Friday, October 24, 2014

You Shoulda Seen the Other Guy!

SGT Bobby Callin, U.S. Army Air Corps
When I first took an interest in "Family Trees", I was young and innocent of sense, common or otherwise. I had the idea that if I looked hard enough I would find lurking in the branches of my ancestry kings, astronauts, baseball players... or maybe someone wealthy who had left behind a healthy fortune just for me.

So far, the closest my DNA comes to fame and fortune is "7th cousin to Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower's grandchildren".* But as cool as it is to be able to say that, I've discovered a much deeper fondness for my less "glamorous" ancestors than my younger self would have thought possible.

One of those regular people was Bob Callin. His great-grandfather, William Callin, was a true pioneer, clearing at least two farms in Ohio. Before the Civil War, one of those farms was a "stop" on the Underground Railroad. Bob's grandfather, John Henry Callin, fought for the Union, alongside brothers and cousins, and became a teacher after the war. His father, John Quincy Callin, was another ground breaker, moving the family to Florida long before it became the Enchanted Kingdom. Bob himself enlisted in the Army when the rumbling approach of the Second World War could still be mistaken for a thunderstorm, and by the end of it, he had found his best friend and greatest partner, Nancy. They eventually settled in Glendale, the desert city where her father had carved out a farm back when Pancho Villa was still a real threat.

But, as impressive and manly as these deeds may sound in the history books, the real men behind them were not John Wayne archetypes. These were Real Men, who got by with love and a strange sense of humor. They would have needed a lot of both to survive. Great-grandpa William discovered an oil well on his farm, and sold it for what he thought was a great profit -- just a few years before Mr. Ford's very popular automobile took off. Grandpa John's Civil War service was spent largely in hospitals, recovering from diseases picked up in Civil War hospitals. And Bob's father, John, would write ruefully humorous letters to his son chronicling "that old Callin luck" that kept him from becoming a real estate tycoon. (It had less to do with luck, and more to do with a man who was too generous to succeed in such a cutthroat market.)

The notorious Fang, around 1974
The man I knew as Grandpa Bob was every bit as lucky as his forefathers; blessed with happiness and a healthy family, yet plagued by minor tragedies. Prone to accidents around open cupboard doors and his beloved Volkswagen, Fang, he met every challenge with a long-suffering grin, and a ready joke.

After the war, Bob decided to leave the service, and tried a few different professions and locations before joining the first class at Grand Canyon College with the intention of becoming a pastor. He took his Bachelor of Arts in 1951 and a Master of Arts in Education from Arizona State in 1960 before embarking on a career as a math teacher with the Glendale Union School District. He and grandma enjoyed traveling around the Western U.S. and camping with friends, and they kept a series of small, but comfortable recreational vehicles for just that purpose.

One memorable summer, they invited me and my cousin Jeff to visit Yellowstone National Park with them. They showed us Bryce Canyon and the Four Corners along the way, and took us to one of their favorite places in Colorado - Ouray, and the Silverton narrow gauge railroad. It was a great trip, and even though Grandma worried almost constantly that one of the three of us boys would fall off a cliff or into a geyser, all survived intact!

My most lasting impression of them as a couple came from that trip. Grandma would hover behind him on treacherous switch-backed roads, occasionally bursting out with a cautionary, "Slow down, Bob! You'll get us all killed!" I felt kind of bad for him, thinking that would stress me out as a driver - but I swear when she turned her attention to other things going on inside the motorhome, he would get a perverse twinkle in his eye, his lip would twitch slightly, and he would step on the gas and swerve (not a lot, just enough) until she came back and started in again.

The moral of the story - Callin men can be a little bit evil.

One summer, a couple of weeks before we expected them back in town, we got a frantic call that Grandpa had been hurt pretty badly in a fall. Their RV had overheated in Colorado, and when he opened the hood to investigate, the radiator hose burst causing him to hit his head on the latch and then fall out into the road. He did recover, and they did continue camping for a few more years after that, but he was hurt badly enough to lose his sense of taste! One day after he was back on his feet, I saw him go into his kitchen to make a cup of coffee (General Foods International) and sigh. I asked him what was wrong, and he explained that while he still needed the caffeine, he couldn't taste sweetness any more, which took some of the pleasure out of the coffee.

"But," he said, always looking at the bright side, "I guess I'll save money on sugar!"

My last visit with him, during our 2005 Christmas trip to Arizona, he had just come out of the hospital. He had required another procedure to clean up his circulatory system, and the doctors had left him with livid bruises on both his arms. I asked him if it hurt him, if he was alright; he said he was.

Mr. Callin, Mathematics teacher
"It's not as bad as it looks," he told me, looking somewhat glum. But then his eye twinkled, and he perked up as he said, "But you shoulda seen the OTHER guy!"

So, while I may not have found any kings or powerful magnates in our past, I have found something of much greater value to me. Our stories are the treasures that we spend at family gatherings. They collect in our memories, and the interest compounds with time. They are fortunes built on love, and Grandpa Bob always had a great storehouse of that treasure.

He will be missed, but our sadness is overwhelmed by the joy of having known him. We will mourn, but we are grateful for his life and his love: the greatest inheritance.

*Julie Nixon married Dwight D. Eisenhower, II, and my grandmother was 5th cousin to President Nixon. I'm saving that post for a special occasion...or two!

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