Here’s the picture that comes to mind when I think about my Grandpa Johnson; he’s wearing a buttoned-up plaid collar shirt tucked into slacks pulled high over his protruding belly. He has a fisherman cap pulled over his head protecting his ears and forehead from that damn sunshine. He’s standing in front of his trailer parked in heaps of gravel at our family’s property outside of Calpine, CA. He has a broom in his hand and he’s sweeping off the trailer steps. He’s obliviously preoccupied in his labor and seems to be enjoying every simple moment of it.
Most every memory I have of him either involves him working tediously on some little chore he’s made for himself, or has him slowly raising a piece of food to his face. He worked hard and ate well.
I remember visiting him at his home in Dixon. We’d arrive and knock on the front door for a few minutes. No answer. Ring the doorbell. Wait…still no answer. My mom would roll her eyes and say that he needed to put his hearing aids in for once in his stubborn life. After giving up on the front door we’d make our way around to the backyard and there he’d be swinging a pickaxe into the soil, an undershirt stretched across his wrinkled skin and his perfectly ironed slacks somehow avoiding the stains of explosive soil. We’d have to yell “hey” more than once; each time more loudly than the one before. He would always stop to chat. In fact I think he looked for conversations to take him away from the slavish labor he forced upon himself. He would show us his small harvest of gigantic squash, zucchini, and tomato. He was quick to give these vegetables away to his neighbors, his tenants and family. He often came bearing edible gifts.
He’d be the first to tell you about new restaurants in town summarizing their specials, his favorite dish and their reasonable prices. We had some great food moments with him. Some of the greatest times had with Grandpa were during Reno’s classic car show “Hot August Nights”. My Dad, brother and I would head up the hill to spend a weekend at the Nugget casino. Grandpa had a lot of money invested into that casino by way of his slot play so he was compensated for his losses with great room rates and free buffet dinners. We benefited from his losses on the slots as well. We’d walk around Reno’s strip spending eight-hour days gawking at classic cars. Grandpa knew everything about these cars and it was sort of a game for me to find a car that he knew nothing about. Rarely did I find him ignorant about the cars, as he’d owned most of the makes and models at some point in his life.
I remember one instance where we were driving along in his Ford F-150. Our conversation had stopped since the sounds of the road prevented my voice from carrying to his ancient ears. I began to curiously browse around his center console. I remember he always had a plastic trash bag with an American flag on the front reading, “Keep America Beautiful”. He’d put his used Kleenex in this bag, along with candy wrappers and occasional rubber bands. Behind this trash bag was his tape collection. I had recently heard Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” cover for the first time and I noticed that Grandpa had a large collection of his albums. I picked up an album and commented on how much I liked Cash. My grandpa could miraculously hear and was shocked that we shared a musical interest. You could feel his excitement in the cab of the truck as we drove. We popped it into the player and listened together. He made mention of certain lyrics he liked and how there isn’t anyone who has a voice like Johnny these days. We listened as if there weren’t two generations between us. We listened as equals admiring the same beauty. Perhaps that’s why I love music so much today because it’s powerful enough to transcend nearly anything; whether that’s age, culture, time, or whatever.
My memories are scattered when I think of Grandpa. Some are fuzzy recollections of moments, like a scene fading in a movie. Others are very clear like the time he forced us kids to shove an entire chicken potpie into our five to eight-year old bellies. We complained, cried and stretched our stomachs as he lectured us on the importance of finishing what we’ve started. I remember digging ditches with him only to fill them back in. We gathered brush, limbs, and yard waste to build up massive burn piles. After every long day of work we’d reward ourselves with ridiculous amounts of food. These are random memories, but these are the ones that are most accessible in my mind.
Even though Grandpa’s gone I know that I’ll see him in a number of places from here on out. Every time I visit the ranch I’ll see him in his cowboy boots and fisherman cap. Every time I see a classic car I’ll think about all the information Grandpa probably knew about it. Every time I feel my stomach stretched by a big meal I’ll think about the food we shared and the countless times we were brought together around a dinner table. He’ll be on my mind when I’m digging a ditch or toiling in the sun because it was him who taught my Dad and I how to work hard. I’ll think of him anytime somebody uses the phrase “doggone it” or “I’ll be darn”. I’ll think of him when I hear an accordion played; seeing his wrinkled fingers going up and down the keys. I’ll laugh when I think of the times he’d make a fuss about all the idiots driving on the freeways these days. He’ll be in my thoughts and memories in lots of different ways. One image remains more clearly than any other; he’s standing in the meadow at the ranch wearing a plaid collar shirt, fisherman hat on, and a clever smile spread across his face. This is the Don Johnson that I knew as Grandpa.