My grandfather, Charlie Metro, passed away on March 18, 2011. This is a piece I wrote to celebrate him. I read it at the memorial service, amazingly, without crying. Love, Cass
A Tremendous Life
Everyone’s life has a story; how they got to where they are with all the twists and turns that occurred while getting there. Some lives are short and some are dramatic, some appear dull and others are brightly colored, layered with stories like coats of paint on a carousel. My grandfather, Charlie Metro’s, life was an extraordinary display of color; his stories were grand and far-reaching. His life, well, it was tremendous.
I choose the word tremendous because it’s the only one that’s big enough to fit him. Papa’s booming voice, broad white smile, and devilishly handsome face gave ol’ Rhett Butler a run for his money. But more than that, Papa was larger than life in the way he kept himself open to things; the way he let in the vast expanse of the world and stretched himself to hold it, made him the center of our universe. He laughed loud and long, he played hard and worked harder. He loved one woman for his whole life and never let her forget it.
When Papa was a boy growing up the eldest of nine kids, son of Ukranian immigrants in the coal mining town of Nanty-Glo, Pennsylvania, he had big ideas. Ideas of living life and seeing what he could make of it. He worked alongside his dad in the coal mine and was with him one tragic day when there was a deadly explosion. Papa saved his dad’s life that day, at the age of nineteen. Papa knew he didn’t want to stay in the mines all his life and his dad didn’t want him to either. So he started thinking up ways to make a different life; a better life, not just for himself, but for his whole family.
One day he skipped school to go to a baseball tryout in Johnstown, PA along with 1500 other hopefuls. He knew his chances were small so he ingeniously contrived a way to be noticed. He rolled up his pant legs and pulled on long black socks clear up to his knees and gave his best effort at the tryouts. The scouts took notice and called to him “Hey, Black Socks! How about showing us how you run?” or “Hey, Black Socks! Throw in from center to the cut-off man.” In that sea of other young hopefuls who all dutifully had worn long white socks, Papa’s flying black socks made a statement. And sure enough, he was one of only three players signed from the tryouts.
Papa’s tremendous life went on to include the game of baseball for nearly 50 years. He was a player, manager, scout and coach. He helped start up the Kansas City Royals when they got their expansion franchise and was with the Dodgers for three World Series’. He knew everyone from Connie Mack to Joe DiMagio to Ted Williams to Mickey Mantle to Billy Martin. He scouted and signed some of the players inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Over the years he sent money home and took care of his Pop and Mom and helped put his baby brother, Joe, through college.
In 1939 Papa found himself playing for the Mayfield, KY Baseball Club. Helen Deane Bullock, our Mimi, a beautiful Southern Belle, was walking down the street and stunned him with her smile. Papa was determined to meet her and once he did he never looked away. She was his “Dixie Cupcake” and the sun rose and set in her. He went about using his charm and magnetism to win her over. But his most cunning move was when he took her to the soda fountain where he ordered only one soda – with two straws. “That way I could get real close to her.” he’d say with a twinkle in his eye whenever he related this tale. It was funny, Papa wheeled and dealed with some pretty big big-shots in his day, but this has always seemed like his most proud accomplishment; winning Mimi’s heart. The famous ‘One Straw Ploy,’ as it came to be known, along with his charm and genuine goodness gave her plenty of reason to love him and they were married in Texarkana, Texas on April 3, 1941. Papa’s love for Mimi was obvious in the way he brought her flowers and valentines any day of the year. Every morning he was home he made a beeline straight to her “I love you, babe,” he’d say with a kiss. Theirs has been a union blessed with challenges that weren’t too tough to overcome but helped them grow closer, a friendship that has lasted a lifetime that helped them laugh and talk things over and a deep and abiding love that echoes through the generations.
In the early years of his career and his life with Helen things were a little rough. Playing ball to make a living and raise a family was dicey business. They moved around a lot with their children – Elena, Bud (Charles, Jr.) and Stephen – and later, Geoff. From Montgomery, Alabama to Vancouver, Canada and many points in between, the family followed Papa as he signed from team to team. Each spring he would don his uniform and go to work for the grueling season until –if they were lucky and won a pennant – September.
Eventually, the kids got older and the need to settle down and make a more permanent home for the family took over. Papa got a job with the Denver Bears and bought a fifteen acre parcel of land in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. The Ranch, as we called it, was a dream come true for Mimi and Papa and afforded the family an opportunity to grow strong and put down deep roots. Geoff came along – a later-in-life surprise – just as the older kids were in high-school and college.
Papa and Mimi started off working with cattle on the ranch but before too long switched to their real love – horses. Everyone helped out on the Ranch; building corrals and putting up hay, breeding the mares and breaking ice in the winter. They had Quarter, Paint and Appaloosa horses, mostly for riding and showing and a few that were fast, lately from the track. Eventually they started building a race horse breeding program, and this is where Papa really put his talent in smooth talking to work. He had connections all over the nation from his baseball travels and he used those connections to get introduced to the top breeders in Kentucky and California. He bought a beautiful stallion named Dance Lesson who had been owned by the daughter of movie director Cecil B DeMille and had been ridden by the great Willie Shoemaker. Dance Lesson ran a 1/5 of a second off the world record under Willie and he never put the baton to him once. That was one fast horse. Papa was so proud of him. A new sign went up in front of the Ranch that said “Metro Ranch – Home of Dance Lesson. The Metro racehorse breeding program was literally off and running.
Each spring, Papa would pack his bags and leave the Ranch for baseball training. My mom and dad, and my sisters and I lived on the Ranch in the bunkhouse which had been remodeled from a milking barn for permanent human habitation. We would all see Papa off with hugs and kisses and usually a family dinner up at the big house the night before. Papa would pull each one of us kids (there were four of us at one point) onto his knee and would proceed to make us giggle with little jokes that only we would get. “What’s the story, Boom?” he would ask my sister, Radha, and she’d answer, “In Angie’s book, Papa!” And they both would laugh like hyenas at their private joke. Or he would gently smush our mouths, until we looked like we had fish lips, and demand with a gleam in his eye “Now say ‘Peaches’!” and we would try to say “Peaches” with those smushed fish lips and Papa would laugh and we would fall into hysterics like only little girls can.
Over the course of the summer, Papa would come home to visit for a few days at a time. These were like holidays for us. We waited in anticipation all day long. Mom had to restrict us from pestering Mimi with phone calls and the not-so-casual stroll by the big house looking to see if our very own personal Santa Claus and Superman was home, yet. There was only one rule; Mimi got to see Papa first, and while we all knew this was right, it didn’t make it any easier to wait for that call that told us “Come on up! Papa’s home!” When that call did come, we flew out the door and ran barefooted and screeching all the way to the big house where we were greeted with that booming voice. “Oh! Wow! Look how you’ve grown!” and he would make a fuss over us and we would squirm. Eventually, he would say “Close your eyes and hold out your hands!” and all of us sitting on our little stools in a row in the living room, would scrunch our eyes shut and jut out our dirty little hands in anticipation of what Papa may have brought us this time. Cracker Jacks, baseball cards with gum, team tee-shirts, ball caps, more Cracker Jacks, peanuts, hotel soaps and shower caps – it was all gold! It could have been the matchbook from the gas station and we would have been thrilled. It was tremendous! This ritual happened every time Papa came home from a trip, he never forgot us and always made the effort to shower us with these tokens of his love.
Later in the evening we would all get together to hear Papa’s stories of where he’d been and who he’d talked to and what he’d been doing all that time away. We’d light a fire in the old outdoor fireplace and cut some willow sticks for roasting hotdogs and we’d gather around to hear Papa spin his tale. The firelight and purpling sky made it all seem so dramatic and wonderful. Mimi, so happy to see him, listened closely like a wife does. But we just wanted to be near and waited for him to say how he thought so-and-so was a crumb-bum or how so-and-so would make it big one day. We loved the way he talked. And the way he told us everything – about the airplanes and the hotels and the fancy lobbies and the big dinners. He’d say “Oh! It was tremendous the way they treated us at the Ritz!” or “The lobster dinner and drinks in the press box was tremendous!” or “That guy had tremendous talent!” He’d talk with his arms making big expansive movements to help us see the bigness of where he’d been and what he’d been up to. We’d stay up late just enjoying being there, all of us together.
The next morning we kids lay in wait. We knew Papa would be out to feed the horses –giving Mimi a much needed morning off – and to see what needed doing around the place, and we were going with him. If we waited five whole minutes and he didn’t come out of the house yet, we would creep up on to the porch and press our noses to the sliding glass door to see if he was in there. Usually he was either finishing his coffee or pulling on his boots. Either way he’d laugh and say “Hey Babe! Look what the cat dragged in!” and we’d crack up over that. Then we’d holler back “Papa! The early bird gets the worm!” and we’d show him the scraggly worms we’d found on the way up.
Papa loved it that we got dirty and played hard. He taught us how to be mindful of gates and tools and of picking up dropped nails. We had to pay attention and not spill the grain, nor overfill the trough to muddy the corral. He sang to us as we helped him with the chores; just made-up funny little songs that he personalized for each of us. He’d dole out the feed buckets and we’d glare at each other in silent competition to ensure we each got our fare share of the chance to help. Then we’d skip along behind him like he was the Pied Piper. We fed the horses and watered them, too. We brushed them and mucked the stalls. We helped him move hay bales and mend fences. He was patient and kind, but firm about us staying safe. When we were all done we’d follow him up to the big house where he’d say “Great job today! You know what I’m gonna do?” and we’d stare at him in speechless anticipation, “I’m gonna double your salary!” And we’d whoop and jump up and down. Then, he would, regardless of time of day, give us the most enormous ice cream cones. We figured we had it pretty good.
Papa’s love of life and beautiful things was apparent in the way he loved his horses. He could watch them all day – the mares in the pasture or the yearlings in the glade. He’d get all soft-eyed and sweet when the foals were born wet and new, he’d rub them down with a gunny sack and chortle to them touch them all over so they knew he was their friend. Those foals loved Papa just like we did and would let him do about anything with them. He’d just start saying “Hey now. Hey now. Hey now” in a real soft sing-song kind of voice and the babies would mellow out and not be so skittery. The next thing you knew he was touching their ears and picking up their feet and slipping a halter over their velveteen noses. His heart would break with the inevitable tragedies that occur on a ranch; colicky horses that have to be put down and horses that get entangled or are born too early or in pairs. He mourned them all and in his way taught us the value of grief and the need for allowing a soul the chance to just be sad about something.
Every once in a while, Papa told us to get the brooms and clean out his truck. Since we all knew this could only lead to something good, we cleaned and swept like there was no tomorrow. Then, after our work passed inspection, he piled us all in the truck and we set out to the Jolly Rancher candy factory. Sometimes our cousins were with us, too, and it was quite a sight to have seven giggling girls pile out of the back of that truck and take over the little shop in front of the factory. Papa was magnanimous telling us to get one whole pound of anything we wanted! We were literally kids in a candy store and we lived it up in there. Papa would “Ooh! “ and “Aah” over our choices and insist on trying samples of all of them and then not being sure which on he liked best would have to sample them all again. We loved it and we laughed and gave him sticky little candy after candy insisting that that one was the best one, yet.
As the years rolled on and we grandkids grew up, Papa never let us feel we were getting too old. He liked to remind us to stay young, think young, play games and enjoy life. He was usually the first to point out a positive lesson that could be learned from a bad mistake. He would tell you if he didn’t agree with what you were doing and would respect your decision to keep on doing it – just don’t expect him to like it! Even then, he always loved us and we always knew it. Any one of us could walk into Mimi and Papa’s living room and they would be there with over 175 years of collective life experience and they would listen and give some advice – if you asked.
Some of us got married and had kids, and this new generation of little ones has felt Papa’s loving-kindness, too. After Mimi and Papa left the ranch because it was getting to be too much for them, they came to live here in Virginia where they have been surrounded by multitudes of grandkids and great grandkids and even great-great grandkids. These great grandkids smushed their faces to the sliding glass door wanting to come and play with Papa. He played high stakes slap-jack with them, stacks of cookies as the ante, and he’d let them win. Then since they were the winner, he’d give them the most enormous ice cream cones. And sometimes, if they came to visit and brought him a big smile he’d hand them a “lucky gold dollar” – a gold one dollar coin with instructions not to spend it. These stacks of golden coins are squirreled away in safe hiding places that only a kid can find. Secret treasure from a tremendous man whose love they can’t begin to measure.
Papa’s life spanned over nine decades. In that time the world has changed in ways that nineteen year old boy from Nanty Glo never could have dreamed of. From airplanes and rockets to atom bombs and microwaves to fast-food and cell-phones and satellite TV and internet – his is a generation that has truly seen it all. Papa loved all these changes and new-fangled ways. He thought it was tremendous what man had done and what they would do. He dreamed big and never gave up hope, proof of that can be seen in the weekly lotto numbers and the favorite Sunday morning conversation over yet another non-winning ticket “Well, what would you do with 120 million dollars?” Hopes and dreams spring eternal in the presence of such tremendous optimism.
Memory upon memory exists for each of us, of how he loved us all. He made us feel unique and special, like he was only ours.
He had a tremendous laugh and a tremendous heart and will. He lived on a tremendous scale and made a tremendous impact on a tremendous number of lives. He loved Mimi tremendously and let the world know it. He walked with a tremendous stride and told tremendous tales. His hands did tremendous work and were tremendously gentle, overwhelmed as he was by the sanctity of life.
We will miss him tremendously this Patriarch of ours; and we love him even more. He lives on in all our hearts and lives; reflected in our values and views, his tremendous influence our constant guide.