back in the day on the Devil’s Towpath, but that secret remained forever a mystery to us.

Grandpa was a dedicated Republican his entire life. He used to say that Roosevelt dimes (1) were only worth a nickel, (2) had FDR’s face on them because he spent so many of them, or (3) were not legal tender.

I asked him once if he had ever voted against a Republican. He said he had, against U.S. Sen. Smith Wildman Brookhart in 1926. “His middle name told his story,” Grandpa said.

At Christmastime he sat contently in a chair, a quiet grin on his face as he watched us play with our presents. I’m grinning as I write this column about him, and I’d like to hope that my grandchildren might think of me as I do of him.

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