By Kim Kruger
My late grandfather Elliott Olman, "Ole" to his friends and peers, was a short, stout Norwegian who worked 47 years as an auto mechanic and welder in Madison, Wisconsin. Grandpa had huge hands and fingers, the size of
football Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski's, and they bore the many cuts, scrapes, and callouses common to his profession. And try as he might (and he really tried hard) he never could get rid of all the black grease imbedded beneath his fingernails, despite a lifetime supply of Lava perched prominently on the bathroom sink, along with the frequent admonitions of his scowling spouse.
Grandpa usually arrived home after work during the middle of a big family dinner, when most of his offspring and grandkids had already had their fill of Grandma's pot roast and mashed potatoes. Back in the '60s and early '70s, families like ours didn't wait for Sundays after church to gather and break bread; in fact, it wasn't uncommon for aunts, uncles, and cousins to crowd around Grandma Cora's table three or four nights a week. To us, our feisty old matriarch was the best cook in the world, and she loved being surrounded by her kids and grandkids. Even so, when Grandpa took his seat, rather than accepting the dishes passed to him, he'd politely ignore the offered food and instead place a piece of white bread on his plate. Then, he'd liberally spread it with ketchup, or gravy, or both and top it off with a dash of salt and pepper, insisting that we all finish the beef and spuds as he didn't want any of us to leave the table hungry. His meager meal was something he'd eaten often as a child during the Great Depression and he vowed to himself that his kin would never suffer a similar poor man's fare. Only when he was convinced by the empty chairs around the table that all of us had indeed had our fill would the dear old man sheepishly help himself to a chunk of roast and scoop of potatoes, of which we all secretly made sure there was plenty left.
After his makeshift dinner, Grandpa would usually amble outside for a smoke and a long, loving look at his mode of transportation. In all of my years growing up, the old guy drove an old, beat-up Chevy truck that had once been used to deliver soda in the late 1930's. The black paint had faded and succumbed to the elements, it's floorboard around the clutch, brake and gas pedal were nearly rusted through, and you couldn't sit on the seat without a spring digging into your rump through the tattered leather. He refused to spend money on a new car for himself; that was for Grandma's spanking new Buick and upkeep. When the old beater finally breathed its last he parked it on a patch of dirt off to the side of his driveway, vowing someday to fix 'er up and get it running again. He never did, and got a lift to the shop from his wife every day thereafter.
A few years later, when Grandpa retired in the early 1980's, the family held a huge party for him at the local bowling alley. Naturally it was pot luck, with relatives overloading tables with all sorts of hot dishes and desserts from the old country. Before the keg was tapped and the party got going full tilt, Grandpa's fellow grease-monkeys took him out to the parking lot and presented him with a set of keys on a brand new key chain and pointed him toward a shiny black pickup truck decked out with Goodyear Whitewalls and chrome that shone like polished mirrors; a completely restored Chevy that once delivered soda pop in the late 1930's. The old man flashed a big smile that betrayed a pinch of snuff, and then broke down and wept openly at the sight of his new, old wheels; we all did. Upon re-entering the bowling alley one of his daughters, my Mom, handed him a cup of beer and a plate heaped with food. He looked down at it and then at his family gathered around him, declaring in grumpy protest that there were guests to feed first and demanding a piece of bread and bottle of ketchup; to which a chorus of voices shouted out in unison, "not today!" And for the first time in my life I saw my grandfather heartily accept and eat a serving of food before anyone else in his family, and he smiled. We all did.