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Pop's Farm

Copyright © 1996 by Dan Frizzell

This article appeared in the August 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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It was my first road trip since we moved to Seattle last fall. Linda was off on a business trip to Dallas, and I was doing one of the things I liked best: heading down the highway. The ultimate destination was Mendocino, 750 miles south. My friend Scott Allen had just moved out there from Texas, and I was on my way to visit him in his new home.

This would be the first time I'd seen anything of Washington south of Sea-Tac Airport. First time on California soil in 15 years. And the first time I'd been in Oregon since 1959, when my family took our second and final trip from San Antonio to my grandfather's farm somewhere west of Cottage Grove. Pop and my grandmother, Mama Lou, sold the farm and moved back to Texas a couple of years later, and that was it for me and Oregon.

Seattle's morning rush hour had passed by the time I rolled out of town. Tacoma. Olympia. Chehalis. A few miles north of Vancouver, I stopped for barbecue. The woman who ran the place told me her life story while her husband, an ex-minister-turned-barbecue-smoker, built me a sausage sandwich to go.

By the time I crossed the Columbia River in Portland, I was sorry I hadn't ordered two sandwiches. And by the time I had driven 10 miles into Oregon, I had decided to see if I could find Pop's farm.

Pop was what I called my grandfather, Sam Frizzell. He was never Granddad; that wouldn't have worked, since Granddad was what I called his father, who was still alive back then. Pop wasn't a Granddad type, anyway. I never sat on his knee. He was a wiry little guy with a bad haircut. He enjoyed his whiskey, and the nails of his thumb and first two fingers were stained a deep orange-brown, almost black, from cupping tens of thousands of unfiltered Pall Malls in his right hand. He was funny, and he cussed, and he'd been a Texas Ranger when he was a young man. I thought he was great.

I don't remember much about the first trip to the farm. It was the summer of 1956, I'd just turned six years old, and the thing that stands out from that vacation was visiting Disneyland, which was in its first year of operation, on the way out to Oregon. The whirling teacups made quite an impression on me, and so did seeing 5,000 miles of American highways from the backward-facing rear seat of a Plymouth station wagon.

But the next time up, I was nine years old and ready for adventure. Pop's farm gave me a lifetime's worth. My brother Jimmy and I found a little cemetery with hundred-year-old graves on a hilltop less than a mile from Pop's property line. I stumbled onto a spring deep in the woods, under a canopy of wild blackberries, and spent hours there drinking ice water and imagining I was both Lewis and Clark. I gathered fresh eggs, and stared in awe at the business end of a hen one morning as she squeezed out her day's work. I left the door of the guinea house open by mistake and got to hear some of Pop's cusswords. I dug fresh potatoes out of the dirt and ate them raw, there in the field. I rode through those same fields with Pop on his tractor, and I fell in love with the feel and smell of a good working barn.

I also fell in love with Pop, and with Mama Lou, and with their son Jim, who was my father. I fell in love with my life that summer.

And now, 37 years later, I amazed myself by driving straight to the farm with only one stop for directions. I knew it was outside of a little crossroads town called Lorane and, because it seemed to me to be a perfect place to get away from the grownups for a while, I suspected that every teenager in the county would know where that Oregon Trail graveyard was. They did, and 30 miles off I-5, on a two-lane backroad called Territorial Highway, I pulled up in front of Pop's farm.

I sat there next to the road for several minutes, staring in disbelief, laughing out loud, my heart going wild. I had found it. There, three-fourths of a mile up a rocky driveway, was the farmhouse I had visited in my dreams for nearly four decades. The land hadn't been subdivided, as I had feared. The loggers hadn't leveled the acres of forest behind the house.

The gate was open, and I couldn't see any cars from the road, so I drove slowly up the long drive to my grandparents' house. Halfway up the road, I realized I was crying.

I parked at the house and looked around. Everything I saw was familiar, but I was stunned by the distance I'd come-the distance of my life-to see these things again. The barn. The house. The infamous guinea coop. The copse where my father had almost died when he sliced a hornet nest in half with the backswing of an idiot hoe.

The house was empty. The kids in town had told me the property was now owned by the winery whose headquarters were on the next hill over, and judging from the looks of things, the owners were apparently in the process of restoring the house to its 19th-century condition. I wandered through the barn, wondering which of the rusty tools my grandfather had used when this was his farm. I walked the fields. And I sat for a long time on the east porch of the farmhouse, remembering its small rooms, the linoleum in the kitchen, the aroma of my grandmother's cooking. I touched a long scar on my finger and remembered how I had bled into the utility sink for what seemed like hours one day when I had sliced the finger nearly off on a jagged piece of metal.

Pop's farm was the only place I was ever privileged to spend an extended period of time with my father and his father. I know now what an important gift it had been to see my father being a son, and to understand that I wasn't unique; my dad had a dad, just as I did. A man he looked up to. A man he felt protective toward. A man he feared and loved simultaneously, and one whose inevitable death he grieved long before it happened.

It occurred to me there on the porch that the current generation of fatherless sons-and daughters-is being deprived of the chance to acquire first-hand what I see as a profoundly humanizing and humbling piece of knowledge: that we humans are links in a living chain of men and women. We come not just from somewhere, but from someone. And most of us will in turn live on in others to come.

What we do matters, but not just because it affects our present circumstances. The lives we lead and the actions we take move up and down the line, affecting our children-even those yet to be conceived-and determining how we will honor or dishonor our ancestors, starting with our parents.

It doesn't much matter, I believe, what the details of our circumstances happen to be. Whether we are raised by thoroughly honorable biological parents, or by average people, or by monsters. Whether we are orphans, or fatherless, or shopped around to relatives and foster homes like the Christmas fruitcake that no one really wants to eat. Certainly, not every parent is worthy of honor, or respect. Monsters, after all, are monsters. But every human soul becomes a richer place when it can find a way to connect to the past, even if it's necessary to skip a generation or two in the process.

What matters is the understanding that we are not in this thing alone. We're all sleeping in a giant waterbed, and it's just about impossible to roll over without disturbing others. A boy who senses his connection to the past and the future is not likely to be the triggerman in a drive-by shooting. He's not likely to rape, or to commit suicide. And a man with this understanding is far less likely to harm his partner or his children, or the earth.

But if all I can see is that I've been plopped down here on earth as a self-contained unit, responsible only for myself ... Watch Out.

All these thoughts-true or not-occurred to me on the porch of my grandfather's house. My time was almost up, and I had hundreds of miles yet to drive. Before I could leave, though, I wanted to take care of one more thing.

I like rituals. They center me and serve to punctuate my life in a way that I find necessary and comforting.

I'm also a seriously addicted fisherman.

I'd been eyeing the stock pond on Pop's farm ever since I'd arrived. From the circles on the water, it was obvious that something in there was rising every few seconds to snatch whatever flying insect was hatching on this day.

I knelt on my grandfather's porch and prayed. I expressed my gratitude for the miracles that had brought me there, today and long ago. I honored my family. I asked for hungry fish.

I put a tiny spinnerbait on an ultralight rod and began to cast. I had assumed the tank was full of panfish, but on the second cast a fat rainbow trout attacked the spinner, tail-walked across the water like a largemouth bass, and finally allowed itself to be caught. Another followed quickly, and a third, completing my ritual. I had landed a fish for my grandfather, for my father, and for myself, as I had set out to do-three generations of Frizzell men. I unhooked the fish and gently returned them to the water, so they could continue to live on Pop's farm. It's a good place to live.

Pop had a stroke a few years after he left the farm. He stayed at Granddad's house on the hill overlooking the little town of Goldthwaite, Texas, for a while, then moved down to the old hotel/rest home above the Chevy dealership once he got to be too much for Mama Lou to handle. I was a teenager by then, and I was scared and fascinated by that darkened room full of sick-old-man smells and sad relatives. I visited him anyway, and he still managed to make me laugh.

The stroke that paralyzed him left Pop the use of his right arm, so he could still smoke. The only word his injured brain would let him speak was "goddamn," which really only cut his vocabulary by about half. After a while, I got to where I could usually tell what he was trying to say if I paid close attention to his eyes when he said it.

One of his goddamns might mean, "That's a nice hat." Another, "I could sure use a smoke, boy." And once, when a particular man dropped by for a surprise visit, I was able to translate his single word into "What's that sorry bastard doing here? He's owed me money since '37 on a busted cotton deal and I never liked him worth a damn anyway. Get his raggedy ass out of my room."

At least, that's what I think he said.

Pop died in 1967. Seventeen years later, my dad's heart attacked him one day at work and he was dead within seconds. I miss them both.

But I'm still alive and the farm's still there. My daughter and her husband are doing their best to turn Linda and me into very young grandparents. That chain keeps getting longer.

Dan Frizzell is a Seattle writer who, like his grandfather, migrated from his native Texas to the Pacific Northwest.

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