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Getting reacquainted with Grandpa on his 100th birthday

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

Dec. 10, 1911, a century ago, my grandfather was born.

A powerful figure in my childhood, the image of my grandfather remains fully formed more than two decades after his death.

He awoke before dawn daily to milk cows and tend to farm chores before putting in a day’s work at Fort Knox. He had big features that probably seemed bigger because of his bald head. A strong man with huge, powerful hands and a forceful personality to match, he enjoyed a rowdy argument about as much as he enjoyed a good laugh.

But is that who he was or just how I choose to remember?

In a conversation a few years back with a younger cousin, I discovered a different portrait had formed within his memories.

He knew an aged retiree, who spent summer days in a front porch rocker and wintered in an easy chair watching cars drive past while stringing beads to make Christmas ornaments as gifts. Much of my cousin’s memories were clouded by a sadness that occupied Grandpa during his last two years as he carried an unending grief stemming from the sudden death of his youngest son.

It’s strange. We both had the same paternal grandfather. But we knew and remember a very different man.

In life, we assume many roles. As we grow, mature, age, learn, succeed, fail, suffer and celebrate, we change. So in addition to being the same person remembered differently by his grandchildren, Reedie Sheroan also had lived through other stages of life.

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, I went looking for a more complete portrait of my grandfather by talking with his five surviving children – my aunts and uncles.

The youngest of 10 children, he left school after sixth grade to take a job. Working for his brother, Ernest, he drove a team of mules hauling railroad ties. It was hard work for little pay – all of which went to his father to support the family.

A later delivery job would lead to a night in jail. Working for a country grocer, he loaded a wagon with a large load of sugar. Following directions, he found the customer operating a moonshine still. While completing the delivery, the federal revenuers found the operation too. It took a day to convince authorities that he was making a delivery, not making alcohol. The fact that other family members were arrested in the raid initially had made his story seem less viable.

He worked for a time at a quarry near Howevalley, spent time in the woods harvesting animal hides to sell and labored on dozens of farms.

Money always was scarce. In April 1935, he borrowed a little cash from a storekeeper in Four Corners to buy a marriage license and pay Judge H.B. Fife to perform a courthouse wedding. He married Lucy Mae Harper and took his new bride home to a barely habitable log cabin.

The structure had collapsed a few years before and was propped up with beams. Because chinking between the logs was missing, his first renovation project involved stuffing newspaper into the gaps to keep out the breeze. When winter arrived, staying warm was hardly possible. According to his son, he described it this way: “We couldn’t chop wood as fast as we burned it.”

But the price was right. Rent was free in exchange for some work on the farm.

Everyone was poor. It was the norm.

One friend apologetically gave the newlyweds a few empty lard cans as a wedding gift. Starting out with nothing, it was a welcomed present. The cans served as dining room chairs and doubled as storage cabinets.

When the Great Depression hit, jobs had disappeared. The Works Project Administration would provide an opportunity on highway road crews. There, he learned to operate heavy equipment, which was a springboard to a career at Fort Knox. As construction of Godman Army Airfield began in 1939 that skill was in demand and such began a 35-year career with civil service.

He didn’t believe in being late and arose daily at 4 a.m. to milk cows so he could arrive at work by 7:30 for a job that started at 8. If he weren’t 15 minutes early, Reedie considered himself to be running late.

He would become a highly skilled metal worker, achieving the highest pay-grade level. Supervisory offers came his way, but concern about his limited education led him to turn aside the opportunities.

Men often define themselves by their work and his children agree that he was a capable provider. But it’s only part of the picture.

In his younger days, friends often called him Red for his thick red hair. At times, he demonstrated a fiery disposition to match the flaming locks. To most, he seemed rough, gruff and perhaps stern.

“Some people might have seen him as mean,” Uncle James said. “But Daddy was never mean. He never was mean to a kid or an animal.”

He was plain spoken and direct. A man of strong opinions, he did not hesitate to share them.

He respected everyone but feared no one. When some co-workers cringed in the face of demands from the latest colonel assigned to oversee their work group, Reedie was more likely to confront than cower.

His oldest son remembers symptoms of a temper that led to stern discipline. Uncle Harvey believes that a basis for respect is fear and times when he “caught the devil” for his childhood errors kept him in line.

Children were expected to behave. Listening to an in-law complain about troublesome kids, Reedie offered to help in his matter-of-fact manner. “Send them here. They’ll behave,” he promised.

When a particular tone emerged in his voice, it was warning enough. His kids could recognize changes in his demeanor that signaled it was time for all foolishness to stop.

But his daughters also talk about a tender side. Aunt Betty remembers a kiss on her forehead each morning before her dad left for work. Aunt Minnie tells of seeing the man’s tearful apologies about hurt feelings caused by harsh words when his mouth got ahead of his mind. Aunt Joyce remembers him grooming and caring for her mother, after she suffered a series of debilitating strokes.

In a few brief conversations, additional aspects of my grandfather’s life and his personality emerged. Some 22 years after his death, this anniversary of his birth supplied a more complete picture.

Among all the stories, one stands out. It illustrates his strong sense of right and wrong, his personal integrity as well as a sharp sense of humor.

An ugly squabble between two families had been escalating. Strong words and warnings had been expressed. False claims of unpaid debts brought the issue to a head in county court.

After check stubs proved that bills had been paid and the county judge dismissed the case, the dispute continued between the two men outside. Before leaving the Public Square, a short scuffle began. It was short because Reedie clobbered his rival, knocking the man senseless and sprawled across the back of a parked car.

A police officer saw the fight and took both men back before the same judge. They each were fined $25 for disorderly conduct.

“Here’s $50, Judge,” the family legend quotes Reedie as saying. “I’m going to go ahead and pay double because if he does that again, I’m going to hit him again.”

He never got what he paid for. With time, the two men would put their differences aside and later became friends while attending church together.

Just another transition in a life filled with change. Each person has many roles to play and leaves behind a legacy.

Sometimes, a grandson has to go look for it.

Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at (270) 505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.