He sits in a chair in his living room, near the big picture window that looks out to a towering, shady oak tree in the corner of his front yard. The last I saw of him he liked to play his tiny remote, video slot machine game. He would play for hours and when the opportunity arose he would make the forty five minute drive to Dubuque Iowa, where the Riverboat Casino was docked and hit the real machines.
Across the road and down the lane from him, are fields of corn and beans all bordered and often surrounded by these sweet smelling woods of Northern Illinois. The smell of fresh cut hay is carried by the winds that have blown upwards for over 150 years across his property. Up and over the bluffs of the Mississippi River which flows lazily below. It is a good place to be, a simple place, a place where your life and the years can pass as quickly as the sun rises and sets.
He was born just across the pasture in a small farmhouse 86 years ago and would never leave this small one mile square area. It was a time when the prosperity of this country was on the verge of collapsing and we were beginning to sink into the Great Depression.
His family would struggle during that time but they never lost their resolve and they never left. When all you give is all you got then it just has to work. Farming has been in his blood his whole life . From my earliest memories I recall a smiling man, a laughing man, a man who would grab me and tickle me and who was always kind. He worked hard. He squeezed harder. Whenever my brothers and I would visit we would run as fast as we could down to the barn where the cows are. We Look? No Grandpa. On past the tractors and past the hay loft. We look? No Grandpa. More often than not he would be found in his garage working on the chainsaws that locals had dropped off. It was a cheery place to be. A pot-bellied stove would be glowing orange and giving off the most wonderful, smoky scent. His dog, Mitsy, all 30 pounds of long matted hair would waddle by and squeeze out the door. He would let us help with chores. “Cmon’ lets go feed the pigs” he’d say and I would shovel ground up corn into a bucket and spread it into their feed trough. We would go inside then to a warm kitchen and he would sit at the end of the table with a cup of coffee and a plate of my Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. “Tell me whats new little man?” he would ask and poke me in the arm and smile big and bright. At that moment he made you feel like you were the most important person in the whole world, even if you were only 10 years old.
I always admired his work ethic. Some people are born with it and others develop it over their life and others never do seem to acquire that quality. I believe he carried that sense of resolve and fortitude into the Army where he did a stint during WWII in Japan and again in Korea as a young MP. It carried over into the rest of his life as a farmer and bulldozer operator. Locals said that when operating a dozer he could pick up a nickel and move it 100 yards down a road and never disturb the dirt. To this day I do not doubt the skills he exhibited to me as I grew up.
For almost 3000 miles I have crossed this country on foot. Day after day, slowly making my way towards his home. It will be our last visit. Time is not forgiving and has taken its toll on his body. Parkinson’s disease has made these last years difficult although in a positive way he would say it has contributed to his success with the slot machines. I do know that once I place a flag near that oak tree in his front yard , a flag we will both salute to, I will move on and not be back. For he will be gone I am sure.
Today I ran up the bike path from Albany to Savanna and it brought back a flood of memories from childhood. I shared those thoughts and memories with the names on each flag. They listen intently, though I do not see them. They smile and I can feel them. It is their presence that has brought on things I cannot explain. Random meetings like the one in Iowa with friends I had not seen in 30 years who saw me on TV and tracked me down on the road. It is with parents that have met me on the road who I reassure that their loved ones will not be forgotten. This road has become a Memorial Highway of sorts and its taken me back to a familiar place. Back to a country lane that weaves its way north.
Quietly my breathing rises and falls often whispering, often lost in unspoken words. Legs that were once young and spry and dazzled on his lawn now old and bent carry me slowly towards a hill that is long and steep. At the top is his home. At the top he waits. I know Grandpa will be there, standing in his front yard, leaning on his cane. His hat will be tilted to shield the western sun as he looks down that road for me. I know the leaves in his oak tree will be fluttering and singing in the August winds. I know our time together will be short and I have come so very far, so I will be there Grandpa, I will be there and I know you will smile, and laugh and you will poke and squeeze me and for the briefest time we will both be young again……watch for me……….