Sharpening his shovel to a butcher knife's edge, the better to slice through hard-knotted tangles of hay roots, Grandpa Bell started his day down in the fields while the young sun still cast long westward shadows through the dewy golden grass.
He seemed able to coax rivulets of water uphill onto the hummock of hard-baked soil where his haystack stood, the small-time wizardry of a tough little guy simpatico with his 40 acres. He believed in work with the same unquestioning intensity that a runner believes in deep breathing.
Though nowhere near as dedicated to blisters and toil, I was lucky to share Grandpa's fascination for guiding water, making it want to go sheepdog-like where it's needed. Many's the time during my complicated 20s when a day of tending ditch cured whatever over-dramatized malaise ailed me. Water knows its way home and can show us, too, if we let it.
As I was coming off the field one day, who should be pulling into the yard but my Uncle Bud and cousin Danny in a $300 station wagon, complaining of stomachaches from the two-day-old tuna and mayonnaise sandwiches they ate on their way over Teton Pass. If they hadn't been hardened alcoholics, they would've been goners - but then if they hadn't been drunk, I suppose they wouldn't have eaten putrefying fish.
No matter how far away he lived, Uncle Bud orbited my grandparents like a damaged satellite, calling for money and a little sympathy across empty space, waiting like the Apollo 13 astronauts for some Gyro Gearloose way to avert impending disaster.
In the 1950s, working as a plumber at the Idaho National Laboratory nuclear facility, Uncle Bud was making considerably more than his attorney brother-in-law, my dad. But by the early '70s, his own personal obsession with liquids other than ditch water left Uncle Bud in the position of having to implore me, his 11-year-old nephew, to intercede on his behalf with my parents for funds to apply to his bar tab. Something about his voice stays with me after all these years. "Be my Dutch uncle with your folks," he asked at the opposite end of a collect call.
Fewer than 10 years later, Uncle Bud died an ancient man at age 53, coming home for good in a cheap coffin, first into the family plot, his 88-year-old dad joining him six months later, his mother outliving them both by nearly a dozen years.
We all imagined Grandma in her latter years alone on the farm entertaining herself by destroying treasured family documents out in the burn barrel. But my mom only recently delved into the old cedar chest she inherited and found dozens of letters from a lonesome 18-year-old boy in the Navy.
Describing how his well-practiced "iron gut" protected him from bad water and seasickness, Uncle Bud told Grandma to "mention it to dad that all those days of grief for him and the rest of the family turned out to be more of a profit than a loss." In another letter, he denies that he is brig-bait, having earned a 3.9 service record out of a possible high score of 4.0.
Sitting here looking at a colorized black and white portrait of a handsome imp of a sailorboy fresh off the U.S.S. Antietam, I don't know whether to interpret these and other clues as evidence of an ordinary person brought down by low expectations, or of the youngest ne'er-do-well son never willing to live up to a family that expected sobriety and success.
Or maybe it was just bad luck that set a susceptible young man down in the Navy in an era when boozing, brawling and otherwise raising hell in port was expected, even encouraged. "I guess you have just about lost your baby," Uncle Bud wrote his 'ma in January 1947, words sad and true.
I'll gather up his letters and send them along to his sons in hopes they'll find a key in them to the mysterious man who wreaked such havoc in their lives. They can feel proud, as I do, of his service to his country and the bravery it took to leave the farm behind for the wide open ocean and perils of life. As old sea charts warned, "There be dragons" out beyond the horizon, and in the souls of men.