He Is My Favorite Man

As spring finds its way into this hemisphere, I’m remembering my granddaddy. I wrote this when he passed away two years ago and decided to give it a more permanent home. Today I’m also thinking about the many people who have lost grandparents or other loved ones over the past year of the pandemic — you remain in my heart.

Granddaddy and his great-granddaughter Helen. Photo: Ben Gilmer

Most of my memories are framed by the contours of his presence — my days with him, our big-eyed times together. My days without him.

I can still see the filet of flesh dangling from his forearm, cigarette bouncing from his mumbling lips, calmly asking me to hop in his F-250, the “straight six” model with in-line cylinders, the engine most folks around here still whisper as Ford’s best, so I could change gears for him on his way to the hospital. “Tell Betty there was a chainsaw accident but I’m fine,” gray smoke pulsating out of his nose like a bull’s breath as it waits for the first sprouts of frosty March grass. I didn’t worry because everyone was safe if he was there. Everything would be fine. In the years and somehow now decades that have followed that afternoon, I have come up short in finding any trace of scars on his freckled skin from that day.

How fitting that this giant would pass in the early morning on the first day of spring. His life and language and philosophy were oriented around the growing of things and the changing of seasons. The herding of calves and critters and grandkids. The strategic layering of clothes in a way that only a person who has worked outside their entire life can do. The house and farm maintenance routines that swept in each spring alongside the vernal pond peepers.

I was about 10 when I got my first lesson on The Signs and why we seeded our pastures during the Dark Moon of February. Without saying as much, he assured me with the purest sense of confidence that this knowledge was a core tenant of our existence. Tracking The Signs and the moon was not an exercise in science for him, per se, though he was surely a scientist if I’ve ever met one, but an act of plugging directly into the transcendental from his 40 acre corner of the world.

There was a Clyde-ism for everything. A kind of country poetry that rolled off of his tongue without thinking, with remarkable ease and near universal understanding. It was always the perfect saying to describe any moment or issue. I would wish Wendell Berry the very best of luck in keeping up with my Clyde.

When I was a kid, my friends wanted to look like someone from Saved by the Bell, but I wanted to look like my granddaddy. I wanted a big white wave of hair on the top of my head. I wanted to get my hands smashed up by decades of changing tractor implements and climbing barn rafters so they’d look like his. At one point I took my dad’s farrier rasp and raked the palms of my hands to try to make them as callused as Clyde’s. Come to find out you have to actually do the work for your hands to look like that.

I wanted a coal-stained hard hat covered in United Mine Workers of America stickers and a dinner bucket “that’ll last.” I’ve worn Red Wing boots since I was 13, just like him. I went with him to the polls as a kid to campaign for the Democrats, which he said were “the only ones fighting for workin’ people.” I would routinely ask him to tell me stories about his time during the Pittston Coal Strike. He studied local, regional, national, and global current events like it was his job, and somehow had more knowledge of anything worth knowing than anyone else I have ever met, despite having never set foot in a higher education institution.

A picture from an old UMWA magazine.

On Saturday morning trips to check cattle or to the farmer’s co-op or to little league games, we would fire up WLRV 1380 AM to preview some of tomorrow’s gossip. On the radio show, Tell and Sell, he recognized the voice of a trader calling in, lamenting, “Lord that’s a swarper of a tractor I’m sure. He ain’t ever changed the oil in it, guaran-damn-teed.”

Tell and Sell would be followed by the weekend bluegrass show, and then we’d switch over to Whitesburg’s WMMT to continue my bluegrass education once the banjo stopped ringing from WLRV’s radio tower in Lebanon. “It don’t get no better than John Duffey. I don’t know how the Seldom Scene will go on without him,” I remember him saying, with the Country Gentlemen’s version of Nine Pound Hammer supporting his sentiment on the speakers.

And there was that coming of age day when it was time for me to know Some Things. “Got any hair on your pecker?” he asked bluntly without blinking or smiling. I couldn’t find words so I settled for opening my eyes as wide as possible and put my hands on the fence rail to act busy, or at least to keep from falling over.

Knowing Some Things included learning to drive the Ford truck on the hard top. I was already comfortable on the David Brown and, Lord Have Mercy, my favorite, the tricycle-wheeled John Deere Model 70. Hearing the 70’s guttural pop when you dropped her throttle to a simmer, hit second gear, and headed up the hill past the sassafras and cherry trees was the sweetest sound. The sound waves would swirl round and round the big sink hole below the barn, popping at you like a bag of popcorn in the microwave.

Up until that day, he’d only let me drive the Ford truck in the pasture. Since I was clocking in at 13 years old, and a scrappy late bloomer at that, this required two pillows behind my back and one under me to be able to stomp the clutch all the way to the floor so the gears wouldn’t grind.

Granddaddy demonstrated several fundamental laws of aerodynamics to me as we first hit the hard top. I held my breath as I stretched up to third gear for the first time in my life. “Crack that side glass at a 45 degree angle” as he passed me my first, solely-owned brand new pack of chewing tobacco. “If you spit toward the mirror, the wind will catch it and it won’t make a mess on the truck. Don’t spit out the rear glass. Ever. And don’t tell your mom.” En route to Honaker via Nash’s Ford, once we hit the top of Copper Ridge, he walked me through gearing down and pulled me over. From that spot, looking northeast, Big A Mountain stands behind the ancient web of crumpled hills that flank each bank of thy holy Clinch River.

He pulled a .25 caliber snub nose pistol from behind the seat and set up a target across the road. “I ain’t used this in a while but I’d say she’s still a-workin’.” It was there on the road sliced into the side of Copper Ridge that I learned to shoot my first pistol. The delivery of life skills can come in many forms.

We chatted with the neighbors that passed by. “Hold up,” he would say with an arm raised up, as he heard a vehicle or tractor approaching. “That’s that Johnson feller with that Simmental bull that keeps getting out.” Then the tractor mechanic stopped. And the preacher. And the state senator. Clyde held court while I stood there loading and unloading the pistol and practicing spitting, feeling much too big for my hand-me-down britches.

When I graduated from college he was visibly proud — chest puffed out and chin tilted up proud — beaming from the audience at the graduation ceremony with his signature aviator sunglasses with the amber-tinted gradient lenses and a bushy mustache. When he wore them with church clothes he looked like a senior member of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Later, when I graduated with a 4.0 GPA from graduate school, he squished his lips to one side and nodded in skeptical approval. I told him I had funding to start a PhD program and he reminded me that if you get a PhD “you won’t be able to do shit anymore.” Referencing the only person he knew with a PhD, he crowed “he couldn’t even change his toilet out when it broke. I believe you’ve had enough schoolin’.”

Granddaddy and me on the David Brown tractor. Photo: Betty Yates

He seemed to know everyone in the county and could identify which clan you came from based on some combination of the inflection of your words, the geometry of your eye-to-nose relationship, your skin tone, and, most telling of all, of course, your ear shape. “Them’s Kiser ears if I’ve ever seen ‘em” or “see how she looks just like the Blankenships from across Mill Creek, I bet that is her niece or somethin.”

If I close my eyes and focus hard, I can’t remember a time when he was ever actually wrong about anything.

We didn’t always see eye to eye. There was that time I came home from a Myrtle Beach trip with my cousins and my left ear was pierced. Mom called him to share the breaking news, as she always did when major events like this were going down, or if her disciplinary measures weren’t working anymore and she needed the boss to intervene. His visit was efficient and effective. “You can take it out or I can” were his only words, providing a fitting bookend to my 48 hours of jewelry wearing.

His curiosity knew no bounds. He was known for striking up conversations with anyone who made eye contact and human connections fed his soul like nothing else. “A quick run to the grocery store for buttermilk is a guaranteed three hour trip,” my grandmother would grumble, unable to hide her admiration for this beautiful man, despite her best efforts. Bonus points if he spotted a stranger and could walk away with their name, a common relative, and where their family’s home place was located. If they were from out of the area, he would try to see if any of their relatives were in his Army brigade and what types of crops were grown near their home.

Granddaddy seemed to find genuine interest in my stories of living in a city, or traveling to far away countries. But he was always quick to remind me that there is no place like Russell County, and plenty of work to do here. Though I will always agree with his conclusion, it wasn’t until granddaddy’s final months that I really felt the overwhelming warmth of this community. “How’s Clyde? We are praying for him,” someone I haven’t seen for twenty years, and whose name I couldn’t recall, would say in the grocery store checkout line. “We are, too,” echoed an unfamiliar face at the register beside me. “Tell Clyde we are rooting for him,” encouraged the pharmacist later that day. “He is my favorite man,” an old friend of his said, while his eyes, and then mine, immediately filled with tears. Families tripped over each other rushing to fill the refrigerators with casseroles and fruit salads with mayonnaise, and we seemed to be on the prayer list of every church and home within a 30 mile radius.

Granddaddy and his great-granddaughter, Frankie. Photo: Ben Gilmer

It is a truly unique feeling of compassion and love when people you don’t even know are sitting at their supper tables and praying for your family’s well-being. Granddaddy’s long-time barber even came over to the house to give him his final haircut.

Though I have watched many animals take their first or last breaths, I have never assisted with caring for someone who is quickly dying. The constant monitoring of breath and pulse consumes what is said and not said. Their skin is more balmy and fluid-filled than you’d expect to be possible for an organ with which we all have such intimate familiarity. Eyes can change in color, clarity, and responsiveness — a visual call-and-response to vitals and other organ functions at any given moment. Medical equipment hums and beeps and flashes amongst the constant sound of oxygen whistling up through tubes and down into two worn out lungs. Numbers and acronyms are discussed and recorded ad nauseum. The documentation of food in and out of them feels like having a newborn baby in the house again.

Affairs need to get in order when you’re dying. His daughters would handle the hard tasks, and constant care, with love and grace. For granddaddy, among other priorities, this also meant making sure we understood the water system, electrical lines, and maintenance needs. How the well worked, where the shut-off valves were located, which water line fed which watering trough and how to operate the breaker boxes. It often felt like the best comfort we could provide was assuring him that everything would be OK with the water system when he passed. My brother went so far as to draw up a schematic diagram of the farm’s watering system to give him confidence that we knew what to do. A farmer’s work is never done, they say. Right up until the end apparently.

“We can fix anything that breaks. We will be here to take care of grandmother. Everything will be OK. You can rest now.”

When my oldest daughter was first born, I would jump out of bed at all hours of the night and put my face right up against hers to hear and feel her breath. With granddaddy, we would stay up and watch as bony, tired flesh and ribs elevated and descended, his breathing often requiring no visual confirmation as the rattle in his breath would stretch through the hallway and into the kitchen during his final weeks.

The day before he passed was the last time I saw him conscious. “Can I get you anything, granddaddy?” It was then that he whispered the last words that I would hear him say: “yeah, won’t you pick me a tune?”

I grabbed a guitar and softly played Salty Dog. He closed his eyes, drifted off, and would soon enter the spring season for the last time, leaving behind fertile fields and old fences and great-grandbabies and a place full of family and friends who are all better off for knowing and loving and learning from the one and only Clyde.

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Seattle WA | Lebanon VA | Twitter: @ben_gilmer