Like a child looking for someone to blame when things went wrong, Grandpap fingered my dad, saying he was the reason he had to marry two women he never loved. To young Puz, as my dad was called, the message was crystal clear—his daddy never wanted him. Still, Howd found a use for his son. He started taking him out of school when he was only twelve years old, for two or three days a week, so he could help work Howd's wildcat coal mine. While other kids were getting an education, my father was breathing coal dust and loading a pit car by hand. Meanwhile, his father was off carousing with married women whose husbands had gone off to work.
An equal-opportunity offender, Grandpap cheated on both his wives. Grandma Til used to drive through town, going house to house trying to catch him out. To show his displeasure at her distrust, Grandpap simply muscled his motorcycle into the living room and then changed the oil on her new carpet.
One day while he was hammering to free a broken bolt on a bulldozer, the top of the punch mushroomed and a piece of metal flew off and lodged in his eye. The local doctor did his best to remove the splinter of metal but missed something. As the sliver moved deeper, the infection grew so severe that my grandfather had to have his left eye removed. Being fitted with a glass eye opened the door to the sick humor for which he was already famous.
Grandpap's favorite trick was to order a sandwich at a diner and then call out to the waitress, complaining that there was something wrong with his lunch. "This sandwich is looking at me," he would shout, every patron startled by his sudden outburst.
As the waitress hurried to the table, he would lift the top piece of bread and there it was—a big blue eyeball staring straight out of the ham and swiss! The waitress would shriek, and everyone at the table would laugh. Once again, my grandfather was the star of his very own three-ring circus.
Despite Grandpap's bad behavior, members of my family recall tales of Howd with genuine endearment. To relatives he was the Robin Hood of Venetia, though no one seemed to recall that he stole from both the rich and the poor, robbing his immediate family most of all.
A Darker Side
Though Grandpap had a talent for making people laugh and women swoon, he couldn't keep his dark side hidden for long. I encountered it for the first time when I was four years old.
One night as the summer sun was setting, I watched as eerie shadows danced across the living room floor of my grandparents' home. On hands and knees near Grandma Til's feet, I was busy galloping plastic horses across the floorboards. Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger had already convinced me there was but one true path for a man, and that was to be a cowboy.
Though I loved my grandparents, I felt unsettled in their house, with its musty furniture, dimly lit rooms, and the old coal furnace that belched black soot and made anyone who opened the boiler door look like the devil himself. Neither did I manage to get used to the freight train that shook the house twice daily, rumbling past less than fifty feet from the back door.
That evening, the screen door screeched open, then slapped shut with a familiar finality. I hurried to the dining room to see if Mom or Dad had come to pick me up. But it was only Grandpap. My heart sank a little as I went back to Grandma Til's feet to help my horses gallop across the hardwood prairie.
"Are you hungry, Howd?" asked Grandma. "I can warm dinner for you."
After a long silence, Grandpap said, "Terry, let's you and me go for a ride in the country."
I turned and looked at Grandma Til. Though her face registered surprise, with a gentle smile she nodded her approval.
Grandpap lifted me to my feet and led me through the front door, off the tall porch, and around to the back of the house where his 1952 Chrysler Imperial was parked. He opened the door, hiked me up on the passenger seat, and then went around to the driver's side. Nothing was said as he started the engine and backed onto the grass in the side yard.
Slowly he drove up the long gravel driveway that ran between the house and McConnahay's Country Store. Then he made a quick right turn onto Mingo Creek Road. Still not a word was spoken. As we traveled in silence through the countryside and then turned onto a wagon path that led into the woods, an ugly feeling swept over me.
The car crept into the forest, branches scratching against the side panels as though the trees that pressed so close were trying to catch and hold us. Witches screaming threats could not have frightened me more than those sounds as we kept driving forward on that path.
What happened next haunted me for decades.