In loving memory of my Grandfather and best friend, Ira Endsley 1900 - 1978
"Yep, I think when it’s all over, you’re no more than a squashed bug,” Grandpa sighed.
I remember looking up at the Missouri moon and wondering if it was the same one as back home in California. The sultry summer night was filled with fireflies, Grandpa’s fiddle, and Mom’s poetry. Seemed like everyone had something worth contributing, save for the annoying jokes of a crippled eight-year-old kid. But, when the night was through, Grandpa would pull me aside and ask, "Now, what was that joke again?"
At least a dozen riddles would make their way from the Mojave Desert to the Ozarks each summer. The world would flash by our Volkswagen Bug and I’d be thinking each new place was being created just for us as we passed through.
The trip wasn’t always pleasant, though. Especially through the winding roads on Highway 166, through the twist and turns of the mountain roads. Dad glanced once in the rear view mirror and noticed that my face was beginning to match the green upholstery.
"Scotty, do I need to pull over?"
To keep from getting another lecture or something I just answered, "Naw, Dad, I’m fine."
"Hmm, well, ok, if you lose it...you’ll eat it!"
Well, I lost it. And my father, whom I always thought of as sort of mountain, had a hard time keeping his as well.
"How many miles to the border?" my brother Kent asked, though nobody answered, because Dad was trying to hear the news and Mom was looking at an Oklahoma map. When we did finally arrive at the border, "Welcome to Missouri" brought a sigh of relief from the back seat of the sweaty cramped car.
With only three more miles to go, my Dad said "Look over there, boys. There’s the mountain you can see from Grandpa’s house."
Kent looked out the window. "Yeah, I think I can see Aunt Sandy’s eyelashes!" She was known for wearing a lot of makeup.
As we turned on to Route Double E, just past Gotney’s grocery, Dad held the horn down til we pulled in the drive. There he was, sitting like always with a cigarette in his hand....just thinkin’.
I immediately got out of the car. "Grandpa, I got a joke for ya!!!"
"Well, come over here and tell me fer heaven’s sake!!"
Dad bought a watermelon later that day. We enjoyed it almost as much as the flies did. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but everyone was in hysterics at the neighbor, Mr. Cosper, whose cup had runneth over that day, putting up a barbed wire fence with his son. The job was almost completed, down to the last few stakes, when all of a sudden, Mr. Cosper suddenly lost his balance and took about three acres of fence down with him. I didn’t quite understand the moment, but Dad and Grandpa could hardly catch their breath from laughing so hard. Grandma peeked through the front door screen and scolded Grandpa, "Ira, you oughta be ashamed of yourself!"
That summer was filled with a lot of stories. Grandpa would make them up as I would swat flies in the hot shade.
"I threw John Wayne off his horse, once."
"Whadja do that for?"
"Had to....he was in my way."
"What’d he do then?"
"Told me to put up my dukes."
"So, I just strattled him around the neck and whupped the tar outta him!"
I remember one particular story about an Indian chief whose ancestors were supposedly buried somewhere in Grandpa’s garden. This Indian chief was quite upset that my grandfather wouldn’t forfeit his garden so proper burial rites could be performed. Grandpa had me going. I almost believed it as I awoke the next morning and was startled to see an arrow, decked in chicken and turkey feathers, stuck through the bedroom window screen. After a close examination, I laughed to myself with the realization of how much Grandpa loved me.
Grandpa’s day would begin long before mine did. The light from the kitchen would often wake me as he’d be sipping his coffee around five o’clock every morning. He’d work in his garden until about mid-morning and drive up to the house in his tractor with a trailer full of cantaloupe and green beans. I especially remember the green beans as Dad would make my brother and me snap them, when I’d rather be out fishing or hunting for turtles, instead.
Grandpa Endsley worked hard. As the story goes, he didn’t get much schooling because his mother died when he was young. Since he was the oldest, and his father wasn’t around much, he had to raise his siblings. He never learned to read or write, but it never stopped him from finding work. Even during the depression when some had to beg for food, he managed to feed his five children, and quite a few other relatives besides, in spite of the hard times of those days.
My parents decided to move back to Oklahoma from California when I was in my mid-teens. Having to say so long to all the old friends was just as hard as making new ones. With not much to do, I found a lot of time to myself. I had always envied Mom’s ability to write poetry, so I began to make some fairly decent attempts of my own. She was very encouraging.
Later, I began incorporating Dad’s sense of humor into my own lyrics. I earned an “A” during middle school in creative writing with “The Ballad of a Dead Skunk”. It was a poem about this character who was out on the highway, driving alone. Suddenly, a skunk runs out on to the road. Well, this character is thinking of the consequences of running over the furry little critter, but once he does, the smell is not as intense as the moment of triumph. So, he makes a U-turn and runs over him again, basking in the glow! It was to be the last “A” I’d receive until at least my second or third semester of college.
I started writing melodies in my head to go along with the lyrics I was busy writing. Dad bought a used guitar one day, and told me it was mine if I’d take lessons. So I gave it a shot....for three whole weeks! Then I learned on my own.
My brother often got after me for taking music and poetry more serious than school. “What does it take? Do Mom and Dad have to get Paul McCartney to call you on the phone and beg you to do your homework?!”
I had also turned that age where your father stopped thinking about three years ago. He hated my long hair, though it only covered my ears. “When are you gonna start wearing panty hose?” He’d often ask. One day I found the courage to quip back, “As soon as you up my allowance.”
I spent about three weeks on the farm that summer. It seemed forever, because I was lovesick over a girl I was seeing at the time. Every morning I would follow Grandpa out to the mailbox, hoping for a letter from Christy. I was let down every day.
“Don’t let them women get the best of ya. You gotta show’em yer tough!” Grandpa advised.
I looked up at him and asked, “How did you and Grandma finally get together, Grandpa?”
He pulled off his hat and seemed to look inside of it for the answer to my question. “It wasn’t really romantic er nothin’. I just said ‘Marry me, or I’ll kill ya’!” We had a good laugh.
I went to spend the night that evening with my Uncle Bill in Branson. He was a country music promoter and wanted me to see one of his shows. I really didn’t like country music, but I enjoyed it just the same. After the show he decided to relax with a cup of wine. I was offered a glass, but insisted I didn’t drink. “For God’s sake, I’m your uncle!” he insisted, so I gave in. The stuff tasted so good I had another glass. His phone rang in the living room and he excused himself, leaving me alone with the bottle. I don’t remember how many glasses I had, but when he returned he was a bit shocked by my behavior. I was a little perturbed when questioned as to whether I was drunk or not. “No, I don’t think so...but, I can always walk a straight line for you....as soon as I find a straight line. He! He!”
He was disgusted, as well as ashamed of himself, and tried to get me to go on to bed, but I was more interested in finding the outside balcony. I somehow found the bathroom instead. Looking into the mirror, I was confused as to why my reflection appeared to be on an elevator. It took only a couple of minutes to realize my eyes were rolling up in my head. I fell to the floor and found good ol’ John. I woke up the next morning next to John, only he seemed so cold and impersonal now.
I immediately felt my heart thumping in the temples of my brain and I had a terrible taste in my mouth that wouldn’t go away, no matter what I did. I remember thinking "wow, this must be what’s known as a hangover!" The road back from Branson, with all its twists and turns, seemed like a cruel joke.
Grandpa was out in the henhouse when we drove up. I stumbled up to his chair and dozed off as Uncle Bill went inside. Grandpa rounded the corner with a sack full of eggs, and sat down next to me. He was trying to show me this one egg that was darker than the rest, when I suddenly blurted out, “I got drunk last night!”
I expected him to be at least a little disappointed; instead, he slapped his knee and started laughing, then yelled toward the front door towards Grandma, “Bonnie, guess what?...Scotty got drunk last night!” She, of course, wasn’t so happy about it, and got after Grandpa for making light of it.
Grandpa left to do some business in Cassville later that morning, and I stayed with Grandma as she prepared lunch. I was sitting at the kitchen table twirling a bar stool around and around with my finger. Then I began finger painting in some salt I had poured on the table. “Grandma, did you hear about that poor young girl who was scalded to death in Oklahoma City?”
She dropped the spoon she was stirring with and turned with a painful concerned look...”No! That’s awful!”
I twirled my finger in the salt a little more and shook my head and deadpanned, “Yeah, she wet her hotpants.”
I thought lunch was going to be burned to a crisp before she stopped laughing, and I was looking forward to that blackberry cobbler I had been smelling all morning.
After lunch, Grandma sat in her rocking chair and I laid down on the couch with my guitar, banging the few chords I knew at the time.
“You still crazy ‘bout the Beatles?” she asked me, with her chin resting on her palm. “Boy, you nearly drove your mama and daddy crazy with them when you were little.”
I began telling her that the Beatles were now old hat. With me, folk music was where it was at. I got out a cassette tape of my new hero, Bob Dylan, and played her one of his songs. Before it was finished playing, she scoffed, “Sounds like an old man! Why don’t you play one of your songs?”
I him-hawed around ‘til I thought of one worth singing, then began plucking away at the guitar, and closed my eyes as the story poured out of my soul. It was quite incomprehensible, because at the time I tried to impress people with my multi-syllable words. Mom would often say, “Ooh, that gave me goose bumps...but, what does it mean?”
Before I was finished singing, Grandpa walked in the front door and sat down to listen, taking off his hat and fiddling with it. The song came to a dramatic end and Grandpa slapped his knee, “Even better than the Beatles!!!” Just as he spoke there was a distant clap of thunder. Grandma ejected from her rocking chair to unplug the television.
Just finishing my first semester of college and still living with Mom and Dad, I was beginning to take seriously the notion of being a professional songwriter. After getting kicked out of at least a dozen bands, I went at it alone. I decided I didn’t really like to perform much, so I just concentrated on writing. School took a back seat; instead of concentrating on my homework, I was usually between a pair of headphones studying the works of other great authors.
I recall one night listening to Judy Collins, not paying attention until the song “My Grandfather’s House” started playing. It took me back to the farm... I thought about my best friend.
It wasn’t too long after that, that I had a dream that seemed the most vivid I ever dreamed: I was walking in a field of tall grass, that was swaying gently back and forth in the wind. Then I turned and saw my grandfather walking in my direction with a fishing pole in hand. He looked up at me as I commented, “Grandpa, you never go fishing. You’re always too busy!”
He didn’t stop to talk with me, he just looked back as he passed and said, “Well, Scotty, I’ve got all the time I need now to enjoy myself.”
He kept walking away as the dream faded and I awoke. I had a strange feeling about it for days, until I finally forgot about it.
It was a Saturday morning. Mom had been up most of the night, packing. I woke up feeling groggy from not having much sleep the night before. I was excited about the trip...We hadn’t been to the farm in at least a year. I got up and got myself something to eat. On the refrigerator was a note from Dad letting Mom know that he had gone to the mall. The phone rang.....I waited for Mom to answer, but realized she was outside in the garden, so I picked it up.
“Yes, is this the Endsley house?” an elderly lady inquired. “I’m very sorry to inform you of this, but, your father just passed away.”
I nearly dropped the phone, picturing my old man laying all sprawled out on the floor of some department store. Then I realized the call was long distance, and the caller had mistaken me for my father. Mom came in from outside and sat on the couch. She didn’t seem too surprised when I hung up and informed her Grandpa had died of a heart attack.
I went to my room and sat on the bed, resting my head on the wall. I was more stunned then saddened. It just seemed too strange of a coincidence that he died the day before I’d finally get to see him again. Dad’s car pulled into the driveway just as I heard the kitchen door creak open. I went over to the window as Mom approached my father. They stood there talking for awhile, then Dad sat down on an old tree stump and sat straight up, nervously playing with a toothpick in his mouth. I knew my father a lot better than he thought I did....He probably cleared his throat and tried to hold back the tears.
The farm was quiet, though just about every relative I ever knew, and then some, were either watching TV, looking in the refrigerator, or out tending the chickens and farm animals. I was all to myself that day. I walked around the house just remembering things. On the kitchen table sat some wildflowers that were still fresh from when Grandpa picked them for Grandma the morning before.
I walked into the wash room and found Grandpa’s twenty-two rifle hanging on the wall. Right below it hung his old bullhorn. I remembered how excited I was, as a lad, blowing that thing and hearing it echo off the surrounding mountains, as dogs would bark and howl. I can also remember Mr. Cosper, verbatim, echoing off those very same mountains his lack of appreciation of my newfound musical abilities, especially at one o’clock in the morning!
We all stayed up that night as the older folks made funeral plans and were trying to write an obituary for the paper. “Us younger folks” were laughing among ourselves, remembering some of the silly antics he would often do to amuse us. Everyone finally turned in somewhere after midnight. Laying there in bed, I noticed a strange silence--a particular absence that brought into my mind a funny story:
When my brother and I were very young we shared the same room. He had the top bunk bed and I had the bottom bunk. One evening, my grandparents surprised my parents by driving in, in the middle of the night. I was alseep and didn’t know that my parents woke my brother up and asked him to sleep on the couch, so Grandpa could sleep in his bed, and Grandma had the small bed in the guest room. I woke up hours later, hearing what I swore was my brother being mauled by some growling grizzly bear! I was afraid to move, but somehow found the courage to call out for help. Mom rushed to the rescue! Now, I was too young to be embarrassed, but I sure felt a lot better finding out it was just Grandpa, in the top bunk...snoring. After remembering the incident and laughing to myself, I was saddened by the quietness of the night.
I woke up very early the next morning while everyone else was still sleeping, and went out the front door and sat in Grandpa’s chair. The same chair he’d sit in and chew on a cigarette and think. The same chair he’d sit in and play his fiddle, while everyone else tapped their feet and listened. The same chair from which he’d tell me his tall tales to my heart’s delight. But now, it was the same chair he died in. I sat there trying to understand the paradox of how someone so alive in me could be dead. Haunted by his absence more than I could ever be by seeing or feeling his ghost, I looked at the sun rising over the pasture and realized I’d never see him again....in this lifetime, anyway.
“Aaron, get in here and pick up these toys!” I called out to my son as I looked out the bay window to make sure my daughter Sarah wasn’t playing in the dog’s water.
“If you don’t get in here and pick up these toys at the count of five, we’ll have to call the fire department to put out your rear end!!!”
I finally got a reaction somewhere around number three. He drew a heavy sigh, slapped his arms to his sides and shook his head, then began to clean up his mess. I got upset with his attitude, but my wife suggested he was just a normal five year old. Her coming to his defense reminded me a lot of my mother defending me when I was young.
“Oh, what’s today’s date?” I demanded excitedly.
But before she could answer, I realized it was the 24th, and my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. I rushed to the phone and stopped for a moment, trying to remember the Area Code in Arkansas.
Mom answered the phone. She began telling me how hot the Ozarks had been lately, and like always, she asked how my health was. We talked for a little longer, then Dad came in from the garden, and Mom handed him the phone. Before I could ask him how his farm business was going he began probing into my well being, but, I didn’t mind... we were friends now. As we talked, my son Aaron tried to grab the phone from me. Finally, I gave in. His eyes lit up as he took the phone from my hand.
“Hey, Grandpa, guess what?......I gotta joke for ya!”