Birdie Calvert, her daughter and Birdie’s mother file into the nursing home to visit Birdie’s father. He smiles politely, but his granddaughter complains that it seems like he doesn’t even recognize them. “Oh, your grandpa’s fine,” says Birdie’s mother as she looks into his face, smoothes his hair, and hugs him. “He just has a touch of Old Timer’s.” Birdie corrects her. “It’s Alzheimer’s, Mama.” Birdie’s mother smiles softly at the old man and whispers, “I know what I said.”
–From the 1998 movie Hope Floats
Three streets triangulate the center of downtown Berea, Ohio, thus the distinction of having a Town Triangle instead of a Town Square. Locals are proud of that unique trivia. In my youth, Schneider’s Drug Store, Whitey’s Army/Navy Store, Art’s Men’s Shop and other quaint shops adorned the Triangle, and on the “away” side, next to the hardware store and across the street from the pool hall sat Pappy and Uncle Mike’s Barber Shop. Pappy (my mom’s dad) learned the trade of barbering around age 40 when the country no longer needed men to haul chunks of ice or coal into a house; it was probably best because his shoulders were wearing out anyway.
A Regular Routine
On Saturday mornings, Pappy would take me to the shop, where he’d re-shave my “Princeton” haircut and I’d read comic books, sneak peeks at the girlie magazines he kept in the back, and just hang around until Dad whistled across the street for me to join him at the pool room.
One particular Saturday morning, Pappy sat in the barber chair reading the paper while I pushed a Hot Wheels car around the ledge of the chair rail. It was early yet, and no appointments were booked, but Pappy liked to sit in the chair so people could see from the window that he was available. He hated to be idle and not make money.
People walked by–old and young. It was the late 1960s, and students from the local college (Baldwin-Wallace) all looked like extras from the TV show Room 222. Beads, leather sandals, bell bottoms, a great deal of scruffy facial hair and headbands were standard issue for these kids, and though none of it was as severe as the tattoos and body piercings of today, the look made its own statement.
Suddenly the bell clanged on the door, and Pappy and I were startled by a 20-something-year-old student with long, straggly hair and circular John Lennon-glasses resting low on his nose. He leaned in, “You open, Old Timer?” Pappy bristled at the reference, but a buck was a buck. “Yeah, you need a cut?” The kid nodded, plopping down in the chair just as Pappy vacated it. “Just a trim. Got an interview tomorrow for a job, and I wanna clean up a little.” Pappy stropped his blades on the leather and said, “You need this job?” The kid laughed, “Whaddya think, I’m going for my health? I’m broke, man.” Pappy was silent. I put the car in my pocket and sat down to watch. I knew what was coming.
Right from the start, Pappy lopped off long strands and began to shape the taper in the back of the young man’s head. About halfway through, the student noticed great piles of hair on the floor and jumped up. “What the heck are you doing, old man? I said a trim!” Pappy sighed, “You also said you needed the job!” The kid was incredulous. “I am not paying for this haircut. This is not what I asked for! I am leaving.” Pappy stayed calm and pointed to the chair. “Sit down. You don’t want to pay, don’t pay–but you can’t walk out of here looking like that. Let me finish.” The student unhappily flopped back into the chair, muttering to himself. I heard my dad whistle from across the street, but I went to the door and waved, signaling I would be along in a bit. I didn’t want to miss the end of this event.
Pappy finished the cut and whipped the cape off the kid, who was magically transformed into a really respectable-looking young man. He put his glasses on, hesitated when he glanced in the mirror, and stormed out. I got the broom out of the back closet (stealing a glance at “Miss June 1969” hanging on the wall inside the closet), and started to clean the floor. Neither Pappy nor I said anything. He returned to the chair with the paper and a sigh, and when I was done, I told him my dad was across the street and I’d see him later. “OK, buddy.”
An Imperfect Resolution
On the following Saturday, we found ourselves in the same places, but it was closer to noon when the door opened, and I recognized the student from the week before, who had an older gentleman beside him. Pappy was in the middle of a cut and froze for a second without looking over.
“Uh … sir.” The kid, now facing my grandfather, was stammering as his father stood beside him, his hands behind his back. “I have to apologize for last week.”
He held out a fistful of money, which Pappy took.
“I got the job. My dad here thinks it was mainly because of the haircut. He may be right. I am sorry.”
This is the point where I would love to tell you that Pappy winked at the father, forgave the boy, and handed him back half the money. But none of that happened.
Pappy didn’t say a word. He put the money in his pocket and kept cutting. I stared in awe as if I were watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. The kid and his dad simply retreated and left quietly. I never saw them again in the shop. I think the lesson was learned when the kid apologized, but I think it was really set in stone when “I’m sorry” wasn’t enough to reverse what had been done. The kid got a real lesson that day, and so did I. After they were gone, Pappy winked at me, and the silent wisdom of that “Old Timer” didn’t escape my eye either.
A Glutton For Punishment
I have three sons-in-law. They are sharp fellows, but being young they often think they know more than they really do. My father-in-law, called “Papa,” sometimes offers them advice that they disregard simply because, you know, he’s an “Old Timer.”
When he watches them disassemble something, he reminds them to take each nut and bolt off slowly, and leave them in the general area where they were removed, in the same order in which they were removed. He explains that this helps during re-assembly, but one of the boys in particular always ignores the advice, leaving a pile of nuts, bolts and miscellaneous parts which invariably he cannot re-assemble accurately.
Papa just shakes his head. Then he decides to get even. He waits until they step away from the task for a few minutes then puts three or four extra screws, nuts and bolts in the pile from his tool box. Then when they try to put the project back together, there are several extra pieces. The boys go crazy. He just sits at a distance, laughing quietly to himself while they curse and spit. Not once has he broken down and told them either. I hope for his sake they don’t read this piece. He has too much fun watching them sweat.
Outtakes From Grumpy Old Men
There’s a corner lot across the driveway from my parent’s house that has been vacant for years. The two families whose yards bordered the property planted a community garden there, which they weeded and watered, and made clear to all the families in the immediate area that the vegetables were theirs for the picking; many a salad on our table was made from the lettuce, tomatoes and carrots grown there. The two homeowners (Mr. Livengood and Mr. Kujanek) loved working in that garden, watching those vegetables grow big and fresh.
Each man, in competition, would stare out his bedroom window in the morning and look, look, look through those leaves to see if a red tomato had shown through yet. One day when I was in the garden, I looked up and saw Mr. Kujanek staring out the window of Mr. Livengood’s bedroom. Mr. Livengood wasn’t home, but his wife had let Mr. Kujanek in, and for some reason he kept looking out of that window. He developed an elaborate scheme in which he would tie a Christmas ornament (tomato red) to a stake, and nestle it into the green leaves of the tomato plants to trick Mr. Livengood into thinking a tomato was visible. He was in Mr. Livengood’s house trying to determine exactly where to place the bogus tomato.
Sure enough, the next morning Mr. Livengood went racing into the garden in his bathrobe to pick the first ripe beefsteak tomato, but came up with only a shiny ornament that read “Merry Christmas.” Peals of laughter came from Mr. Kujanek’s bedroom. He opened the window and yelled, “Hey, Ned! Whatcha got there?” The two of them howled and laughed like a couple of wolves. This went on for years between the two, and is a story that really never gets old, even though now it is told by Old Timers.
The Endless Cycle
Ah, those Old Timers–men who observed much and saw things that only they could understand. Is it a wonder why they are, as a lot, sometimes so brooding, or quick to snap, or perhaps so quiet? Do you ever wonder what’s behind that silent smile when an Old Timer watches a kid running around like a nut? His laughter is half envy and half sheer pleasure in recalling the reckless abandon of youth.
I found both of my grandfathers to be very wise men. It seems the softer they spoke, the more I listened. I recall having to interview my dad’s dad for an assignment in school about the Great Depression. I used a tape recorder at the onset of the interview, but saw how uncomfortable it made him, so I put it away.
Once he was comfortable, he began to open up, and when I asked if it was true about people being so hungry they would eat anything, he vacantly but truthfully stated, “Well, you never saw a stray dog.” I looked at his face when I heard that sentence, and found him just staring straight ahead, without a smile, in somewhat of a memory trance. I don’t even think he realized all he had said to his pampered and well-provided-for grandson in that moment, but I realized he had seen things as a child that I never had.
Talk about perspective.
Those Old Timers are truly the keepers of so much history, and are to be revered. They’ve learned so many lessons first-hand, and have become hoarse trying to explain things to younger people who just don’t listen. I think that’s why you find most Old Timers either terribly bitter or wonderfully enlightened and amused. The former are angry watching people make the same mistakes they made, and the latter understand that people are just as impetuous as they once were, and cope with the circular way life conducts itself. Everything old is inevitably, at some point, new again.
Jabs And Innocent Ribbing
Two of my favorite Old Timers, my grandmother’s brothers, live in Pennsylvania. There were 13 siblings in that gang, and Uncle Joe and Uncle Jim are hilarious. They are as different as night and day.
Joe is the cerebral one. He talks about your future and your decisions and the importance of life lessons, which he mostly explains through football stories. Jim is a teddy bear–a big, lovable, simple guy who looks more like Tony Bennett than Tony Bennett.
Well, Uncle Joe has this trick he pulls every time he and his brother are in a crowd. Joe will find some guy at a party that Uncle Jim doesn’t know, perhaps someone’s new boyfriend or a neighbor who has wandered over. Joe will plant a story with this person that only Jim would know.
Later, when both Joe and Jim are together and people are talking casually, this stranger will begin to tell the story that Joe planted, and Jim slowly will get drawn in. The details begin to mirror an important moment in Jim’s life, and this new guy was there!
Here’s a complete stranger who was in Germany, in the war, in the same battalion, under the same colonel, and then he parachutes in and …
“Hey, I gotta talk to this guy. I was there, I was there, too!”
And then Uncle Jim looks over and sees Uncle Joe laughing uproariously, and the stranger is laughing, and old vulnerable Jim has been taken in again. There are a few feigned punches amid the laughter, and as Joe wipes the tears from his glasses, he looks with love and pity at his brother, who just shakes his head and says, “I’ll get you one day, Joe–one day.”
The great philosopher and poet Henri Amiel once said, “To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.”
I think both young and old alike can see the significance in those words. I only hope I can remain one of those who keep that in mind as I approach the years of silent, understanding smiles.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail email@example.com