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Jan 18 2012

In Memoriam My Maternal Grandfather, I Shall Now Inflict The Statler Brothers On You

I got that message today that you know, in the back of your mind, is liable to come at any time. The tall, thin man with the funny hair and the thick-rimmed glasses was nearly ninety, if not past it, and he’d been ailing recently. So I wasn’t surprised to find a succession of messages on my phone from aunt and mother advising that he had passed, peacefully.

Still, expected and unsurprising as it is, it still seems sudden. These things always do.

We weren’t close. We hadn’t actually spoken in years. Over the last few years, he’s been slipping into dementia, but long before that, we’d run out of things to talk about. My family isn’t a close-knit one. It might have been different, if we’d stayed in Indiana, but we left there when I was three, and we were never good at the long-distance relationships, and the grandparents had stopped traveling a long time ago. So there’s a grandfather-shaped hole, but it’s not a gaping one. I’ve skipped the shedding tears routine in favor of the flickering smile, as memories pop up unbidden. I see him holding a sparkler, that last time we were all a family and whole, back when I was sixteen and I’d insisted on a summer visit. Great provider of the fireworks, he was. He’d always been a provider. The house he lived in to the end of his life was built with his own hands, and he’d never stopped wanting to do for his kids. I remember a photo of him, on a picnic bench outside that house, feeding a squirrel he’d befriended. He was so damned pleased with that squirrel.

The strongest memory, though, is one seared into the little gray cells by sheer terror. You see, I was thirteen or thereabouts, and the grandfolk had come to visit us when we lived in Sedona. They’d roust me out of bed at five in the ay-em for long healthy walks round the neighborhood. And then they wanted to take a drive up to Flagstaff, do the whole Oak Creek Canyon thing, which I was down with. I love driving the canyon. And, what with it being late spring or summerish, there’d be a lot of RVs holding up proceedings and so plenty of time to gawk at the scenery, whilst having a goodish chat with the elder folk. The only thing that worried me was the tape deck, because elder folk are notorious for playing things the youngsters cannot abide.

They put in the Statler Brothers. And we howled the lyrics, once I’d got them. We nearly wore the mylar off that tape, up the canyon and around. This was certainly not the hip music. I’d been listening to stuff like Aerosmith and Pet Shop Boys and (shudder) Icehouse, along with a bit of the old Maxi Priest kind of slightly reggae version of “Wild World” I was absolutely nuts for. No way, you’d say, such a youth would appreciate the Statler Bros. But I did, very much so, and I appreciated the old grandparents for having such discerning musical taste.

We had the time of our lives on that trip. And it was all going along swimmingly until ye olde granddad decided he wanted to take Schnebly Hill Road back home.

The road is about two inches wide, unpaved, with turns that aren’t so much hairpin as a corkscrew dosed with strychnine (which, if a corkscrew were a member of the animal kingdom, would cause it to seize up in a sort of frenzy of right-angle kinks). You may be headed due north on Schnebly Hill Road, and a nanosecond later discover you are, if you were very fortunate and didn’t hurtle into the abyss in attempting to execute the bend, now headed due south. It’s a washboard, with bits often washed out, and there are what the uninitiated call “vistas.” Some even call it “breathtaking,” without mentioning that it’s not so much the spectacular views into the red rock canyon that steal the breath as the ongoing suspense as to your chances of survival. There are no guard rails. There is no shoulder. If you misjudge the thing, you are sailing a few thousand feet straight down into a vista. At least you will die scenically, but that’s small consolation when you are young and wish to live to a ripe old age, like 18.

I dimly remembered all of this from a trip we’d taken along it with a group of intrepid young parents. The parents had enjoyed themselves immensely. The assorted kids had huddled on the floor in the back, teeth chattering from the ridges in the road combined with pants-pissing terror, and tried not to look out the windows. I remember looking out the window once, and coming eye-to-eye with an agave plant that was in full, spectacular bloom. The problem was that it was growing straight up the side of a cliff, and I could have rolled the window down and plucked a blossom, if by that time all traces of bravery hadn’t drained from me and soaked into the potholed road.

“Um,” I said to my grandfather, who at that time was already getting a little shaky in the hands with age, developed some few issues with sight and hearing, had suffered a fairly serious heart attack not too many years back, and had a reputation for not always paying as much attention to the road as he should, “are you sure?”

I attempted to warn him away, listing a few of the many perils of such a journey. I gave it up as a bad job when his eyes gleamed brighter with each warning.

At that point, I would’ve gotten out and walked, if I hadn’t been sandwiched between him and my grandmother on a bench seat. Ah, well, I said to myself as he turned off the perfectly-good pavement onto the gap in the pine forest that marked the beginning of the end, at least he’s old. And he’s from Indiana. He’ll probably take it at a top speed of 5mph. No problem.

I don’t think the speedometer dipped below 35 the whole way down. Most of the time, he seemed to be going a strong 50. Red rocks went by in a blur. Red dust billowed up from the tires. And the man had the audacity to comment on how lovely the scenery was, with enthusiastic assent from my grandmother, whom I’d always considered a sensible sort in the past. How they could even see the scenery at that speed was beyond my ken, and he certainly had no business eyeballing it, in my considered opinion. Not that I could tell him this. It’s impossible to force words past a throat clamped shut like an imperiled oyster.

I had just enough time at the beginning to think that a man who hailed from anywhere as flat as Indiana had no business driving such a steep, windy road to begin with, much less at speeds that even drunk teenagers bent on suicide wouldn’t dare attempt. Then I spent a mile or two contemplating my impeding death several times per second, and bewailing the fact that I was going to die before I’d even finished puberty. The rest of the road finished in one sustained mental scream. I think my grandmother was humming contentedly in between exclamations of delight. I have no idea what my grandfather was doing, aside from slewing the wheel this way and that whilst exploring how far the gas pedal could be mashed. I was too afraid to look or listen.

And then, somehow, as if by miracle, we made it to the bottom of the canyon. I don’t remember where Schnebly Hill Road comes out, because I have never visited it since. I just recall staring at the pavement of good old US 89A with mute astonishment. And when we pulled up at the house, I wobbled out of the truck and refused to ever get back in it as long as Grandpa was at the wheel. Not in Arizona, at least. Not anywhere near a road with so much as a gentle curve or risk of a slight incline.

My mother, damn her, thought it was screamingly funny.

Years later, the immediate shock had faded well enough that I didn’t have too many flashbacks when he drove us to Nashville, Indiana, which is about the only part of the state with topographic relief. And, although the Statler Bros. had played all the way down Schnebly Hill Road, soundtrack for what I believed were the last moments of my existence, I retained a fondness for them. Because it had been one hell of a ride, and in the end, with survival a known fact, sort of fun. You can keep your expensive super-duper-mega-rollercoasters-of-instant-death. My old granddad could do you one magnitude better for the price of a half a tank of gas.

So, in memoriam, here’s a picture of Schnebly Hill Road I filched from the intertoobz:

Red Rocks seen from the vista of Schebly Hill road. Taken on 7-7-09 by Brienne Magee. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Coconino National Forest.

And the song we’d loved the most on that long-ago trip:

Adios, Grandpa. I’m glad we survived that trip by over twenty years.

 

In lieu of condolences, funny stories of various aged relatives may be left in the comments.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    crowepps

    Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute. You provided a series of illuminating sketches of your grandfather that make me sorry I never met him. He must have been a wonderful man. My condolences.

  2. 2
    geocatherder

    Sorry, it does no tribute to your grandfather, but I can’t help hearing Harry Chapin’s song, “30 thousand pounds of bananas”.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    In all the time my grandparents wintered in Arizona, I don’t think they ever got out of the desert and into the north country. They certainly wouldn’t have driven the trip, much less insisted on taking the appalling roads. I’m glad yours did.

  4. 4
    machintelligence

    A friend’s father was having eye problems and slowing reaction times, so she had “the talk” with him and he agreed that there should be no more driving. Less than a week later she received a call that he had been in an accident and had totaled his car. When she asked why he had been driving, his reply was priceless: “I wasn’t driving — I went to the post office!”

  5. 5
    Lou Doench

    Aww… Now you went and made me think of my Dad. I have a DJ copy of that song on vinyl. I’ll raise a glass to your Granddad this eve.

  6. 6
    Lyle

    I grew up in Indiana, (before moving to Mich) and remember some old very twisty roads that have been improved since then. One is now underwater for example. All were in the south half of the state, and because its hilly there (small hills) the road twisted to avoid going up hills lots of 20 mph curves for example. One example was the old version of In 37 north of Bloomington, that was to use a midwest term crooked as a dogs hind leg. Since it has been flooded, and even in the 1950s had been replaced by a much straighter road, and since by a 4 lane road. So depending on where he lived he may have had experience on twisty roads.

  7. 7
    Ann

    So Sorry for your loss. Even though you might not have been close, he still was your grandpa and no one else can ever take that spot. All you can do is cherish those memories you do have and be glad you have them.

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Dear old Granddad destroys writer’s block, even if only momentarily. Gotcha, didn’t he?

  9. 9
    jolo5309

    My maternal grandmother drove like him, except I am fortunate and I lived in the prairies when she was driving. Her attitude (at 81) was that speed limits were the speed you sure never dip down too, and instead maintained a constant pace of 65 MPH down grid roads and other gravel roads. She drove her 1959 Ford 2 door until she quit driving (when she was 85 or so) and died at age 91 in 1987.

  10. 10
    Stan Brooks

    Thanks for the memories!! And condolences for your granddad’s death. To the best of what we know the only immortality we can be assured of is the kind memories those closest to us hold after our deaths. I’ve just turned the corner on 60 and thoughts of mortality have come unbidden more often of late, but I do remember the Statler Bro’s and loved the song, thanks for that.

    But I also remember visiting some friends of my Aunt and Uncles, who I was living with at the time (think AZ 1966 or so), just a few years after my mother had died. We were up in Globe, AZ and coming down an old logging road for some reason when we got stuck between two logging trucks who were going much faster on a road much like Schnebly Hill Road (hell it might even have been Schnebly Hill Road, Globe being up in that general vicinity). The truck behind us would speed up, the truck in front would slow down in some sort of synchronized rhythm and we were sure we were going to die. We did not, nor did the loggers, who probably played that game often. Did scare the excrement out of me I’ll say.

    Again, thanks for the memories and sorry for your loss.

  11. 11
    H.D. Lynn

    I’m sorry for your lose. Maybe it’s not a big lose, but it’s still a grandpa sized hole.

  12. 12
    geocatherder

    The elderlies in my family were all careful drivers, but I have a friend in his 70′s who drives like an absolute maniac. He’s a geologist, and he’s generally too busy looking at rocks — even the roadcuts on the highways — to pay all that much attention to mundane things like traffic. Actually, according to other friends that have known him longer than I have, his driving has gotten better with age. He will fearlessly take a 2-wheel-drive vehicle down desert tracks that anyone with sense would insist on 4WD for; he flies over washboarded roads; he shoots down mountain tracks with almost no attention paid to the road. On group outings, there’s usually a conspiracy among the rest of the group to keep him from driving. How he’s lived so long is beyond me!

    Karen

  13. 13
    Nicole

    I’m sorry about your loss. Even smallish grandfather-shaped holes are holes. I’m glad you’re focusing on the good memories.

  14. 14
    Slaughter

    Dana, Dana, Dana!
    First, sorry for your loss. But second, I have driven Schnebly Hill Road close to a dozen times with nothing more rugged than a Toyota Camry (and three times with a Sienna minivan). Never had a problem, although I had to chuckle the time we passed a Jeep that some twentysomething had driven into a ditch.
    However, 35 MILES AN HOUR??? There is no way I would drive that road at more than a few miles an hour, with an occasional burst up to 10 mph. Any faster and you would wreck your suspension. (By the way, I don’t think you mentioned the many rocks — OK, small boulders — that are strewn along the road.)
    As for that vista you included, I have reached the top of those rocks a few times, and you do not want to slip on their sandy surface. It’s hundreds of feet to the canyon floor, and it’s not a soft landing at all. Years ago if you were looking toward 2 o’clock from that rock and down to the right, you would have seen one of those “harmonic convergence” sites, where the New Agers formed a circle from assorted rocks. It was gone when I was last there a couple of years ago with my cousin from Italy.
    Your memory is better than you think. You come out onto 89A on the south end (hand a right and you go toward Tlaquepaque, the Mexican-style marketplace), and on the north end you eventually reach I-17, where you can head north to Flagstaff.
    If you’re ever in Sedona again, I strongly urge you to try it again — or take one of those Pink Jeep tours. I never tire of that spectacular view.

  15. 15
    Slaughter

    Oh, one other thing. My tastes run more toward Tull than the Statler Brothers, but I heard a lot of them back in Pennsylvania at my sister-in-law’s farm, and they had a great show on PBS a few years back. I’m kinda partial to “Class of ’57″ myself.

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