While raindrops hang from bare branches outside my office window, reflecting grey winter skies, I’m thinking about summer. And not just any summer, but my final summer with Grandpa Frank.
Pencil-mustached Frank McLaughlin, former air ace and stunt flyer, was a “man’s man.” Up until the month before he died, he could still execute a perfect iron cross on any set of public park gymnastic rings. Younger men would mutter, “I hope I look that good at his age.” And their wives would reply, “I wish you looked that good at this age!”
Our family patriarch loved no place on earth so much as California’s magnificent redwood forests. And so every summer for four years, while my dad and my cousins’ dad worked, Grandpa would round up the McLaughlin side of the family and take us to Yosemite or Sequoia National Park.
He’d rent a log cabin, with a covered porch for our cooler; we’d learned never to keep food inside our cabin–and even that was dicey. Our first morning there, we awoke to shrieks from the cabin next to ours. We rushed out see a feisty old bubbe beating a bear with her broom, and shouting in a thick Brooklynese accent, “No! Bad beah, bad beah!” The huge creature polished off the last of her pastrami while swatting at her with his spare paw, and then turned and loped away. I can still hear Grandpa’s wheezy laugh echoing through the woods.
He loved animals, and he loved showing off. Every time we ate outside, we’d be inundated with greedy ground squirrels or divebombing blue jays. My cousins and I loved feeding the ground squirrels. But Grandpa favored the blue jays; maybe they reminded him of his own divebombing days. He’d tilt his head back with a peanut between his teeth, and wait for a jay to swoop down and snatch it. Sometimes two would land on his face and fight over the prize. As the victor and loser flew away Grandpa would jump to his feet, scratched and grinning, and wheezing with glee.
We swam under falls, we climbed precarious boulders, we hiked where John Muir had hiked, and always Grandpa was there to lead the way.
We were fearless because he was fearless.
Our last summer there, we arrived too late to rent a cabin, so we spent the first night in a Travelodge just outside the park. It’s strange, but this only child who’d always had his own bedroom, had never felt more loved and secure in all his life. Was it the fact that Aunt Tavia and my cousins, Mom, Grandma, and I were all squeezed together on top of two beds? Or was it because Grandpa Frank was there in the chair by the door…
Watching over us?