Yesterday was a bit frantic, so I didn't have time to properly reflect and then, of course, write a brilliant post. Yesterday, May 15, marked the four-year anniverary of my grandpa's passing.
The best parts of me, I think, in many ways came from him. He was a fallible human like any other, I'm sure, but thinking back on him I can't remember those faults in any detail.
He taught me the rudiments of carpentry--how to handle a saw, how to measure using a story stick. He was a prodigal musician (the picture is from his army service during the war, when he was the leader of the 8th Air Corps band over in Blackpool) but found time to be a student of the natural world. He could predict to the minute when it was going to rain. He knew all the wildflowers and the trees, where to find the best mushrooms, the secret spot where you could pick bitterroot. He had a wicked, droll sense of humor and a love of elaborate practical jokes.
He grew up in a Czech community, in a tiny town outside St. Louis in southern Illinois, the son of the high school principal, the grandson of Bohemian immigrants. He told me stories of growing up on their small farm, his mother baking pies every morning and drying wild mushrooms on an old screen door to keep in a bag over the stove, his father having to catch their ill-humored horse every Sunday if they were to have a chance of driving their wagon into town to visit his grandmother. How the horse, named Dan, usually escaped before being hitched. About Dan's predilection for following a mother hen across the barnyard, snapping up her chicks one by one until there was nothing left but yellow tufts around his mouth. Wondering why his dad ever kept that horse.
He went to college at Illinois Wesleyan, somehow a couple of years younger than the rest of his class. He joined an engineering fraternity that required the freshmen to entertain faculty members at dinner once a week, where they were expected to not only serve but sit and hold quality conversations. He always credited that experience more than anything for teaching him how to deal with people and handle himself in situations where he didn't know anyone. Maybe that's why he expected quality conversation from me, gently correcting my hicksville accent along with my posture.
He went on to be the high school band director in the slightly larger small Illinois town where he and Grandma settled down, and later was an administrator after retiring from the classroom. He gave me wheelbarrow rides around the yard and carried me on his shoulders, running to the back of the lot to see the freight trains rumbling by. He learned from an old woman how to barbecue chicken for hours until it would fall apart under your fork. He favored Foster's beer and escaped Grandma's imposed diet by wandering over to my dad's house for sandwiches when he got hungry.
His name was Leo, but he picked up the nickname "Gus" in college, which stuck for the rest of his life.
He was the most gentle, quietly confident and steadfast man I ever knew. I will always miss him.