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May 17, 2012 / hippiechickamblings

Little Big Man

As a kid, my grandfather (Dad’s dad) fascinated me, partly because he was the oldest person I knew. Also, since he was a man of few words, I figured I should listen when he did have something to say. Though he barely stood over five feet tall, with the broad features and tawny coloring of his Cherokee mother, there was an aura of quiet intensity and power about him that made him appear large.

Papaw was born in a time when the last of the Sioux were being slaughtered by greedy whites in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and Civil War veterans were still part of the American landscape. By the time he’d grown old, he’d seen his country undergo mind-boggling changes, and he hated most of them. Modern attitudes bewildered him, and he was saddened by what he viewed as a savage world of wanton waste and greed. He said, “Men have ripped  out every bit of riches under the ground to be had. He’s stripped everything good that God put above ground. What’s left? To destroy the sky?”

English: Cherokee Confederate reunion in New O...

English: Cherokee Confederate reunion in New Orleans in 1903 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He never believed astronauts had landed on the moon. It was a huge hoax, he thought, a movie filmed in the desert to try to make fools of us all.

With little to no formal education, he was  still an avid reader and self-taught man. Regardless of not being a big church-goer, he could quote chapter and verse of the Bible on any topic you could name. Family legend had it that he’d once kept someone from bleeding to death by quoting a particular Bible verse in repetition. When I asked him about this, he responded that if God’s word had been powerful enough to create the heavens and earth, it could surely stop the flow of blood. He read everything he could find on Abraham Lincoln and talked about him so much, I figured the two of them must’ve been boyhood friends.

He never owned a car, never traveled farther than where his two legs or his mule could take him. He never spoke a word on a telephone or saw the need for television. Late in life, however, he developed a fondness for watching Gunsmoke on a small black-and-white set he finally agreed to get. (Of course, the set had to be unplugged every hour or so to keep it from getting “hot.”)

He always wore a fedora-style hat, even in the house and at the dinner table, and lace-up leather shoes. There was a stalwart dignity about his person, a modesty of behavior and speech that led you to know you’d never get by with having a potty mouth in his presence. As a black lung sufferer, his health deteriorated rapidly in later years and he became unable to attend to his personal grooming. As it often happens, more of his care fell on my aunt, who lived next-door. She once made the mistake of suggesting that he allow her to draw him a bath and help him in the tub. He was scandalized. He let her know in no uncertain terms that he would die before he’d let her see his “make.”

When I was about eight or nine, he introduced me to a culinary creation known as “soak-crust (my little brother called it “soap-crust” until he was old enough to drive). Soak-crust was made by taking a large, rounded cup of creamy coffee, adding two, carefully torn biscuits, and waiting for them to soak up all the coffee. The entire blob was then inverted onto a saucer, revealing the most amazing cake-thing imaginable. Not exactly French cuisine, but delicious!

Papaw didn’t treat me like a child, never talked down to me, and I liked that immensely. He spoke to me as an equal, and that made me prefer his company to that of a lot of kids I knew. Countless hours I’ve spent in a cane-bottom chair by the fire in his bedroom, listening as he relived his tale of a small boy growing up too fast and too poor in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, of going underground at an age when other kids were learning long division, of using a pick to gouge coal out of a hillside, loading it on the backs of mules. He’d stop once in a while to adjust his squealing hearing aids and quarrel at them. “Get in there, confound you,” he’d mutter. And I’d sit, hanging on every word, watching the flames dance in the grate, eating my soak-crust. What’s not to love about that?


Leave a Comment
  1. Slone / May 17 2012 10:48 am

    My papaw swore the moon landings were a hoax.

  2. hippiechickamblings / May 17 2012 11:32 am

    Apparently, there were enough “doubters” to qualify officially as a club. I saw a feature on “60 Minutes” about it once. My grandfather would’ve never joined, though. He didn’t trust large groups!

  3. tdhenson / Jun 1 2012 1:08 am


    • hippiechickamblings / Jun 1 2012 1:10 am


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