Thursday, May 5, 2011

David Dale Kennedy

This is my grandfather's birthday. It strikes me as funny that his birthday is on Cinco De Mayo because he had one of the worst pronunciations of Spanish words that I ever heard. I remember when our family picked him up at LAX for a visit many years ago. He was reading the street signs along the way to the freeway. "Hmmmm, 'Sepple Veeda Boulevard,'" he said. "Sepple Veeda?" I thought to myself. What is that? Then I looked at the street sign up ahead: "Sepulveda Boulevard." Aha.

To be fair, Greene County, PA, did not have a thriving, Spanish-speaking population in my grandfather's day. It doesn't have one now, for that matter. So, he didn't have many opportunities to hear Spanish, except in old Hollywood Westerns, and actually he was more interested in watching sports, anyway. He was a retired high school teacher, football and track coach when I knew him. He hiked, hunted, and played golf well into his eighties. He was tough, but never with me.

It feels strange calling my grandfather anything but Pappap. When I was a toddler I couldn't say grandpa, so we went with an easier name. The problem came when I hit my teens and had to decide between the old name or a dignified one with more syllables. There is nothing dignified about a baby-talk version of a name. But whose dignity was I really concerned with anyway?

In the end, I stuck with Pappap because that's who he was to me. An energetic, enthusiastic, positive force of nature. He was always learning, always connecting with people. As my mom says of him, "He never met a stranger."

He loved history, poetry and funny songs. A few years before he died, he started an impromptu tradition of singing a few lines from "Big Rock Candy Mountain" whenever I visited. He'd usually sing it to me at the kitchen door, as I was heading out. His favorite stanza was:

"In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin,
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels, no axes, saws or picks.
I'm a goin' to stay where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk that invented work,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

He would always laugh and slap his leg and repeat several times, "the jerk who invented work!" which was ironic to me because I knew him as a hard-working, disciplined person, not a scofflaw hobo riding the rails. Yet he seemed to harbor some latent antipathy toward the work-jerks out there. He'd been a young man and poor during the Great Depression. Guess that goes a ways toward explaining his love of Big Rock Candy Mountain, aside from the sheer fun of imagining a visit there.

Each year, I remember Pappap with that song. It's fun to sing, but I find that I mix up lines in different stanzas. The lake of stew and of whiskey too, crops up in the oddest places! I have, on occasion, downed a Pabst Blue Ribbon (his favorite) in his honor as well. Some years it's ended up being a microbrew instead, though I suspect Pappap wouldn't have liked such strong-tasting brews very much. Give him his good old PBR!

"And the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees,
Where the lemonade springs, where the bluebird sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."

David Dale Kennedy
May 5, 1911-July 11, 2004

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