I’ll Be Darned

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My grandfather, John L. Merrifield, died on Nov. 1, just 46 days shy of his 82nd birthday. His life spanned 29,905 days, and he probably worked on about 29,000 of them. He was always working. He loved work. This was one of many things that he and I did not have in common. Growing up during the Great Depression is probably what instilled that work ethic in him. It’s too late for me, but maybe the next generation, growing up in the new Depression, will get it. Grandpa would like that.

I actually worked as one of Grandpa’s employees for several years when I was a teenager. He had a business in downtown Lake Elsinore, Calif., where I grew up (and where he grew up, and where his grandfather had been one of the first settlers). This business, John’s Service Center, was a bizarre catch-all. We sold and repaired new and used appliances, as well as second-hand furniture and miscellaneous junk. We rented medical equipment like oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. We did photocopies (this was before Kinko’s), and printed fliers and programs and so forth. It was also the Greyhound bus depot. It was also a 24-hour telephone-answering service for about 60 local clients, including doctors’ offices, plumbers, and the cable company. (That was mostly where I worked — answering phones, not fixing refrigerators.) At various times Grandpa also ran a taxi service, limousine service, and ambulance service. His attitude was basically that if you needed something done, and it wasn’t one of the services he already provided, he would figure out a way to do it.

My mom told a story at the funeral about how one time a customer came in looking for a particular kind of curtain rod, and Grandpa didn’t have it — but he knew that the very rod in question was currently at his house, holding up the curtains on his living room window. So he went home, took it down, and sold it, much to the consternation of my grandmother.

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Grandpa Merrifield: Yes, he did look like a giant turtle. So?

That was Grandpa to a T: always wanting to help, always wanting to be of service, his heart always in the right place, even if it sometimes led him to do crazy things like sell his wife’s home furnishings. He would literally have given you the shirt off his back. He’d rather have sold it to you, but if you were really hard up, he’d give it to you for free. He was a soft touch like that.

Grandpa closed his business several years ago but continued to work, partly out of financial necessity, and partly because that’s just what he did. Until very recently, he worked part-time as a dispatcher for a towing company and had become friendly with the drivers. You and I would not associate with such people, of course, but Grandpa was not an elitist snob like you and I are. A confederation of these tow-truck drivers attended the funeral. They were on call, so they drove a tow truck to the church and wore their grubby tow-truck-driver clothes, which made them look out of place, technically, but no one minded. It was like Dumbledore’s funeral, where you had all these ordinary wizards and witches but then also forest gnomes and water nymphs crawling in from their realms to pay their respects.

But that was fitting. Grandpa had worked in so many fields, and dealt with so many people, that he had friends in every station of life. A true representation of his circle of acquaintances would have included not just tow-truck drivers but doctors, lawyers, religious leaders, mayors, drug addicts, hobos, car mechanics, businessmen, sailors, mailmen, Boy Scouts, bus drivers, schoolteachers, crack whores, Catholics, Mormons, Baptists, Jews, Hindus, whites, blacks, Asians, Mexicans, midgets, paraplegics, amputees, skydivers, racists, Nazis, monks, schizophrenics, paranoiacs, serial killers, hooligans, layabouts, ne’er-do-wells, no-accounts, and Canadians. He had spent 95 percent of his life in Lake Elsinore, yet all of those (and more) had crossed his path at some point, and had all come away thinking, “That John’s a stand-up guy.”

Grandpa was a life-long Boy Scout. He even started a Scout troop with the locals in Guam when he was stationed there with the Navy in World War II. He loved all the elements of Scouting, particularly camping and knot-tying, two activities for which I had little use. I also didn’t care much for “regulation” or “structure” or “having to perform specific tasks in order to acquire patches of fabric that I could sew to a shirt.” So my involvement in Boy Scouting was minimal. But I remember one occasion when for some reason my brother Christopher and I had been prevailed upon to attend a Court of Honor, and Grandpa was more than happy to drive us there. He wore his full Boy Scout uniform, the adult version, which looks just like the youth version, only hilarious, because an adult is wearing it. Chris and I wore civilian clothing.

After the Boy Scout ordeal was over, Grandpa offered to buy us a treat. This was around 1988, when frozen yogurt was all the rage, so we stopped at a local TCBY. Being about 14 years old at the time, I was hideously embarrassed to discover that employed behind the counter of this shop were two pretty teenage girls, and here I was with my grandfather, who was dressed in a Boy Scout shirt and neckerchief, a pair of green shorts, pasty old-man legs, and knee-high green socks with red bunting. To make matters worse, Grandpa had not experienced the wonder and magic of frozen yogurt before, and he was amazed to see the buffet of toppings available. He asked the counter girl a lot of questions.

“So you can get any of this and put it on the frozen yogurt?”

“Yes.”

“How many different toppings can you get?”

“As many as you want. The first one is free, and then it’s 50 cents for each additional one.”

“And you can get as many as you want, any of ’em?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, I’ll be darned.”

And I’m standing there wanting to melt into the floor because my absurdly costumed grandfather is acting awestruck by frozen yogurt, like a rube who’s just wandered in from the country and can’t believe how tall the buildings are in the big city. Now, of course, I can look back at the incident with fondness, at least in part because I no longer care what teenage girls think of me. You can really free up a lot of mental space by not caring what teenage girls think of you.

Grandpa said “I’ll be darned” a lot. It’s a major catchphrase in my brothers’ and my impersonations of him. It wasn’t until this week that I really reflected on why he said it so much. It’s because he was always learning something new, and he liked learning something new, and he was a humble man who wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that he had learned something new. He was a tinkerer, a mechanic, an explorer, an experimenter. He admired industry and efficiency, even though his own business practices tended to be slipshod and haphazard, rarely profitable but always resulting in those he dealt with being happy. All 11 of his grandsons acted as pallbearers at his funeral, even though only six were needed to carry the casket. Grandpa would have appreciated the gesture while noting that the efforts of five guys were being wasted. Shouldn’t they be digging or something?

You know, maybe Grandpa and I had more in common than I thought. I’m looking at a stack of CDs that a friend of mine gave me when he moved. He was going to take them down to a used CD place and try to sell them, but he hadn’t had time. I suggested he leave them with me, I’d list them on Half.com (which is usually more profitable than a CD shop anyway), take care of the organizing and shipping, then split the proceeds with him. That’s exactly the kind of resourceful attitude that Grandpa had toward business: always look for new opportunities to make a few bucks. Also, my friend gave me these CDs two months ago, and I haven’t actually done anything with them yet, which might also be something Grandpa would have done. I guess I can relate to him after all. I’ll be darned.

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