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Volume 14, Issue 4: Recipio

Grandpa Hawkins

Ben Merkle

My Great-Grandpa Hawkins has always been universally described as a handsome and dapper man. The old black-and-white pictures of him testify to the truth of the memory. He usually appears with an ear-to-ear grin in knee-high riding boots, jodpers, and the other elements of the riding habit, including hat and gloves. Grandpa was particularly insistent regarding the need for a gentleman to always wear a hat and gloves. Even if the trip was merely a brief visit to the outhouse on the farm in Meridian, Great-Grandpa Hawkins would not be caught dead without his hat and gloves.

I'm told this was the root of much good-natured friction between him and his son-in-law, my Grandpa Merkle, who had spent a good deal of time riding the rails during the Depression. Grandpa Merkle had worked in the fields for a number of years and was usually hard pressed enough to be able to afford boots, let alone the extravagence of hat and gloves. And it had been difficult to aquire the habit once hat and gloves had become affordable.
But for Grandpa Hawkins the uniform of a gentleman was as necessary and as natural as his ever-present grin. Grandma Hawkins seems to have been at least slightly taken with Grandpa for some time before their courtship began. But she was too shy to make any of her interests known. They ran in the same group, a collection of young singles from the local church who referred to themselves as the "Dirty Bunch." Several of the ladies from the group had a thing for Grandpa, most notable was Katie, who tried to get Grandpa's attention by constantly fainting. Grandma was extremely gratified when Grandpa cured Katie-the-fainter with a bucket of cold water.
Although Grandpa hadn't declared his interest for Grandma when World War I broke out, he obviously had enough of an interest to keep up regular correspondence with her during the war. Grandma Merkle recently unearthed their old letters to one another. A number of the boys from the Dirty Bunch enlisted at the same time. The day before they shipped out, the whole Dirty Bunch rode into town to have their individual pictures taken. Grandpa is, of course, posed in the height of fashion. But the context of the shot, the fact that they would all ship out to the trenches of the Great War the next day, gives Grandpa's wide grin an undaunted exuberance that runs a bit deeper than the average senior picture.
Grandpa fought as an infantryman in the trenches with the Rainbow Division in all five of the major battles that the US took part in. The greatest heirloom that has been passsed on to me from my ancestors is the .45 caliber that Grandpa carried with him throughout the campaign. My dad had it for a long time, and Grandpa's .45 was the gun he used to teach me to shoot. I still remember Dad holding his arms around me to still the terror-induced tremors as I squeezed off each round. Apparently, even in the bloody trenches of the "War to end all Wars," Grandpa was able to keep his reputation for sharp looks. When the search began for men able to look dignified on horse to ride in General Pershing's Honor Guard, Grandpa was an easy pick. Out of the entire campaign in Europe and all his combat, Grandpa was most pleased with his being chosen to ride as Blackjack's Honor Guard.
Grandpa returned to the States in October 1919 and, making quick work of it, was married to Grandma in June 1920. He kept up his status as the dapper man about town, riding for Herb Lemp's polo team and playing the bass drum for the Meridian Band.
My own memories of Grandpa Hawkins are fairly vague. Grandpa died when I was only six. His funeral was the first I had ever attended, and I still remember not understanding why my smug wave to the minister when I heard my name read in the names of his survivors was innappropriate. I had visited him at the hospital shortly before his death. Dad explained on the way to the hospital that Grandpa was about to die, and it was time to go say goodbye, but my six years of age were not enough to appreciate the significance of the moment.
But I remember visiting Grandpa alive. He sat on the couch, an extra high and firm couch, and smoked his pipe. After Grandpa's death, Grandma always liked to sit near men smoking pipes because it reminded her so much of him. But the most exciting thing about visiting Grandpa was crawling up onto that tall couch, sitting next to him while he blew smoke rings, and reaching over to give a firm knock on his beautiful wooden leg.
Grandpa had worked for the local electric company for a number of years. One day in September 1953, a pole that he was working on top of snapped and came down with Grandpa riding it all the way down. His right leg was crushed and subsequently amputated above the knee. The replacement was a gorgeous wooden prosthetic leg. Grandpa didn't settle for any piratical peg. His had all the curves of a real thigh, knee, and calf, which kept him looking dapper in all of his trousers. My Grandmother tells stories of my youngest uncle running his toy cars up and down Grandpa's leg. The smooth-shaped finish made wonderful terrain for touring autos. But I never got that daring. It was always enough for me to climb up onto that tall couch, with the scratchy upholstry, to give his leg a solid rap with my knuckles. It gave me such a thrill to knock hard enough to feel the deep wooden vibrations go through the entire leg, just to make sure that the whole thing really was wood and that I wasn't playing the victim of some joke on the part of the adults. What a wonderful thing it was that Grandpa lived in an age when a prosthetic leg was such a work of art. Grandpa remained, to the end, the most dapper man in town.

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