My Grandfather's Caveman
I was born in Durham, North Carolina. I say this with pride as I have visited or lived in quite a few places including a fun, but not a lengthy time in Columbia, SC, as a college student and Jackson, Mississippi as a musician. Durham has always held me in its grasp and meant a great deal to me with its old ties to family and a grounding for my soul
As with any child who has lived in a different city apart from their Grandparents, the love only grows with distance and quite often, irregular visits. My grandparents were no exception. They lived in a very quirky house at 118 West Trinity Avenue in Durham and I loved visiting them. My Grandmother wore the ‘pants’ in the family. Not saying anything about my Grandfather, but my Grandma Lilly was more serious and had a head for the books and finances of the family and my Grandpa Henry worked hard, but was more easy- going and loved to tell stories, jokes and make people smile.
There is one story about my Grandmother when they lived in Brooklyn, New York. It was the fall of 1929 and there was deepening financial crisis gripping the country. My Grandmother had either overheard someone talking or a friend of hers called to tell her the bank they were using was about to close. It didn’t take long and she was out the door, down to the bank and withdrawing every penny my Grandparents had. As she was leaving, the Feds walked in and closed the bank. This one act on her part cemented her role as the ‘Alpha Spouse’ in their relationship and helped my Grandparents survive the Great Depression. After that she always had a few dollars stashed somewhere -just for emergencies.
I’m really not sure when they moved to Durham, but they did so to come work for my Uncle Harry who ran a small ‘working man’s’ clothing store on Mangum Street. Most mornings you could find my Grandmother walking the couple of miles or so to ‘People’s Clothing Store’ where they both worked. My Grandfather would follow in his car and when their day was done, rode home together. They were a funny couple; she believed my Grandfather could not survive without her and her hovering was always a ‘cause’ of conversation for him. She smoked unfiltered Pall Malls and he a pipe, always living with the prospect that at any given time, someone’s ashes could start a fire.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about my Grandmother’s ‘clairvoyant’ capabilities, so powerful that it gave her the ability to see through unlabeled tin cans. She always shopped at the A&P and was legendary for her skill at stretching a dollar. The A&P had a bargain section where they would sell canned foods whose labels had come off rendering the contents unidentifiable… to most people, but not my Grandmother. She could shake a can and know exactly what was inside. To my best recollection, she never opened an unlabeled can not knowing what was inside.
I believe I am more like my Grandfather than anyone else in the family. My Grandpa Henry was a man blessed with great humor. He had jokes or stories about everything and he could quickly tailor any number of these, some going back farther than he was old, and make them applicable to any current circumstance. He had the impeccable delivery of an old ‘Borscht Belt’ comedian, never laughing or even cracking a smile at his own jokes.
My Grandparents house was on W. Trinity Avenue, down the block from Dodson’s Esso where Cokes were 10 cents and about three blocks from Irwin Mills where sheep were kept in a huge pen out front to remind everyone where their wool came from. My Grandfather taught me everything; how to ride a bike- he helped me on to my sister’s old bicycle, held me for a second as I pedaled and then let go; he taught me to swim- held me up in the water at Duke Park Pool and told me to keep kicking my feet and only when I reached the side of the pool did I find out he had let me go and much to my Grandmother’s chagrin, how to drive his prized ‘Fluid Drive’ 1950 Dodge Cornet.
One fall afternoon, my Grandfather was doing his usual yard work. He would rake leaves from one corner of his yard and deposit them in another, redistribute the gravel down his driveway, prune his few trees and put ‘stuff’ into his garage in the back of the house.
He was always looking for ‘things’ of interest or something he could talk about. On this particular day he happened upon a very strange rock. Basically it was, just a rock probably only indigenous to his back yard. It was quite interesting though in its shape and with some concrete it had come in contact with, it looked like a human skull. (See photographs) Knowing what it ‘wasn’t’, a smile most likely came over his face as he decided to see just how far he could take it. First, he called Channel 11, (WTVD) who said they really didn’t think anyone finding something resembling the skull of a caveman in a Durham driveway was ‘television material’, but did suggest that he call the Durham Morning Herald or the Durham Sun. This was back in the day when you subscribed to the Durham papers; you received the Durham Morning Herald in the morning and the Durham Sun in the afternoon. Well his description of this ‘remarkable’ find must have been so intriguing to the newspaper, they dispatched a photographer and a staff writer to 118 West Trinity Avenue to see what this ‘caveman’s skull was all about. Pictures were taken, my grandfather interviewed, a story written and an article published.
It also must have been a slow day at Duke University, because a professor read the article when it was published and after looking at the grainy picture decided my Grandfather may have just found something of ‘semi-historic’ proportions right here in Durham and just five blocks from the University itself. The professor notified the newspaper of his intentions to take a first-hand look at the ‘skull-rock’ and the newspaper once again sent out a photographer, this time to cover the meeting between my Grandfather and the professor. Another photograph was taken, this time with the professor and the ‘skull whatever’ and another interview given. I am quite sure that my Grandmother must have said, at least a thousand times, “… Henry, tell them the truth or you’ll have trouble- you want trouble? - tell them the truth”, and my Grandpa Henry must have replied with as much repetition and a twinkle in his eye, “Lil, Shad-up” We believe there was one more article printed in the paper, most likely buried somewhere between the obituaries and the newspaper’s whitespace, probably describing my Grandfather’s Caveman, as just a geological entity, (a rock) with a bit of concrete thrown in for good measure.
Many years have come and gone since his passing and then my Grandmother’s and to this day, somewhere, my Grandfather still tells the story of how he found his Caveman and as he tells it, yet again, like the polished comedian he was, never cracks a smile or laughs. Thanks Grandpa for this and the many jokes and ‘tall tales’ you left to me and tell Grandma to leave you alone, no matter how many times you tell it. I still love you and miss you both very much.