This is a story that I wrote for Larry and told it for the first time at his surprise 55th birthday and retirement party. The idea came to me while I was telling stories at St. Charles during their "First Capitol Days." The piece simmered for a good two years before it took story form.
One day, not too long ago, my son, Brian, sat in the family room staring at me. Or, at least I thought he was staring at me. I soon noticed that he was staring at something just over my shoulder. “What are you looking at?” I asked.“That picture,” he said, “that picture has been hanging in this house ever since I can remember.”I looked behind me and said, “That’s because I bought that picture for your dad as a wedding present.”
“A picture?” Brian asked incredulously. “You bought dad… a picture?”“Well,” I mused, “there’s more to the story than that picture.” Brian gave me a look - the kind he gives me when he sees that he shouldn’t have even asked. But, since he did, I went ahead and told him the story:"Your father, my fiancé, at the time, and I were shopping for our first couch. We found a nice one at a furniture store in O’Fallon. While we were there, he sort of stopped in his tracks, when he saw this picture hanging on the wall. It was a farm painting. In the background was a big red barn and in the foreground was a wagon led by two white horses. A father and his son were seated on the wagon. The father was handing the reins of the team of horses over to his son. The son had this wonderful, surprised look on his face. I walked over to him, 'What is it?' I asked.“’Oh, it’s just this picture. It reminds me of the time my dad handed the reins over to me while we were on the farm. What a scary moment that was! You can’t believe the power of those horses. I almost lost it, when my dad took his big, strong hands and put them over mine. He yelled, "Hold on, son!" To this day I know I would have let go, if it hadn’t been for him. He had such strong big hands. I guess it was from working on the farm all those years - big strong Irish hands,' he said looking down his own. 'My hands are nothing like his.'”"Over the years your father has told me other little stories - times that he and his father shared together. One time he told me about how he helped his dad out on the farm. They had this old ‘47 Harvester tractor that they used to till and plant their crops. Larry was still too young to actually drive the tractor, but his dad still needed him when they had to hitch the tiller or mower onto the tractor.
"When Larry was still pretty young though, your grandpa sometimes let him ride on his lap as he tilled the fields. His dad let him “pretend drive.” Your dad would have to stretch his arms out to either side of that immense wheel. Your grandpa didn’t think your dad would notice, but he could see that his dad put a strong, steady hand on the bottom of the wheel. Every once in a while he would have to give it a directional turn to the right or the left to get it back on the path. That was okay with your dad. He just enjoyed the feel of that tractor - riding up there with his dad with a hot summer breeze hitting their faces."On the far side of the field there was a red plum tree. When the tree was ripe with fruit, his dad would stop the old H under that tree. Your dad would stand on his dad’s lap. Your grandpa would lock his hands behind your dad’s knees and lift him up to reach up to the top of the tree for some sweet plums. Their faces scrunched up as they popped those bittersweet plums one by one into our mouths. Then, they laughed as they spit the seeds into the newly plowed fields.Brian thought about that for a moment. “I don’t remember dad ever telling me that story. I only remember the one he always tells at Thanksgiving - the one about blowing out all the tires on his dad’s car. He said when he was in first grade, he had to wait for his dad to pick him up at the neighbor’s house after school. His dad always picked him up at 4:15 - right in the middle of Howdy-Doody. It was like Grandpa didn’t get it. Didn’t he know it was Howdy-Doody Time? Dad said that one time he got so mad that he peppered the driveway with long carpet tacks. When Grandpa pulled up, all four tires blew. You know, Mom, I don’t think dad got to watch of that show that night.”“I don’t think your dad sat down to watch any show for quite some time. You see, your grandpa was not beyond using those big strong Irish hands to dole out a good whippin’ when it was well-deserved.”“But,” I said, “there were other good times that your dad and grandpa shared. He told me about going down to the stockyards late at night and delivering the hogs. It was a hot, tiring, smelly job, but somebody had to do it - and most of the time it was your grandpa and your dad. But, afterwards came the big reward. They would stop at an A & W Root Beer stand on St. Clair Avenue in East St. Louis. His dad would order two frosty mugs of ice- cold root beer. Your dad told me that nothing tasted as good as sharing that beer with his dad in the cab of their truck. When the frosty mugs appeared, they would take hold of them and click the mugs together in an exaggerated toast. They never said a word, but his dad kind of nodded his head as they clinked the mugs together. It was as if the clink had said it all - 'Good job, son - good job.'"When I finally finished my story, Brian just looked at me a bit puzzled. “I just don’t understand one thing. You said that dad told you his hands were nothing compared to his dad’s - have you ever seen dad’s hands - they’re huge.”“Yes,” I said, “now they are. He kind of grew into those hands. I guess it was after all those years of carpentry and flintknapping.” Brian looked down at his own hands. He didn’t say anything, but I knew what he was thinking.Sometimes when I pass by that picture, I think – you know, I was right. There is a lot more to the story than that picture. You see, Larry’s father died, when he was just 17 years old. And there were times over the years when he wished his father had been there to give him a little guidance, or to hold him up. He wished his father had been there to teach him right from wrong. But, most of all, he wished his father had been there when his grandchildren were born, or when he built his home, or when he received awards for his involvement in archaeology. So his father could give a nod his head as if to say, “Good job, son.” And when times were hard, real hard, he wished his father had been there to take back the reins. But, all he had was his father’s voice, “Hold on, son!” And hold on he did.