GeorgeEvery Memorial Day, even when George was a few thousand miles away, I could always hear him growling in my ear, reminding me of the real reason for this holiday. It’s Memorial Day today, and even though he just passed from this earth, I still hear his gruff voice grunting in my head, even stronger than ever.I worked with George during my first decade as a single parent, had just left my teen years when I started that job, was in the latter part of my twenties when I moved on. George was my boss most of that time, the best boss I’ve ever had, and I’ve had plenty, a few hundred, more than I want to count, or even remember.But I’ll always remember George. He stood by me when times were tough, stood up me when the other bosses had it out for me. He told me all his stories, showed me the tricks of the trade, measuring from the inch, fixing the forklift, building the latrine, x-raying metal parts, millions of parts, engine blocks and brake calipers, turbine rings for fighter jets, fifth wheels for semi trailers, hooks for helicopters, even Rice Crispy Squares for Kelloggs, most anything they’d send. George looked like a sergeant in the Army, treated me like I was his own flesh and blood, taught me as much as anyone else I’ve ever known, perhaps most importantly the power of an old man having faith in a younger person. I don’t know where I’d be today without that.We worked the second shift and without the daytime bosses getting in the way, slowing you down with their demands to go faster, on second shift, we could double the production of day shift and still have time to take an hour lunch. When the weather warmed as we approached summer, we’d go out behind the shop, at this little spot we’d made into a picnic ground, like a campsite in the woods. We’d play horseshoes while the steaks sizzled on the grill, and after filling our bellies, we’d sit around the fire and listen to the train blowing its whistle in the distance, and George telling his ghost stories, ones from Depression-era Michigan and Nazi-occupied Germany, back to the States and over in Korea. “You’re sitting by your lonesome and suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up at attention. You know that feeling?”
“Sure.” Everybody knows that feeling.
“There’s a reason for that.”
“What’s the reason?”
“That means somebody is standing behind you.”
“You might not see him, but he’s there.” George was as down to earth as a man could be, but he believed in the supernatural, in the spirits of fellow soldiers that had fallen next to him, the friends he had lost, sometimes people he couldn’t identify. “I never figured out what that ghost wanted with me.”
“Maybe he just wanted someone to notice him. To be remembered.”
“Everybody wants that.”
“Yep.” That’s true.George grew up during the Depression and became an adult in the war. And he gave all of us young guys hope for the future. He was living proof that even when you’re almost sixty, you could still drink a bottle of Wild Irish Rose and still give your wild Irish girlfriend something to smile about in the morning.
“Who was that lady that dropped you off, George?”
“That was my old girlfriend, the one I’m always talking about.”
“The red has faded, but the spirit remains.”
“You finally looked her up, eh?”
“I was driving home last night, picked up a bottle of Wild Irish Rose, and got that urge. I may be an old man, but…”
“You showed her a good time?”
“She’ll have something to write home to her mama about to this Christmas.”
“She sure seemed happy.”
“She oughta be.” George ended up marrying her, stayed with her until the end.
Good old George, he always kept me fed, always made me feel like I was doing him a favor. “These days, it seems everybody’s a candy-ass. People won’t even eat a duck egg.”
“I’ll take some.”
“I know that. That’s why I bought them.”
“The whole carton?”
“Nobody else wants them.”
“They’re a little tough in the mouth, but they’ll fill the emptiness in your belly.”
“You’re doing me a favor.”
“Uh-huh.” If you say so. “I’ll cook ’em up as soon as I get home.”
“Where’s your lunch today?”
“I ate with my kids before I came to work.”
“This is George you’re talking to.” He’d look around the lunch table at everyone digging into the lunches their wives had made, greazing on pork chops and pot roasts, pot pies and pasties. “Did I ever tell you guys about the time I had to dig my way out of a pile of rotting corpses?”
“We don’t want to hear your God damn war stories right now. We’re trying to enjoy our greaze.”
“Well, I got other stories. Like this one time, my old friend Matt McHenry was smoking a cigar and siphoning gas…” George would go on until they all lost their appetites, pushed their plates to the middle of the table–a gesture that meant I’m done, dig in if anybody else wants it.
“Damn it, George.” They’d walk off shaking their heads. “George and his stories.”
“I guess they weren’t that hungry after all, eh?”
“Eh.” It looks that way.
“Well, looks like we’ve got ourselves a feast here.”
“You had that all planned out, eh George?”
“You were looking hungry.”
“Uh-huh.” Not for long.
We had some tough Michiganders at that shop, Otis and Krawndaddy, folks that made John Wayne look like a sissy, but nobody could hold a torch to George. He survived fighting the Nazis and serving in Korea, made everyone else I’ve ever known, especially myself, seem rather candy-ass.
“Whaddya doin’ George?”
“What does it look like? I’m pulling out my tooth.”
“With a rusty pair of pliers?”
“I dipped them in the triclor.”
“Uh-huh.” Industrial degreaser wasn’t made for cleaning medical instruments.
“You got a better idea?”
“Well.” There’s always the dentist.
“There is it.”
“Sure do. I didn’t realize how much that was bugging me until I got it out.”
“Didn’t that hurt?”
“I’ll tell you what hurts, it hurts when you’ve got a slug in your side, and you have to plug the hole with your finger and play dead on a pile of corpses all night.”
“I don’t know why I feel so sleepy.”
“Well.” We just finished x-raying a truckload of engine blocks, and twenty pallets of connecting rods, and it’s now about midnight and you just pulled out your tooth with a pair of pliers. “I’m tired and you’re three times my age.”
“That ain’t no reason I should be so tired.”
“What time you get up this morning?”
“Same time every morning, 0-500.”
“What’d you do?”
“Not too much. Just planted a few acres, dropped the engine from the Olds 88 after lunch. Then I came to work.”
“Oh. I have no idea why you’d be tired then.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“Well, it’s nearly the weekend now, eh?”
“It ain’t supposed to be a day for chasing skirts or eating Ball Park wieners at the beach.”
“I know George.”
“If someone wants to do some fishing, I’ve got no problem with that. But they oughta at least stop at the boneyard on the way, or say a prayer for the fallen when they cast out the line.”
“You goin’ fishing this weekend?”
“Does a grizzly bear shit in the woods?”
“Yep.” I guess he does.
“Well.” Every time, I’d come up to his farm to go fishing, we’d always end up digging rocks from his yard, loading up the bed of his Dodge and hauling the rocks to the dock. And every time, a storm would hit before he could fire up the outboard, so we’d never actually get to the fishing.
“The wife will watch your kids.”
“Are we actually going fishing?”
“Long as the weather holds up.”
“We’ll haul some rocks on the way. If you’re up for that.”
“Of course.” That goes without saying.
“Seems like it always storms on Memorial Day Weekend.”
“Yep.” And every time I come up to go fishing.
“You coming, eh?”
“Eh.” Like George always said, You don’t find time to help your friends. You make time. Even if that means hauling rocks. And my “fishing” story always gave the guys something to laugh about at the lunch table. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
from George’s last letter:
“The other day, my family doctor asked how I was doing. I said ‘I have cataracts in both eyes, deaf in both ears, emphysema, and Parkinson’s disease. Outside of that, I am healthy as a horse.’ I got a big laugh out of him. None of this has got me down. I still do real good. I still bow hunt and climb trees to do it. It was a great surprise to hear from you. You have been in my thoughts. Keep fishing. It makes life better. Keep writing your stories.” — George
(author of Kalamazoo: Growing Up Sideways in the 1970s)