Monday, June 1, 2009

What's next, Grandpa?

I have spent nearly all of my previous posts writing about my paternal grandfather, Lee McNeill. However, today is different. Today would have been my maternal grandfather's 88th birthday.

I had the privilege of spending 18 years with my grandpa, including some under his roof, before the ravages of cancer took him from us 16 years ago. It was devastating to watch a once vital, strong man become slowly weaker as brain cancer consumed him and finally took him from us. Most people have very fond memories of their senior year of high school. Mine was spent watching his health fail and finally succumbing to cancer the day after my senior prom. I could have cared less about the dance, but as a result I always know what day it was on.

Fred Joseph Harmon was born 1 June 1921 to Edward Joseph Harmon and his wife, Kate Nellie Arthur in Clark Co, South Dakota. He was the third and youngest son. Grandpa grew up on the farm and always told me that he went to the School of Hard Knocks, though it was really a small one-room schoolhouse! He was able to finish through the 8th grade before times got so hard that he had to stay home to work on the farm. He also attended part of 10th grade in an unknown school in central California where Edward and Kate had gone for a period of time before returning to South Dakota. I know that he regretted not having more formal education and that's why he stressed it so heavily to my sister and me.

Grandpa joined the U.S. Army Air Corps on 8 Oct 1942 at Ft. Snelling, Minnesota. After receiving training in several locations in the States, he was sent to Wharton Air Base at Wharton, England. There were a lot of dinner table discussions when I was growing up about his days in the army, including how he hated the dreary weather and having to march in the mud, his memories of chipped beef on toast (though I can assure you that was NOT the term he used), and the "hurry up and wait" that was the norm for the army schedule. Probably all that marching in mud contributed to his developing pluresy. At first no one believed he was ill as other servicemen, unfortunately, had tried to shirk duty. However, he was truly ill and spent many months in a military hospital, even coming home on a hospital ship. He was thrilled to discover a few years before his death the BAD 2 Association and the yearly military reunions they had around the country. My grandparents were able to attend a few before his untimely death. I remember him being so pleased to connect with some of his buddies that he hadn't seen in over 40 years.

After the military, he returned home to South Dakota, married my grandmother and had their one and only child, my mom. After struggling to make it in South Dakota, he picked up his family of three and headed west to Bremerton, Washington where he worked at the shipyards as a welder. He later joined the Boilermaker's Union which helped him find better work and pay. He spent many a summer working in Alaska in the 1950s while my mom and grandma were still in the Seattle area. Eventually his skills took him to the company Chicago Bridge and Iron where he worked for many years until he retired in the early 1980s. This work required travel so my mom went to about 13 different schools during her Kindergarten through Senior year of high school. He worked all over the western part of the United States building tanks and towers. Usually these were water towers for municipalities, but also included, for example, an underground storage facility at Hanford in the Tri-Cities area of Washington. He was very proud of his work for CBI and I remember he received an award for no accidents on the job for several consecutive years.

By the time my parents had divorced, my grandfather was preparing to retire to a small town in Southwest Idaho to farm. We spent about 6 years living with my grandparents - basically all of my elementary years. He served in the father role for the Daddy-Daughter Girl Scout banquet, he taught my sister and me how to set siphon tubes out in the field, ride a four-wheeler, he taught us the finer points of baseball and about his favorite Dodgers, he listened to my piano practicing, and a host of other activities. If I came home with a B on my report card, his response would be, "How come you didn't get an A?" When it came time to choose a college, though he lay sick, he read cover to cover one of the college catalogs I had.

Because Grandpa didn't know how to be retired, he continued to farm and weld for many years following his formal retirement. He had a shop out behind the house where he spent many an hour. He taught us girls about all the tools in his shop and we spent a lot of time "helping". Apparently we were so "helpful", we would complete one task and then promptly ask, "What's next, Grandpa?" It became a running family joke and still is to this day. And now that I have two young girls of my own, I realize though he probably enjoyed those times spent in the shop, my sister and I probably weren't all that helpful.

There have been times in the last 16 years where I have come to the proverbial fork in the road and think, "What's next, Grandpa?" I only wish he were here to advise me.

Happy Birthday, Grandpa. I miss you.


  1. What a wonderful tribute; I'll bet he was truly glad for all your "help".

  2. Tracy, your grandfather would be so proud of everything you have accomplished. You are such an amazing woman!

  3. Very well written Tracy. One of my fondest memories was playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the piano and grandpa dancing to it. So I played it faster the next time and said "dance to that Grandpa!". Or maybe the time he tried to teach me the difference between mom, dad, sister, brother, aunt and uncle weeds while we were walking the rows in the field. Basically he was full of b.s. and a weed is a weed...but what does a little kid know??