One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate

One Hundred and Forty Miles from the Interstate
a regular guy

Friday, February 5, 2010


The artist knows what to do. The craftsman knows how to do it.

I am the son of the son of the son of William Williams, who arrived from somewhere in Wales shortly after 1880, a blacksmith by trade, and settled a homestead at Clear Lake, Minnesota, near to Hibbing in the Iron Range and northwest of Duluth.

Or he may have been a coal miner, or a coal miner's son with a minor in smithing. He soon brought his wife (& sons?) to Minnesota. He left them there and went west, maybe to find work and send back money, or to locate a better place to raise a family, or maybe just because he wanted to see what was out there and had the wanderlust to go.

How long he was gone, My piece of the story does not tell, only that he worked for a time with Buffalo Bill's Traveling Wild West Show. I saw somewhere his American citizenship papers, made up in Telluride, Colorado, him formally renouncing allegiance to the Queen, Victoria. I have a studio photo of him, well-dressed in western boots and hat, looking about 30 years old.

He had seven sons, all but one killed in the trenches during the First World War. The survivor became my grandfather, another William Williams.

I have a vague childhood memory of Grandpa pulling me aside at a family reunion and telling me I should never go to war, to run and hide when they came to make a soldier of me; me not understanding the gravity of the advice and thinking it was a strange thing for him to say.

In my earliest recollections Grandpa was a long-haul trucker, and drove a milk tanker for an outfit named Dairy Lee. Once he took me to the freight yard and helped me climb into the cab—it seemed as far down to the pavement as an airplane in flight (a sensation I felt another time when my father in his days as an Air Force grease monkey put his baby into the cockpit of a B-52 parked on a airstrip in Fukuoka). Grandpa let me pull on the horn chain with its squeeze grip. He did the squeezing. It detonated a blast from the truck's air horn, a pure and powerful sound which has never faded away.

Once, on the night of an ice storm, when Grandpa was scheduled to drive his many tons of milk and metal to a destination in Ohio. He phoned in sick, claiming a stomach ailment. I was five, and proud to have figured out what was going on: I loudly announced that Grandpa wasn't really sick at all, just scared to drive the truck in that weather. There was little response from the family. I think that, despite my age, I really embarrassed Grandpa that time. Grandpa, wherever you are, I'm sorry-- I've called in sick to work a time or two, and I have learned to fear icy pavement in the night.

Grandpa was very musical. He knew scores of songs, some of them passed down through the generations and the rest from God-knows-where. Some had cheerfully racist themes, shocking in an era when our family aspired to nobler principles, No doubt he had a good repertoire of ribald ones, too, which were not to be shared with family, least of all his grandchild. He played the harmonica with zest and relish.

Grandpa had a blue parakeet called Dicky Bird. Dicky Bird rode around the house on Grandpa's bald head, claws anchored in the shiny flesh. Dicky left his gray and white droppings on Grandpa's dome. Grandpa used to say it was good for growing hair. I believed this, and looked forward to the day hair would sprout there.

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