On many an occasion, professional wrestler Ric Flair stated that “To be the man, you have to beat the man”. There are very few men who matched my grandfather. A six-foot-two tower of power – until he shrank two inches in his later years and informed anyone he encountered of his contracted state with mischievous glee – my grandfather brought his no nonsense sensibility and depression era youth work ethic to a bustling California economy in the fifties, flourishing in the warmth and prosperity enough to make it his lifelong home.
But that is not to say that just because the boy took himself out of Pennsylvania that Pennsylvania was taken out of the boy. His love of Pittsburgh sports teams knew no bounds and this love earned me many a trip in my youth to Dodger Stadium and his couch. When his teams screwed up and he was in the presence of women, they were dirty buggers. When it was just he and I, they were an expression that rhymed with dirty buggers. Let’s face facts; an old person swearing is awesome. When that old person is your grandfather and your post pubescent youth is spent listening to him redefine colorful metaphors because the Pirates and Steelers took a downturn in quality? Travolta playing Tony Manero and Danny Zuko simultaneously couldn’t match that level of cool.
This does not mean he lacked charm and grace. One of my earliest recollections of what love is came from watching my grandfather and his wife dance across the Cloud Nine ballroom in Knott’s Berry Farm. Whenever I dance with my wife – be it in the company of a dance floor full of fools or the middle of our living room alone – I think of that image of my grandfather twirling his beloved, though I must confess to never trying it to his beloved Polka music. (Don’t get all smarmy thinking to yourself “How could he leave his grandson alone in the middle of a dance hall?” It was a different time, fuckstick.)
My grandfather welcomed my wife with open arms into his family. They shared a love of jokes that were naughty, but not dirty. An example:
Grandpa: “What do you call a German virgin?”
My wife: “I don’t know, Grandpa.”
In my wedding album, there is a picture of my grandfather with his arms confidently ensconced around three of my wife’s bridesmaids. A certainty exists in his Cheshire cat grin that states in no uncertain terms these nubile women would know his company behind closed doors if only he were three decades younger. Upon crossing paths later in the evening, I informed him of this visual I had joyously taken in, at which point he looked at me, winked, and said “Michael, I may be old, but I’m not dead.”
But as S.E. Hinton once wrote, that was then…this is now. In a couple of weeks, I will attend the annual Sunset Strip Music Festival. I will think back to the surreal memory of standing in the middle of the hallowed boulevard for the first time, answering a call from my grandfather, and thinking that if you asked me to list things I never thought would coexist in my life, the Sunset Strip and my grandfather would be right near the top of said list. I will stand with my wife and my two best friends, and we will raise a glass to a man who lived a long, full life; one that we could only hope to emulate.
You were always the man, grandpa. Now, the man becomes the king…and the king doesn’t have to do a damn thing except sit in his favorite chair and watch his teams from the Steel City -- Careful of the colorful metaphors until I get there.