I never knew my grandpa on my dad’s side very well. He passed away when I was eighteen from a disease that rendered him quiet and withdrawn towards the end of his life. I remember him as a kind observer, a Salem cigarette hanging out of his mouth, as he sat outside on an old lawn chair and watched the kids play in the yard. I try to imagine him before he was sick – a navigator flying bombing raids over Germany in WWII, several over Hamburg, the town where my grandmother’s family lived at the time. War is messed up that way.
My grandparents bought an old white Chevy Cavalier when I was in sixth grade. I can still feel the scratchy blue fabric seats on my thighs as my brother and cousin sat in the back on our way to play golf with grandpa. James, my grandpa, was a horrible golfer. His best friend, Huey, who spoke like he was on the Senior Tour, instructed him to always keep his head down in order to hit the ball straight. It worked, only the ball traveled at a high velocity eight inches above grass awarding him the nickname “Meteor Bomb.” Every shot my grandpa hit, be it a driver or a 9-iron, went a hundred yards. He used to tee the ball up and say, “Gimme a look?” which was not so much a question as a command. He would swing and keep his focus on the tee even as he followed though, resisting the temptation to look up. The gimmick worked out pretty well for a while until one day he lined up on the fairway, head down through the entire shot, and didn’t see my brother thirty yards ahead. He meteor bombed a low rocket that connected squarely on Matt’s butt. My brother survived but I don’t think my grandfather ever forgave himself.
The Chevy Cavalier hatchback mechanism broke causing my grandpa to use an old lime green broom handle to prop up the hatch. I swear the hatchback weighted 500 pounds. Without the broom handle, it would come slamming down so hard that we nicknamed the car “The Decapitator.” Often my grandfather would be in the garage, smoke in his mouth, with his head hanging inside the propped up hatchback as he fiddled around in the trunk. We all thought one of those days the handle would snap and he’d lose his head, not that he needed it for golf anyway.
My grandpa loved four things: Salem’s, Mike Sell’s Potato Chips, a Dayton favorite, dark chocolate, and Cheez-Its. He gave up the Salem’s when I was in grade school, but I can still remember the smell of those cigarettes. After he quit, I think he doubled up on the other favorites. He used to nudge me to follow him down to the basement where he kept his dark chocolate stash in a little wooden cigar box. He’d open the box and hand me a few pieces, a shared secret between us to not tell grandma how much he was actually ingesting. When I would stay there as a kid, we would stay up late with our grandparents and watch Cheers reruns and eat Cheez-Its out of brown wooden bowls while The Decapitator slept soundly in the garage.
My car broke down senior year of high school and I borrowed The Decapitator for a week. For being such an old car, my grandpa took pristine care of the paint job. The tires, however, were a different story. They were so bald that they squealed like a chase scene from Fast and Furious when you turned the wheel. I remember I made a turn in my old neighborhood at about four miles per hour, but the tires screeched so loud that a neighborhood mother in her yard dropped her hose, shook her fist at me and yelled, “Slow down!!” Any slower and I would have been at a dead stop.
The Decapitator also had a serious speedometer problem. When you pressed the gas pedal down, the needle flew all the way up to the cars maximum speed, which was only 85mph, and then swung back down to zero. By looking at the speedometer, you could only judge how fast you were traveling within fifty miles per hour. As you cruised along on the freeway, the needle would gently bounce back and forth covering the whole dial like Foucault’s Pendulum. I never got pulled over driving The Decapitator, but if I did, and the officer asked me how fast I was going, I’d have to reply, “Somewhere in the range of twenty to eighty-five.”