This is an essay I wrote about my grandfather and posted on Facebook one year ago on the 100th anniversary of his birth. I’ve decided to publish it here, with a few updates and revisions, because I want it archived more properly; and because I’m proud of this piece of writing and proud of him.
Today would have been my Grandpa Hal Bates’s 101st birthday. He died in 2000 at the age of 78.
I was working on an organic farm in upstate New York when I got the phone call from my sister that he’d died. The setting was appropriate given he was raised on a farm and I got my love of growing vegetables from him. I didn’t cry when I heard the news, though I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I cried later that night when I realized I couldn’t afford the flight to Oregon for his funeral.
He was a country boy from Arkansas, but moved to Oregon after World War II, joining a wave of Southern migration to the northwest. He lived there the rest of his life. I lived in Oregon for a total of six years of my childhood (my dad was in the army and we moved often); but in those six years and during our many visits we became very close.
Grandpa was a veteran of the war: he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the American units who liberated concentration camps at the end of the war. So he witnessed the Holocaust firsthand, and as a result he had PTSD the rest of his life. I remember my mom telling me he used to sleep with the lights on.
He would tell stories about the war from time to time, though not in any kind of a macho or bragging way, mostly funny anecdotes. But he didn’t talk about the camps.
The one time I heard him briefly talk about that part of it, when I was thirteen, was a really harrowing moment. He was visibly upset because something he’d seen on TV reminded him of it. It was the debut of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, which was a massive TV event that year, and my mom, excited about it, had called her parents and told them to put it on. This didn’t pan out well; the dancing zombies in the video suddenly recalled the camps for my grandpa — who was never into horror movies, probably for this very reason — and he had a bad reaction.
I remember the next day like it was last week; the things he said about the memories that came back to him watching the video still haunt me. As much as I love that song and video, I can’t see it without thinking about grandpa.
He’d never left his county in Arkansas when he went to war at the age of 22; some of his comrades had never left Brooklyn. I often wonder what Europe and the enormity of the war must have seemed like to poor and working-class soldiers who’d never left home and weren’t much more than boys. After I moved to New York in the 90s, I remember my mom telling me how awed by the city grandpa was when he passed through on his way to Europe.
He had a faded tattoo on his arm that he got in the war, a classic heart with an arrow through it and the word MOTHER. Below is the telegram he sent his mother, Ida, from Camp Kilmer, New Jersey on January 24, 1946, letting her know he’d survived the war. “This was the happyest moment of my life,” she wrote on it.
Grandpa drove a crane at a lumber yard in Springfield, Oregon for years. He was proud of it but he was very working-class in the sense that it was a job, not a career. He didn’t talk about work all that much; I never visited him there and only saw one photo of him in the crane. He retired as soon as he could, at 62, and enjoyed the heck out of his retirement without pining away for work as far as I know.
He had heart surgery in the 70s and lived 25 more years afterwards. I remember the scars on his chest.
He was younger than I am now when I was born in 1970 (I was his first grandkid).
My earliest memory of him, which is also my earliest memory, is when we moved back to Oregon from Germany, when I was almost three. He and my grandma were so happy to see me and my sister. I have a vivid memory of sitting on a barstool in their kitchen while they smiled and laughed. Later he took us to the Lane County Fair. I remember getting ice cream and riding a ride with him (it’s also possible I’m collapsing two separate memories together into one day, but you get the idea). At that time he would have been the age I am now.
He kept his Arkansas drawl and his country way of talking his whole life. If I tried to imitate it you would think I was kidding. He really did greet people by saying “Howdyyy!” (accompanied by a firm, animated handshake). When something amused or puzzled him he would mutter quietly, “Well durn!” and “durn” would be really stretched out and musical. He talked slowwww and his voice was deep; he sang bass in the church choir.
He would say, “I’m gonna go to the store,” and the words would run together, “go t’the store,” so that it came out sounding like “goat the store.” Two-by-four was “two b’four.” When company was coming over it was “comp’ny.” He would say “I’m gonna fix me a sandwich.” I catch myself talking like him sometimes without thinking about it.
He was conservative and old-fashioned, but looking back, he was very much the opposite of a bullying, insecure, arrogant type of man who fits that stereotype. He was very soft-spoken and unassuming, and kind and supportive. He never bragged about himself or put himself first or interrupted when someone was talking. When I would see him interacting with those kinds of men (like some other relatives of mine), it was really striking.
He was a devout Christian all his life — he co-founded a Baptist church in Springfield which still exists. He was that seemingly rare type of Christian who really tried to live up to those principles of being selfless, kind, humble and generous.
A practical way he showed this, which set him apart from many men of his generation: he would often help my Grandma Anolia with the dishes and around the house. Not that he wasn’t more typical in other ways, but that’s something I think about a lot, especially in my role as a househusband.
A couple of times when I’ve done the dishes at my mom’s house, she’s told me I do them just like he did: cleaning each dish one at a time under running water, instead of filling the sink and letting them soak.
Apparently I’m like him in other ways too. Often when I’m talking to my mom and I mention not being a typical guy, stuff like, “I’m just not very handy with fixing things” or “I’m not a car guy,” she’ll say, “Well, that was your grandpa too.”
His and my grandma’s idea of recreation was very mid-century, working-class, and West Coast: they loved camping and fishing, and their idea of a vacation was driving to Reno to gamble.
Grandpa loved gambling. He taught me how to play craps one night at the little dining table in his camper when we were on a fishing trip. He had this kind of mischievous expression when he was showing me how to roll and all the names of the rolls (most of which I’ve long forgotten, except for Snake Eyes). My mom was not happy when she found out about that!
He also taught me how to fish, how to mow a lawn, and how to plant and look after a vegetable garden.
Gardening was a big passion of his. Every summer he carefully and lovingly cultivated a huge veggie garden in his backyard. It was so perfect — the perfectly square patch, the perfect rows of corn and beans — it was like something from the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. My siblings and I used to love helping him with the planting and weeding and picking; but he was also really exacting with us, making sure we did everything just right. Besides corn and beans he grew tomatoes, bell peppers, crookneck squash, cucumbers, radishes and jalapeños.
This is probably his biggest influence on me: the fact that I’m happiest in my veggie garden — though mine is so rambling and messy compared to his and nowhere near as productive. Looking back I’m amazed at how consistently productive his garden was. A portion of the green bean crop was canned by my grandma for use over the winter — a survival tactic from their days growing up on subsistence farms during the Depression, which lived on as a tradition in their household.
The smell of tomatoes on the vine will always strongly remind me of him. Those little olfactory flashbacks happen regularly at this time of year, the end of summer in Australia, because tending to the tomatoes in my garden is a daily routine. I picked tomatoes on the farm where I worked the same day I got the news he’d died, and that was intense.
Grandpa liked to cut up cukes or tomatoes (“t’mata’s” is how he said it) fresh from the garden and eat them with salt and pepper. He would also pick a jalapeño and just eat the whole thing raw like an apple. He liked spicy food. He used to make this spicy pinto bean stew in his crockpot — spending all day stirring it, tasting it, and adding ingredients. I have such great memories of sitting at the bar in the kitchen and watching him working on it.
After I became a vegetarian, he told me he knew what that was like because he was more or less a vegetarian when he was young during the Depression. Not by choice but because they couldn’t afford anything else. I love that memory because it was an example of him being kind and generous about something different in me, instead of being dismissive about it.
Periodically he and my grandma would whip up a Southern-style feast and it hardly ever included meat. Cornbread, pinto beans, fried okra, turnip greens, and garden-fresh green beans, corn on the cob and tomatoes.
Grandpa loved fishing; he spent a lot of time doing it and he was very meticulous and scientific about it. He especially loved salmon fishing on the ocean, and fishing for kokonee (a kind of landlocked freshwater salmon) in the mountain lakes of Oregon.
The first time he took me salmon fishing on the ocean, when I was ten or eleven, I ended up getting seasick. When I was done throwing up over the side of his boat, he nonchalantly handed me a cup of black coffee from his thermos. I caught two salmon that morning, my first. My euphoric memories of that day might have to do with the caffeine as much as the achievement and the bonding.
When we got back from a summer fishing trip to the coast there would usually be a backyard barbecue, and he would grill the fresh-caught salmon. It would be served at their picnic table, often accompanied by the above-mentioned Southern-style feast. My three siblings and I all agree on this: those summertime backyard feasts are the happiest memories of our lives. If you know us you probably get tired of us bringing them up wistfully all the time.
He also loved smoking salmon. His smoker was out at the other end of the backyard under the apple tree — the old tree whose sour apples I would stubbornly and opportunistically consume in all states: young and bitterly unripe, brown and rotting on the ground, you name it.
On special occasions he made homemade ice cream on the back porch with this old fashioned machine that had a wooden bucket. It’s still the best ice cream I’ve ever had: I loved how coarse and mealy it was. To this day this is why I don’t like thick creamy ice cream such as gelato. At my grandma’s retirement party I ate so much of his homemade ice cream I threw up.
One of his favorite afternoon snacks was my grandma’s cornbread crumbled up in a tall glass of buttermilk. He would eat the whole thing with a long iced-tea spoon. I guess that was an Arkansas thing (my cousin says her mom called it “Arkie dessert”). When I was a kid I thought it was gross, but now, thinking about how much I love salty Indian lassi, or laban, the Arabic buttermilk beverage, it was probably really tasty! I need to try that Arkie dessert soon.
Another thing Grandpa was passionate about was bowling. He and my grandma were in a league for years, they were pretty dedicated, and they had lots of trophies in their house. I never saw them play in their league, though they took us to practice a couple of times. I was probably a drag because I thought bowling was boring.
His favorite baseball team was the St. Louis Cardinals, and his favorite ballplayer was the great Stan Musial — Stan the Man as Grandpa and everyone else called him. When Musial died in 2013, the first thing I thought of was Grandpa, as I did in 2006 and 2011 when the Cards won the World Series. For years I thought it was random that he picked that team; then one day I looked on a map and saw how close St. Louis is to Arkansas. I’m guessing they might have picked up the radio broadcasts from there when he was a kid.
I remember my sister and I going to visit Grandpa and Grandma when I was nine, in the summer of 1980, and spending two weeks with them. That was a special time for us — our first stay away from home without our parents. I remember when we arrived how happy he was to see us and tell us all our plans. We would go camping and fishing, of course. He also announced he had tickets for a Eugene Emeralds game. They were the local minor-league baseball team, a farm club for the San Francisco Giants. I was obsessed with baseball at that age, and he knew that. It was my first time seeing a professional game, and I was utterly amazed.
That first day of our vacation, we sat on his back porch in the long Oregon summer evening, with the sprinklers soaking the grass so we could collect worms for fishing after nightfall, and he talked about the gray jay that lived in the huge tree that towered over the backyard. “That ol’ jay,” as he called it, had been eyeing his garden. I have this wonderful memory of going out later that night with flashlights to collect the worms from the wet grass and put them in coffee cans.
It must sound like I’m making all this up, like it’s from a corny nostalgic coming-of-age movie. A lot of this post must sound that way!
At the same time he could be impatient with us kids and sometimes a bit grumpy. He could be a bit distant too. Looking back I don’t mind that because he was never mean or abusive — he was real, and didn’t try to pretend to be happy or cheerful all the time. As much as he made time for us, he definitely valued time to himself too. He didn’t like noise or commotion and would let you know if you were disturbing him.
I sometimes see reflections of all the different ways he was with me in my relationship with my eight-year-old son.
My main visual memory of Grandpa is him standing with his hands in his pockets. He was very casual like that, in his country-boy way. He also stooped a bit because he was tall.
He had a little black terrier named Terry that he loved to death, and loved to indulge. She would sit in his lap while he was watching TV; he would feed her pieces of his dinner. She was bad-tempered, and mean to everyone else but him, and I don’t think anyone else loved her but him.
He used to let us ride in the back of his red Ford pickup truck when he drove around town. This must sound like a Gen-X meme page: I’d never let my son do that now but I used to love it.
His pickup, the little camper that fit over it, and his little blue-and-white fishing boat with the outboard motors: these are objects I can picture with amazing clarity though it’s been 40 years since I saw them.
He was a big fan of country music, and so was I as a kid — the first stage in my journey as a music fan. His taste in country would be considered exquisite by a lot of music fans compared to the last 30 years of commercial country. His favorites were artists like Merle Haggard, George Jones, Buck Owens — practically alt-country by today’s standards.
My first live gig was when he took me to see Owens at the Oregon State Fair in Salem, at some point in the late 70s. I also have really happy memories of going to see Haggard and Charley Pride with him and my whole family on back-to-back nights at the Lane County Fair in 1981, when I was ten. Pride was a Black country singer who, as it happens, is hugely popular in the Aboriginal community in Australia. Living here, I’m periodically reminded of Grandpa and my upbringing because of that. Both of those shows were so good, and I’m pretty sure I would still think so.
However, he was also into country balladeers like Slim Whitman and Burl Ives who verged on easy listening. I remember one road trip with him in his truck — he’d just gotten this Slim Whitman album on cassette and that’s what we had to listen to, to my dismay. At the time (age eleven or so), I was more into long-haired country-rock like the Charlie Daniels Band and Willie Nelson. I thought Slim Whitman was hopelessly square!
I remember being told that when he was young in Arkansas he was in a country band. He had an acoustic guitar in his bedroom when I was a kid, but I never heard him play it, and he never told me about the band. My cousin says that when she was young, in the 1950s and early 60s, he would sometimes play music with his brothers and friends, and apparently recordings still exist in the family (need to track those down!). I get the feeling that if being a musician was ever a big part of his life, that was long over by the time I was around.
As much as I love Grandpa and treasure his memory, I’m realistic about the differences between us. When I visited Oregon in the summer of 1990, when I was 19, a sophomore in college and a budding radical, we had some uncomfortable disagreements about things like environmentalism and the Mohawk resistance in Quebec, both of which were big in the news that year. I’m sure the awkward long-haired 19-year-old in the Public Enemy t-shirt talking about saving the spotted owl must have been a bit grating for him. If he was less soft-spoken, would we have argued more? I often wonder.
But I also think he would have probably been like my grandma was in later years, and made efforts to accept me. When I went to visit Grandma a few years after he died, when I was 32, I had a long bushy beard and I was the epitome of everything Oregon conservatives love to hate about East Coast leftists. But she was as warm as ever and totally accepting — even compassionate and supportive when I told her about another relative who made fun of my appearance on that trip.
Once when I was thirteen, at the start of 8th grade, Grandpa surprised me one evening by knocking on my bedroom door, the only time he ever did that. He’d heard I wasn’t going to try out for basketball that year after playing the past two years. Basketball was a tradition in our family, and he was concerned and wanted to know why I was letting it go. In his typical way he was gentle about it. I could tell he was disappointed, but not judgmental.
I couldn’t find the words to tell him that team sports made me miserable — no surprise considering I was autistic but undiagnosed — and that I was depressed and struggling with everything that year. I blushed and said something like, “I just didn’t feel like it,” and he shrugged and probably said something like “Well, all right,” and went back to the living room with my mom.
It’s a painful memory because the conversation was over before it started and I wish I could have opened up more. Our family left Oregon for Florida just a few months later, in April of 1985, and the stream of life carried me in different directions far away from him. From then on, the happy hours spent with him were fewer and far between, and planned long in advance. I wish I could have had more time with him.
If you had asked me when I was 30, I would have said he should have been harder on me and pushed me to join the basketball team. I would have said that getting back out there might have made me tougher or taught me life skills or something.
But now that I’m a dad, and now that I know a lot more about myself and why everything was so hard for me, I think he did the right thing being so mild and accepting. It’s not good to push kids into doing things they don’t want to do.
My last memory of Grandpa is of him getting on a plane in Pittsburgh in 1999, after a visit with my parents. The staff insisted he board in a wheelchair because of his health issues, and I remember him smiling and saying, “Well, all right!” in a kind of sheepish but cheerful and accepting way. I really admired him for being that way instead of arguing or being too proud to cooperate. It’s a fitting last memory of him.