When he was sixteen, the world lost its mind, and he lied about his age to go in the Army. I don’t know, at this great distance, what led to that decision – he died before I knew to ask such questions, and he was never much for talking about his inner-life, anyway, so no one I ever could ask did know.
It was the second decade of the last century, and the whole world was at war, and this sixteen-year-old boy, always large for his age, would end up as a pilot, flying planes that had open cockpits and required scarfs and goggles and he would do things nobody should ever have to do and would see things nobody in his hometown had ever dreamed about.
Later, after the war was over, he would return to the States, travel with an air show for a while as a barnstormer, and eventually settle down in North Texas, marry my great grandmother, and have some kids. My mother’s father was his son, and he thought the sun rose and set on me.
He was a large man, about 6’5”, barrel-chested and thick. He wore bib overalls and work shirts and had hands the size of canned hams. He was larger than life in so many ways, not just his size, and he captured all my attention, with his cows and border collies and his 1946 pickup that had lost both third gear and reverse, so driving it took some planning.
He was my Great-Grandfather, but that was a mouthful for a young feller like me, so I called him Big un.
We didn’t really have money for vacations as a child, so we visited family instead, and every Summer, around the Fourth of July, we would make the eight-hour trip to North Texas and stay with my Mom’s Dad and see that side of the family.
On this particular summer day in 1976, my great-grandmother and I had been blackberry picking. We sprayed ourselves down with stuff to scare away the chiggers, and we took empty coffee cans and walked through the pasture to the fence row where the wild blackberries were rampant, and we filled our cans and our mouths and black juice ran down my face and all the while she told me things I cannot remember, but the thing I do remember is how safe and loved I felt, and how lucky I must be to belong to people that owned both cows and blackberry bushes.
I no longer recall (if I ever knew) where she went, but she told Big Un that when she returned, she was going to make a blackberry cobbler with those berries for dessert.
She was not gone more than a handful of minutes when he called me into the kitchen. They lived in a tiny North Texas farmhouse, with a utilitarian kitchen with cracked linoleum on the floor, a 1950’s era Formica and stainless steel table, and an electric icebox in the corner that now contained, among other things, a 1 pound coffee can full of blackberries so full of goodness they were about to burst.
Big Un put me at the table and put down two mismatched bowls, the porcelain glazing cracked and crazed from years of use, and mine had a faded rose on the bottom of the bowl. The coffee can of blackberries was retrieved from the icebox, and with his huge, rough scarred hands he poured the blackberries from the can into my bowl and then his. The berries were of various sizes, the way wild berries always are, filling both our bowls to the edge and then he poured the fresh cream we had gotten from his own cows that very morning over the top, the cream running over the berries, filling in the cracks and crevices until the berries looked very much like small blue-black islands in a sea of creamy white.
We sat there, he and I, in a 4-room house in North Texas, 70 or so years and a Formica table between us, quietly eating the purloined blackberries. When she came back, there would be hell to pay, and no cobbler to eat, but for now, we were content to merely be together, eating our berries and absolutely certain in the knowledge that no king had never had it so good.