It makes you feel old when you realize that someone you knew and loved would be 130 years old now if they were still alive. Yesterday was my great-grandfather’s 130th birthday, and I knew him until he died at age 87 when I was not quite six years old. We kids called him “Gee Gee”, but my Dad always called him “Grandpa”.He was the first of five Sterling Wyatt Camdens so far (I’m number four), named after his uncle Sterling and his grandfather Wyatt. He usually went by his middle name. He didn’t go to school much (a total of 18 months, I think), but he read a lot and taught himself most everything he knew. He eventually became an accountant — a profession which buoyed his family through the Depression.
He was an ad-hoc inventor — creating something like a tractor for his own use before any such thing was ever marketed. But like all of his contraptions, he never sought a patent for it. I remember a butter churn he made for my great-grandmother. You flipped a switch on the wall, and an electric motor turned a small pulley with a huge belt running to a larger pulley that turned a bevel gear that turned the churn’s paddles. I’ve always wondered why the motor wasn’t attached directly to the paddles, but maybe he geared it down by using different sized pulleys.
His father, Voltaire, was a disabled veteran of the War Between the States who according to my father was given to heavy drinking and abuse of his wife and children. My great-grandfather, on the other hand, never drank alcohol except for one shot of whiskey before bed each night. I was told, however, that he underwent one of the earliest appendectomies, with nothing but whiskey for an anaesthetic.
Though he didn’t follow his father’s tastes in liquor, he did in lickin’. My great-grandmother confided to my mother that when she saw how badly her husband treated their first two children, she “steeled herself” so that they wouldn’t have any more. They always had separate bedrooms.
So it certainly spelled trouble for my father and his brothers when they were left with their grandparents following their parents’ divorce (something quite unusual in those days). They had only occasional visits from their parents from then on, so my great-grandmother’s plan to prevent the further abuse of children was thwarted. My Dad told me that even in his sixties my great-grandfather was strong enough to lop down small trees with one swing of an axe, and he demanded hard work from the three boys — though he expected them to be lazy and good-for-nothing, like all boys. After school he would ask them something like, “So did you screw your teacher today?” And when they answered “no sir” they’d be met with “And why not?!” But they dare not answer in the affirmative, either. My Dad remembered one of his younger brothers being so dead tired at the end of a long day’s work after school that by the time they sat down to dinner at 10PM his head would just collapse into his dish.
By the time I met my great-grandfather he was in his eighties and had gentled down some. In our earliest encounter that I can remember, he pretended to try to steal my mother’s purse. I was outraged, and told him he better not bother my Mommy! He thought that was grand, and we always got along afterwards. He used to walk with my sister and me out to the railroad and around the little farm they had.
He stayed strong all his life, though he required a cane in his later years. One night at about 2AM my father heard banging over at their house (which was across the highway and about a half mile from ours), so he went over to investigate. My great-grandfather, at age 87, was out mending fences while his wife held the flashlight.
The next morning, my mother, sister and I accompanied my great-grandparents into town. My great-grandmother drove, with my great-grandfather in the passenger seat. I was in the middle of the back seat, with my mother on my right and my sister on my left. As we approached the main intersection of the town (which at that time had no traffic signal) my mother called out, “Grandma, look out!” The next thing I knew, something was holding my head like a padded vise.
A drunk driver had turned left immediately in front of my great-grandparent’s old Plymouth. It was a two-door, and the two halves of the front bench seat folded forward to allow access to the back seat. They didn’t put seatbelts in autos back then, so on the impact we all flew forward along with the two front seat-backs, which then whipped back and caught me by the neck. A Virginia State Trooper who was a friend of my Dad’s had witnessed the accident and helped me out. I was relatively unharmed, and my mother and sister were OK. My great-grandparents, on the other hand, had encountered the steering wheel and windshield. They were both taken to the hospital.
My great-grandmother soon recovered. In his hospital bed, my great-grandfather told my Dad, “I think I’ll cash in on this one.” Dad told him that no, for sure he would be back mending fences before the next time the cow got out. But a few days later, he succumbed to pneumonia that he had developed while he was lying in the hospital.
On the night after the funeral, my father was standing on the front porch of my great-grandparents’ house, along with his Aunt Ellie. A terrible storm sent lightning shooting through the swiftly moving clouds, accompanied by frequent, booming thunder. Dad said, “I guess Grandpa made it after all.”