The Bicentennial with Grandpa Andy

Editor’s Note: “The Bicentennial with Grandpa Andy” is an excerpt from a rough draft of The Book of Jay, a memoir by Alex Kudera with journal selections from his father, the poet Jay Roberts. It’s a work in progress that will consist of intertwining memories of each writer’s father. Kudera’s debut work, Fight for Your Long Day, was the first novel published by Atticus Books and won the 2011 Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region.

In the 1970s, we’d met Grandpa Andy before, on various trips to his government-subsidized apartment. It was on a high floor among a cluster of pale brick buildings—the standing tall but defeated housing projects of Newark, New Jersey. I’d learn years later that he was worried enough about the “bad element” living there—what he no doubt saw as young men with darker skin—that he’d ride the elevator with a butcher’s knife in his belt. If anyone enjoying the ride looked menacing enough, Grandpa Andy would contort to reveal the weapon hidden under his trench coat.

He finally appeared in Philadelphia at my father’s house in University City in 1976. America was celebrating the Bicentennial even if we were still reeling from Watergate and Vietnam. Nixon was out, but cynicism, if not despair, remained. The country was caught in economic problems—from energy shortages to “stagflation” to meandering markets—and we were making a transition from a nondescript replacement President to a Southern peanut farmer. Fitting the times, my grandfather was old and broke when he showed up that summer, cajoled by my father to take a vacation with us.

We were headed to Hershey Park, a spot my father loved to visit with us kids; once, at the corner of 44th and Osage Avenue, he’d found five dollars on the ground and spontaneously said “gas money for Hershey,” a two-hour trip that had not been planned. But that was another time, and this trip, although I hardly understood it at the time, was also to include points farther west, including the house in Ohio that my grandfather lived in soon after he arrived in America as a child in 1907.

My father and grandfather had a rocky relationship in the early seventies. I now know that despite Grandpa Andy’s own failings as a father and husband, he felt that my father ought not to have left my mother. “You go back to that woman and those kids,” is more or less how he put it to Dad. After his second wife passed on, Andy sold his house in Jersey City, twice in fact, and then called upon and soon after wore out his welcome with each of my father’s three older siblings. My understanding is that when Grandpa Andy sought to visit my father as a final refuge, he was told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t invited.

So a few years later, he must have been skeptical of my father wanting him to come and doubtful a family vacation could lead to anything positive. Years later, my father told me that Grandpa Andy was so unsure of their relationship that he tried to back out under the guise that he didn’t have clean pants to wear. But my father told him this was not a problem, and then took him to Lord and Taylor to buy some new slacks before we went on our trip.

As it turned out, Grandpa Andy showed up early at Dad’s house on Pine Street, but my father knew where to find him. He just checked in at the closest bar, only a block away, and found his father perched on a stool and blending in just fine with the regular crowd. No doubt he was downing a second or third glass. Drinking was central to the crazed, abusive life he led and remained a calling until the end.

But to me, he didn’t seem like any kind of threatening monster or lunatic who’d fought in both world wars—volunteering to “kill the Krauts” both times, first as a teenage runaway, the second as a volunteer nearing forty, out too late with his drinking buddies and willing to serve abroad despite three children already and one on the way. I was just a 7-year-old kid excited to see Grandpa, and he seemed like a nice old man. To win us over, he bought gifts, and I can’t remember what mine was, but for my sister, he bought a two-foot-long, plastic baby doll. It was for an age range years below my sister’s, and nothing at all she’d play with, but you could tell he was trying to play the good grandparent despite any talent for the role.

My father, as a divorcee and not always living in the same state or in the same state of mind as his kids, would in different ways mimic this misunderstanding of our ages in later years. I remember one time he insisted on tailing us in his car as we rode our bicycles to Penn’s campus although we had already been taking this trip for several years. But marijuana-induced paranoia had got the best of him that day, and so although we were staying at our mother’s apartment that weekend, when he happened to see us several blocks from her place, he followed after, scared because we were by ourselves.

With Grandpa Andy in 1976, we drove west to Hershey Park where we camped for a few days. We had a deck of cards, as we often did, and at the campground, he taught my sister and me to play blackjack. This seemed like innocent fun although we were a bit young for gambling. He told us to hit on 15 and hold on 16, but then he changed it to hit on 16 hold on 17. Maybe he saw an adventurous streak in either my sister or me.

For names, he called us “Janie” and “Alec,” as close as he could get to Jamie and Alex, but I was more amused than insulted by this. After all, those were slightly unusual, new-fangled hippie names at the time. I didn’t know that there were American grandparents out there who could pronounce the kids’ names, and at least once a week, spoiled them rotten with gifts and money. Of course, there are many grandparents who die before meeting grandchildren, like my mother’s father, who died of a heart attack at 59 from smoking Camel cigarettes and “eating red meat late at night.”

So we drove west past Pittsburgh into Ohio, and where years later I would learn we drove to my Grandpa Andy’s first home in the United States. I can’t recall a single detail about the house my father took us to in Ohio, but I have a memory of when we came back to University City for July 4th and the fireworks and two hundred years of independence. How I remember it might not be how it happened, but what I recall is that my father drove us home from the trip in his faded red VW bus, and that we came into Philly on the 4th, the first night of fireworks, and went straight to the Spring Garden Street Bridge where a crowd was forming to watch the show.

The next morning, or the day after that, Grandpa Andy sat on the porch at 44th and Pine, shielded from the hot sun. And I came out to see this calm and gentle old man—this was long before I knew he rode elevators with butcher’s knives and fought in both world wars and was a patriotic monster of a man who may have believed in killing “Krauts” and “Nips” during times of war. He drank heavily, and often abandoned his wife and kids, and sometimes abused her and the children too, and was the kind of guy who insulted Chinese waiters in Chinese restaurants by ordering food in front of his whole family in pigeon Chinese, meaningless gibberish that made him laugh.

Perhaps it fits the father that both of his sons married Jewish women and a grandson is revising this rough draft from Suzhou, China where Grandpa Andy’s youngest great granddaughter has been living since February and is now speaking a 4-year-old’s version of fluent Chinese.

But those are details for other stories and back then, I walked onto the front porch as a small boy granted quality time with a grandfather for the first time ever, and I was enjoying it. My father’s father on that old wooden porch was reading a Zane Grey novel, or maybe one by Louis L’Amour, and I knew he had been there for several hours, and I asked him what page he was on, and he showed page 27, of a book whose text began on page 13. And I was just beginning to read children’s novels and proud of my progress in improving my vocabulary and reading speed, so I laughed in his face because he was reading so slowly. This was before I knew he was a Slovak immigrant who came to the country at age 7 and dropped out of school around age 14 in no more than the 5th grade. And there I was, the happy, third-generation American, taking for granted the education I accessed for free, giggling at a grandfather who could barely read.

Happy Bicentennial, Grandpa.

Happy birthday, America.

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