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Remembering Grampa

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Lately, for no particular reason, I’ve found myself in odd moments thinking about my Grampa – Thomas Aloysius “Hap” Coburn of Manasquan, New Jersey.

He actually wasn’t a blood relative of ours. Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. Tom Coburn married my father’s mother when they were both in their sixties. He had served as the Fire Chief of Harrison, New Jersey, but he was long retired by the time I was born. He was always just Grampa to us.

I still remember him vividly. He stood all of five feet two inches tall, with a barrel chest, long hairy arms, deeply lined face, and a fringe of white hair around his ears. In March of 1967, National Geographic Magazine did a cover story on Snowflake, the world’s first white gorilla. I have to admit that, for a while, Snowflake and my grampa were conflated in my five-year-old mind. There was more than a passing resemblance.

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Most of all I remember his hands – great big thick calloused working man’s hands. He could make anything with those hands. He built for me a succession of toy boats, each one more detailed than the last, until the last one, a sloop which featured real cloth sails, a jib and a mainsail with a functional boom that rotated on the mainmast.

But these were mere diversions. He built the bed I slept in until the last time I left home for the last time. He built an eight-foot solid wood table for our dining room, patterned after an old Shaker design. He and my mother ripped out the floors in our kitchen and living room and put in all new floors. These are just a few of the countless home renewal projects he did for us, too many to remember. I can’t recall him ever asking anyone for anything in return.

The ceaseless hours of labor inevitably led to a few careless moments. He had lopped off a couple of fingers over the years. It never slowed him down.

He liked his cigars and his whiskey. But I have to say, I never saw him touch the stuff before eight o’clock in the morning. An “eye-opener,” he used to call it.

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He was a character, that’s for sure. When I was a little boy, my mother explained to me that when people get old, they shrink. I asked Grampa if that was true. “Sure!” he roared. “Last night I was shrinking so much I couldn’t stay under the covers!”

His years as fire chief had left him with a healthy distrust of politicians. I remember watching Gerald Ford’s inauguration with him on television. Ford looked into the camera and gravely intoned, “My fellow Americans – I stand before you tonight – to solemnly swear…“

“… to steal all I can steal,” Grampa muttered.

I have to marvel at the easy mantle of masculinity he wore as comfortably as an old bathrobe, in stark contrast to the men of my father’s generation, these organization men who were the first generation in their families to go to university and who seemed so uncomfortable in their button-down shirts and ties, and even more uncomfortable out of them.

He and my grandmother went to mass faithfully every week, but I have no idea what his metaphysical views were. Perhaps he didn’t think about such things at all. I know he was stoic about the inevitability of death. I once heard him say to my grandmother, “Ah, geez, Mary – you gotta go sometime.”

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My grandmother died when I was eighteen, and Grampa went to live with my father’s sister, my Aunt Mary Ellen. My father was estranged from his sister, and for most of my life I was only vaguely aware of her existence. Truth to tell, I didn’t think about him too much after that, being at an age in which one’s primary concerns is one’s gonads.

Only recently did I learn much about the last years of his life. Still vigorous in his late eighties, he had about four good years after that. My Aunt Mary Ellen’s two younger sons were in the Boy Scouts back then, and Grampa used to attend the meetings, and even had his own uniform. Her sons are now in their forties, but they still have fond memories of “Pop-pop,” as they used to call him.

I saw him once more, at the very end of his life, almost by accident. I had gone to Florida to collect some specimens for my research, and I knew that Aunt Mary Ellen lived nearby, and on impulse I looked her up in the phone book. She was delighted to hear from me, and invited me to come over. I was welcomed into her home and treated like – well, like one of the family.

Unfortunately, Grampa had gone into a steep decline in the previous year. By the time I got there he was all skin and bones. He had no idea who I was. But as I bent over his prostrate form, and saw the leathery hide stretched over his skull, as dry as parchment, for a fleeting moment I thought I had a glimpse of the young man who had joined the Fire Department, over seventy years before. He died just a few days later.

He was from a different era, that’s for sure – one in which men used themselves up, poured out their lives by the bucketful until there was nothing left.

All photos via Wikimedia Commons 

Gorilla photo by Salim Virji via Wikimedia Commons

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