Monday, January 16, 2012

My Real Inspiration

Ever seen the movie Big Fish with Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney and just about everybody in the universe? If not, it's a movie about the fantastically unbelievable stories one man tells his family and everyone he comes in contact with.

Five years ago my grandfather had fallen ill and the family was preparing for him to get better or not. He'd been hospitalized with pneumonia and then the doctors found lung cancer. I think most of us believed he wasn't going to get better but with someone like my Gran'pa you always held out hope. He was such a presence in our lives, in my life, that none of us could imagine him being gone.

Five years ago, my grandfather succumbed to the cancer. I was devastated. Beyond devastated, actually. The day before he died I wrote this on my (now defunct) LiveJournal:

My grandfather is a true raconteur. He tells stories that rivet the listeners, and he does it in such a way that you’ll believe every single one of them, no matter how fantastic. He’s probably the biggest reason I ever wanted to be a writer. I grew up absolutely convinced that my uncles had been recruited by Santa Claus to take The Ride one Christmas. He told us a hundred stories about growing up in Bain City, the --- well, there’s no nice word for it --- the ghetto just outside Leavenworth, the city not the prison. He had so many of those stories, and so many of them are just unbelievable but apparently true, that he was finally convinced by my mother, aunts and uncles to write them down and get them into a book.

“Wolf’s Bain City Stories” was published two years ago. I was lucky enough to transcribe and copy-edit the tales in preparation for him to send the files to a vanity press that allowed him to self-publish the book. He did very well, sold over a thousand copies just locally, and did a dozen or more lectures. Book signings were well-attended by folks who lived in Bain City or who had relatives that did. His slices of that life told a ton about the human condition. If I can find the file (made on the old Mac and hopefully saved on a disc that’s around here SOMEwhere) I’ll post a couple of those stories on the journal here eventually.

My grandfather lived a full, interesting life. He was recruited by the Yankees, and ended up signing with the Cardinals. He told us stories of Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial, even was an extra in a Jimmy Stewart baseball movie. He married twice, had two families (ten children all told, plus the inevitable neighbor kids and their friends) and spent a great deal of time with my brother and I in our formative years. He gave me my first baseball glove on the same day I caught my first fish during a family trip to Roaring River. I have a lot of great memories of fishing trips, riddles and overnight stays at his home in Leavenworth. He made the BEST greasy tacos.

He did tell us a story about Stan Musial, but I always got it confused with another story. It didn't matter. He told the tale of working on that movie and being directed to play second base. (He was a left-handed pitcher.) You can see his shadow, he told me, if you ever catch that movie on TV somewhere. His baseball career was cut short by a rotator cuff injury. Phog Allen consulted on the possibility of rehabbing it, which was not going to happen and Gran'pa never had a real big league career.

Which was why when I saw Field of Dreams the character of Dr. Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, as played by Burt Lancaster, reminded me so much of Gran'pa. If you haven't seen the movie you won't know, but there's a line that Doc says that sums up what I believe my grandfather believed:

Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes... now that would have been a tragedy.


He wasn't a doctor, he was a salesman but the comparison holds. Through his job he was able to help as many people as any doctor, though in different ways. So these two films, these two characters, are inextricably intertwined in my mind with my memories of him. When I see them, I can't turn away and I always, always cry and I miss him. I have his stories, a thousand people bought them, but I grew up with them. I was lucky enough to see them written down before almost anyone else.

All of this to say that the reason I want to tell stories is because I always felt like Gran'pa was showing me how it was done. He always encouraged me to pursue the creative endeavors I told him about and he had a story for every occasion.

He enjoyed his life. I said five years ago that he lived a full, interesting life. That's the truth. The effect he had on his community was significant and the line of cars that stretched for miles and miles and miles from the church to the cemetery was testament to that. The people whose lives he touched are all richer for having known him and when they think about him they smile like I do.

I don't remember this, but I'm told that my grandfather was there the day I was born. He's still with me, pushing me to be a storyteller. He's the reason I do this. I don't know that I'll ever be as good a storyteller as him, but I'm sure going to keep at it.