Wednesday, April 12, 2023

SLIME, SPARKS & SLUDGE – And Other Wonders Grandpa Showed Me

When Sally asked me recently about my relationship with my grandfather, the first thought that came to mind was that I’d never had much of a relationship with him. He was a very busy man, often traveling for business, and of an age where children were “to be seen and not heard.” I didn’t recall right away having fun with him nor getting much from him in the way of affection.

But Sally primed the pump just a bit, reminding me of a memory of Grandpa Janssen I’d once shared with her. Then, as I thought about it, more and more images emerged from remote corners of my mind of ways he opened the doors to wonder for me.


When I was about ten, Grandpa took me fishing a few times. Before we left home, though, he’d put me in charge of catching our bait. He'd take the garden hose, turn the water on to a low flow, set the end down in the middle of the back yard and instruct me to wait and watch. Sure enough, after about ten minutes, big, fat night crawlers, their digs thoroughly flooded, would emerge, clambering for higher ground.

Nothing’s easy to spot when it’s slithering along the ground under half an inch of water and layers of grass and thatch, but I soon learned to watch for telltale bubbles or movement of the grass. (Little did I realize that it was a test of the same kind of patience I’d need once we started fishing.)

By the way, if you try to grab a night crawler before it’s at least 90 percent out of its hole, you’re in for a mighty, slimy tug-of-war. They’re fast, and, to my dismay, some of those muscular varmints would break in two before they’d let go.

PHOTO: Tim McCormack
There was a peony bush just outside Grandpa and Grandma’s back door. I barely knew what a peony was—I thought the name was kind of icky, though. I knew they were beautiful and that the flowers smelled amazing, but I needed Grandpa to show me about the plant’s intimate, symbiotic relationship with ants.

I could see that each big, dewy bud was crawling with the little critters—black ones, somewhat smaller than carpenter ants. Grandpa explained that the peony buds exude a sweet nectar for the ants in exchange for their defense against harmful insects like aphids.

Speaking of plants, my grandparents also had a couple of bleeding heart plants in their garden. One summer evening, Grandpa plucked one of the blossoms and sat me down on the porch steps. He pulled apart the flower and used the various parts—resembling two pink rabbits, two white slippers, a trumpet and, of course, the heart—to illustrate a little fairy tale.

               I’ve never forgotten those lessons,
               and have passed them down to my
               own kids and grandkids.


I used to sneak part-way down the basement stairs to where Grandpa was playing cribbage with a few of his pals. I peered around the corner between balusters. Through a haze of cigar smoke I could see the men sitting around a card table, their faces intent on this beautiful little wooden board riddled with little holes that marched up and back in neat ranks. And in some of those holes, chasing each other around the track, were little pegs, two each in gold, silver and copper.

But what intrigued me most was what the men were saying. It was like some solemn, mystical chant intoned by each in turn: "Fifteen-two, fifteen-four and eight is twelve…and nobs for thirteen." Apparently each man had fifteens, but the other numbers varied. One man looked kind of disgusted when at his turn he mumbled simply “Nineteen.”

At one point, Grandpa spotted me and called me down, where he and the others taught me the basics of the game. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and have passed them down to my own kids and grandkids. 

    When Grandpa presented Grandma a bag of
    the new product, yours truly happily provided
    the elbow grease to test it.

Grandpa Janssen’s garage was wonder central. There I soaked up the sights, sounds and smells of all the knowledge a kid could possibly want—and probably would never learn in school. Stacked on shelves and hanging from pegboard was stuff for his blue ’54 Buick; implements for lawn and garden work; tools for every conceivable do-it-yourself task; and coffee cans full of nuts, bolts, screws and nails.

And there was the dart board. As with the cribbage, I learned most of what I’ve ever known about darts from Grandpa and his buddies. He was pretty good, and I’m sure he collected on his share of small-change bets. This made a big impression on me, especially given his unorthodox style: he threw his darts underhand.

Every so often a dart that missed the board or failed to stick would drop to the concrete floor, dulling the point. And Grandpa showed me how to hone it sharp again on his hand-powered grinding wheel.

I loved the job so much—especially the shower of sparks it produced—that I’d sometimes grind an eighth of an inch off the point. It wasn’t long before I got busted and, instead of extinguishing the spark of wonder, Grandpa switched me from darts to nails held in a Vice-Grip.


Grandpa represented the retail grocery industry, both in Minnesota and nationally. This led to his role as Secretary-Manager of the National Margarine Institute. When manufacturers started adding color to the white beef-fat or vegetable-oil based spread, the dairy industry objected, worried about colored “oleo’s” impact on butter sales.

The debate led to a compromise: the margarine would still be white, but it would be sold in a clear plastic bag with a little capsule of yellow-orange food coloring. The consumer would pop the capsule and then hand knead the sludge until it resembled the color of butter.

I’ll bet you knew where this was headed. Indeed, when Grandpa returned from the next convention proudly presenting Grandma a bag of the new product, yours truly happily provided the elbow grease to test it, delighting in how that way-too-dark burst of color first marbled through the margarine and eventually looked good enough to spread on toast.

So I’m sorry, Grandpa, for selling you short, for forgetting what a big part you played in my awakening to wonder. Now I remember. Thank you!

Can you remember how your grandparents—or other adults in your childhood—opened doors of wonder to you? We’d love to hear about it!


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