Media of all types is rife with images and stories of folks who like to live life on the proverbial edge. The extreme sport enthusiasts who thrust themselves from cliffs and pop their chutes moments before they touch down. Snowboarders and skateboard freaks who defy physics and all sanity with their stunts. Rednecks and dipsticks of every ilk who attempt the most incredibly stupid and dangerous stuff and YouTube for the entire world to see.
Let me tell you about another who pushed the edge. My maternal grandfather, Norman Alister
Henry. Not long after the turn of the 20th century, moved from St. Louis to Crittenden County, Kentucky, with the great expectation he would join the family business, the lucrative Henry and Henry Monuments. At that time the business was – and apparently continues to be – a lucrative enterprise, literally having the final word about their clients.
But names and dates carved into grave markers and monuments didn’t have much appeal to Norman. He wanted a format where words could expand into full sentences, paragraphs and stories. He further desired to learn a trade to set type by hand (a long lost art) and to combine those stories with half-truths, rumors and salacious innuendoes. All the same things that pretty well make up with what we get today from the news media.
So he went into newspapering. And he did quite well earning stature and influence in the community and turning a profit, as did one of my favorite uncles, Buddy Walker, would do years later in central Indiana.
In his off time, he had a playful if not offbeat nature. The story goes that one occasion he and some of his friends thought it would be interesting to see how captured birds would fare in flight carrying small, fuse-lit dynamite sticks tied to them. Most would discard the cargo after takeoff and go on their way. However, there was one occasion when one sortie flew into a nearby barn, dropped the stick and soared off moments before the blast. The barn exploded and burned to the ground. And according to the story in Norman’s newspaper, police had no clues to the arsonist’s identity.
A young widower when he returned to Kentucky, Norman played the field for a while. Eventually, his eyes fell on a recently divorced you woman with two children. Back then, me would gather in chairs around storefronts and chew the fat on any variety of subjects. But there was this woman named Faye who caught my grandfather’s eye. And every time she entered a store he was nearby he would scream at the top of his lungs,
Here comes the prettiest grass widow in Crittenden County. Listen to me boys, I’m gonna marry that woman!
Frankly, it offended and embarrassed Faye. The only way to end the nonsense was to marry Norman. And months before they tied the knot, the would-be groom quietly arranged to have a new house built the latest appliances. A new start requires new surroundings and blending families.
Norman’s newspaper flourished until the Great Depression slammed down. Businesses had no money to advertise services and products they were struggling to provide, especially to readers who didn’t have the money to buy them. Newspaper ink was hard to find and you had to look for sources to find it.
That’s when my grandfather and one of his friends traveled across the Ohio River to Shawneetown, Illinois. They had connected with someone who could deliver what they needed to feed the thirst of their printing presses. They “inked” the deal and celebrated at a dumpy bar. While toasting their good fortune, a few harried-looking guys in dusty suits and loosened ties walked in, took a table in back and ordered a round. Downed it quick and then another one, mumbling quietly before they paid the tab, left a generous tip to the trembling bartender and then sped away.
It was John Dillinger and his boys. Norman knew who it was. He had reprinted wire stories and mug shots of the infamous Hoosier often enough.
Eventually, the Depression pummeled my grandfather into the ground and the newspaper folded. He found small jobs for flyers and such, but never recovered. He found himself working in jobs he never could have imagined or physically capable of: road construction, CCC labor and so on. Eventually, World War II came along and Norman’s well-spoken ways and education netted him a job as “doctor” at a job-training facility in Kentucky, a position well-suited for a man whose gentle spirit could not handle others’ pain. He was soon “outed.”
In later years, Norman and Faye lived in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, and were the fixtures of any family gathering or holiday event. I largely remember him as an old guy who wore a shirt and tie every day, cracking jokes and thumbing through paperbacks and yellowed, musty hardback editions. He loved his kids and grandkids. He always smelled of talcum power and unfiltered Camel cigarettes.
But as he aged, his tolerance level dropped yet his devilish sense of humor held its ground. When he tired at a family gathering, he would go to the nearest bedroom and remove his shoes. Then he’d take out his false teeth and leave them at the door as a sentinel and scary warning to kids who might threaten his nap.
After my grandmother’s death from a car wreck in 1963, he moved in with my aunt and her family. Their garaged had been converted into a living space and he retained a small foot-operated press and printed flyers and business cards. He continued to write eloquent poetry and letters in elegant cursive.
The ink never left his blood. He finished his life on the edge he knew best.
Norman died in January 1967 and was buried next to Faye and two of their children, Martha and Jimmy, whose young lives ended in the mid-1930s from maladies so easily curable today.
And there they lay to this day, side-by-side and together. Beneath the neatly carved stones of Henry and Henry Monuments in Marion, Kentucky.