Thursday, June 23, 2016

Lessons From a Slingshot Marine

A sunrise from Mill and Lucy's front yard.
When we were kids, my cousin Scott and I often were volunteered to be unpaid labor for our grandparents, Mill and Lucy Peeler. It was rarely easy work, especially when our Wprld War II Marine grandfather had a project he wanted completed. (Our grandmother compensated by giving us shotgun biscuits, apple pies and Sunday school.)

Many of the things my grandfather taught us came flooding back today when I was with the kids of our church on a youth mission trip in Costa Rica. We were building a retaining wall out of tires. We had to move a lot of dirt with broken shovels, a couple of pickaxes, three wheelbarrows and some plastic five-gallon buckets—down a hill, by the river and fire-lined buckets full of dirt up the hill. It was unending, back-straining work, and they were about as willing to listen to my "suggestions" and words of wisdom as Scott and I were willing to do the things our grandfather told us.

Here are some of the things he used to say to us all the time that I heard myself saying today (except for No. 5—obviously).
The tree where Herkimer lives to this day.

  1.  Follow the line of least resistance.
  2. Filling a bucket half full takes twice the effort.
  3. Point the wheelbarrow the direction you want to go when it's full, not the direction it's pointing when you bring it back empty.
  4. Never leave your tools unattended and always clean them thoroughly at the end of the day.
  5. Goddammit, not that way.
We got a lot out of those times with our grandparents at the wooden house where my dad, his two brothers and two sisters grew up, which featured an outhouse, an apple orchard and a 12-foot mythical guard snake named Herkimer.

My grandfather could name every species of tree in the woods and could perfectly mimic the whistle of the all-but-now-gone bobwhite. He always pointed out the poison ivy and poison oak—after we walked through it.

"That'll teach you little shitasses," he said.

The Peelers of Vale, N.C.
(That's Scott and me in the white ties. Lucy and Mill have babies on their laps.)

He gave us dozens of handmade slingshots from the Y-shaped branches he cut from trees with his pocketknife. My grandfather could hit a rabbit with a rock from 30 yards--and he always pulled from the hip.

He taught Scott and me to play poker—blackjack, five-card stud, seven-card stud and Baseball, where 3s and 9s were wild, 4s got you an extra card face-down and winning hands were often when seven aces beat six kings. Sometimes we stayed up all Saturday night playing cards with him and a jar full of pennies.

We always assumed we would go to Hell for skipping church to gamble the night away with a salty old Marine. Today, I was reminded that time with Mill and Lucy was God's gift to us and all our cousins.