James T. Armstrong was 5 feet 2 inches, about 140 pounds of soft-spoken, hard-working man. During the brief time I knew him, he spent his time fixing broken wares around the house, preaching and sitting in a rickety glider on his screened porch watching cars dart back and forth on Interstate 70.
Granddad could fix anything. Well, almost anything.
Each summer he spread grass seed in his back yard in the space between the apricot trees he allegedly planted for my mom and aunt. Each summer my cousins, sister and I would spend three months worth of visits trampling the seed to death, further exacerbating the home-made path we’d worn into the ground. He never complained much, although you could argue that as a hyper-active, hot tempered 7-year-old that I probably didn’t listen if he did.
I’m glad he listened to me. You should be too. According to my grandmother, he’s the only one who could calm my need to release the explosive rage that simmered beneath by shy façade. We’d spend days and nights on that porch, even during the summer when it was 90-plus degrees. He wouldn’t counsel me, he would just sit there as I talked about silly things like the seeds I received from school that enabled me to grow a giant sunflower in my mom’s tomato garden. By time I felt like relaxing my tonsils, the rage was gone.
For those times the rage wouldn’t subside, there was the switch he’d cut with his ever present pocket knife I never got to hold. I didn’t remember much about how, or if, he ever used the switch but it definitely got my attention. Especially when my cousin and I got into a fight and broke the oscillating fan in Granddad’s dining room. Oy…
Granddad was a preacher. We’d travel back and forth on Sunday, cruising along I-70 to African Methodist Episcopal churches in Odessa, Mo., Lexington, Mo., and Topeka, Kan. Odessa was my favorite because we’d stay in a trailer some nights, or Granddad would pick up sweet rolls from the IGA before we got to church. God would then take control and allow Granddad to deliver beautiful sermons I would have heard if I wasn’t drawing spaceships on the bulletins.
For a small window, I wanted to preach like Granddad, but I’m glad I wasn’t called because I didn’t have the type of heart, like Granddad, that could help inspire people. My mom was called instead. Here’s a little secret: When my mom spends time with the World’s Greatest First Grader, I see the same relationship I had with Granddad. Mom will never know my secret; she’s not an avid reader of this column.
Granddad died in April 1986. He was sitting in his old glider when he had a heart attack. The person I saw in the coffin during the wake didn’t seem familiar by comparison.