A Most Remarkable Person

By Jerry D. Haight

In 1948, Sidney Nebraska, was home to nearly 4000 people. As a railroad hub, the ground trembled each time a train thundered through one of the eight pairs of rails bisecting the town. It seemed no conversation could last more than 20 minutes without being interrupted by a three hundred sixty thousand pound mega-steam locomotive belching smoke, hissing steam and piercing the air with its whistle as it pulled its long string of  rattling freight cars.  

More than half the town was either employed by or retired from the railroad. Grandpa Clerance was the latter. He and Grandma still had lots of contact with “railroaders” and four of them rented apartments on the second floor of their large house on Forrest Street. Our family of four, Dad, Mom my brother and I lived in Denver and visited Sidney several times each year. A visit to Sidney was always exciting to this eight year old. While she was always an absolute wonder, I never really appreciated my grandfather. It’s probably because it was Grandma who would spend hours and hours talking with me. She seemed to know everything that was going on in my life, my soap box derby race car, my baritone horn, my dog “Scotty”. She knew all about the cathedral in Denver where I was a choir member. She also knew about my school work, what was going well and what was not going so well.

We talked about my cousins and their farm. She described their new silo, the barn that was falling apart and the one room school house where they attended and how they were doing in school. She knew how many lambs were born on their ranch last spring and how many didn’t make it. I admired how she always had a way of including each of her grandchildren into her routine and although there were several months between visits, it never seemed that way.  

I remember the time when about an hour into one of our visits, Grandma gave me seventy-five cents and asked me to go to the store for bread, milk and something special for me. The store, Barneys, was directly across the tracks but the gated railroad crossing was six blocks east of Forrest Street. She told me to be sure to use the crossing but she also told me always to watch both ways for moving trains on the other side of one parked, knowing that I would choose the most direct route instead of the crossing.  Grandma was very specific about turning left when I got into the store “walk two isles” she said “and make a right to the very end”. I would find the milk in the second ice case on the right. Then, she told me to go the other side of the store for the bread and just before the storekeeper’s desk; there would be a candy counter.

I guess she knew what happened on my way back across the tracks because the bread was crushed, the milk was spilled, the brown sack looked like it had been strangled and my pants were wet. We talked for another hour while I calmed down from the ordeal and shared that wonderful black licorice. It was my first experience with “comfort food”. I still never used the crossing though. And, yes, she reminded me of the fourteen cents change. Grandpa and Grandma had several bathtubs in their house but it seemed the one I always had to use was the one with the blood in it. Well, the overflow was rusty and the reddish rust stain ran down the front of the tub to the drain. I hated that tub but never told anybody. After a bath, Grandma surprised me when she nonchalantly told me “we both know that really isn’t blood in the tub, don’t we?”

I also learned about the families upstairs through Grandma’s eyes which became teary when she told me about Frieda who lost her husband, Bob, in the war and now she worked for the railroad. I learned that Bob was a hero, an army captain and was killed in Germany. It was through her descriptions of Bob that he became my hero also. I got to know other “railroaders” and their families too. She knew so many details about them that they came to life in my mind even though we never actually met. Grandma also liked to talk about “the ranch” where she lived and raised five kids, including Mom. The ranch was on Lodgepole Creek west of Sidney. Through her eyes I saw the rolling hills, half wooded with sycamores, willows and oak trees along with various vines and shrubs, encompassing a pond fed by an artesian spring that rarely froze over in the wintertime. She described the rest of the ranch as mostly grassland with pitcher sage interspersing it with sky blue blooms. She said the woodland was a gathering place for deer, buffalo and antelope along with predators such as coyotes, bobcats, raccoon and fox. It was also a haven to ducks, loons, and geese and also to her.

Next to grandchildren Grandma loved flowers and she taught me to love them too. We even made a bouquet for the dinner table. She was very specific with me as to which flowers to cut from the garden in back of the house. When we were done, it was “just right” she said.  While not noteworthy in itself, in her case it too was remarkable because, you see, Grandma had been completely bedridden long before I was born. She suffered from acute rheumatoid arthritis that paralyzed her entire body except for a modicum of movement in one hand which was frozen about six inches from her chin. People who were disabled then were called invalids, synonymous with words like worthless, unsound, unacceptable, and null and void. But this priceless, precious person was just one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. My grandpa is another. Not only did he manage the large house with its apartments, did all of the household chores, he cared for her full time for more than 41 years until her death in 1962.