My Mickey Mantle

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When I was a kid, most of my friends looked up to athletes. My hero was my grandfather Merle Shelton. I used to call him my Mickey Mantle. The Mick was my grandfather’s favorite ballplayer. In my eyes, Merle was just as legendary. This month he celebrated his 84thbirthday. Not bad for a guy who has smoked a pack a day since he was a teen. He did adult things early. On his 17th birthday Merle walked into a Navy recruiting office in Pittsburg and enlisted. It was 1943 and the military promised a better future than the coal mine he worked in.


After boot camp, Merle went to sub school in New London, CT. There he met a 16-year-old Italian girl. Josephine was a Catholic with a slender figure, wavy black hair and dark eyes. He was a skinny sailor with dirty blonde hair and a tattoo on his forearm. Within three weeks they were engaged and my grandfather left for the Pacific. Josephine sent him letters and pictures, including one of her in his Navy coat. It was signed, “Love Joe,” her nickname. They were apart 18 months. Then one day, while off the coast of Okinawa, Merle and his shipmates were told that the U.S. had just dropped “an A-bomb” on Japan. He’d never heard the term A-bomb. All he knew was that he was headed home.

Merle got back to Pittsburg on October 7, 1945. The next day Josephine, now eighteen, arrived on a train from Connecticut. They were married by a justice of the peace the following day. The JP pulled some guy off the street to be a witness. I have the bill from the Hotel William Penn in Pittsburg, where my grandparents spent their first night together. They paid $7.70 for a one-night stay. That was with a $1 military discount.

Humble is a good word to describe their beginnings. By 1956 Merle had served thirteen years in the Navy. His total military wages that year, according to his tax records, was $2,958.77. Yet by that point he and Josephine had four children and a dog named Penny. David Halberstam wrote that “the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid.” Not for my grandparents.

My grandfather was only 39 years old when my mother had me in 1966. A year later my mother and I moved in with her parents. My grandfather became my father figure. He taught me to like The Beatles, Walter Cronkite, black Labrador retrievers, black liquorish, silver dollars, the New York Giants, blue cheese dressing, John Wayne, and ‘All in the Family.’ Actually, those were the things he liked and I liked what he liked.

He also loved fishing and hunting. The thing I loved was that he often took me along. I have vivid memories of spending hours sitting in a row boat on a still pond, or walking through the woods together. I can still see the brown leaves, the acorns, and stone walls that ran through the New England fields we crossed. He never said much to me. But I knew he liked having me around. I could tell because he always had me around. I suppose that’s why I like hanging around with him so much today.

One of my favorite stories about my grandfather took place before I was born. One day he and my uncle Lenny were walking toward a dock, where they kept a wooden rowboat. They were wearing slickers and yellow rain pants. In one hand they had sticks with bobbers on them. In the other hand they had bushel baskets. They were going fishing for flounder in an inlet of Long Island Sound. That’s when a man with a sketch pad intercepted them on the beach. “Could you stand there for a minute?" the man asked. "I'd like to get a sketch so I can paint a picture.”

“Can't stop now, mister,” my uncle told him. "The tide is running.”

A few years later my grandfather saw a photograph of Norman Rockwell in a magazine and realized it was the same guy who had stopped him on the beach. By then my grandfather had seen many of the covers Rockwell had illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post. Earlier this week I was talking to my grandfather about that missed opportunity. “You look at Rockwell’s covers and you can see that this guy knew a lot about life,” he told me.

So does my grandfather. Before I became a professional writer I wrote him a poem one year for Christmas and framed it along with this Rockwell painting of a man and a boy fishing.

rockwell-fishing

LEARNING TO FISH

These silent moments in the aluminum rowboat are decades past.

I never became much of a fisherman.

But those hours on the lake taught me things that a son can only learn from a father.

Norman Rockwell said a great deal when he painted a man and a boy sitting alone on a lake. There are too few boys with a grandfather fisherman as a role model.

Fortunately, I was a lucky one who had a grandfather who would take me to the lake. Thanks, pop.

I was 41 years old before I saw my grandfather cry for the first time. It happened on January 15, 2008. That was the day my grandmother died. I’m not sure what was harder on Merle, the prospect of life without Josephine or being the one who told the doctor to remove her from life support. I was with him in the ICU that night. He wept as his little Italian girl silently slipped away. He visits her grave every day.

This Christmas I’m thankful for my grandfather. When I lose my Mickey Mantle it will be my turn to weep.

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