Even now, when they’re both dead, a truth annoyingly remains: searching for Papa inevitably means running into Nana. The shopping bag of memories has a really beautiful chalk drawing of Papa, a profile done at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. In her scrawling script, Nana’s written “Buck” and “1939” across the middle of the drawing. Not on the back. Not discretely at the bottom. Right across the middle of the drawing. What, was she afraid she’d mistake it for her OTHER husband at that OTHER World’s Fair in San Francisco? She seems to have written on just about everything; but some of her scrawls were scrawls of pride. Written across the cardboard that holds the 2500 day sick leave pin, she’s written: “Actually, it was over 2800 days. They gave him credit for another year of service!”
I pull out all these pins and medals and arrange them on the table. The pictures I can scan, but I need to record these other things digitally before everything goes back to my mom. I find myself fiddling, arranging, moving, shuffling, clicking, trying to get them all neatly captured in the pixels of my digital camera. And then, horror of all horrors, Nana is right there again. I’ve run into her again. And this time it’s my fault.
Nana and Papa came to Oregon from California for my high school graduation. In fact, they stayed with us for the last week of school and all the festivities. I came home from school one of those last days, walked in my room…and the evidence of her invasion was right out in the open. On my bed and on the floor were speech trophies, certificates, plaques, baseball awards, just about every accolade I’d ever received, gathered in piles in my room. She had gone through my closet, under my bed, through all my drawers, and collected every little award I had ever gotten. She found stuff I’d forgotten I had. My grandmother had gone through my stuff in my room without ever even asking a thing! I about blew every gasket in my head, and ran out of the room to unload on my mom.
Turns out, Nana just wanted a record of all the little pats on the back I’d gotten, and hadn’t even given a second thought to the idea of privacy. She’d arranged them all on the table and taken half a roll of pictures, and, as proof that she had no concept of how horrified her grandson would be, didn’t even bother trying to cover her tracks. She just left the stuff piled in my room.
And here I am, decades later, taking pictures of Papa’s pins. It’s just exactly what she would do. Here I am, searching for Papa, trying to find the ways I might be like this man I admire, and instead, I’m doing exactly what Nana would do. I’m doing what she DID do, doing what I got so furious about years and years ago. Isn’t that just the way life is?
Regrets and the Journey
One of my regrets is that I began the journey to discover my grandfather’s life too late.
Looking back, I had plenty of warning signs that should have triggered me to pursue this earlier. Papa was a very quiet, shy man. He didn’t talk much at all; but even when I was in grade school, my mom left hints that should have been clues. I remember the genuine surprise I felt when off-handedly asking my mom to confirm a detail about a war story my grandpa had told.
“I have no idea,” she said. “He’s told you boys way more about the war than he ever told me.”
So I had an “in”. I had access into the vault of his memory, a key to a door that he unlocked for few people. There were other signs, conversations in my twenties that I’ll recount later, which confirmed it. But by and large, I didn’t take advantage. I’m not even sure why. Now, there are all sorts of things I wish I could sit and ask him. But when I had the chance, there was too much else to do, I guess. Isn’t it funny? We grow up hearing people tell us to honor our families, listen to our elders, because they won’t always be there. People try to help us re-frame what seems to be all consuming and important at the time. But for the most part, we never listen. I wish I had begun this journey more intentionally long ago.
My only choice now is how to go about the search.
At first, I envisioned writing down all the stories and experiences I could remember: Yosemite and Lawrence Welk and the Battle of the Bulge report in fifth grade and the red stripe in the kitchen and tomato plants. Of course I’d need to do research at some point, but wouldn’t it be better to get all my untainted memories written down first? I began to envision this book in chapters, each beginning with a short memory, which then would be fleshed out with Pulitzer Prize winning research (including, in my dreams, the treasure trove of finding notebook after notebook of my grandfather’s own personal journal, locked in some hidden attic in Nebraska).
I’m too obsessive-compulsive to let things go, though. I’m not at a stage of life where I can head off to Nebraska for weeks at a time to break into people’s attics. But I have to do something. I’ve started the journey, and simple memories won’t do. The research has begun. Mom gave me a shopping bag full of Papa’s special things, and I’ve made an amazing discovery: far from tainting my memories, finding out new things about my grandpa has brought back a flood of new ones. So I’ve got a new plan for the journey of this book; I’ll talk to family, make Google my friend, and write as I go.
Inside the bag is a small cardboard box, not much bigger than the kind of box that holds your brand new checks. Inside, I find many things, things that are the highlights of almost ninety years:
- A bunch of pins, acknowledging his career in the U.S. postal service. There’s one for 2500 days of earned sick leave; eleven different pins marking eleven straight years of a safe driving record, broken only because he moved to a coveted walking route in the Rose Garden of San Jose, California; and one special pin, acknowledging meritorious service as a letter carrier.
- A plastic box, holding insignia and medals from World War II. The Timberwolf patch of the Army’s 104th Division; an expert marksman award pin with a “rifle” designation, and the scorebooks which earned the award; a combat infantry badge, and a medal for good conduct.
- And, going back farthest in time, an even smaller cardboard box holding medals for the high hurdles and the 440 yard dash, earned as a high schooler in Alliance Nebraska.
It’s all of the things he talked about, I think everything (besides family) in which he took pride. My grandfather was a letter carrier, a corporal in World War II, and a star athlete in track and field and football. It’s sobering and beautiful to see a life of almost a century summed up so simply.
With the eye of my memory, I can travel through time effortlessly. Any time I want, I can walk through the door at 60 South Morrison Street, and he’ll be there; sitting in his green recliner, two college football games playing on two different televisions, and yet a third coming through an earphone connected to his transistor radio. Papa always smiles at me, motioning me to sit in Nana’s recliner next to him, and we’re together…in silence, but together, and I know I am welcome.
My time travel has limits. It only goes back to the early seventies, and it can go forward only to April 18, 2001, when my mom called to wish me a happy 33rd birthday…and to tell me that Papa was dead.
I wish I could break the limits. I especially wish I could push it back, back, back… I’d like to see my grandfather in the fifties at the Billy Graham Crusade. I’d like to see him in the forties, returning from the victorious campaign in Europe, to see his eyes as they saw my mom for the very first time. I’d like to rewind to the thirties, because I don’t even know where he was then. I’d like to push back to the twenties, and see him open the letter offering a football scholarship to Northwestern, to see his smile of pride before he realized he couldn’t accept it. I’d like to see him when his dad left, whenever that was, and since I’m wishing, I wish I could ask him what might have died in him that day, too.
This is the story of my grandpa, Robert Buster Keethler, as I remember it, and as I’ve since discovered it to be.
On March 30 on my regular blog, I posted about my idea for a book about my grandpa. It's caught enough of my imagination that I decided to separate this story out and make it its own blog. Here's part of that post on the 30th....
So...here's what's been on my mind. I had an idea for a book today. I'd like to write about my grandpa. My idea even came with an opening paragraph to the book, which I may share in another post. Here's the problem: my mom's family is so quiet about things, that we know very little about Papa. So, either it's just a book about my memories (in which case it's less of a book and more of a pamphlet), or I make it fictional-but-based-on-a-true-story sort of book, or I do a ton of researching and then it wouldn't be finished for decades. I'd really, really like to do the last one. I imagined myself showing up in Rushville, Nebraska, sleuthing through old newspapers in a dimly lit library, taking pictures of old run down houses, even standing on the track where Papa ran the 440.
So mom, I know you're reading this....start digging up the family stuff you have. Everyone else: start chipping in for the “travel to Nebraska” fund and the “take care of the kids” fund. It's time to write a book!
This is my writing journey to discover my grandpa's life. This is the life of Robert Buster Keethler, as I remember it, and as I'm discovering it to be.
It will probably make the most sense to read it in reverse order.