“Delivering flowers” is a quintessentially small town Grandpa Cole thing. After funerals there were always large paper mache baskets of flowers. Many people would get enjoyment from them if they were rearranged, and Grandpa Cole was of the “waste not, want not” generation. He made it a habit of delivering these flower baskets all over the larger part of two counties. It is probably why – since it became one of my first jobs – I still remember so many of these county back roads. Some 50 years removed I still refer to houses as “the Boardman house” and “the Bishop farm” or “the Underwood homestead”.
“Come on junior. I’m going to deliver flowers. Charlie Kaufman is going with us”. It was his way of, not giving an order exactly. Just saying “Let’s go do some work”. It was more an invitation than a command. The invite to “ride along” was an invite into an adult world. This is virtually irresistible to a ten year old boy.
We picked up Charlie and I got into the back seat, the smell of vinyl seats and funeral flowers made it a not unpleasant ride in the green Plymouth station wagon. I leaned on the back of the dark green vinyl seat and listened to Charlie and my grandfather’s conversation as we turned onto the first back road toward our first delivery. It was a freshly oiled dirt road, with farm houses every so often and large fields in between.
“Deb” is what everyone called my grandfather because Adelbert was just too long. “…it looks like Bishop is as good at raising corn as he is at raising kids.”
“’Knee high by the Fourth of July’ is what they say. He’s going to have a bumper crop this year. The cows and the kids will eat good.”
We rode past several farms, Charlie making observations and Grandpa Cole providing commentary and evaluation. If they had patented the format somehow I’d be rich today, because this became the standard for sports broadcasting. Always a play-by-play guy (Charlie) telling you what was going on in the field. Then Grandpa Cole providing the “color commentary”. He was full of back stories and statistical tidbits that only come from being present at critical times in the lives of so many families. In that sense he had access to the locker room of most of the ‘teams’ in two counties.
For Grandpa Cole, the undertaking profession was never morbid or ghoulish. It was always about serving the living and honoring the dead. If I tell you that he was a “people person” it sounds like “undertaker humor”. You can’t make jokes like that in a small town and stay in business very long.
After the first basket of flowers was delivered, I got into the back seat and we headed to our next stop. As we pulled onto the freshly oiled road Grandpa Cole reached into the left breast pocket of his banker’s gray 3 piece suit, pulled out two Dutch Masters cigars and handed one to Charlie. They took turns lighting their cigars with the cigarette lighter and continued the conversation.
I was immediately pressed against the vinyl seat back, mouth open, enthralled that I was part of the conversation of men.
What happened next came as a big surprise. I loved the conversation, the commentary and especially the smell of cigars. To this day the smell of cigar smoke immediately brings up a picture of my grandfather. The olfactory sense is one of the most subtle and powerful of the senses.
On this day though I had the real thing. The smell of Dutch Masters. As the cigars burned down, Charlie and my grandfather got to the point of flicking ash at almost the same time. They extended the cigars out the window and expertly tapped, releasing the ash. The ash didn’t go very far – with all four windows open it whipped around the door pillar and straight into the back seat – where it managed to find my wide open mouth. I didn’t want to let them know I had a hard time remaining in the adult conversation. So I spent the next few minutes curled up against the back seat, gagging reflexively and trying to manufacture saliva to overcome the sensation in my mouth. It was like having alum sprinkled on your tongue.
It was also a valuable life lesson. Sometimes to be in an adult conversation you need to remember to keep your mouth shut because opening it makes you vulnerable.