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What Our Grandfathers Carried

BY Michael Yarbrough Journal
BY Alex Via

“I come from a blue collar family, but my personal life isn't. I didn't get the gene that my grandfather had in spades. He was a local hero. Built the church that I went to. Built the house I grew up in. Steamfitter, pipefitter, electrician, mechanic and plumber. I wanted to do those things. But it just didn't come easy.” – Mike Rowe

Many Fourth of July’s ago I was with my family on the lake. We on the pier setting off a few rockets and sparklers along with most of the neighborhood -- excuse me, lake community -- , when all of a sudden I was nearly shaken out of my shoes by a thunderous BOOM the next house over, followed immediately by whoops and hollers. “What the heck did they just set off,” I wondered. As it turned out, the owner of the house had lost his father a year or so prior and when clearing out his closet, had found a sizeable, and long-since-banned, “firecracker”. I don’t believe it was an M80, but something larger and louder, perhaps used for “fishing”. That man’s children and grandchildren were all present -- no doubt some running for cover --, and, in a sense, their grandfather had made an appearance as well.

The neighbor mentioned a few other things his father had kept hidden over the years, and it turned out grandpa liked things that went boom or bang. He was a little dangerous, yet tethered his precarious longings to a mature sense of responsibility. Taking a look at our own fathers and grandfathers, we often see something similar. The things they carried, hidden away, or held onto over the years says a lot about the men they were and may act as tangible milestones or cairns to guide our way as we attempt to follow in their footsteps.

Grandpa’s Pocket Dump

There is a pretty popular phenomenon going on presently: the EDC pocket dump. Men show off the things they carry around with them on an everyday basis, arranged to make a nice photo, and thousands of people review and comment on the items. Most of the time, these pocket dumps contain items that look barely used: a new timepiece, a slim billfold or money clip, a small knife, a pair of shades, keys (often with a tactical something attached), and of course a phone.

I can attest that our grandfather’s pocket dumps would look a good deal different: a bit of twine, a 25 year old leather wallet with a few outdated pictures of the grandkids and the siblings he had outlived, a Case pocket knife, a minimalistic set of keys (the keys to the tractor and outbuilding were hanging in the shed), a ball cap he likely got for free, and a handkerchief.

There is a good chance grandpa was something of a sentimental utilitarian. He carried what he did, not because it all came from a perfectly curated Amazon wish list, but because they were the things he came by, either by others’ generosity or by necessity, and they had met and survived the challenge of years of use.

Grandpa was Cool

As children, grandpa’s closet was generally off limits, and so it isn’t until we are adults, or after our fathers and grandfathers have passed on, that we get a sense of their history. That old leather jacket hanging in the closet, which had not fit or looked quite right on him for some time, reminds us that grandpa was once young like us; he was cool. He also likely came from a generation acquainted with the lean years and knew they could come at the most unexpected time. So, he invested in quality over quantity, and though worn, that leather jacket is still in good shape.

When I was younger, I would think of many of the things my grandfather had as being “old” and junky. However, as an adult, I have made several visits to my grandparents and find myself admiring some of that old stuff. I think about the numerous tools I have had to replace because I bought cheap instead of quality. I look around at the old tools in grandpa’s garage with some envy because, though they aren’t as nice and shiny as the new stuff, they are still getting the job done. I think there is a lesson there in being a man: focus more on being useful and less on keeping your shine. If you are made of the right stuff, you might look worn, but you’ll outlast the rest.

Final Thoughts

We know our grandfathers as farmers, workers, hunters, and family men. But we so often see only the end result and miss the details - the unique things about them that made them “grandpa” in our minds. One of my grandfathers carried change in his pocket, which made him jingle a bit when he walked. When the grandkids would gather round, he would throw out a pocket full of change on the floor and let us scrounge for it. It became a game, and we would always ask for him to “throw his money”. It is strange to think that something as commonplace as coins would be associated with an antiquated time.  

Our grandpas may have had good taste, a knack for simplicity and quality, but whatever interesting tales might be unraveled from their pockets, what I believe to be the most important things that they carried, they carried on the inside.

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