What Grandpa Said

Grandpa liked to talk. He was not one to blather on about himself; he did not talk to hear himself talk. But he enjoyed a good conversation, and you could be sure he would do his part to keep that conversation lively. Grandpa’s language was usually colorful and plenty salty but never vulgar. Listening to Grandpa talk was fun because of the things he said.

Grandpa Ray was a master of metaphors and aphorisms, even if he didn’t know what those were. His eighth-grade education did not provide him with much sophistication, but his hardscrabble farmboy upbringing gave him a unique perspective on life and living.

Just as he enjoyed good conversation, he loved eating, and talking about eating.  Coming in from a long day in the fields or woods Grandpa usually had built up a good appetite, often saying “I’m so hungry my stomach thinks my throat is cut.” After enjoying a big meal or an especially good piece of cake or pie, he would say “I wish I was bigger so I could eat more.”

Grandpa always had a colorful way of describing certain events, people or things.  An icy sidewalk was “slicker than snot on a doorknob.” Something moving very fast through or past an obstacle was “like s**t through a long-necked goose.” A guy who told tall tales or talked a lot about himself was “so full of s**t his eyes were turning brown.” Such a man may also qualify for the application of another of Grandpa’s sayings: “he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” He did tend toward the scatological.  When he needed a beer it was because he was “drier than a fart in a windstorm.”

Another phrase he borrowed from Grandma. Whenever she talked about something she didn’t like or didn’t understand she would use the term “ferluvnermunny”.  For example, when talking about traveling to or in the Twin Cities she would say, “why, the traffic down there is just crazy. Cars coming at you from all directions. I wouldn’t live down there ferluvnermunny.” Translation: for love nor money. It kind sounds like she considers these equivalent, but I don’t think that’s what she means. Even today Grandma often evokes Grandpa: “I know Raymond always used to say…”

A lifelong Democrat, Grandpa was not above talking politics.  A favorite saying he borrowed from his dad, a farmer, went as follows: “Never trust a man in a suit. He may be a banker or a lawyer or a revenuer. But you can be damn sure he’s a Republican.” I never thought of Grandpa as a racist, but he would occasionally say things that made me wince. Southern Minnesota farm country in the 1920s and 30s was not a place you where you would learn about racial justice. Grandpa was a product of his time.

One of the funniest things I ever heard Grandpa say happened on a fishing trip in Canada. This story requires a little background, but I’ll write more about our Canadian adventures in a future post.  On my third trip there, when I was about 15, I was lucky enough to hook what was probably the biggest pike I’ve ever seen.  I fought it for about 20 minutes, trying to get it close to the boat so Dan, the guy sitting in the bow, could net it.  Finally, I got it within three feet of the gunwale and Dan reached out with the net. He got the fish just out of the water; I remember it barely folding up in the net. Then the big pike straightened out and the next thing we heard was a big SPLASH! The fish was gone. The double-hooked smelt rig I had on was mangled, the hooks almost straightened back into wire. The pike had torn a gaping hole in the net. (It turns out Grandpa packed an old, rotting landing net instead of a new one he’d bought for the trip.) I turned to Grandpa who was manning the motor and said, “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry.”

When we got back to our fish camp that afternoon, the story was told and retold to the guys in the other boat, who had gone a different direction that day.  As the beer flowed and the whisky bottle made its way around the campfire, the one that got away got bigger and bigger.  Apparently, it was the biggest fish Dan had ever seen too.  He couldn’t stop talking about it. Finally, Grandpa got tired of hearing him talk about it and said so. Then he said:

“Your mouth is flapping like a whippoorwill’s ass during chokecherry season.”

The little fish camp erupted with laughter. We were literally rolling on the ground with tears in our eyes. They could probably hear us in Winnipeg that night.

Grandpa was never a rich man, but he knew how fortunate he was. When he was relaxing in a boat or a lawn chair or driving through the countryside just enjoying the day, he would say “I wonder what the poor (or rich) people are doing today.” He wasn’t a snob, but he felt rich.

This is what I take away from my experiences with Grandpa Ray. Anyone who enjoys life as he did is rich indeed.

Grandpa Ray and Will Rogers

Ok, so Grandpa never met Will Rogers.* But he felt the same way as Will, who once said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Grandpa could make friends with just about anybody. He was especially good at making friends with people who knew where the fish were biting.

Of course, Grandpa met a lot of people over the years, at the Cozy Coach in Westbury, delivering mail, as a county agent, selling crop insurance….Even those who didn’t know him in the area knew of him. At Emmaville a couple of years ago, I met a man named Ron who grew up around Two Inlets, another small berg in the middle of nowhere, and who enjoyed the occasional beer in the Two Inlets Store. Grandpa and Grandma had some good friends who were Ron’s neighbors and often met them for beers around the little horseshoe bar at the store. Ron didn’t recall Grandpa by name when I mentioned him, but when I described him, he knew exactly who I was talking about: “oh, yeah, real loud guy, laughed real loud and drank a lot of beer.” Yeah, that was my Grandpa.

Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside taverns (he called them beer joints) when he traveled, and always managed to strike up a conversation with someone. Story after story was told. One round would lead to another, and the next thing you know, Grandpa was planning a fishing/hunting/camping trip with the guy. He and Grandma had friendships with people all over the country, dating back to the 1940s. Year after year, Grandpa or Grandma would call them up just to see how they were.  Grandma was a good letter writer and kept up correspondence with a lot of the folks they met.

Every summer, all summer long, Grandpa and Grandma would have company. Friends would come from far and wide to stay and do some fishing down at Floyd Lake. Grandpa never passed up the chance to take his guests fishing.  He reveled in watching their reactions when the sunnies were really biting.

Grandpa was fascinated with the way people lived in other places and in other cultures. He often told the story of some folks from Chicago who came for a wedding. Upon arrival at my grandparents’ farm in the woods, the city folks marveled at the surrounding “wilderness”. One man wondered how anyone could make a living where there were no offices or factories. After Grandpa had given the bride and groom a celebratory ride in a manure spreader behind his tractor, one of the Chicagoans asked about the contraption. Grandpa asked the fellow if he had been in the army and if he remembered “honey wagons.” The light of recognition went on; they had found a way to relate. That story always made him chuckle.

In their later years, Grandpa and Grandma spent the winters near Brownsville in Texas. After spending a few years trying to figure out how to fish the Rio Grande, Grandpa befriended a Mexican-American guy he met on the river.  Soon he was having success on the Rio, but he also enjoyed visiting the man and his family and learning about their lives.

A more poignant story involved Grandpa’s one and only elk hunt in Montana.  After several days of hard hunting, he was still waiting for an opportunity to see elk within shooting range.  Driving near Neihart in the Little Belt Mountains, Grandpa and his friend Darrell Abbott, a rancher from Gilt Edge, spotted a herd of cows several hundred yards away.  Grandpa decided it was his last best chance, got out of the truck and took a shot. It was a good one – he knocked a cow elk down. While Darrell continued hunting, Grandpa hiked up to his kill and began dressing out the elk.  As he was working away, he began to wonder how in the world he was going to get the elk down from the mountainside.  Just then, another hunter came along on horseback and offered to help.  He showed Grandpa how to quarter and bone out the animal and together they packed the meat down to the truck.  By the time they were done, Grandpa had a new friend.

The man was a local, a retired prison guard and offered to host Grandpa the next year on another hunt.  Grandpa was excited about the trip, having talked with his friend during the year to firm up plans.  Then he got the sad news: his new friend was killed in a car accident, pulling out of his driveway.  Grandpa and Grandma traveled out to Montana for the funeral of his friend. He never went on another elk hunt.

I often wish I had friends like Grandpa did. I tell myself these are different times; people don’t socialize like they used to do. But really, the formula remains the same: make a friend, be a friend. Stay in touch. Make plans and follow through. Whenever I think about the way Grandpa lived I am reminded that having friends is a responsibility.

Another famous man Grandpa actually did meet, Hubert Humphrey, once said, “the greatest gift of life is friendship and I have received it.” Grandpa may not have said it in so many words, but his life reflected this truth.



*Sorry, I couldn’t resist using that title as a hook!







Better than Christmas

March and April seemed to last forever when I was a kid. Nothing to do but watch the snow melt and the mud dry. This was also the Lenten season, when I gave up cookies or chocolate for 40 days. Easter Sunday couldn’t come soon enough. My birthday during the first week of April was a bit of a reprieve, unless it fell during Lent, then no chocolate cake for me.

But the hardest part of waiting out March and April was anticipating the opening of fishing season the second Saturday in May. This was the most exciting day of the year for me, bigger than my birthday or Easter Sunday or maybe even Christmas. Fishing Opener meant spending the weekend with my grandparents at Island Lake.

Leading up to the big day, I would go through my tackle box, making sure I had enough hooks, sinkers, leaders and swivels. I carefully untangled the Daredevil spoons and sorted them by color and size. By late April, most of the snow had melted and formed small ponds in the fields surrounding our home. These made perfect locations for casting practice. Having had to slog through the muck a few times to retrieve a lure hung up on some stubble or a rock, I learned to take the treble hooks off and practice with a blank lure.

On the Friday before Opener, my grandparents would pick me up after school on their way to the lake. I don’t think I learned much in school on those Fridays; the anticipation was so hard to contain. Grandpa would have his 14′ Lund loaded in the back of the pickup, inverted with the bow above the cab, and the Hiawatha camper hitched up. I imagined how jealous my classmates were as they watched me climb in.

I always thought the drive to Island Lake, along Minnesota 34, was beautiful, no matter the weather. The scenery heading east from Detroit Lakes transitions from scattered oak stands in fields to dense hardwoods and then to a mix of hardwoods and pine in the hills further east. Having grown up surrounded by farmland, I’ve always been attracted to the beauty and mystery of the Minnesota northwoods. Spotting the first majestic white pine along the highway, somewhere around Toad Lake, was always a highlight for me.

The only part of the drive I didn’t like was the annual stop at Hanson’s Flyway on Height-of-Land Lake. Lawrence Hanson ran a small bar and gas station along the highway, and loved to tell stories to anyone who would listen. As I learned growing up, Grandpa loved to stop at small roadside joints for a beer or two and a story or three. So I would get a candy bar and bottle of pop and sit and wait, spinning on a bar stool until it was finally time to go.

Island Lake lies northeast of Height-of-Land in eastern Becker County. In addition to several islands, the lake features an assortment of points, bars and other structures, which make for excellent walleye habitat. The fishing was great, as well as I can remember, in my early years. Like with most lakes that receive a lot of fishing pressure, fishing at Island seemed to decline over time. But that didn’t discourage us from coming back every year.

After setting up the camper and unloading the boat, Grandpa and I would sit down and go through our tackle to plot our strategy. We’d check the rods and reels, changing line if necessary. Grandpa taught me how to tie knots, pick sinker weights and put together the best presentation to fool the wily walleye. For me, the anticipation continued to build. I couldn’t wait for Opening morning.

We usually headed out just after daybreak, with Grandpa at the helm, Grandma on the middle bench and me at the bow. We had our favorite spots: the Moosehead, the Sunken Island, Barrel Bay (“like catching fish in a barrel”), and others. Grandma would hand out the minnows, but she would not touch the leeches. We would fish until mid-morning, come in for lunch, and then head out again in the late afternoon and fish until dark.

I always liked fishing in the evening the best, enjoying the colors of sunset, the silhouettes of the pine trees along the shore and the calls of the loons. According one of Grandpa’s favorite stories, I didn’t always like the loons. One evening when I was probably 7 or 8, I said “I wish those loons would quit making all that noise.” Apparently, it was affecting my concentration!

Most years we were joined at Island Lake by Uncle Dewey and Aunt Elsie from Brooklyn Center. Uncle Dewey was Grandma’s only brother and a World War II vet who fought all the way across Europe. Being really into all things WWII, I was fascinated by him. Dewey wasn’t one to tell a lot of stories, but once in a while he would talk about his experiences and answer my questions. Aunt Elsie always brought really decadent treats to share and had an infectious laugh.

Uncle Dewey drove a fancy Buick Electra, the first car I ever saw with electric windows and air conditioning. He had a contraption mounted on top that would allow him to load and unload the boat by himself. Grandpa gave him a hard time about living in the lap of luxury. Grandpa would also grumble about Mitzi, the little poodle that went everywhere with Elsie.

When I was little, I thought I would always want to be with Granydpa and Grandma at Island Lake. But that changed when I got to high school. It so happened that the high school prom fell on the same weekend as the Opener. Although I didn’t have a girlfriend, I still asked a girl to prom, because that’s what everybody did. Grandpa and Grandma seemed to understand. Looking back now, I would rather have gone fishing.