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Authors: Bruce Machart

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BOOK: Men in the Making
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Before my visit that summer, all I'd known of Grandpa Havleck was sharp words and sharp steel. Every year since I could remember, he'd sent me a new pocketknife for my birthday, and though I'd handled them endlessly, pulling out the blades and inspecting the engraving for some secret message, all I'd ever found was the manufacturer's name and the grade of stainless steel. When I'd ask my mother about him, she'd frown and find something that needed doing around the house, something to keep her hands busy while she talked. "He's a bitter pill," she told me, "and I don't want you thinking that's how your daddy was, 'cause he wasn't. He was outgoing and loud sometimes, but always kind. Your Grandpa Havleck, he's all eaten up on the insides with guilt, says one thing and feels another. Deep down, though, he's good people. Has to be, else he couldn't have fathered your father."

Before my trip, I was warned to expect some strange behavior, a little ribbing here and there, a bunch of what my mother called "macho hooey about Texas-this and Texas-that."

What I didn't expect, even after having spent most of August with the old man, was for him to sit me down in the porch swing out back of his farmhouse in Shiner, fish a cold bottle of Lone Star from the cooler he kept by the door, and slap it into my hand.

"There you go, boy," he said, and once he'd pried the caps off the bottles, he slipped the bottle opener into the chest pocket of his T-shirt, gave it a little pat for safekeeping, took a swig of his beer, and then shot me a look of disgusted confusion.

"Whatcha just looking at it for?" he said. "Go on, you little Okie. Drink it. That there's a Lone Star you got, and if ever there was a little Oklahoma green-ass in need of some liquid Texas, it's you."

Grandpa hiked his jeans up under the enormous hump of his belly and rubbed his head, which had been bald, he claimed, since he was nineteen and came down with scarlet fever. Four days and nights, a temperature so high the whites of his eyes went red as a July sunset, and when the fever broke he'd washed up, looked in the mirror, and run a comb through his hair for the last time. "It all come out," he'd told me one night. "All at once, four swipes of the comb and it was as gone as gone can get." Now I held my beer and marveled at him: at his head, slick and shining in the sun, a large vein snaking its blue way above one eyebrow; at his stomach, so slumped and low-slung you couldn't see his belt buckle. This was not the kind of man a boy disobeyed. This was the daddy of the daddy I'd never met, the man who, according to my mother, had walked his twenty-year-old son down to the recruiting office in Shiner as soon as the draft was reinstated. The man who told the recruiting officer, "This here's my only son, and he'd rather fight than farm. I figure if he's got to go get himself killed, he'd better damn well die a Marine." The man who, when he got word that my daddy had done just that after being taken down by friendly fire, went back to that recruiting office, slammed the purple heart my mother had gotten in the mail on that officer's desk, and told the man the Havlecks didn't have any use for a dead man's medal, so why didn't the Marines just melt it down and make some bullets and teach their boys how to shoot them straight—maybe at the enemy for a change.

In a matter of hours I would learn that these stories were more legend than history, more talk than truth, but at the time, sitting there on the porch with a bottle of beer in my hand and nine years of mystery still roped tight inside me, all I could see was an enormous frowning man. This was a man you didn't mess with, no matter what my mother said about his talk being hooey, a man who wanted me to drink what he'd given me, so I took a careful swig, and it was cold on my teeth and bitter down deep in my throat and altogether surprising the way only a boy's first beer can be.

"Now we're talkin'," he said, and after he'd polished the rest of his off with one turn of the bottle, he proceeded to inform me that even though the Spoetzl Brewery was just five miles away in downtown Shiner, and even though it was made in Texas, Shiner beer was still more Czech than Texan. They imported all the fixings, he told me, all the barley and hops and—hell, maybe even the water for all he knew. And the guy who ran the place, Walter Dudek—
Pure-D Euro-peean.
A nice enough guy, sure, but no Texan.

I took another drink, my cheeks awash with a first-beer flush, and I wondered if I was drunk already, if my increasing confusion about Grandpa was the product of good beer or bad memory. "But you're Czech," I said, "aren't you? I thought all we Havlecks were."

His face went fierce, his chapped lips parting in disbelief, the skin atop his head bunched up in distasteful furrows. "The hell I am," he said, setting his empty on the porch rail and letting loose a groan when he bent over, opening the cooler for another. "My daddy was Czech. Sure enough, no getting around it. Landed in Galveston when he was twenty-one. But me and your daddy, we're Texans, though one of us is a dead Texan. And you, boy, you're a dustbowl-loving Okie." He shook his head and bubbled his beer and made a clicking sound with his tongue. "Sorry to say it, son, but it's the God's honest truth. Your grandma, God keep her, she even dug up some dirt out here in the yard and sent it in a box up there to Tulsa so you could be born over Texas soil, and boy, I'll never know why in the hell she did it, I really won't, but she used UPS instead of Tex-Pak. Can you believe it? Got-
damn,
boy, do you know who
owns
Tex-Pak?"

I shook my head that I didn't.

"Lady Bird Johnson, that's who. We're talking Texan from titties to toenails."

Out back of the barn, Grandpa's prized bird dog, Alamo, was raising Cain in his kennel. Grandpa hollered, "Easy, Allie," then he took me tight by the back of the neck. "Listen, boy. You hear it?"

"The dog?" I asked, wondering if maybe the old man had gone deaf the way he'd gone bald—all in an instant.

"Not the
dog,
boy. What the dog
hears.
Bobwhite quail, way out in the pasture, bobwhitin' their little feathered asses off."

I turned my ear to the south, but all I could hear was the dog howling and the buzz of mosquitoes and the almost liquid hiss of the wind swirling in the scrub grass, rattling the crippled-looking branches of the mesquite tree by the barn. I looked up at Grandpa, who still had me firm by the neck, and shook my head.

"You can't hear 'em?" he asked. "Not even a little?"

"No, sir," I said, the way my mother had taught me.

"Well," he said, smiling, "me neither. Can't hear shit, matter of fact, but that dog can. You better believe that dog can."

I laughed and took another sip of beer and Grandpa gave me a playful shake before turning me loose. "You know what, boy? It's a damn shame we didn't get that soil up there in time. You might have made an okay Texan."

I finished my beer and Grandpa pulled me another from the ice. Hard as he was to understand, and callous as he could be sometimes, I couldn't bring myself to feel much of anything but respect for him—not, anyway, with him finally smiling and giving me beer and acting like he might, somewhere in the deep-down insides of him, love me like the son he'd lost, so I asked him—I said, "That would have counted? If the soil would've been under the bed?"

The sun was going down, and Grandpa looked out west over his field of August cotton to where the sky was blistered with clouds. "Hell, boy, I ain't gonna lie to you—probably not. Probably wouldn't have made a damn bit of difference." He swiped his fingers over his bald head like he expected to find his hair grown suddenly back into place. "But I don't reckon it could have hurt."

 

There always were, in Grandpa's way of speaking, lessons to be learned about the way Texans did things, or didn't do them, and to me, they began that summer to sound like his way of talking about my father without speaking of him directly. The morning after I'd arrived in Texas, three weeks before Grandpa gave me my first beer, after a nighttime storm that threw hail hard against the roof and softened the soil with rain, he took me out to the dog kennel where his pointer, Alamo, was curled up in the shade. He scratched the dog on the neck and took a long look inside his floppy ears and filled the food and water bowls, all the while whispering, "That's right, Allie. Just a few more weeks and we'll put you on the birds."

Out back of the chicken shed, he reached into a burlap sack and threw feed around on the ground the way Stan dealt cards when he and my mother played gin after dinner most nights. Then Grandpa took hold of me by a belt loop and pulled me out to the pasture. "There you go," he said, spitting down to direct my attention toward a glistening pile of cow flop in the grass. "Looks like a good one to me, kiddo. Reckon you can give her a good stomp?"

I looked up at him, at the tight smile of his lips, at the thin thread of spit that still swung from the stubble on his chin. "Go on," he said. "Texans don't ever mind a little shit on their boots."

After I'd stomped around awhile, playing a crude game of hopscotch from cow patty to cow patty, Grandpa looked at my boots and laughed and said he thought that would probably do for starters. "We're going to have to teach you to use the boot jack," he said. "If she ain't haunting the place already, you better believe your grandma will be rattling chains tonight if you track that stuff through her house. She never could abide that." Grandpa pulled the neck of his T-shirt down and scratched at the skin beneath all the wiry white hairs he had growing there, his lips still working all the while, like he'd lost his voice but not the will to make words. Pulling his hand from his shirt, he looked me up and down. "She never could," he said.

"Did my daddy do that?" I asked. "Track mud in the house?"

Grandpa looked down at me and then back out toward the west. "Mud and some worse," he said, and for a long while he stood there, looking out over the pasture and cotton fields, digging around in his ear with a pinkie finger like there was something stuck in his head he couldn't dislodge. When he turned back my way, his eyes widened as if he were surprised to find me still standing there.

"What's a boot jack?" I asked.

"A boot jack, boy, is what you use when you're done working. Which we ain't."

He reached around in his pocket and threw me a set of keys. Over by the chicken shed where the old Allis-Chalmers tractor was parked, two dozen or more hens were shucking and clucking, pecking at the ground for the feed Grandpa had tossed there. "Get on up there," he said, nodding at the orange tractor. "We're fixin' to teach you to drive."

The sun was coming up in full now, and the chickens scurried around as if fueled by the heat. As I was climbing onto the tractor, my boots lost hold and I smacked my shin so soundly against the foot plate that the pain sparked and caught fire and licked its way up my leg and into my guts. My mouth flooded with spit and I thought for sure I'd be sick. "Well," Grandpa said, slapping the tractor seat with the palm of his hand, "you ain't in much danger of riding rodeos anytime soon, but this is just a tractor, for the love of God. Try her again."

Once I'd worked my way into the seat, Grandpa pulled himself up beside me, sitting on the rear-wheel fender while he taught me how to pull the choke out and count slow to ten before cranking the engine. While I sat there, squinting into the sun and feeling the machine rumble and growl beneath me, he got down with a groan and hooked up the disc plow. And then it was time to drive.

For the next hour, Grandpa sat on the fender while I drove, teaching me how to stand hard on the clutch to shift gears, how to raise and lower the implement, coaching me as I drove slowly forward, plowing under the remains of the springtime garden while the chickens bobbed and weaved all around us. "You got it," he said. "Hot damn, son, you're shittin' fire and pissin' fuel now, ain't it? You're driving."

Perched atop the tractor, with the night's rain steaming up from the ground and the musky-sweet smell of black soil washing around me, everything seemed under my power—the tractor, sputtering forward and jerking so hard when I shifted gears that it threw me forward into the steering wheel; my legs, too short and rubber-muscled though they were from standing hard on the clutch and the gas; the ground beneath me, turning over in my wake. Everything. Grandpa sat there beaming, wiping sweat from his forehead and nodding out toward the next plot of ground he wanted tilled.

Straining against the wheel, I turned us around and steered toward the unbroken earth. In front of us, a sea of chickens parted in fluttering waves and I was thinking Moses couldn't have done it any better when I stood on the clutch and felt my boot start sliding.

Either because of the shit on my soles or the wobbly way my legs were working, I slid clean off the clutch, coming down solid with my other foot on the gas. What happened next was fast and black and smelled of fuel. The engine screamed, shooting us forward while diesel-black swirled from the smokestack and the chickens came alive, taking to the air, leaving feathers aloft behind them. Grandpa grabbed the wheel and got a boot on the brake, and as he brought us to a stop it was all I could do to hang on. I clamped my eyes tight against the smoke and the sun and the world rolling by, and I wanted like hell to be anywhere but here, anywhere but on this machine with an old man I hardly knew and the father I'd come here to find just as absent as he'd always been in Oklahoma.

For years I'd been trying to force him into existence, to think of him and imagine his reaction to the skinny and timid boy I'd become. I'd tell myself he was looking down, taking note of how clumsy I was. I'd paint disapproval onto his face, convincing myself that failure and fear were what he'd come to expect from me. After all, surely he'd been watching all my life, watching me run to the school washroom to puke whenever a fight broke out, when just standing there, watching in a crowd while two boys flattened each other's noses could turn my body against me. I'd try to imagine him looking down with a frown while I shut myself up in my room on bright Oklahoma afternoons when the neighborhood was alive with baseball games and swimming pool parties. He can see you, I thought, but I never convinced myself it was true, never got phantom whiffs of his aftershave or felt him leaning over my shoulder while I played.

BOOK: Men in the Making
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