The foot-long wooden spear is speckled with chipped, lead-based flecks of white paint. Wedged snugly between the corner of the attic door that runs the length of the hallway ceiling and the upper-right corner of the bedroom door jamb, the spear promises mystery. When it is pulled, the door drops and a stack of creaky weathered stairs falls quickly, revealing a portal to a lost world of trash and treasure, swirled together in a melting pot of memories.
I've climbed through this opening many, many times, and no matter how prepared I think I am, the spectacle always shocks me. You just never know. It was overwhelming the first time my sister and I walked up there. Every inch of surface area was covered in boxes and bags and a choking layer of orange dusty haze, the foundation of which hadn't been stirred during our lifetimes.
There were six or seven decades of onion layers waiting to be peeled.
For us this is a perplexing scene. Unfathomable, really. Why keep trash bags full of yellow and white and blue Styrofoam meat trays? Why keep the 1940 and '41 Yearbooks of Agriculture? Why keep berries and lima beans and sweet corn, handpicked from fields bought in the early 1940s with scrap-and-claw life savings, packaged in the mid-'70s and frozen in time deep within a back porch Frigidaire? (Seriously, I found a Cool Whip container labeled: "Black Heart Cherries -- 6/24/75.") Just ... why?
Our generation can't rationalize this.
Because unlike those berries and beans, we're spoiled rotten. Our world's availability has always been right at our fingertips -- throw it out and buy another. There's always more. We've never known anything different.
My grandmother did. She knew an entirely different world.
And for 90 years, she never forgot.
My grandmother, Eunice Smith, was born on June 24, 1914, the second-oldest of eight children born to tobacco farmers Thomas and Fannie Vernon Martin of Stuart, Virginia. The interior of her childhood home is smaller than my living room. There was no bathroom, just an old outhouse out back. I complain sometimes that my family of five doesn't have enough space. I am spoiled.
A child of the Great Depression, my grandmother lived by the code that defined the hardworking, downtrodden but ever-resilient generation of Americans:
When you come from nothing, you keep everything.
And when a life spans nearly 98 years, keeping everything means keeping a lot.
My daddy's toys were up there in that attic, items like a 1954 Monopoly board, labeled "Popular Edition," which from what I can tell means a slightly different set of rules than the Monopoly we grew up with. His vintage '50s train set was up there, and so were his Gene Autry and Lone Ranger six-shooter revolvers, complete with hand-stitched holsters and fancy stylized barrels.
That train set is something. The locomotive is black and weighty, with silver-dollar-sized steel wheels powered by a crank key on the left side of the rig and set to motion by a silver lever atop its upper-right side. It runs powerfully on steel tracks pieced together by inch-long spikes on one end and pinhole openings on the other.
I found four pieces: the rig, a black coal car, and two other transport cars -- one off-white and one antique green. Beside the train set was a photograph of my daddy. He was probably 6 or 7 years old, big ol' grin, big ol' ears. This picture is proof that I got my ears from Daddy. I imagined his wonderment about that train, and where he might have allowed his imagination to run, watching it churn in circles as a youngster.
Johnny Cash talked about that in a book I read recently. Robert Hilburn, the author of the Cash book, detailed how watching trains chug along as a child in Dyess, Arkansas, prompted Cash to imagine a limitless world of possibility. It let him believe he could get out of there and be a star. The thought of what those dreams looked like inside his head amazes me. His world wasn't as cluttered as my kids' world is.
There were "Dick and Jane" books up there. The cover was robin's-egg blue with a red-ribbon banner. There was a 1960s Golden Picture Classic edition of "Tom Sawyer," and Daddy's ball glove. It's a gem, a three-fingered, double-webbed hunk of fossilized leather.
Daddy loved baseball. When I was a kid, riding down 460 West toward the farm, he used to detail the genius of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, and how the Jose Cansecos and Barry Bonds of my youth couldn't hang with those country-strong boys from his. Daddy had terrible asthma and wasn't able to play much when he was young, so he played every game of my life vicariously through me. I thought about that when I held that glove. He loved to watch me play ball.
My grandfather's Virginia Tech annuals are up there in the dusty haze. So are 40 years of lesson plans. My grandparents were educators at Christiansburg High School in southwest Virginia. My grandfather taught agriculture, and was very well respected in the region. My grandmother taught business and typing. She is famous back home.
Before she died, I'd take her to the Country Kitchen to eat lunch. Scores of customers walked over every time to say hello. She taught for 30 years -- 2,958 students in all. If a particular student hunted-and-pecked, she'd whisper to me how much it drove her crazy.
My grandparents' union was spawned by a chance meeting that summarized my grandmother's approach really well. My grandfather needed a blackboard for a particular agriculture lecture, so my grandmother let him use her classroom. Afterward, he failed to clean the blackboard or dust the erasers. That didn't work for my grandmother, and she told my grandfather as much. It wasn't long before they were in love and married. My grandmother wore her wedding band until the day she died.
I found a collage my mom made my daddy when they first started dating. We knew Mom made it for Daddy and not vice versa, because there was a pack of Salem menthols pasted within the art piece. Daddy smoked. Momma didn't. There was an antique wooden Pepsi-Cola box full of Daddy's little boy boots. I stared at that for a long time, because soda boxes aren't wooden anymore, and not many little boys I see are wearing leather boots. That box has a lot of character. It's seen some things. The corners are worn and bolstered by light blue metal strips tacked to the wood.
It was 1 p.m., and it was 83 degrees and humid outside. It was 103 and stifling in the attic.
Sometime after lunch I grabbed a rickety old pine box and ripped it open. Daddy's model cars were inside. There was a '32 Ford and a '40 Ford and a '29 Model A Roadster, among others. The boxes were pristine and each one held extra pieces. Anyone who built model cars as a kid knows you always have extra pieces. It's part of the deal.
The cars were strewn about, none in very good condition. But it was obvious my dad loved NASCAR, because every one of them was painted and detailed like a race car. He hand-painted one red, white and blue, No. 16. It was a Mercury, with the name Darel Dieringer on the door.
I'd never heard of Dieringer. But because of that model, I looked him up. Dieringer made 181 Cup series starts and won seven times. He drove for Bud Moore and Junior Johnson. I feel stupid. His last career win was the 1967 Gwyn Staley 400 at North Wilkesboro, driving for Junior! He lapped the field! I feel even stupider.
Deep within that box, beneath those model cars, were Daddy's high school and little boy wallets. Inside his high school wallet was the Holy Grail find for me: a pair of ticket stubs, one to Bristol International Speedway, the other to Darlington Raceway. Daddy adored Darlington. Every time I went there professionally he gushed about how lucky I was, and that if I had a brain between my ears I'd have reverence for the place, and I'd take a moment to look around and respect what came there before me.
I once took Daddy with me to cover the Southern 500. He was a huge Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan. He had a hot pass, which meant he was free to roam with very few boundaries. When we arrived and parked in the grass media lot down in Turn 1, I specifically told him: "DO NOT TELL DALE JR. YOU'RE MY DADDY, BECAUSE HE DOESN'T CARE." I left him be and went to work.
Sure enough, later on that evening I walked out in the garage area and found Daddy, leaning against a toolbox in Junior's garage stall, hanging out. I was mortified and pretty ticked. But now I think it's awesome. I wouldn't care about that stuff these days. Maybe that's because I'd love one more opportunity to take him with me.
That Darlington ticket was for the 1963 Southern 500, run on Monday, Sept. 2, 1963, at 11 a.m. It is gray with black writing, cost $8, and earned him a spot in Section P, Row 15, Seat 10 to watch Fireball Roberts outrun Marvin Panch and the Wood Brothers, and Holman-Moody teammate Fred Lorenzen, to take the No. 22 Ford to Victory Lane. Roberts won $22,150.
Think about those names just a minute.
The Bristol ticket is from the 1964 Southeastern 500, run Sunday, March 22, 1964, at 1:30 p.m. It is orange with black and red writing, cost $7, and gave Daddy a seat in Section E, Row 8, Seat 43. This time, Lorenzen dominated, leading 494 of 500 laps to win by half a lap. He and Roberts were the only cars on the lead lap. Lorenzen won $4,300.
I cannot express what those ticket stubs represent to me, unexpected links in the chain of my lineage. That may seem odd. They're just old race tickets. But they're not.
Standing there staring at them, I was reminded of the best song Tim McGraw recorded for his "Two Lanes of Freedom" record. It is called "Book of John." In it, McGraw's mother finds a dusty old book in the back of the closet that, when studied, basically provides a road map of his father's life.
There was a picture of mama in the pouring rain
Ticket stubs to a Braves game
Silver star and a baggage claim from Hanoi, Vietnam
There was a picture of him callin' on grandpa
Leather skin from a baseball
We laughed and cried, told stories all night long
From the book of John ...
It is one of the best-written songs I've ever heard. It gave me chills. Even in this 103-degree attic.