This is his biographical sketch: William Enlow was born in 1931, the middle of three brothers. He joined the Marine Corps and served in the Korean War, where he was awarded the Purple Heart. He came home and married the prettiest girl he had ever seen, my grandmother. Together they had four children and eight grandchildren. After they retired, they sold their home, bought a fifth-wheel trailer and spent ten years travelling across the United States. They were married for over fifty years, until he died suddenly at age seventy-four in 2005.
But these are not the things I think of when I think of my grandpa. These are not the things I want you to know.
I remember that he couldn’t pick up pills. He had big hands and thick fingers, and every morning he took a purple gel capsule. He’d sweep it off the kitchen table into his palm. To make us laugh, he’d try to pick it up between his thumb and forefinger and it would shoot off across the table.
He loved potatoes. We called him Mayor McSpud. He liked mashed the best, but he would eat boiled, baked, or fried. Boxed mashed potatoes were an insult. At restaurants, before he ordered the mashed potatoes, he’d ask the waitress if they were real or boxed. If a waitress said boxed, he moved on, no matter how much she tried to convince him they were as good as the real thing. He also asked to see the bananas before he ordered a banana split. He didn’t bother with green or rotten bananas on his ice cream.
He was a rebel, and the toughest man I ever knew. Part Ernest Hemingway, part Humphrey Bogart. He didn’t let anyone stand in the way of him and what he wanted to do. Not doctors, not park rangers, and certainly not rules. His rule was you didn’t have to follow a rule if it was a stupid rule.
He loved camping. Even before he and my grandmother travelled full-time, we spent many summers as a family camping. He loved the outdoors, and he loved boats. He taught me how to fish, and how to clean a fish. He took all of us out on his boat where we would fish or swim. He loved to sit outdoors.
Once he and my grandmother hit the road, they spent their time travelling all across the United States. They spent the night in every one of the contiguous states, and they saw every historically significant site in the country. Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse. The Black Hills. Alcatraz. The Grand Canyon. Gettysburg. The Alamo. I could go on and on. They sent us postcards from everywhere they went. I remember as a kid waiting on baited breath for the next postcard, written in my grandmother’s elegant hand. We had photograph books filled with postcards.
We kept a corkboard map of the U.S. hanging in our house. We had a red pin stuck in the board indicating where they were, and blue pins marking all the places they had been. It got so full of blue pins you could hardly see the map.
My grandpa wasn’t one for amusement parks or commercial areas. He called them all tourist traps. He wanted to be outside. When people today talk about taking their kids to Disney World, I smile to myself and think of my grandpa. I visited them in Florida for many winters as a kid and I didn’t even know Disney World existed. For me, Florida wasn’t the land of Mickey Mouse, but the home of the Everglades. We took boat tours through the swamps. I saw alligators and black panthers up close. We saw The African Queen, the very boat Bogart and Katherine Hepburn sailed on in the famous movie. We saw it on the Myakka River, and later that day we ate fried alligator sold from a dubious man in a shack.
It tasted like chicken.
Florida was Bradenton, the spring training home of the Pirates. I don’t think my grandpa had any real interest in baseball, but I did, so we all went to see Don Slaught, Jay Bell, and Doug Drabek prepare for the upcoming season. I had a book full of baseball cards and got all of them signed.
We spent days touring the Florida Keys, taking Highway One all the way to out to Key West.
I think my grandpa was happiest when he was traveling. He and my grandmother could go where their spirits took them. They could linger for days or weeks in a place, then move on and spent every night in a new town. Every night my grandpa would sit at the little table in their trailer with his maps spread open before him. He would study them, looking for interesting places or historical markers and charting out their course for the new few days.
I see now that I could go on and on. I could never tell you everything that I want you to know about him. That he had no use for any celebrity but Rita Hayworth. That he had a big belly laugh that was my favorite sound in the world. That he was nobody’s fool. That he would sing “Those Were The Days” while he was shaving in the bathroom with his electric razor. How he had a nose for hole-in-the-wall restaurants that served the best food imaginable.
Since I can’t go on and on, I will end with this. Two years before he died, I graduated from Penn State. My graduation ceremony was held in the Bryce Jordan Center, a huge arena that holds 15,000 people. My grandpa always had problem with his hips, and by this point the pain was pretty bad. It was hard for him to walk up and down steps, and impossible to walk long distances. But he made his way through the crowed Bryce Jordan Center, a long walk with dozens and dozens of steep steps. He never complained, but I know he was in a lot of pain that day. He came anyway because he wanted to see me graduate. It meant a lot to him.
It meant everything to me.
Happy Birthday, Grandpa.