wife and I traveled to Pennsylvania for Christmas in the winter of
2015. It was the first time I’d been home in many years, and it was
Ozge’s first time in America. We attended the Christmas party at my
grandfather’s house, an annual tradition that goes way back.
My grandfather, Bill Crocker, was in his early 80s by then. The massive frame (he stood over six feet and weighed in the neighborhood of three hundred pounds) that had dominated many a room for so long, that could engulf you in a bear hug – was now frail, reduced, and he spent much of the evening in his favorite chair. When he got up you could tell he was embarrassed to have to use a walker. Still, it was great to see him again, many fond memories came flooding back – he still had his winning smile – and I was glad he got to meet my new bride, who he of course immediately embraced and welcomed into the family.
Before we left that evening, he pulled me aside and all but thrust a short stack of papers into my hands.
“I thought maybe you might like to know something more about my life,” he said, in almost a shy way. “Maybe you could do something with it someday.”
I folded the papers, put them in my pocket, as we were preoccupied with saying our farewells to everyone. By the time we got back to Istanbul, I’d forgotten all about them. Until the other day, a bored lockdown Saturday, I came across the papers, still folded, at the bottom of a dresser drawer.
There were about nine pages, typed in all caps, dated March 3, 2014.
“This is not a bragging thing,” read the cover page. “But a written memory of events that we all enjoyed together, either as a family, or as man and wife … I hope it brings a little joy to you, and please don’t feel bad about me as I have squeezed in about all I could do and hope you see it like I do.”
Reading this intro, I tried to summon my grandpa’s booming, sunny voice (a voice that was as big and shiny as the many sedans he owned and loved), to conjure the larger-than-life figure I fondly remembered. Some of the things were stories I remember him telling (sometimes over and over) when we were kids, others were striking and new, and still others were rather remarkable, things I’d never known before. Read closer, between the lines, it was a poignant snapshot of mid- to late-20th Century American life.
Where to begin? How do you compress 80-plus years into a single story?
Well, for starters, let’s drop this “grandfather” stuff. He was never “grandfather” or “grandpa” to us. He was Pap. If I know Pap the way I hope I do, he would want to start by talking about family. His marriage of more than 60 years to my grandmother Marilyn (“Toots,” as he called her, “Nan” to the rest of us), their six children and innumerable grandchildren and great-grandchildren (including our son Leo, who he sadly never met). These no doubt were his deepest pride, the true legacy in his eyes.
But having said that, the rest of his story is what I found to be the most interesting and revealing. A child of the Great Depression just outside the steel town of Pittsburgh, Pap was a fat kid, and I remember Nan telling us that the kids used to pick on him, the way kids do at that age. But he was always ambitious and, like most of his generation, introduced to work at a tender age.
He got his first job, delivering newspapers, when he was ten years old, and at the age of twelve got a job as a stock boy at Byers’ grocery store (which is probably long gone) and later got a second job on Sundays at Krafick’s Garage, where most likely his lifelong love affair with cars began.
He and Nan married in 1953, and their first child, a daughter (my step-mom Jan) was born a year later, with more kids to follow in the next few years. By 1960, still in his twenties, grandpa opened a Gulf station, which he owned and operated for the next decade, before eventually selling it to my uncle Russ. Later on he worked for various companies in mostly sales, before retiring at the age of 80. All in all, seventy years of work! At the same time, he worked as a volunteer fireman, and he notes that they converted a 1950 black Hearse into the area’s first ambulance, which eventually serviced five different communities.
Pap’s passion for cars was evident in that he devotes a whole page of his memoir to “New and Memorable Cars.” As a kid, I remember Pap enlisting my brother and I to wash and “shammy” his latest and greatest acquisitions, which lounged sportively in the driveway of their house in Washington Township, a Pittsburgh suburb. His first car apparently was a 1950 red Plymouth convertible, which he traded in for his first new car a 1953 Plymouth sedan. Among the many others over the years, his “dream car” seems to have been a blue Mercury sedan, which he bought in 1987.
Racing was a hobby for a while. He and a friend Les Bonner bought a 1936 Chevrolet coupe, braced it and took out the extra seat and upholstery, painted it blue and white and numbered it ½.
“We raced this couple for a couple years til the gas tank fell off on our only close victory,” he lamented.
Pap loved to travel, and another whole page devoted to vacations and trips reads like a voyage through American holiday dreams, the names almost mundane in their familiar mix of the folksy and exotic: Niagara Falls, Disneyworld (10+ times!), Myrtle Beach, Acapulco, the Bahamas, Bermuda, New York City, Mount Rushmore, the Indy 500, Daytona, summers on the Jersey Shore, a drive to Kennebunkport, the obligatory trip to D.C. where “we visited as many museums and sites as we could. Had motel in D.C. with a swimming pool on the roof.”
He was an avid sports fan, especially of our beloved Steelers. He and Nan were season ticket holders, and he attended games at Forbes Field (“I got to see “Bullet” Bob Dudley, probably the fastest runner I have ever seen.”) and later, Three Rivers’ stadium (“I got to see the Immaculate Reception by Franco Harris, who I later met at Flavio’s.” He also got to meet “Mean” Joe Greene, Rocky Bleier, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert.
Just to interrupt Pap for a minute, I have to share what he told me about meeting the legendary Steelers’ linebacker, Count Dracula in Cleats.
“We shook hands,” Pap said. “Jack – Bill Crocker. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, Bill,” Lambert replied. “By the way, I should let you know that I just pissed all over my hand in the men’s room a minute ago.”
“That’s OK, Jack,” Pap said. “Don’t worry about it.” And he proceeded to wipe his own hands on Lambert’s brand new sweater.
He also met “The Chief,” Steelers founder Art Rooney while getting his luggage in L.A. “The Chief was smoking a cigar.” Also in L.A. (possibly on the same trip, it’s not clear) he met Joe Montana on an elevator. Joe’s leg was in a cast because it had just been broken. Another year, in Pasadena, he had a drink with Ben Davidson and Fred Biletnikoff.
For Super Bowl III in New Orleans, the year Broadway Joe Namath led the Jets to an iconic win over the Colts, Pap had this memory: “Spent two-three hours in New Orleans in barber chairs near the bar with (Coach) Weeb Eubank of the New York Jets. I walked into the NFL banquet and was not asked to leave.”
Pap notes with pride of having attended 23 Super Bowls (including all four of the Steelers’ wins in the ‘70s), Incidentally, his second favorite team was the 1960s Green Bay Packers because wide receiver Bob Long was a neighbor who used to deliver the paper to Pap when he was a boy. These almost annual trips to the Super Bowl meant that he and Nan were January regulars in Miami, New Orleans, Pasadena, Tampa Bay and San Diego.
I remember one time, when the Super Bowl was scheduled to be held in Pontiac, Michigan, asking Pap if he was going to the Super Bowl that year. He snorted dismissively, waving his beefy arms to illustrate his contempt.
“Look, Jim,” he said. “Going to the Super Bowl for me is like a vacation. Who the hell wants to spend their vacation in Michigan in January? We got all the snow and cold we want here in Pittsburgh!”
He also loved baseball, wrestling and boxing. Along with attending seven world heavyweight title fights, he was in the training room in Miami where Muhammad Ali was getting ready for a fight. He met trainer Angelo Dundee.
“Ali came to our lunch table and did magic tricks,” he added.
Most of all, Pap loved his cards. Boy, did he. I know that back home he played almost daily at a diner down the road from their house. He and Nan were in Vegas so many times over the years (they always went to Vegas right after the Super Bowl, or anytime they were out West) that he was listed (as he proudly notes) at the hotels and casinos as “a high roller.” Once they were sitting so close to the show that the tigers of the Siegfried and Roy show went right past their table.
One of his fondest Vegas memories was a tale that he often told us when we were kids. This had to be sometime in the 1970s, I’m guessing. It was the time he had drinks with Evel Knievel.
There are two versions of this story, the one I recall and the one in Pap’s papers.
Here is the one in his papers:
“While in Vegas at about 4 in the morning, I was taking a rest at the bar (between poker or shooting craps, presumably) and had a couple drinks with Evel Knievel, and his chauffeur asked me to help Evel to get to his car. I did. After that at about 5 am I sat at a table and ordered a Bloody Mary, and when it was served I reached for the drink and knocked it over towards the dealer and juice went all over his chips. So I went to another table.”
The version he told us as kids was a bit saucier.
“So I was in Vegas one time playing cards, and guess who shows up at the table?”
“Who?” we asked.
“Evel Knievel! Yeah, ol’ Evel had had a few. We all had. So Evel sits down at the table with us for awhile and we kept playing cards, and next thing you know, Evel passes out. Right there at the table!”
“Really?” we asked. “What did you do, Pap?”
He shrugged. “We picked him up, handed him to his driver, who took him to his car, and the rest of us sat back down and kept playing cards.”
He always chuckled when he finished the story.
“Yep, ol’ Evel Knievel. We put his ass to sleep and kept on playing cards.”
As an aside, I wish I could have talked with Pap more about his days and nights in Vegas. There were probably more stories like that, enough perhaps to even write a book. But I suppose we have enough of those Vegas hey-day stories in the books.
There is more, believe it or not. I have scarcely mentioned anything about Pap’s volunteerism, which along with firefighting also extended to coaching baseball, Boy Scouts and the Special Olympics (my uncle Brian played on the soccer team for the Special Olympics, where his team lead the U.S. to a world championship, defeating a team from Peru – wow, I never knew that!). Pap also did some work with Habitat for Humanity (another surprise), helping raise money and building houses for the disadvantaged.
“I also helped a needy lady by putting a new water heater in her mobile home,” he recalls. “Put a new auto transmission in her car, took her to and from work when needed. It was a sad day when she passed.”
Oh, Pap might also like me to mention that one time, while in Alaska, a guy named Lud Larson flew him to the Yukon Territory. “I got to hold the steering wheel of the plane by myself – Wow!”
“The most memorable person I ever met, other than my own family, was John Heinz (former U.S. Senator and son of H.J. “Jack” Heinz II, of the famous Pittsburgh-based company), who I got to talk to as president of the Local Gas Dealers’ Association during the (early 1970s (?)) gas shortage.” Heinz was killed in a plane crash in 1977.
“If he hadn’t died I am sure he would have been the next president of the U.S. and a good one.”
There’s more, believe it or not. But I run the risk of making this “a bragging thing,” which Pap wished to avoid when he sat down and typed these rememberings that March day seven years ago.
I’m thinking now again about our last meeting, Christmas Eve 2015, and how he looked so thin, pale and run down, a shell of the gargantuan man he had always been. I remember relatives telling me that Pap had been fine, his usual self, until a failed eye surgery. “After that, he just got old all,” an uncle confided, shaking his head ruefully.
Less than a year after that last Christmas, Pap died in the hospital, surrounded by family and friends. His last words, which he wrote with a trembling hand in a shaky scrawl, were: “My family is the best.”
And I’m thinking now again of Pap into my hand pressing these papers, which are sitting here beside me on the sofa as I write this, while outside a dreary cold rain and heavy grey skies seem to reinforce the seemingly endless confinement and limitations that have been imposed upon our lives this past year by the pandemic. I think about his life, how active he always was, full of that boundless energy and optimism, love of his family, belief his country and in the future. The tireless drive to see and do and experiencer and serve and be involved with as many things as possible, qualities that seem almost quaint and in short supply nowadays. I think about all the things he did, the places he saw, the many, many people he met, all the things I described above, and how he managed to do that with six kids – Hell, it’s hard for Ozge and I have our hands full with just one.
But then again he had his “Toots,” who managed the household most of the time for the sixty-plus years of their marriage, and who was there to take care of him when age, his weight and mileage began to take their toll.
We get tired (boy!) of the same things day after day, not being able to go and do the things we love, not being able to take Leo to places we want him to see, like Prague, like California and of course, Pittsburgh, where Nan still resides. My wife Ozge’s grandmother died recently. She was 90, and healthy until one day she fell down and fractured her leg. In the hospital she contracted the coronavirus, and languished in the hospital for weeks, and no one was allowed to visit her. Eventually, she beat the virus, only to die in her sleep shortly after being taken home. We find some solace in the fact that at least she died in her own bed.
Occasionally we despair of things ever getting back to how they were before. I did not plan to dwell on the pandemic when I sat down to write this, but then again, I didn’t get up today expecting to find my grandfather’s papers either. Perhaps the spirit of Pap is out there, beyond those charcoal-colored skies, some place way beyond the sky, beyond the pandemic and beyond despair and where things begin and end. Or he is right here in his papers. Perhaps he is telling me, as he always used to tell us when we were young:
“You’ll never be poor (or “po’” as he said it) if you’re good lookin’!”
You’ll never be po’ if you’re good lookin’. Well, Pap was right about a lot of things. I would only say that what Pap might have also added is, things are never so bad if you have family. One good thing about this past year is that I have been able to spend a lot of time with our son, watching him grow each day. And on days like today, I’ve had the time to sit with my grandfather’s pages at last, and to see the life he lived, the way he wanted it to be remembered. Maybe that’s why he gave me these pages. Perhaps he wanted me to see that here was much more to his life than just being a grandad. I don’t know. But I’m glad that, if nothing else, this dreary Saturday at home has not been entirely wasted, that I was able to spend some time with Pap, and to share his story. Only wish I’d written it sooner. Hope that was what you wanted, Pap.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher.