Monday, September 7, 2009

Howard I Ross, 1911-2009

My grandpa, Howard Isaac Ross who was born in 1911, passed away on August 12th, 2009. He was 97 years old. My advice to any of you out there with parents, grandparents or great-grandparents in their 90’s is this: Get as many of their stories out of them as you can now, before they’re gone. The “greatest generation” was an amazing group of folks who saw more changes over their lifetimes than you and I can imagine, and there are only a handful of them left, so make the most of your time with the ones that are still around.

They possessed a work ethic and a frugality that are largely unheard of and unseen these days. They went about their lives very matter-of-factly, always taking care of themselves and their business, never ever being so impressed with themselves and their accomplishments as we seem to be of ours. Because of their humility and their “it is what it is” view of the world, many times I’m sure it just never occurred to them to tell others about some of the amazing things they may have done along the way.

We got a lot of stories out of my grandpa over the years, but there are so many others that I wish we had asked him about. Here are a few handy tips I picked up from him after some prodding:

If you’re going to be involved in a cock fighting ring, it helps to be friends with the Sheriff….. My grandpa was a veterinarian’s assistant and the “handler” for his boss, a Beverly, Massachusetts veterinarian who raised fighting cocks. The cock fighting circuit was big business back then, but it was illegal. One of Doc’s good buddies was the town Sheriff, and as my grandpa put it “if they were planning raids, he’d let us know and we’d lay low for a while.” Got to love it!

Poor on the 4th of July? You don’t need expensive Chinese gunpowder to have a good time. If you know how to make acetylene, you’re golden!..... All you need is an old empty 20-gallon milk can with a wooden stopper and some calcium carbide from the local hardware store. Can’t find the calcium carbide? Look for it in the miner’s supply aisle. It’s what the coal miners use to light their way by burning it in a little lantern attached to the front of their helmet. Apparently a dime’s worth will last you all day. Drill a hole in the can, about two inches above the bottom. Put an inch or two of water in the bottom of the can, sprinkle in a little calcium carbide, and hammer that lid on tight. Wait a few seconds, and then hold a match to the hole. Ka-Boom! The acetylene gas that filled up the can touches off and blows the wooden stopper fifty feet in the air. Go find the stopper and repeat all day. Happy birthday, America!

If you’re going to dispatch lots and lots of dogs, make sure at least one of them is really famous….. As a vet’s assistant, my grandpa helped put quite a few dogs to sleep. He also served as the temporary Dog Constable for Beverly, Mass. when the regular guy was out with an injury. Apparently New England towns were so overrun with stray dogs in the 50’s that they needed armed constables to handle the influx. The Sheriff outfitted my grandpa with a twenty-year-old .32 revolver to make sure he would have the upper hand on the canine invasion. After his duties were fulfilled, he bought the little gun from the Sheriff for $10. I have the gun now, and after some internet investigation of the previously unheard-of brand, I am happy to report that my grandpa really got ripped off by that Sheriff. It is a seriously cheap Saturday-night-special, made by a defunct company that made guns and bicycles, and sold the revolvers new for much less than $10. The Sheriff probably took it off some delinquent involved in a bar fight somewhere. Anyway, my grandpa used it to shoot a few dogs, but mostly he would take them to the vet’s office to put them down. One day when the vet was out, General Patton’s granddaughter brought Willie in to be put down. William the Conqueror, “Willie” for short, was Patton’s famous English bulldog that rode everywhere with him in his Jeep. When Patton died in Germany after WWII, they shipped Willie home to live out his days at Patton’s horse ranch in neighboring Wenham, Mass. The family couldn’t bear to let Willie go, but he was getting senile and starting to bite the servants and the family, so one day, tears in her eyes, his granddaughter brought him to the vet’s office. My grandpa told her that the doc was out, but she said it had to be now, as they could not go through the goodbyes again. So my grandpa got the secretary to help him, and as she too began to cry, he put General Patton’s dog Willie to sleep.

Never buy a wooden boat in the winter…..My grandpa went with the doc to go look at a boat for sale one winter. It was stored out of the water on a trailer. They launched it into the bay and took it out for a spin and both decided that it was ship-shape. The doc bought it and re-launched it the following spring, ready to go do some fishing in the bay. Not ten feet off the dock he discovered his new boat had about fifty leaks all throughout the hull. Since it had been stored out of the water that winter, the moisture in the wooden hull was allowed to freeze up, plugging and perhaps causing a few of the many leaky spots. They didn’t have it out on the bay during the initial test drive long enough for the hull to thaw out.

And finally, if you’re not happy with your date for the dance, get another one…..The story of my grandpa and grandma’s first encounter is a humorous one. Details are sketchy on whether or not he had a date for the dance, but my grandma was escorted there by another gentleman. She and Grandpa hit it off, and after avoiding her own date for most of the evening, Edith allowed Howard to take her home. They were married until 2005 when he lost her to Alzheimer’s disease. He missed her terribly, right up until the day he died.

He was a horseman in his younger years at a hunting and riding club. He became a father of two, and in his later years he became a grandfather to six and a great-grandfather to six more. He was an Air Raid Warden in Beverly during WWII. He once bought a house and then picked it up and moved it to another lot. He was a carpenter who did everything from building houses to making beautiful fireplace bellows with wood, leather and brass. He also proved time and time again that you could make damn near anything out of plywood, including a pool slide, as long as you had enough varnish. He was an animal lover, a school crossing guard, an office building custodian, a day care provider, a bee keeper, and a maker of countless pieces of elementary school furniture. He had a wonderful sense of humor, predominantly a dry wit, and he was one of the funniest people I knew.

I was lucky enough to grow up with him. He and Grandma lived next door to us or down the street from us my whole childhood. For that, I will be forever grateful.

I’m going to miss you Grandpa. Give Grandma a big kiss for me.

See you much, much later, I hope,

Copyright © 2009 Marc Schmatjen

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