In fact, they were lucky if they even owned a house phone. There were a lot of things grandpas didn't have. But what they did have, served a purpose. Usually not fancy, just practical. Like a hunting rifle. No need for flashy, many a deer came home on their backs thanks to their trusty old lever action Thirty-Thirty. They didn’t have much use for scopes either, iron sights worked just fine.
Grandpa's lead a simple life. They ate mush for breakfast every morning. They heated their houses with coal or wood, and they used Listerine to cure what ailed them. Not the Cool Mint stuff we have today. I'm talking about that nasty old brown stuff. The mouth wash that doubled as a surgical tool sanitizer. Grandpa's also told stories, fantastic stories. Stories that would transport you back in time to when the hunting was great, and the fishing was better. There's an art to telling stories and grandpas knew how to tell them. The kind of stories that kept you on the edge of your seat. That's what grandpas did, or at least, that's what my grandpa did.
Victor M. Johnson, or "Grandpa Vic," as we called him, was born to Swedish immigrants in the early 1900's in the state of Wisconsin. An avid hunter and fisherman, grandpa spent 30 years chasing everything from Whitetail deer to Cottontails to Northern Pike before packing up and moving to Palmer, Alaska in 1934. He was one of the original settlers in the Matanuska Valley, north of Anchorage. His love for hunting really took off in Alaska. Before eventually making his way down to Western Washington in the early 1950's, he had racked up 13 bull moose to his credit. Oakville is where he spent the rest of his life. He called this land here, "paradise country." By the time I knew my grandpa, he had hung up his rifle and, aside from an occasional trip to the river in search of a sea-run cutthroat for supper, had given up fishing as well. His incredible passion for the outdoors didn't stop though. Man, could that guy tell a story. He didn't need much for an audience, mostly just my brother and me. His stories were so captivating that anytime a friend would come over, the first thing they asked to do was go over to grandpa's cabin and have him tell some stories.
Grandpa lived in small, one room cabin on my parent’s property. The cabin had an open beam design with a ceiling consisting of hand peeled poles. They were laid next to one another as they climbed up one side of ceiling to the peak, then down the other side to the adjacent wall. All of the Douglas fir poles had been peeled with a draw knife, leaving behind long streaks of cambium. This gave a nice contrast to the poles once they were stained. The cross beams, made from larger fir logs, served several purposes aside from structural support. You never knew what you were going to see drying from the heavy timbers. One day it might be ears of corn, hanging high in the peak, waiting to be ground at the mill. Other times it could be gunny sacks full of onions from the garden. I wouldn't have put it past him to dry his laundry up there either, although I can't say that I ever saw it. The smell inside of his cabin was unmistakable. It certainly wasn't unpleasant, nor was it fragrant either. It was, well, grandpa's cabin. A perfect medley of wood smoke, stewed chicken and vegetables, and dust. And maybe cobwebs. He always said, "spiders need a place to live too." An old four-legged Orley wood stove, his only source of heat, sat against the wall across from the kitchen. In the corner, closest to the fire was his bed. In the other corner, accompanied by large windows on either side, was the dinner table. The vintage red Formica table, with a single matching chair, was where all the magic happened. That is where the stories were told. I would fetch the stool from in front of the wood stove, where he sat to warm his back, and drag it over to the table. The stool wasn't very big but, in the event I had company, it could provide a seat for two.
I've never stepped foot in Oneida County, Wisconsin, but I have been there hundreds of times. I tagged along as he trapped dozens of mink, muskrats and weasels. Trapping was a way of life back then and at $16 per mink, you could see why. Wisconsin was home to giant Muskellunge. A fish over 40 pounds was not uncommon and my grandpa new how to find them. He often worked in the summer guiding trips. I was right there with him in the boat as he oared for the "Rich Folks" from Milwaukee, searching for Muskie’s. They were using their new-fangled reels for casting and retrieving. Grandpa never had much use for one, a nice straight, hazelnut or willow cane pole worked just the same. When they finally hooked one, they got pretty excited as it neared the boat. A little too excited. They figured for some reason, that they should shoot it before bringing it into the boat. My grandpa advised against it, but they were determined. POW! went the first shot. POW POW! two more. "Be careful you don't shoot the, POW!.... line," grandpa was trying to say. Too late, the fourth shot parted the line and the trophy Muskie was gone, "Green horns," he mumbled under his breath, shaking his head as he tied on a new lure.
I have dragged countless northern pike, perch, crappie and "walleyed pike," as he called them, through the ice on a bitter cold lake. We’re not talking Washington cold. Not even Eastern Washington cold. More like Green Bay, Lambeau Field cold. Definitely not "paradise country."
We shot grouse, grey squirrels, and whitetail bucks. When .22 bullets were scarce, like they were most of the time, a cottontail rabbit could be retrieved, against his will of course, by twisting a couple wraps of old barbed wire down his hole until it was completely ensnarled in his hair. There was never a dull moment for a boy growing up in the Badger State. About the only thing he didn't do was walk a mile up hill, both ways, in the snow, to school and back. Maybe he was to occupied to be troubled with schoolwork, I never asked. From the snow-covered fields to the hardwood forests, we saw it all. I was a busy kid. And to think, we hadn't even moved to Alaska yet! That's for another day....