The old man sat on the swing under the large sycamore tree. It was his little slice of heaven, his place to sit and watch, to see what else nature could teach him. Ancient and strong, the sycamore’s branches stretched far and wide, shading a very large portion of his back yard. Sunlight filtered green and golden through the giant leaves that sheltered all that sat in her shadow. Years ago, he had hung that porch swing on the low, horizontal branch, itself large enough to be a tree trunk for a smaller tree. Just like that old tree, my grandfather was ancient and strong.
Grandpa Perkins had been a woodsman most of his life. Felling timbers for International Paper in Sarepta, Louisiana, he had worked hard all his life. When he had grown too old to be a woodsman, International Paper had him spend the last years of his work life cleaning out the chimney stacks at the mill. That was just as hard, and even more dangerous. There were no real “Safety” regulations back then. Safety meant getting the hell out of the way before a block of ash fell on your head because you jarred it loose cleaning the stacks. He had grown up in a hard world, and learned the ways of the woodlands, and earned his keep off that woodland. Even as an old man, he looked to me to be strong enough to snap two by fours with his hands.
Momma told me to wait until after grandpa had his coffee before I pester him. So, I stood at the back door, looking out the screen, waiting for him to put his cup down, signaling he will be receiving an audience. Grandpa had an old border collie, named “Pup”. That old dog stood guard while Grandpa drank his coffee. When he heard the cup settle down next to the old swing, he would turn and wag his tail at Grandpa, and receive a good scratching between the ears for being a good dog. Pup growled low at most people who came up, but he treated me like I was his best friend.
Momma told me not to go out there and talk Grandpa’s ears off. So, I walked out there quiet as a church mouse, and, after giving Pup a good solid hug, I crawled slowly and quietly in to that old porch swing and just sat there, as silent as a tomb. Grandpa, Pup, and I would sit like that for the longest time. No one moved. There was no talking. The only sound we heard were the sound of cicadas or a slight breeze jostling the leaves on his prize “Cane Pole Garden”, and the chickens clucking in the yard. There was hardly any reason for us to chat. Grandpa was a man of few words, but even if he were a chatterbox, it seemed like it wasn’t necessary for us to have to talk. It felt as if all our talking happened through our hearts.
Eventually, Grandpa would turn his tired blue eyes on me, squeeze my knee, and nod. It was the benediction on a long and silent communion we alone had shared. It was time to do the chores.
His property was small for that part of Louisiana, but a poor woodsman could barely feed his family, let alone have a good stretch of land. What he had, he made the most of. He had a garden, he had chickens, and he had his famous cane poles, growing along the fence line. Grandpa grew the strongest and straightest Bamboo Cane Poles in North Louisiana. People came from far and wide just to try to get one. He had over a hundred poles growing at a time, but very few of them passed his standard of what makes a really good cane pole. What other men would accept as passable, Grandpa threw in the fire for kindling. Our first chore was to cover our mouth and noses with damp cloth and cut down some of the Bamboo Canes. Cane fibers would get in your lungs if you didn’t protect your breathing. Those fibers were like tiny spears that could penetrate your lungs. We had to cover up so we wouldn’t inhale them.
After that, he would choose which ones were worthy of being a Grandpa Perkins Fishing Pole, and have me strip all the tiny branches and buds off the pole. I had no idea I was working hard, all I knew was that me and my Grandpa were doing stuff together. I didn’t care, I was happy as a pig in slop just being around Grandpa. He taught me how to keep a really good cutting blade and a really good chopping blade. You don’t just go up to Bamboo poles and start hacking away at them. There is a way to cut them down. It is an art, and done right, means less hard work, and more poles to dry and season. I was too small to cut the big poles, so Grandpa had me clear the little bamboo from between the big ones. He said they would never grow to be a good pole, so they had to go. It was my job to make them go away. I felt like a real lumber jack cutting down those poles.
Grandpa was a woodsman, and being a lumberjack was mostly what he did. He taught me how to pick the right axe for the job, how to sharpen the axe, and keep it sharp. Out there, in rural Louisiana, there was no going to Home Depot to get a new axe or axe handle. I still have one of his axes. The one with the home made handle. That handle is better built than any I have used from a factory. Trust me; I have broken many axe handles, except that one. Grandpa taught me several lessons on that. If you want it right, do it yourself. Otherwise, you can’t say a word about it. Protect your tools, and they will feed you.
He showed me the different ways of cutting wood, and what type of strike did the most good for the type of tree you are felling and cutting up. He said that a man has to keep good care of his axes and saws because they took care of him. Besides, dull and badly kept blades made for twice as much work for half the pay. I had no idea what that meant at the time; I was just overjoyed to be around him, and him letting me inside his world.
Grandpa was known for being an outstanding fisherman. Louisiana is “Fisherman’s Paradise”, and Grandpa was famous for knowing all the hidey holes where all the good fish were. It was his secret, shared with no one else but me and my big sister, Carol. We would go out while it was still dark. I was little, so Grandpa already had the boat hooked up to his old Ford truck, and warmed up. He sat me in the passenger’s side and I fell back to sleep. The next thing I know, we are at Bodcau Bayou, near Minden, Louisiana. After swearing me to secrecy, we would launch our john-boat out to those hidey holes. Grandpa taught me how to hold a pole and how to “hear” the fish through the line. He showed me how to set bait, how to cut bait, and what to do when I catch a fish. Catching the fish was the fun part. Cleaning it was another. But Grandpa taught me that God gave us fish so we can catch them, eat and enjoy them, and be happy. Grandpa was very happy about fish.
I didn’t set out to learn how to make fishing poles, or cut timber, or catch fish, or sharpen axes and blades. All I wanted to do was hang out with Grandpa because I loved him so much. Learning how he does things was a byproduct of that relationship. He loved me very much, and gave me good things; simply because I thought he was more important than all the fish in Louisiana.
Seeking the kingdom of God…and all these things.
God brought all this to my remembrance yesterday. I cried happy tears at all those sweet memories. To this day, I still do those thing he did because I loved being with him, and he was a good and gentle teacher. That is the message God is trying to get through our sheepish skulls. Do you love God for all the stuff he will give you, or do you just love God, and want to be with Him? Sandy and I are facing some challenges in our life, right now, and we have been praying our hearts out over them. That is when the lessons my Grandfather taught came to my mind. I never asked Grandpa for anything, I just wanted to be near him and love him.
Am I to the point where that is why I want to be with God, or do I want to be with God because I want stuff from Him? Either way you go, God will be there with you. The difference is, if you hang out with Him simply because you love Him, all the rest of the things you seek will simply happen as a consequence of His love for you. In the meantime, He will help you grow up to be just like His beloved Son, Jesus. After all, it was Jesus who introduced you to God.
Love God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul and all your strength. Seek Him and His kingdom (Which happens to dwell in you already), and ALL these things will be added to you. You will be just like Jesus then. You might be the only Jesus people meet before they die.
Grandpa Perkins, with my Big Sister, 1952