Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 3, September 2010

Richard Straw
Cary, North Carolina, USA



Through the Great Depression and World War II, my dad spends his youth in an old two-story in the west end of an Ohio factory town. When he and his young wife return from their elopement in Kentucky, soon after the atomic bombs fall on Japan, they stay there with his parents. Grandpa and grandma move their four-poster and oak armoire downstairs into the dining room and add a kitchen on the second floor, across the hall from the home's only bathtub. When my sister is born, an upstairs nursery is added. The house soon feels crowded though and too noisy for everyone, so my parents take my sister to a village by a river 10 miles to the south where I'm born. And grandpa, when he finds himself all alone much later, decides to auction off everything and move in with his only daughter and her common-law husband. The still-sound structure is renovated as a duplex with bright white aluminum siding. It isn't a difficult renovation.

up the gravel drive . . .
into evergreens
grandpa spits dark juice

dark wet lawn
grandpa grips a bedpost
and talks of his wife

Dad's boyhood home has a large, sloping front yard, as do most of the neighboring houses on that side of the street. Even though the address ends with "boulevard," the road's not divided and there's no grassy median. Two overgrown evergreen bushes lining the eight or so steps up from the slate sidewalk in front disappear. So do the evergreens and shade trees by the front porch and along the newly paved driveway on the house's right side. I don't trespass to look, but the grape arbor out back is gone, too, along with the single tall pear tree that shades the sagging back porch and a small grove of cherry trees beyond the grape vines on a wire line and a large crabapple tree near the single-car garage.

In the middle of a large side yard on the house's left side, not far from the stone cistern, there's a fenced-in, circular rose garden. After grandma dies in the middle of the Cold War, her roses are no longer pruned, and the garden goes wild, a place for breeze-blown candy wrappers and sweet-smelling weeds. Worse, the house is left unpainted for decades, and its warped garage along the back of the lot fills up with grandpa's salvaged metal, scavenged lumber, and broken car parts and tools, all of it auctioned or scrapped when the house is sold. The new owners tear down the garage and add a tidy bungalow to rent where ghosts of grandma's red and yellow roses bloom each spring.

cornbread and beans
and coffee with cream . . .
painting grandpa's kitchen

home movie
grandpa high on a ladder
in his pear tree

Several sets of tracks are hidden by that dark, oil-smelling garage. They lead to a railroad yard with a large repair shop for freight cars and a coal tipple for steam locomotives. Grandpa talks of many, many odd jobs, not a single career, and ends up as a notary public of private used car sales. But while Ty Cobb steals bases, he's a rail yard paymaster's assistant. In his warm kitchen, I often listen to him, as train horns blow, talk about a dangerous hump that brakemen ride. One man stands atop a single car, he says, and rides down the hump to form different trains car by car by car. The only way to stop a railcar, empty or full, is with its hand brake, and a few brakemen die on the job. As if it has meaning for my childish ears, he likes to repeat the tale of a young brakeman's widow who parades like a flirt around Five Points in her black mourning dress and veil before her husband's coffin has even settled in its grave.

Down the other side of the tracks, visible to a grandchild from the tops of the cherry trees out back, stands the empty factory where my dad and his older brother start working as welders at the end of World War II. Three shifts of overhead crane operators load flatbed railcars with disassembled parts of big coal mining shovels and drills, as well as two land crawlers that haul Atlas rockets and Shuttle payloads to the launchpads at Cape Canaveral. At night, after a hot summer day, sounds of metal clanging from tall, open factory windows echo across the tracks smelling still of fresh tar and cinder.

front porch lilacs
we hide by chaw-stained curtains
from my drunk aunt's beau


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