Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Harold Gaines, 1919-2006

Harold Gaines was a character in every sense of the word. He was a cutup, and an arch jokester. But leaving it at that would be selling the man short. My grandfather was a walking picaresque, a collection of tales that, put together, told the story of a loving, street-smart rascal that rivals anything Mark Twain ever wrote.

Dialogue with my grandfather was always in this story form, told in his resounding, Foghorn Leghorn Carolina timbre. It might be better to call it a monologue, though. The man was a world-class talker, and he was always so deaf it was much easier to let him do the storytelling. Before his Alzheimer’s started to silence him around 2000, he’d tell me the same collection of tales every year when I’d go down to South Florida for a visit. After a while, I’d be correcting him on details of the stories his flagging memory would let through. They never got stale.

How could they? Who else has experiences involving exploding dynamite caps on the Fourth of July, seeing George S. Patton the day Ike called him on the carpet for slapping a shell-shocked soldier, driving around Joe Williams, lunching with Jackie Robinson? He ran a soldiers’ cantina in Italy after the war, and won opportunities to sit in on drums for Jimmy Dorsey and Paul Whiteman.

The putty drawing all these stories together, though, was his vibrant personality, his complete sense of presence. You always knew when Grandpa was around. The room didn’t light up when he entered it so much as grew louder, faster, more alive. I’d sit back and watch the man operate at family affairs, his booming voice telling a joke, singing a song, ordering someone to speak into his good ear, laughing so damn loudly. There was always a sense of pride in being with him – he was the fun one, the one who, after the details of polite conversation with others had faded, you always remembered.

And it was so fitting that he was a drummer. Because, while he would belt out tunes to stop the show, the cadence, the rhythmic qualities of his voice are what stand out for me. He’d start one of his war stories in a steady, slow tempo, gradually building tension. As the story heated up, his voice would pick up the pace, finally delivering the punch line with the vocal equivalent of an ending cymbal crash.

It’s also worth mentioning that he was the classic zany grandfather, a fun father who I’m sure at times tried his sons’ patience – especially in public – and an utterly devoted husband. His antics endlessly drove my grandmother, Ida, up the wall, but he always knew he was the drummer to her band leader. Most of us can only hope to match the level of commitment my grandparents had to each other.

As a present to my sister and me sometime in the mid-’80s, Grandpa sat down at a tape recorder and spun a nutty, almost anarchic telling of how Santa Claus came to be. Clyde Claus, a McDonald’s executive who harbored an obsession with Santa Barbara, Calif., was sent to Antarctica (rather than Ann Arbor, as he thought) with his wife, Bea Claus, to open a new restaurant. After a few adventures with his reindeer friends Rudolph, Leroy, Hart, Schafner & Marx, he turned his back on the corporate life and became the bearded fella we all know today. It was a bravura performance by a master storyteller, and I think I’ll go listen to it right now.


heather said...

sorry to hear about your grandfather. sounds like a great guy.

Beth said...

So sorry to hear about your Grandfather's passing. Your words are wonderful and I feel very fortunate I was able to meet the man. He was, as you say, a great presence!

With deepest condolences,

Auntie Sarah said...

Hey Gaines, Your blog commentary about Grandpa Harold is very a touching and loving tribute to a marvelous man. I could hear his wonderful, booming voice in your words. Thanks for sharing. Love, auntie