Monday, November 12, 2007

Grandpa Ray

Ray Spear was my grandfather, my dad’s dad. We are mostly sure that he was born on June 23, 1897, exactly 60 years to the day before I was born.

In 1971, he died much too young at the age of 74 of a heart condition that these days would probably have merely slowed him down for a while. Had he been born just ten years later he might easily have lived into his 80s. After all, his own dad died in 1937 at the age of 87.

Ray Spear was 20 in 1917 when the United States began canvassing the country for recruits to go and fight “the Hun” in France. The story goes that he was rated 4F due to flat feet and rejected for military service. Perhaps it was fate; otherwise the family tree branch from which I was derived might well have ended before it even had a chance to sprout.

His full name was Ray, not Raymond, and he was always known as the mechanically gifted one. He was the second oldest of his six brothers and one sister. Oddly enough, five of them had three letter first names—Glen, Ray, Irl, Leo, Dor, Bud, Florence, and Seth. Being the youngest, Seth’s nickname was Bab, pronounced “Babe,” and also spelled with just three letters, I suppose to carry on the three-letter tradition.

My dad, Eugene, explained what it was like to live on a family farm in the middle of “The Thumb” of Michigan a hundred years ago:

“Let's see...Glen; my dad, Ray;...Irl; Leo; Dor; Florence; Bud...and...Seth. So they had 8 kids. That's what all the farmers did back then: they had big farms, so they needed plenty of kids to work the farm, clear stumps and such. My dad remembered his dad making him get up every Saturday morning to dig out big old stumps so they could clear out another 4 or 5 acres to plant the following year…"

Their father, George, born in 1850, married Hettie Green, their mother, who was born in 1869. Old men marrying much younger women was common back then, which is why the last Civil War bride might still be alive today, or only just recently died.

Being extraordinarily resourceful, whenever the family farm required a new wagon or if any of the other myriad contraptions on the farmstead needed repair, my grandfather was the one the family depended on to either fix it, make it, or to invent it.

After several of his business ventures failed in automobile brake repair—sometimes because advances in technology passed him by, or simply due to the punishing role of the Great Depression and once due to a fire that destroyed his garage—Grandpa Ray at last found his life’s work with the Michigan Highway Department in vehicle maintenance. He stayed more than 30 years with “Roads and Highways” from the 1930’s until his retirement in the mid 1960’s.

By the time I knew him he was an old man, but pictures exist of my grandfather back in his “hey day” in the “Roaring 20s” when from the seat of his motorcycle he courted my grandmother, Elizabeth Metzger of Marlette. Back then, with paved roads being the exception and dust and mud being the rule, riding a motorbike took a tough and adventurous sort. In the old photo from the 20’s, he is quite the snappy dresser; the way he is attired reminds me of The Great Gatsby.

Right up until the time of his myocardial infarction Ray was strong and productive. In fact, at the very moment that he was struck down he was right in the middle of building a good sized two-story combination shed and workshop for his cottage on the lake (see below).

I remember exploring the large garage that he had also built out behind his house. It was a musty brick structure that—although forlorn and dingy looking—still exists today on Gratiot Road. Over the decades he continued to expand it with more rooms and additions. I was in awe of the hundreds of tools and mysterious devices that he had either built or was tinkering with that I found throughout the expansive building.

It seems he always had a new undertaking in work that either involved welding, mechanics, carpentry, masonry or all four. Ray came from the generation directly after the Wright Brothers when self-schooled men developed their own engineering skills, sometimes, as with the Wrights, “on the fly.” They were amazing people from whom the term “American ingenuity” originated, and Ray Spear was right there amongst them.

Not long after his retirement, he bought property overlooking a lake west of Saginaw in Central Lower Michigan near the town of Edmore. My dad described that particular project to me a few years back:

“You know—that was fabulous what he did there. It’s not like he went down to the lumberyard and just bought what he needed. He went downtown in Saginaw and bought an old house that was going to have to be destroyed and removed. He hired a couple of teenage boys for a few bucks per hour and with hammers and wrecking bars they tore the house apart, board by board. He and those kids worked hour after hour removing the nails. The house was so old—2x4s today are actually 1 3/4 by 3 ½, because they’re planed, but these were the full-sized original 2x4s. It was old-fashioned rough-hewn lumber. So he planed all that on a planer that he built from scratch. He put the blades and motor, everything, into it. He’d just take a board, run it through, and it came out planed to the dimensions of a modern day "2 x 4." And then he took a big carbide saw and used it to slice raw rock to make the fireplace facing and mantle from from different types of large stones he’d found on his property. Now that’s REALLY building from scratch.”

An 8 mm home movie exists of my brother and sisters and I walking with Grandpa Spear down to the small wooden dock on the lake below his cottage. Being the oldest, I wasn’t quite 10 years old at the time. He was already 70 and yet he’s easily carrying in one hand an outboard motor and a full can of gas in the other. Its only now that I’m starting to feel old and achy that I realize how amazingly robust and vital he still was.

In fact, his strength and reflexes might well have spared me a broken neck during that same trip out to his cottage. I wasn’t paying attention when I entered through the back door and suddenly I was falling. I had stepped through a trapdoor going down into a small utility room. My grandpa was standing at the bottom of the ladder and easily caught me before I could land and break something. Thinking back, now I remember Grandma giving him holy heck for not closing the trapdoor and “almost killing me.” I think he knew she was right and he just let her fret about it for a very long time. He stayed silent, but I could tell he felt very bad about it. Usually when she fussed at him like that for more than a few minutes he would just tell her quietly and sternly, “Hush woman.”

My grandparents became Baptists in the 50s. Grandma Spear’s forte was cooking and once her tantalizing fare was spread out in front of us on the table, Grandpa would intone a pre-meal grace of thanks. Being raised Catholic and used to the venerable and wonderfully brief “Bless us, O Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty; through Christ our Lord. Amen;” I was always intrigued when my grandpa would go into his extemporaneous Baptist style of prayer. Whereas our Catholic grace was said and done in less than 5 seconds, Grandpa Spear’s prayers could go on for a seemingly interminable 45 seconds and more.

Thinking back on Grandpa Ray’s personality, he tended toward strong and tranquil, his speech always slow and measured. I don’t remember him being a chatterbox or allowing anger or emotion to get the best of him. I think if he’d served in the military that he would have easily advanced through the sergeant ranks. People who knew him respected him. He was a natural leader. Even today, 36 years after his passing, people still speak well of him.

In fact, his reputation was so solid that it might be the reason my mom married my father. When Grandpa Haley heard that his daughter was going on a date with a young man from Shields, he was NOT happy. “Shields boys” were known for being rowdy and quick with their fists. But once Grandpa learned that my father was Ray Spear’s boy, now THAT changed everything; and it was probably a good thing too, since my father admits he really WAS a typical rowdy Shields boy! Well, my mom tamed him of all that and the rest is family history.

Whenever I visit my parents’ Michigan home I enjoy relaxing out on their little back porch. It’s a great place to have coffee and watch the birds flit about among the flowers and bushes. Inevitably, my eyes stray from that natural splendor to the simple exquisiteness of a modest plant stand made long ago by the hands of a kid—that kid being my Grandpa Ray. Seeing that crude yet sturdy ancient stand pulls my thoughts 50 miles east to what used to be the Spear family farmhouse and to the room in that house that no longer exists, except in my mind, where that three-legged little stand sat for close to 70 years.

The Spear farmhouse was located five miles east of Kingston. By the time I remember it, it was a creaky moldering relic of its once vibrant self. By the 60’s only two of the original “boys” still lived there, and soon it was only one. Glen and Leo were very old, although not as old as the house, and didn’t have the know-how or the time to keep that ancient edifice from falling ever deeper into ruin.

One of the wonderful aspects of that hundred-year-old dwelling was the formal parlor. My dad said during its prime it was filled with his Grandma’s plants and flowers. Basically a sunroom, its large bay window faced south and east overlooking Route 46.

The parlor was the place Grandpa George sat in his rocker for the last 20 or so of his 87 years. From that room he could watch out the big window at Hettie as she worked in her famous garden (folks from miles around would stop in to see it) and he'd see what was coming and going out on the road. Occasionally he would call his boys and have them prune back a tree branch or two when they blocked his view of the outside world.

My dad, just 9 at the time, told me of the last days he saw his Grandpa George. After he died, the old fellow lay there in that sunny parlor in his coffin for three days before finally being laid to rest in the nearby Marlette Cemetery. My father clearly remembers his grandfather sporting his full white beard and wearing his very best dark suit. Hettie pulled a cot into the parlor and slept there every night next to her deceased husband.

Near my great grandfather’s coffin, as he lay in state there in the parlor, was the plant stand. By 1937 it was already about 30 years old, having been constructed around 1910 by my Grandpa Ray. The fact that he built it nearly 100 years ago causes me to marvel every time I see it.

For most of its existence as furniture the plant stand was indoors. When Uncle Leo, “the last brother,” died in 1979, my father acquired the stand at auction from the old farmhouse. Even though he’s lacquered it every spring since he got it, I’m afraid its outside life these past 30 years has taken its toll.

When I first saw it and had a chance to pick it up I was surprised at its heft—it’s basically just a tall three-legged stool, but it is heavy. My grandfather used green cherry wood branches and slender nails to put it together. I don’t know if he pre-drilled the holes before nailing the pieces together, but I assume he must have since none of the wood has split at the nails. He didn’t remove the bark, which to me always made the piece seem that much more charmingly roughhewn. Remarkably, its only now after being left outdoors these past few decades that the bark is beginning to come loose.

Also remarkable is its steadiness. It sits perfectly level, and the very nature of having just three legs instead of four makes it very stable. Try building anything with four supports and you’ll see how hard it is to get it to sit firm without rocking. A few years back my dad added a topmost platform, but as far as I know, apart from the yearly coats of lacquer, that’s all that’s been done to it.

The fact that the old plant stand was made by my long gone grandfather and all those years ago before he was even a man, makes it all the more special and precious to me. Way back then—almost a century ago—I wonder as he constructed it if he had any inkling that it would still be around in a hundred years, still doing its simple job and even more significantly, reminding his descendants that he existed.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe Plant Stand


Anonymous said...

What a great memorial to your forebears, and it makes you wonder what they would think if they knew their grand- and great-grand son was writing this from the Philippines, which was a controversial subject in the early 1900's. Makes me remember my own great-grandfather-- an architect and builder of Catholic Churches all over south Louisiana, many of which are still standing. One picture exists of him with his "crew" displaying the most primitive looking carpenter tools I have ever seen. The churches looked like those in southern France, not surprising because thats where his father was from. When I hear people demand that Americans speak english, I think of him and my grandmother, who never, to my knowlege, spoke a word of English. Pure Cajun.

KA said...

I'm surprised if plant stand I bought yesterday lasts 5 years... I'm thoroughly impressed that a plant stand would be able to last 30.

You're right, that white outfit is very Gatsby-esque.

PhilippinesPhil said...

macmac, I'll bet your grandfather was a Mason, but then you speak of carpentry tools; so these churches were wood?

Gatsby indeed. In those times people wouldn't dream of leaving the house and walking around downtown all casual the way we do now. And, folks were extra courteous to each other. For me, the 20s, 30s and 40s were the "good old days."

Ed said...

An excellent story. I never tire of reading or listening to others talk about their ancestors, even if they aren't my own.

Anonymous said...

Phil, those churches were constructed of wood, usually cypress. You threw me for a moment asking if my grandfather was a Mason; like all Cajuns, he was a Catholic, and theres no love lost between Masons and Catholics-- but then I realized you meant Mason as in bricklayer...

PhilippinesPhil said...

Perhaps sometimes its more rewarding to look backwards at the good than to try and look at what's coming.

Actually, I WAS talking about Freemasons, of which I know little. Until the comment above I hadn't realized the history of the enmity that the church has had for Freemasonry. I see its considered by the the RCC to be anti-clerical, and that could be why virtually all the Filipino revolutionists, such as Rizal and Bonifacio, were Freemasons. If anyone had a right to be disdainful of clerics it was them.

Amadeo said...

An interesting look into the past.

BTW, I also did on my blog a short genealogical sketch of the ancestors of my wife, the Johns family from Baroda, Michigan. They descended from most probably Prussian Jews who migrated to MI at the turn of the 1770s. Funny, got most of my data from cemetery records available on the Net. After all, death records and durable headstones can withstand the elements.

BTW, the Church has slackened on the FreeMasonry issue. Thus, I almost got into one lodge before I left the old homeland.