Memories of Grandfather

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I come from a line of men with alternating names. My great-great grandfather was named Antonio DiGregorio. His son carried the name Alfio DiGregorio, until he changed his surname to the Americanized version that I presently bear. Alfio’s grandson, my father, is named Alfred. My grandfather, who passed away in his sleep July 18th of this year, was named Anthony Paul Gregory. I got my middle name, Lee, from my mom’s side, but other than that I have the same name as my late grandfather.

I’m sure that others can relate to the powerful and indescribable feelings of losing someone special. Upon hearing the bad news, at first I was a bit shocked, but not too much, given his old age. And then I was very sad. I did not visit him as frequently as many people visit their own grandparents, and, in that sense at least, I was not as close to him. I maybe spent a total of fifty days in his presence, other than when I was a baby. But I had always expected him to be alive. I had always taken for granted the ability to call him at any time on the phone, and the high probability that he would be available to speak. I now wish I had taken advantage of that privilege more often.

When I think of the moments we did share, I feel warmth and happiness. I sometimes go back to feeling sad, depending on what moment in particular I had been thinking about. Some memories are not as clear as I’d like them to be. That, too, brings back the grief.

The thing is, he was one of those people that everyone liked. It was, in fact, impossible to dislike him. He was easygoing in person, always ultimately accommodating even if sometimes comically defiant in his mannerisms and talk. My dad told me stories of how kind grandpa was as a father, willing to drive his picky kid from one gas station to another to find the child’s desired kind of soda (orange) sold from the desired kind of soda machine (a kind my dad describes as opening from the top). Grandpa once indulged me with this same kindness and patience, when he drove me as a young child to three or four McDonald’s restaurants to find me one that had both soft-serve ice cream and a playground.

My grandfather was an engineer. As a young man he learned how to work on clocks and watches, and he loyally stuck by this endeavor, either as job or hobby, until the near-end of his life. His workshop was a mess with clock and watch parts, gears, hands, and gadgets of all sorts overflowing from baskets and buckets and trays. And there were clocks all over the house. Lots of them. You know Gepetto from Pinocchio? That’s my grandfather! He could find anything in that messy workshop, which was u201Corganized chronologically,u201D as he would quip: his tools and parts were strewn upon the table in the order in which he had put them there. (My dad and I have both inherited this apparently genetically dominant trait in our organizational approaches.) But grandpa truly could locate anything in his piles of esoteric mechanical treasure, and if you came to him with any sort of timepiece invented after the sundial went out of style, odds were ten to one that he could fix it, no matter its defection, in less than an hour.

He gave me a host of novelty clocks, fancy clocks, and watches at various points in my life. I’ve lost some, to my regret, but not the one most important to me.

I heard several stories from friends and relatives that the clocks he had given them or repaired for them suddenly stopped working on the day he died. I don’t know what to make of this, other than to note that it seems appropriate enough in its own mysterious way.

My grandfather was one of the chief engineers, one of a handful, behind the Cold War Hotline, between Moscow and DC. This, despite the editorial cartoons and the Hollywood perceptions, was not the same as that red phone on the Oval Office desk. It was a complicated and elaborate telegraphing system, inspired in 1963 by the Cuban Missile Crisis, connecting the U.S. to the U.S.S.R., at the height of the Cold War, with cables stretching from the Pentagon, under the Atlantic Ocean, across the European continent, and into Moscow. There was an alternate line, in case of emergency, going further South — through Africa, I believe. He worked hard on the system, maintaining it and making sure it would work if it ever needed to. My grandpa told me more about it, and I am sad to have forgotten some of the details.

Yes, my grandpa worked for the government much of his life. He once told me, that during World War II, u201Cthey handed your Uncle Bill a rifle and they handed me a wrench.u201D Uncle Bill had spent time as a prisoner of war in a Nazi prison camp. Grandpa had it better, I suppose, working as an engineer. And he stuck around and was eventually given the job of designing the Cold War hotline — a job they entrusted with him despite his not having a formal college diploma. Not the worst thing to do for the government, I would say: perhaps it was good that the politicos in DC and those in Moscow could quickly connect to each other for last-minute negotiations if ever a nuclear war appeared ready to break out. Some have suggested this might have saved millions of lives. If so, I’d add this somewhere to the list of things I’m grateful to him for.

I wrote a song inspired by my visit with him several years ago and his comforting total acceptance of me, including of my hair, which was at the time long and hippie-like: u201CI asked my namesake what he thought of my hair/ And he said he thought nothing at all.u201D This meant a lot to me, but it’s truly difficult to explain why. What meant more to me was that he loved that song, and that I had an opportunity to play it for him with my band.

My grandpa and I had discussed politics, occasionally, and he found my thoughts interesting, sometimes even agreeable. He was unhappy with the Iraq war, and agreed with me that it’s time to get out of there. He wasn’t totally sold on my libertarianism, but always open to what I had to say. I told him once that I just wanted the government to stop getting bigger for a change, and he said that if there’s one thing he had ever learned, having been alive for 80 years and working a good number of them as a federal employee, it is that the government never gets smaller.

It’s mostly true.

When he was really young, he witnessed alcohol prohibition in all its sheer stupidity. All the adults he knew drank alcohol. One common beverage, where he grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood just outside DC, was grappa. He told me that the lawyers, police and bootleggers were all in on the racket together. The criminal justice system would bust people and confiscate their illicit earnings, leaving them with just enough to get their businesses running again. It was a good investment for everyone involved!

I wish I could recall more from his entertaining stories about bootlegging. I wish I could call him and ask him to remind me of the details. And I wish even more that I could share this piece of writing with him, to make sure I’m not mangling his life story too much. I cannot.

I did talk with him, once every two or three weeks, for the last few years. I never thought any of our conversations would be the last. Even the last one, when he seemed to have trouble talking. I would just speak with him again when he got better, I thought.

A week-and-half ago, I went to the viewing and funeral. It was an emotional time, filled with tears and laughs, instances of near-regret and moments of joy. I thought a lot about the preciousness and blessings of life and family. I realized, for the first time, what a responsibly I have in carrying the name I inherited. I painfully remembered times in college that I didn’t call him because I considered myself too busy, and warmly recalled his coming to my graduation two years ago, his happily watching my band play loud rock music in our practice studio for three hours, his genuine interest in my life up until his ended.

I suppose it’s a good time to keep in mind some things that are easy to forget. I have no more grandparents left, but I do have wonderful memories of all of them. And I have many family, friends, and loved ones. Life’s too short to wait for some things. I hope to give more attention to the stories and moments that come my way, to the people for whom I care.

I look at the bright side. I lost a grandfather in his old age, which is about as good as it can get as far as death is concerned. He, too, was grateful for his existence and happy to live, and I’m grateful that I got to know him as well as I did those years. I’m grateful that his love continues to live in those whose lives he touched.

I still, and think I always will, dearly miss my grandpa, Anthony P. Gregory, who lived from September 6, 1920, until July of this year. May he rest in peace.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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