Thursday, March 24, 2011

Charlie Metro - Something Tremendous. Week Eleven

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. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Week Ten Poem: Tree Frog Wizardy - string of 'ku

Expectant twilight
spring eve blushes like a bride
awaits tree frog trills

Tiny frogs hiding
emerge into the evening
to hum a few bars

Tree frogs seem at first
to sound a little rusty
try and try again

Spring’s nightly chorus
a melody is forming
tree frogs sing as one

Tree frog serenades
call daffodils and redbuds
baby blue-birds, too
Tree frog wizardry
it seems they are the mages
to conjure up spring

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Week Nine Poem & Prose - Country Justice

Cunning little fox
Licking lips for my chickens
Thinks he’s bested me

Not so fast, li’l Fox
I’m uniquely determined
You can’t have these birds

These hens are my friends
And summer entertainment
Not Fox’s supper

If you’re going to live in the wilderness, you may as well get it in your head right away to expect the unexpected.  There are no such things as planned emergencies, and usually, I find myself responding to these sudden occurrences underdressed and with whatever equipment is close at hand. It makes for some interesting stories since life in the woods is never dull.

Surrounded by loblolly pine and hardwood forest, our little piece of nature is replete with wildlife. We enjoy the local rabbits, deer, skunks, opossums, snakes, bobcats, foxes, hawks, owls, and bears; all of which can sometimes be a menace to our domestic critters which consists of chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats.

Our role in the Great Circle of Life is to keep the wild animals from eating their domesticated brethren.

One evening in early March, I stepped out into the spring night to get a bag of dog food from my vehicle.  I went out in my comfy clothes since I had all but retired for the evening, the weather warm enough that I could stand there in yoga pants and a t-shirt to look at the stars and appreciate the fact that we had survived the winter.  Suddenly a loud squawk from the chicken coop broke my reverie.  I narrowed my eyes in suspicion as I searched vainly in the dark to see what was the matter. I ran and grabbed my flashlight from the house and swung the yellow beam of light back and forth across the yard and all around the chicken coop.

The chickens should be sleeping; all of them inside the coop on the roosts with their little heads tucked under their wings.  When I got to the coop-yard there were four hens stacked on top of each other in a corner. They were terrified and making some of the most pitiful chicken noises I've ever heard.  I lifted the latch and stepped into the yard. There were feathers everywhere.  Having lived through several Great Chicken Massacrees, as we came to call them, seeing feathers strewn across the ground is never a good sign.  A gray shadow ran past me cutting through the flashlight beam. I could tell at once it was a fox.  Completely undaunted by my presence he scurried past my leg and deftly darted behind me to snag a chicken by the foot.

The hen was flapping her wings and squawking as the fox tried to pull her through the hole he had dug under the fence.  I noticed that it was my favorite chicken, a Buff Orpington named Big Mama.  I wasn’t about to let that mangy varmint run off with Big Mama, so I yelled at the fox “Oh no, you did not!” and I hauled off and kicked that fox in the head.  The fox let go of Big Mama as he flew in the air and hit the roof of the chicken yard. He fell to the ground and scampered out the way he had sneaked in.

I couldn’t believe it! I hadn't ever seen a fox do that.

The chickens were a mess. They reeled around like drunken sailors, squawking all trying to tell their tragic tale at once.  I pet each one, examining them for damage and tried to soothe them a bit. I knew they wouldn’t be laying eggs for a while. Not that I could blame them, they had lived through chicken Armageddon.

I figured I didn’t have a lot of time before a fox that bold would be back to make another run at a chicken dinner.  I examined the hole he had dug under the fence. I had to give kudos to Mr. Fox for his crafty breaking and entering skills.  He had pushed aside the fence skirting that rings the enclosure and had taken advantage of the dust bath hole the chicken made.  We had some blocks for a retaining wall sitting in a pile, and I hauled some of them over to plug up the hole on each side of the fence. The whole time I worked the chickens staggered around and tried to huddle up under my feet. Chickens don’t do well under pressure.

Since there were only four hens in the yard, I knew I had to look for the other two which I figured were probably inside the coop.  I opened the coop door and flicked on the light illuminating the coop and the yard.  There was one very relieved Auracana, who had found a safe spot on the top most nesting box. She peered down at me but didn’t look like she wanted to come down anytime soon, and as I scanned the coop, I saw why.  The fox had partially killed one of the girls.  She lay in the straw amidst the debris from the fight, mortally wounded and clearly suffering.

I closed the coop and strode to the house in search of masculine assistance. I wanted Thor, my son, to put the chicken out of her misery with his shotgun.  He was watching TV in his skivvies - a white tank undershirt and a pair of shorts - and talking on the phone.  Always willing to help me out in these situations, he said goodbye to his girlfriend, grabbed his gun and pulled on his boots.  As we headed out to the coop, I told him all about the fox and how I kicked it in the head and had blocked the hole. He, too, couldn’t believe a fox would be that bold.

When we got to the coop, the mangled chicken was still alive and moaning softly.  I gently moved her to where Thor could help her on her way, said a small prayer for her and stepped back. I scrunched my eyes shut and jumped when he shot. I looked up, and the chicken was flapping and jumping around. I couldn't take it! I beat on Thor’s shoulder and yelling “Is that the best you can do? From ten feet? After all that shooting practice? Can't you do any better than that? She’s still alive!”
Somehow he manages to say between pummeling him and him laughing at me, “Mom, take it easy. It doesn’t have a head! Haven’t you ever heard of running around like a chicken with its head cut off?”

I wrung my hands.  I knew he was right, but it was just so traumatic. I was hoping to see her peacefully and instantaneously dead, and instead she was flapping around headless in a very disconcerting way. “I’m sorry." Gah! Apparently, sometimes moms are not that great under pressure, either.

Eventually, the pile of feathers lay still, and I let out the breath I'd been holding.

We turned our attention to the remaining chickens, literally soothing ruffled feathers and getting them calmed down. We were standing near the chicken coop door when Thor jumped like he’d been electrocuted.  “Holy shit!” he yelled.

“What?” I exclaimed.

“The frigging fox just bit me! He was under the coop and grabbed my boot with his paws and bit me!”

“What!?“ I was aghast. We stepped back and shone the light under the coop and, sure enough, Mr. Fox was looking right back at us, taunting.  Thor yelled at him “Oh no, you did not!” and fired his gun at the fox under the coop.  This time, he missed.

I thought for sure the fox would have left having been deprived of his dinner, kicked in the head and now shot at, but no. He sat right there and looked at us from under the coop as if to say “I’m leaving here with a chicken or dead and I don’t really care which.”
Thor and I obviously had our opinion about the matter.

“Do you have any more shells?” I asked.

“I just have slugs.”

A twenty gauge slug is meant for killing deer, but it’s what we had, and I wasn’t about to go back to the house and to look for other ammo when the fox could get away.

We positioned ourselves behind an oak tree with a good line of sight under the coop where we could see the fox. Thor lay along the ground like a sniper on one side of the tree, and I shone the flashlight on the other side and acted as a spotter. “Just a little lower,” I whispered as he adjusted the muzzle of the gun.

The fox never knew what hit him.  Thor is a good shot. I mean he did shoot the head off the chicken, after all, and the fox is a much larger target and obligingly lay perfectly still.  He never had a chance.
We were congratulating ourselves standing there in our pajamas and yoga pants, me with a shovel and Thor with his gun, planning carcass disposal, chickens still dazedly milling about the feather-strewn yard when George’s truck turned into the driveway.

We must have been quite a sight because his truck slowed down and crept into a halt.  He stepped out of the truck and said not a little warily “What’s going on here?”  The look on his face was priceless.
I leaned on the shovel and smiled “Just another Thursday night, baby. We've got it under control.”

Li’l Fox will not win
Against gun-toting farmer
He feeds vultures now

Li’l Fox I am sad
At your untimely passing
You’re a worthy foe

Hens pecking cracked corn
Night of terror forgotten
We have done our job