Don’t let the revenuers rain on your parade, or lessons learned from my great-grandfather

Great-grandpa always wore a cowboy hat and cowboy boots.
I’ve written before about the reality that some of us didn’t have great fathers. Some of us had such bad and abusive fathers that events like Father’s Day make us relive some of the trauma. I envy the people who have great fathers–and would like to point out that when we tell the stories of our bad fathers, that just proves how wonderful great dads are, and why they should be celebrated.

Fortunately, while my father was a horrible dad, I lucked out with two wonderful grandfathers, and one stupendous great-grandfather who played important parts in my childhood. While I’ve written about my two grandpas before, I’ve only mentioned my great-grandpa in little tidbits. So, for this Father’s Day, let’s remedy that…

First, while he was my great-grandfather, father of my maternal grandmother, and therefore grandfather of my mom, I didn’t call him great-grandpa. I and my almost-twin cousin (eldest child and only daughter of Mom’s older sister) were born 8 days apart, both of us delivered in a hospital less than a mile from my great-grandparents’ house. And when we were old enough to start talking, our great-grandfather insisted that we call him “Shorty.” That had been his nickname his whole life, and that’s what he wanted to be called. I’m told that he had tried the same thing with all of his grandkids (my grandmother was the youngest their five children to survive to adulthood, so there were a lot of grandkids), but he had not succeeded in thwarting the insistence of his own children that it was disrespectful to call him by his name.

He succeeded with us, and all the other great-grandchildren. I have long believed that half the reason he insisted on it was because of the how much it irritated his kids, particularly his youngest child (my grandmother). And that, right there, tells you a lot about his personality.

Shorty was 12 years younger than Great-grandma–more than once when I’ve mentioned this as part of my argument that age differences don’t have to play a negative role in a successful relationship, people have assumed that Shorty and Great-grandma had only met and married late in life (and therefor one of them would have been my step-great-grandparent). They did not.

Great-grandma was a 28-year-old widow with two small children when she met the handsome 16-year-old ranch-hand and fell head over heels in love with him. They married a few months later. Let me repeat that: my great-grandfather was only 16 years old when he married my great-grandmother, who was nearly 30. And they stayed together until the day he died, 58 years later.

Now, this was the early part of the 20th century, and Shorty had started his first full-time job at the age of 12. He worked as a horse-wrangler (that was what it was called) on a ranch in the next county over from where his father was working as a ranch-hand. It was quite common for kids that age in working class families to take a full-time job. So he had been living away from home, working to support himself (and sending part of his pay back home to his parents) for four years when he met Great-grandma.

When they met, in a small town in Kansas, Great-grandma was working as a waitress. They started having kids pretty quickly, and Shorty’s work as a ranch-hand wasn’t super lucrative (and often involved driving herds long distances) so he turned his natural talent for tinkering into a new career as, as Great-grandma described it, “a general mechanical maintenance guy,” while still taking seasonal ranch work. Then Prohibition became the law of the land, with a Constitutional amendment outlawing alcoholic beverages. Shorty got hired as a boot-leg driver delivering illegal alcohol.

During prohibition, boot-leggers would take a car, remove everything in the vehicle that wasn’t necessary to operate it, install a bigger engine (typically a Ford V-8), then they would pack it with as much booze as was physically possible to fit around the driver. The driver would then transport the booze to the desired destination. And if cops or the feds tried to pull him over, the boot-legger was expected to outrun the cops. (Historians say that the boot-leggers were the reason that Nascar and stockcar racing became a thing.)

Shorty held that job for a number of years. He was never caught. When he wasn’t outrunning the authorities to deliver illegal booze, he started doing other work at the secret distillery, repairing the brewing and distilling equiipment. Anyway, eventually he decided as the father of a large family, that he should find slightly less dangerous employment. He spent the next many years working on ranches or for municipalities doing work related to water plants and the like.

And it was because he got a utilities job in a tiny town in Northwest Colorado that eventually my maternal grandparents and their kids (Mom was a teenager by then) moved to the same town, and Mom met Dad and things happened from there.

It was because of that job delivering illegal liquor that Shorty gave me his greatest piece of advice. I have misquoted it slightly in the title above. What he actually said the first time he told me was, “Never let the revenuers piss on your parade.” And then he had to explain to us kids what a revenuer was (the federal Department of Revenue was in charge of enforcing Prohibition, so all federal agents who were trying to arrest people illegally manufacturing and transporting alcohol during that time were caller “revenuers”).

When Great-grandma heard him telling us the story, she said that it wasn’t polite to phrase it that way, but Shorty was right, we shouldn’t let “the revenuers rain on your parade.” Later, my maternal grandmother found out that her parents had told us part of their scandalous past, and got very upset.

After Grandma had explained to us everything that was wrong about what Shorty had told us and scolded him quite good, she left to take care of something else. At which point Shorty told us a story about the time when Grandma was a little girl and she had dumped all of the alcohol that Shorty and Great-grandma had in the house (Great-grandma cut in to tell us that it was for personal use, nothing to do with the illegal trafficking) and poured it down the drain while all of the adults were sleeping off a party that Shorty and Great-grandma had thrown the night before. When they woke up they found their youngest daughter holding a Bible and ready to start reading scripture to them.

Shorty said, “So, your grandmother was born a Temperance Soldier and would have become a preacher if they’d let her.” At which point Great-grandma and Shorty had to explain to us what the Temperance Movement was and the role it had played in getting Prohibition passed to begin with.

For years afterward, any time his daughter admonished him in front of us for telling us things she thought he shouldn’t, he would nodded solemnly and agree with her that he was a hopeless sinner and we shouldn’t listen to him. And as soon as she was out of earshot, he would repeat, “Remember, never let the revenuers piss on your parade, but sometimes you have to let them think they have.” And Great-grandma would laugh and remind us to say “rain” instead of “piss” if we repeated it.

That story, I hope, has you picturing him as a cantankerous, crusty trouble-maker who loved a good beer and a good laugh. And that would be true. But it isn’t the whole picture.

Shorty loved Great-grandma fervently. At random moments he would interrupt Great-grandma to say, “Excuse me, but has anyone ever told you that you’re beautiful?” And she’d laugh and make some kind of joke. And he’d say, “I swear! You are the prettiest woman I have ever met. And I am so lucky the you let me love you. You know that I love you, right?” At which point she would usually say, “Well, since you insist on telling me a dozen times every day, I do know that you love me. And I love you, too.” And while he could tell an off-color story really well, I never heard him say an unkind thing about anyone, even the people in his stories who were clearly the bad guy, he would paint them as a comedic figure, never a despicable one.

For years every Sunday Shorty would drive Great-grandma to church, and then sit out in the car reading the Sunday paper until she was done, then drive her home. Occasionally he would drive to the drugstore for some errands. But they lived across the street from one of the two grocery stores in town, and they walked to do their shopping.

One day Shorty came home from a trip to the drugstore, handed Great-grandma the bag, and then carefully took his car key off the ring and told her to hide it, because he was never going to drive again. Great-grandma asked what happened, and he insisted that nothing had happened, just that something almost did, and he decided that he had no business driving anymore. He never did tell anyone what the close call was.

About five years later Great-grandma was getting ready to go to the store. He usually walked with her, but he said his head was hurting and just looking at the windows even with the curtains drawn hurt his eyes. Great-grandma walked to the store herself. One of the people at the grocery store insisted on carrying Great-grandma’s groceries back to the house, so she wasn’t alone when she found Shorty unconscious on the kitchen floor.

Great-grandma said he’d been having bad headaches for about a month, but kept insisting he didn’t need to see a doctor. It turned out that there was a large tumor in his brain. He never fully regained consciousness, but for the first few days, he would answer if you talked to him. My maternal grandparents no longer lived in that town, and all of the rest of my great-aunts and great-uncles lived far away. Everyone came to town to stand vigil.

One of those nights was the first time I ever saw my Dad cry. Shorty wasn’t Dad’s grandpa, he was a grandfather-in-law, but Dad had known him since his early teens. The day that Shorty stopped responding to any of us talking to him, Dad disappeared for several hours, then came home very drunk. Usually that would be an occasion for fear–as his most abusive moments usually happened when he was drunk–but that night he wasn’t angry, he was mourning.

My maternal grandparents were staying in our guest room, so I got to see the very strange sight of my normally tough, angry, stereotypically macho dad, clinging to both his wife his mother-in-law like a small child, bawling his eyes out. He insisted that the doctors had to be wrong, and he told the story of a night at the rodeo when my dad was about 13 years old, when Shorty (who would have been 55 at the time) had been kicked in the head by a horse that was being fitted with the strap for a bucking bronco event. “An hour later, he was back at the rodeo, a bandage on his head, and doing his job! I’ve never known a tougher man! He’s tougher than any tumor!”

Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t right.

An undated photo of my great-grandparents.
An undated photo of my great-grandparents.
After Shorty’s funeral, Great-grandma went off to southwest Washington to live with my maternal grandparents, and all the great-aunts and great-uncles and many, many of my cousins went home. Less than a year later, most of them were back for Great-grandma’s funeral before she was laid to rest next to Shorty.

My great-grandfather, a former horse wrangler, ranch-hand, and boot-legger, who was never afraid to show his love was an important part of my childhood, and I was lucky to have him as a role model until I was 14 years old. I’m glad he was there to show me the importance of not taking anything so seriously that you can’t enjoy life.

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