Bargell: The ballad of John Bull
September 4, 2012
As I sat on my grandpa’s lap we’d engage in a familiar ritual. “Bet I can count to 100 faster than you” he’d say. Each year I gained confidence, thinking my time finally had come to beat him out. “You first” he’d offer. The numbers would spill out of my mouth more quickly than a veteran auctioneer. Never quite fast enough.
“One redory, dickery, davey, hullabo, crackaboo, tender-lady, whiskey drink, American time, humbly, bumbly ninety-nine . . . 100,” he’d offer. “Rats, beat again” I’d think. Even though he never failed to beat me counting to 100 when I was small, there was nothing I enjoyed quite so much as the sound of his laughter when he’d repeat his ditty. When I was older, certain I’d properly memorized his signature count, I’d repeat the litany – just a bit faster than him. The grin on his face signaled my victory, although looking back, I don’t think it was the counting that mattered to him. Instead, he knew it was unlikely I would forget how to count “his way,” and that I would carry a small piece of him with me the rest of my life. He was right.
Grandpa had a verse for many things, some of which would elicit a reproachful “now, John” from my Grandma, seated nearby. When she was just out of earshot, grandpa quietly would confide that his middle initial “B” stood for “Bull.” I believed him. Years later I was surprised, and more than just a bit disappointed to learn that the “B” actually stood for Bernard. Bull better suited him.
There are two things I remember best about grandpa, his stories and his penchant for work. After retiring from the coal mine, escaping a few close brushes with death, he went on to retire two (or was it three) more times. He was one of those guys who really relished getting up every day and going to work. For him, there was an intrinsic value to hard work. It was part of what made him the person he was, and he was proud of it. He also could tell a whale of a tale.
According to grandpa, his five minutes of fame came during his coal mining career. He fought hard for coalminers’ rights, alongside a well known union organizer. It was through his union efforts that he had the chance to meet Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Even though he expressed some disappointment in the union later in life, amid stories of scandal and money squandered on everything but mine workers’ needs, his eyes still twinkled when he recalled just how well Mrs. Roosevelt could dance. History confirms Mrs. Roosevelt did indeed visit many a mine while working to improve conditions for miners. As grandpa’s story went, he accompanied her on one of these visits, and later asked her, rather boldly I suspect, to dance at an event that followed. Sadly, the details, or perhaps the embellishments, of the event are dim because nobody could tell a story quite like old John Bull.
Memories of grandpa came to life recently when I had a chance to visit with a friend’s pop, who shared some tales of his own, including one about his father who traded a vintage Victrola for a much needed manure spreader, apparently back when spreading music took a backseat to spreading, well, manure. The tale wove its way around to his father coming into possession of the collected stories of Robert Service, and the fact that members of their family can repeat the Cremation of Sam McGee, nearly as fast as I can count to 100, much to the delight of a younger listening audience.
The visit made me wonder what stories grandpa would like to see passed along to his great granddaughters. Sure, I’ve worked on teaching them how to count to 100, lickedy split. Hopefully, too they’ll realize there’s much to learn from the stories shared by people who have lived in a different time, and though different experiences than they’ll ever know. I won’t forget to include tales of grandpa’s willingness to work, and hard, because sometimes there’s nothing more satisfying than a job well done – and that’s no Bull.
Cindy Bargell lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters. She is a card-carrying PTSA member, real estate and natural resources lawyer and part-time gymnastics coach. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.