Breakfast with Howard

“Is that you, Danny?”, I heard as I entered the side door of my grandfather’s house in the early morning.

“Yeah, it’s me” I answered, thinking that if I were anyone else it was too late to do anything about it.

“Come in the kitchen and pull up a chair.”

I had walked the several blocks from our Bloomington, California home on Lynwood Street, crossing Valley Blvd and over to their home on Portola Avenue in the dark of the early morning. Mom always insisted that I had to report to work early, so I generally got there well before Grandpa was ready to leave. That meant a second breakfast most days. Grandpa would be sitting at the kitchen table, smoking pretty much nonstop and drinking black percolated coffee. By the time I arrived, Grandpa was polishing off most of a can of biscuits and whatever bacon Grandma had prepared. Grandpa’s biscuits of choice were the store-brand ones which came 10 chunks of biscuit dough to a can, which we could get on sale at twelve cans for a dollar at the Safeway on Valley Blvd. The bacon, could be any kind as long as it was pork. Is there a wrong kind of pork bacon?

During summer vacation and school year weekends of my early high school years I had many opportunities to work for Howard Sharp, my maternal grandfather. At the time, I wouldn’t have necessarily labeled it an “opportunity”, but with the improved vision one attains only with age, opportunity is exactly what it was.

The way my mother presented it to me, was that I had to help my grandfather. That was an argument I always fell for, as I dearly loved this particular grandfather. I made a little cash, but also learned house framing, drywall, painting, plumbing, piping, and landscaping. So yes, it was an opportunity.

My sister, brother and I were fortunate to have seven grandparents for much of our childhood (four regular and three greats). So just saying Grandpa and Grandma would have created some confusion. My Dad always referred to our maternal grandparents as Howard and Odessa. We, on pain of early death, were not allowed that verbal shortcut. To us children, they were just Grandma and Grandpa Sharp.

Grandpa was always telling stories and cracking jokes. Grandma was always deadly serious. Grandpa was an adult friend. Grandma represented the forces of order and discipline. My aunt, years later, decried that Grandma was all too often the straight person or butt of Grandpa’s jokes. That was certainly true, but as my daughter pointed out, those roles were established by the two of them long ago and it created a cohesive entertainment team. You never see a partnership where the straight person swaps places with the joker periodically, it would likely confuse the audience. Plus, a straight person isn’t usually capable of making the necessary personality switch in an effective way.

“Have some biscuits and bacon. Odessa, cook up some more bacon for Danny.” He’d flash a mischievous grin and point out an empty chair at the stainless steel trimmed dinette table.

Grandma would greet me, with as few hugs as I could reasonably manage, and then start cooking a whole new batch of bacon on the stove. One of the reasons we all resisted hugs from Grandma is that she usually wore a lot of rose fragrance. The closer you got to her the more stifling it would be. One had to hold their breath when getting a hug and kiss, if you were wanting to avoid sneezing and coughing fits. Grandpa referred to it as her “chemical warfare”. Truth told, she probably just didn’t like the smell of cigarettes which permeated their home. If you had a good sense of smell, the combination was enough to make you choke. Adding bacon, biscuits and whatever else was being cooked to the mix wasn’t sufficient to lift the curse.

Grandma was fairly short, close to five feet tall and built solid. We used to joke that she was probably five feet in circumference as well. However it was not today’s classic flabby obese look, she was farmer’s wife solid with large shoulders and legs like pillars, not a lot of jiggle. In those days, she was usually dressed as though she was going to church, with dress, fake pearls, girdle, rollup nylon stockings and sensible dress shoes. The fake pearls came off when she was being casual. (Many years later she started wearing pantsuits, well before Hillary Clinton, but that was long after I was an adult.) I can’t remember ever seeing her in shorts or a swimsuit, and I think that would have been memorable, even in the 70s.

Grandma was lacquered down, but never liquored up. Hair up and done all the time, held strictly in place by gallons of lacquer hairspray. The hairstyle was that of the Primitive Baptist Church in Texas where she grew up. As a younger child, my cousins and I would throw paper airplanes at her hair. Once, a particularly well-crafted effort crash-landed into her hair nose-first and it stuck. Grandma went through her whole day around the house not knowing why the grandkids were paralyzed with giggles. Grandpa saw it happen, just shook his head and smiled. Grandma was so straight that a whole family of jokers could work with it.

Baptists, as a general rule, are not huge fans of alcohol consumption. In fact they are primarily responsible for the continued existence of most of the dry alcohol-free counties left in the United States. Grandpa liked to have a drink on occasion, but didn’t keep it in the house in order to enjoy some semblance of marital peace. Of course, I maintain that Grandma was in fact a secret drinker and that she simply never acknowledged it. Why? Because she drank Nyquil (10% alcohol) by the gallon in order to help her sleep. Saying something is “just medicine” when it has more alcohol content than beer is difficult to justify with a straight face. Grandma had evolved to the point where she was merely a Baptist, but maintained the sartorial look of the more conservative branch. One step more liberal than the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues Pentacostals (although we have some of those in the family as well).

“Odessa doesn’t need any more of these biscuits and bacon. One of these days, her girdle is going to burst and kill everyone in the room with shrapnel!” japed Grandpa.

Grandma would wave her spatula at him half threatening, he would just laugh, cough and keep up the running dialog.

Grandpa wasn’t much taller than Grandma, not overweight but solid as well. Grandpa’s daily uniform consisted of steel-toe work shoes, belted khaki pants, tucked-in single pocket short-sleeve cotton shirt. Grandpa’s signal that he was ready for “bidness” was whenever he put his cigarettes in the shirt pocket. But that was some time later in the morning generally.

Since Grandpa didn’t ever leave until the beginning of the normal workday it left ample time for stories at the breakfast table. Later, I better understood that he was treating the tenants respectfully by starting maintenance activities after their morning routines.

Looking back though, I can’t imagine I was all that helpful. I had to be taught every task prior to being useful and Grandpa was still stronger than me when it was most needed, assuming he was wearing his trusty truss (as he referred jokingly to it). Most of what Grandpa did was manage and maintain his many rental properties as well as renovate new ones. So the tasks could range from home construction to yard maintenance, depending on what was needed at the time. Grandpa was like a vulture, always on the lookout for single family homes that had been purchased under eminent domain and scheduled for demolition. He would swoop in, place a bid to remove the home, generally buying a framed house for pennies on the dollar. He would lift the house frame up onto a trailer truck and move it to a vacant lot that he had previously prepared to receive it. Once placed, he’d reconnect and renovate the home, find a new tenant. The house I lived in was one of his better efforts. At one time, Grandpa had relatives living in about half of his rentals. Talk about underperforming investments!

“Danny, did I ever tell you about the time I tangled with the croton oil?”

“Howard!” Grandma harrumphed, “That isn’t a story for the breakfast table!”

Grandpa just raised an eyebrow, grinned and pulled on his cigarette.

I had heard this story many times before, but it was funny every time and I was not about to put a halt to it. Grandpa changed his stories just enough to make them new and interesting each time. Grandpa liked to tell stories about growing up in Oklahoma just prior to the Depression, but he also told dirty jokes once we got old enough to appreciate them. Of course, he wasn’t telling the dirty jokes in front of Grandma, as that would have brought her over the counter! In later years, long after he had passed, my aunt asked whether Grandpa ever told us dirty jokes. She seemed surprised when I confirmed that he often did, and that we told him our dirty jokes too, which he always seemed to enjoy. We knew he enjoyed them because, besides choking and coughing when he heard the punchlines, he would sometimes tell us a joke we had previously told him, only doing it better. Her question was also ironic, because this aunt was one of my main sources for dirty jokes. In fact, I would tell Grandpa jokes that she had told me, and I would tell her jokes that he had supplied. I thought it was pretty safe being a middleman, as they weren’t likely telling the same juvenile jokes to each other.

“You see, Danny, when I was a kid I used to steal our neighbor’s watermelons. Actually it was worse than stealing, we used to just crack them open and eat the hearts right there. We’d eat the heart, because that was the best part and it didn’t have any seeds to slow you down, throw away the rest. Whether you’re stealing watermelon or chickens, you have to move fast! The farmers used to have rock-salt shotgun shells and were not reluctant to put a load into your backside if they caught you stealing.”

Grandpa had an accent that I had always associated with Oklahoma. But later I would hear something very similar from Lakota Sioux storytellers. Similar in the way he formed his spoken English. It added a cadence to the stories and was quite unusual for Southern California. Occasionally I still listen to Lakota storyteller recordings and hear Grandpa’s voice.

“The farmers weren’t happy about losing their crops, so they used to leave traps for us. That is where the croton oil comes in.”

“What’s croton oil, Grandpa?”

“Croton oil is a cattle laxative, for cattle that get constipated. A very powerful, fast acting laxative. Danny, you’d think that cattle, eating all that fiber like hay and grass, wouldn’t get constipated. But they do and they can die from it. You get constipated, you feel like you’re dying, right? In a cow, all of that hay sometimes gets compressed into a plug which just won’t move. One approach is to reach up into the cow’s ass with your arm and try to stir things up by hand, breaking or extracting the plug. That isn’t always successful, you could break your arm and at a minimum it definitely leaves you feeling dirty for a couple of weeks. Or you can just give ’em some croton oil. That takes care of bidness right directly. Makes a mess though.”

“What is the farmer doing with the croton oil?” I asked.

“I was getting to that. You understand that a laxative powerful enough to work quickly on a cow is a darn sight stronger than Ex-Lax? Good! Anyhow, the farmers had a problem losing watermelons to local kids and they have a liquid laxative that is very strong. So what they do, Danny, is choose a couple or really big ripe watermelons still on the vine that are close to where we have been coming in to steal them at night. Roll them over a little, cut a core in the rind, pour some croton oil into the hole, put the plug back on the melon, setting it up so that you can’t see the plug. Then leave it there for our night visits.”

At this point, I’m day-dreaming ways to get my hands on some croton oil and who I’d like to share it with, as he goes on.

“So after dinner one night, I get a taste for some ripe watermelon. I make my excuses, and fade away into the night over to that farmer’s place. The coast looked clear, so I hopped the fence and looked for a good place to start. In the moonlight, you can see pretty well, but you still have to thump ’em to check for ripe. I found a likely prospect, broke her open, scooped out the heart and ate the first one. Delicious, so I started looking for a second one, bend down to pick it up and then I couldn’t stand up for the cramps. The flood gates opened up in the backside of my trousers and I thought I was dying right there. As much pain as I was in, I knew I couldn’t make too much noise because of the farmer’s shotgun and his dogs. So I stumble back to the road, collapsing in cramps every few feet, while that croton oil tried its best to reunite the watermelon heart with the field it came from.”

As always at this point of the story, I am already snorting with laughter in between bites of biscuit. So he moves in for the kill.

“If that farmer had wanted to, he could have tracked me home next day, as I left a pretty clear trail.”

He tucks the pack of cigarettes into his shirt pocket, “Time to get to work, Danny. We can’t sit around like Odessa, eating biscuits and bacon all day.”

And off we went to meet the demands of the day.

All rights reserved (C) 2017 D. M. Kalin