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My grandfather did not invite easy intimacy. Even his most generous actions, his kindest and strongest shows of care, were done in a quiet and matter-of-fact way. The fresh-caught salmon and brightly-colored zinnias that would appear on our front doorstep, the flowers in Folger's coffee cans, were often accompanied by just a brief note, and only if we caught him coming up the walk could he be persuaded to stop in for a cup of coffee and a short chat. The hours of hard work he put into our house alongside my father were done as a matter of course, and one of his greatest gifts, that of clear eyesight, was bestowed after his death.
By the time I knew him, Warnie was retired and retiring, an accomplished gardener who built a playhouse for his three grandchildren, smoked cigarettes out back in "secret," and jury-rigged ingenious appliance repairs. He kept fascinating stone-cutting and -polishing tools in the garage, with which he constructed agate wind chimes, and horse-chestnut necklaces. Often reserved, he could also be cantankerous, and many a family story about Papa revolves around his exasperation in the face of long-windedness, incessant picture-taking, or other dissatisfactory behavior. Even now, I hardly feel a Johnson family reunion is complete unless we've all crammed onto the couch for photos, our grins have calcified on our faces, someone has delivered Papa's classic, mumbled line: "Oh, for Christ's sake! Take the picture," and we've all dissolved in giggles.
Born in Portland, Oregon, to a pair of Norwegian-American transplants from Minnesota, Warren grew up in pre-war North Portland, an area that was dominated by working-class Scandinavian immigrants like his parents. In photos from the period, Warren appears as a painfully serious little kid, except in the rare photos where his face is split in an ear-to-ear grin.
I talked recently with Phillip, Warren's best friend from the old neighborhood, who reminisced about a time when my grandfather had just gotten a BB gun. The boys made a deal that Warnie could shoot Phillip in the bottom, but only if Phillip was allowed to do it to Warnie first. My grandfather pulled down his pants, received the BB, shot several feet into the air and ran hooting around the yard; apparently it hurt more than he was expecting, but he still came back full of enthusiasm to take his shot at his friend.
Philip went on to say that by the time the boys were in high school, my great-grandparents' house had become the hip place for his and Warnie's peer group to hang out, because the teenagers never felt they were being supervised too closely. They would push all the furniture against the wall, turn the radio up, and have dance parties until the wee hours. This culminated in the boys' high school graduation celebration, which Philip says was "a party that was a party," complete with folks passed out in the bathtub. (Drinking hasn't all been happy times in the Johnson family. A streak of alcoholism runs through the clan; Warnie got it from both parents, and passed it on to his son, my father, who broke the cycle and got sober when I was eight. As many hard and scary moments as alcohol caused in my early life, though, I've always felt grateful to my grandparents for how they supported my family when my dad got sober, cutting out the booze whenever we were over and doing their best for us in many other ways.)
Warnie was already dating my grandmother when he enlisted to fight in World War II and was sent overseas to France and Germany. I never heard him talk too much about his time in the service, although some of my favorite, most charismatic photographs of him are from that time. He shared a few stories with my cousin Andryce: in one, Warnie and a bunch of army buddies packed their tank full of cases of commandeered French wine, only to be found out and thrown in the lockup for the night when they were unable to fit themselves in the vehicle along with the hooch. The thought of all that lost wine, not to mention spending the night in jail, was getting everyone down, until one of the soldiers brought out a bottle that he had managed to smuggle under his coat.
Another time, Warren told about a young boy who always showed up around ration time, begging bits of food. Although the soldiers weren't supposed to share their rations with anyone else, Warnie got into the habit of slipping the boy something now and then. After a few months, the boy's older sister came with him, and communicated to Warnie through gestures that her family would like to have him to dinner in thanks for the help he'd given her brother. He agreed, followed her home, and was just sitting down at the family's table when the patriarch of the family came through the front door in full German uniform. Suddenly knowing that this was the wrong place to be, Warren stood up, smiled and excused himself to the seated family, and left as quickly as possible.
After the war, Warnie returned to Portland, working briefly as a firefighter before beginning a long career as a phone system installer with Pacific Northwest Bell. He and Betty Jean married shortly after Warnie's return, and Warren built their small house on land that was then on the far outskirts of the city, south and west of downtown. Originally just four rooms (kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and living room, with an attic above), Warren and his father modified and expanded the house as the new family grew. My father has early but clear memories of Warnie and Myron building the wall frames for the second story inside the original attic. When the walls were ready, they tore the original roof off the house, raised the second-story walls into position, and started building a new roof a story higher.
The house, with its new second story, saw Betty and Warnie's four children grow up. My dad and all his siblings remember playing all day on the wooded land around the house, and Warnie's piercing whistle calling them back home to dinner. Once, my young father took his dad back into the woods to show off a primitive treehouse he'd built. Carried away with the privileged role of show-off, Mike started making up stories. "See this tree?" he asked. "The kids all call this 'The Old Oak.'" "Mmmm," Warren deadpanned. "Why do they call it 'The Old Oak,' when it's a maple?" The whistle and the dry wit were still intact when my cousins and I were roaming around the same land years later.
By the time I knew him, my grandfather had mellowed considerably from the stories of Philip and the war, but his cussed streak, deadpan manner and technical ingenuity remained. In his later years, he filled the yard with birdfeeders visible from the large glass sliding doors at the back of the house, and waged a war of frustration on the squirrels that would steal the birdseed. One of his prime weapons involved a birdfeeder on a pole. Around the pole was a simple tin can, rigged to a counterweighted pulley system that kept it snug against the bottom of the feeder. The squirrel would scramble up the pole and come within inches of its goal, but when its weight transferred to the tin can, the pulley's counterweight would be overbalanced and the can would slide smoothly down the pole, depositing the irate squirrel back on the ground. As soon as the animal let go, the can would shoot back up to the top of the pole, in readiness for its next victim. It was an elegant, effective system, and, characteristically for my grandfather, cost under a dollar to put together.
Toward the end of his life, Warren developed an interest in Lasik eye surgery, especially as it applied to my mother, whose eyesight was so bad that she verged on legally blind.Many other members of our family had atrocious eyes as well, and when he died, Warnie left enough for all of us to get our vision fixed. It was a life-changing experience for me to wake up able to see for the first time since my early childhood, and every time it occurs to me that I used to be nearly blind, I think of my grandfather. This jacket's for him.
Inspired by one of those supremely serious childhood photos, it's a garment whose beauty is enhanced by its practicality. A double-thick knitted homage to a traditional plaid bomber jacket, it's created with a knitting technique just as cobbled-together, yet just as effective, as Warren's squirrel trap. Lightly felted, it becomes soft, warm, hardy and water-resistant, without losing the ability to breathe or the distinctness of the pattern. Make your designated size for an outerwear coat with room to move, or drop down a size or two for a more tailored look. Either way, it's a classic look for a working man or woman, out on a chilly winter day.