I've been gone for a week.
I wrote my last column a while back and had it in reserve in case I needed it.
And I needed it.
You see, last week I headed out, with the family in tow, to a certain town in North Dakota to help a certain somebody celebrate his birthday. It took a couple planes and a whole mess of hours to get there, but it was worth every minute.
My Grandpa just turned 100 years old.
And I've been thinking a lot about him and how he's impacted my life.
Grandpa lives in Cando, North Dakota. Cando is a small town, tucked up in the upper east corner of the state where duck hunting and fishing abound and farmers grow wheat and corn and barley. As a child growing up, my family would pack the four kids into the car and we'd make the 30 plus hour long drive to go see our grandparents. I'm not entirely sure how we managed to make it there, year after year, alive, but we somehow did and we'd be welcomed and put up and it was everything visiting grandparents was supposed to be. Grandma was a wonderful cook and there was a farm to go visit and tractors to tear around in and relatives galore to be found all over the place.
But as a kid-- I have to admit-- I was somewhat intimidated by my Grandpa. He was a big man and he'd worked long hours and he was, undoubtedly, as strong as a horse and I had no doubt that he could wail the tar out of me if I stepped out of line.
I did my best not to.
Over the years I came to find that this great bear of a man who often came off a little surly had a gentle sense of humor. One year when the kids and I were detonating firecrackers in the front lawn, Gramps ambled by, made his way into the garage and came back toward the front of the house. without saying a word, he deftly lit the fuse of an explosive he'd had secured in the garage and it exploded with a deafening bang. We sat, stunned, and Grandpa chuckled to himself and wandered back into the house.
I remember, years later, Grandpa turning off a terrible sounding radio in the Quonset hut out at the farm because it was, in his words, "Pert near all gurgled out."
And I've listened for his carefully chosen and colorful phrases ever since and he gets off a few deadpan zingers from time to time. Deftly slipping them in, often unnoticed, in conversation. There are few things I enjoy more than listening to Grandpa talk-- even if it's a story I've heard a dozen times. He went off on President Bush when we visited him, lacing into him for taking so long to respond to the disaster in New Orleans and the surrounding area and his general incompetence in Iraq and all the rest. He was in fine form, I tell you.
My Grandparents were always encouraging. They proudly displayed even the most wretched drawings that I did as a kid, framing them, and hanging them in their kitchen and other prominent places in the house (there are still a few ghastly beauties hanging there now, perpetrated when I was 13-years old) and my Grandpa would be quick to let people know that his "grandson Erik drew that."
I remember drawing pages of the first fanzine I ever worked on-- Graphic Fantasy, my first comic book-- on my grandparent's dining room table. I was writing and drawing the adventures of the Dragon, a character I'd written and drawn before in countless unpublished comics over the years.
When I was a young man, just starting out, my Grandpa bought me a ticket to New York so that I could go visit the offices of DC and Marvel Comics. I didn't land a job that trip, but it was a valuable experience nevertheless. DC gave me some tryout scripts. I drew an entire issue of Batman and a Batgirl short story, but when I sent off the finished art after arriving home-- I never heard back from them. And, like an idiot, I'd sent off the original art-- not photocopies. I never saw the pages again and I never heard back from Sal Amendola, the guy who invited me to drop by the DC offices in the first place.
There have been numerous horror stories told of parents who threw out their children's comic book collections when they had gone off to school. My Grandparents didn't do that. And so those comics were around for me to read and absorb as I was growing up and they fueled my young imagination. I can't thank my Grandparents enough for their restraint. But that was not atypical. They respected other people and other people's property and other people's choices and that in itself was a blessing.
When people needed help, my Grandpa helped out and growing up, there was a little less anxiety --a little less tension, knowing that, if you really needed it-- Grandpa had your back. He was like John Wayne, only with a lot more farming equipment.
We'd visit during the summer and I'd go out and help on the farm. I'd drive a tractor and "pick rock" and do whatever needed to be done.
My Grandma passed away a few years back and Gramps has managed to hang in there despite it all. He lives alone in the same house that he's lived in for more than fifty years and he takes reasonably good care of himself. He cooks himself dinner, does his own laundry and washes up. My cousin Bruce stops by every few days to check in on the guy.
A few years back, Grandpa and Bruce took a trip out West to visit the relatives and Grandpa impressed everybody by putting away half a chicken at dinner. Even in his 90s he maintained a healthy appetite.
We visited last year and he made us a chicken dinner himself, which my eldest son deemed excellent.
And now he's 100 and from all indications, still going strong. He can't hear so well or see so good, but even that doesn't seem to have dampened his spirits. He'll go off on what an idiot he thinks Bush is and he's more caught up on current events than most people a fraction his age.
He told my wife Jannie that he thought he could make it to 110 and I have no doubt that he'll make it and then shoot for 120.
I can't begin to tell you how much I enjoy going to his house and sitting in his living room and looking through old photographs and listening to the stories-- the wonderful stories that accompany them.
I wish I could be there more often.
And, as it turns out, I've been drawing comics-- in my hotel room-- between visits. Drawing Savage Dragon, the same character that appeared in that fanzine which I drew in his dining room pert near 23 years ago.
Gramps turned 100 and this time I was the one packing up my family and traveling halfway across the country to see him. And my Dad was there and my two sisters and my older brother and their families as well as many others-- cousins, nephews, aunts and uncles.
In typical fashion, Grandpa picked up the tab for dinner.
But any one of us would have paid and paid gladly as a way of thanking this man who has given so much and has asked for so little in return.
I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
His devotion to family has guided me. His generosity has taught me to do the same and his frankness has gotten me into a lot of trouble. He's made me a better person. I can't begin to tell you how much I've learned from this man and how much he's meant to me and my family.
He's a 100 years old, but just between you and me I'm pretty sure that if I stepped out of line he could still wail the tar out of me.
So I'm watching it...