There was an old man, long since leather and gray. There was an old pickup, ashtray spilling over and girlie magazines stuffed behind the seats. There was that South Texas clammy sweat, the kind you had when outside was only a different kind of hot than inside. The very air smelled of oil and smoke and dirt. You can keep your digital filters, hell, I can close my eyes and I'm right back there in 1970s Wharton, Texas.
Grandpa asked me if I wanted to go turtle hunting. To a 4-year-old raised on Little Golden Books and Saturday morning cartoons, this didn't sound like fun and I said so. And that was it. Next time I heard of Grandpa, I was in the dim light of the den listening to dad talk on the phone about funeral arrangements and travel plans.
My maternal grandfather had died before I was born, so that left me bereft of old men in my young life. It was a significant loss — but I didn't realize the impact that it had until recently. Turns out, I've been adopting grandfathers ever since.
Two years later when "Star Wars" came out, little boys everywhere were the next Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. But this 6-year-old's favorite character was Obi-Wan Kenobi. And why not? Wise, patient, kind and bad-ass in a bar fight — I had the metal lunch box and the school folder and every line of dialogue memorized.
Twelve years after that came Uncle Woody (don't sweat the details, you'd need a flow chart to figure how we were related). A giant of a 78-year-old, Woody told me he'd worked and smoked cigars "every goddamn day" since he was 13. Think of a meaner, bigger Woodrow Call stuffed into an XL pair of coveralls and you're getting a real good idea who he was, less a run of cussing that you ain't never heard and I ain't heard since.
Woody resented the hell outta being forced to hire me to work on a ranch not far from Normangee, owned by another "uncle" whose connection is a little easier to reckon (my aunt's ex-brother-in-law). He'd a worked me stupid if he'd been a decade younger or I any less stubborn.
But I listened, I asked the right questions, I didn't ask the wrong ones. And by the end of the summer ... no, he didn't shed a tear or cease to swear, but he shook my hand and asked me to stay ... or maybe, sometime, come back and do a little goddamn work.
In between Obi-Wan and Uncle Woody came Tuke, who taught me everything I never wanted to know about horses and a whole lot about not underestimating little old ladies. You might think she'd be missing a key part of being a stand-in grandfather, but she could carry on about old tools and trucks and carry a bale of hay under each arm and a ton of philosophy under her hat.
Even my musical tastes ran quickly away from long-haired metal bands of my teen years and toward the gray-haired pickers I've long since followed. Greatest and chief among them is Willie Nelson. Everybody's grandfather now, he's the teller of deep truths and dirty jokes. A little funny smoke can't obscure the wisdom I'm still seeking.
I have to admit I've always fetishized wisdom, to the point where I convinced my younger self I was prematurely wise. I now know I'll sooner be prematurely bald. Not much I can do about my run as a philosophy major or my cringe-worthy pronouncements than try to look to the future and hope nobody was paying attention in the past. I should've paid attention to Socrates, who said that his wisdom was only that he knew he knew nothing.
In this digital era, do kids still seek the wisdom of age? Can a grandfather compete with Google? I watch my oldest boy with his grandfathers and realize analog isn't obsolete yet, but how long will that last? What wisdom will I be able to share? My future tales of a life before the Web -- when unplugged meant not just wireless, but unentangled altogether -- will certainly generate wonder, but very little of the type of awe inspired by the old men of my youth.
Of course, the Greatest Generation was easy to admire. Jalapeño Sam Lewis was a tail gunner during World War II, but never spoke of it to me and I didn't ask. It seems like a monumental oversight on my part now, but it was hard then to connect the ugly business of war to this bundle of positive energy for whom the word "spry" might have been invented.
I wandered into his office one afternoon in San Angelo and he adopted me on the spot. Soon I was learning the finer points of armadillos and chili cookoffs. Days off would find me in a van hurtling toward Terlingua. Or in the Luckenbach dancehall watching him dance all night with every girl. He lived on coffee and celebrated with root beer. He gave because he enjoyed the giving. Sam was a saint to balance out the old devils and demons I've known.
After many years of making friends with weathered barflies straight out of a Guy Clark song and listening to advice from old barbers and bartenders, Sam was probably the closest I got to what I missed. We grew close, had time to wander apart and grow close again. I grew up and moved to the big city, but managed to visit just before the end.
Sam will be teaching me lessons on kindness and giving for years to come. But that ain't to say I'm gonna be much like him — I've long since been aiming at the grumpy old man with the secret (don't tell nobody!) heart of gold.
Somewhere between that weathered old man in Wharton and that spry old guy in San Angelo.