Monday, June 07, 2004

Granddad and the Gipper

(Well, now, I can't skulk through this week without some sort of reference to Reagan's death, can I?)

The first President whose tenure I can recall, Ronald Reagan was President of the U.S. from my earliest awareness through the middle of elementary school. Not that I had more than a fuzzy idea of U.S. government; I suppose I'd learned the basics of U.S. government by fourth grade (President, not King; elections, not tyranny) but I don't think I'd been taught much more than that during the Reagan years.

I do remember spending long summer days at Grandma and Granddad's house in 1987. I collected rocks from the dry creek bed, ate blackberries by the fistful, and watched the horses graze. I ran around tossing my head and pretending I was a horse, coaxing my younger sister and brother into pretending they were horses too. I didn't know beans from Contras.

But I remember Grandma making us come inside for lunch, fixing us snack trays and letting us sit in the living room to eat while Granddad watched the TV--a real treat for us, not having TV at home. I ate my bologna-and-cheese rolled on a toothpick and half-watched the man in the uniform who was on the TV all summer. Granddad always watched the same channel, totally engrossed in the things the uniformed man was saying to the other stern men. The uniformed man had a name like Popeye's girlfriend. Ollie, ollie, oxen free.

Granddad grumbled at the TV a lot that summer. I knew Granddad had been in the Navy in WWII, though I didn't know yet what Iwo Jima meant, or what a kamikaze did. I knew Granddad had worn a uniform and assumed the man on TV, wearing a uniform, must be on the same side as my granddad. So I guessed that Granddad was unhappy with the way the stern men kept asking Ollie all those questions. Learning that Ollie worked for President Reagan clinched it in my eight-year-old head: President Reagan kind of looked like my Granddad--leathery, dark-haired old white men--so of course they must be on the same team.

Well, I know a little more about those Reagan years now than I knew while getting my fingers muddy and wearing out my sneakers. I found out about a few of the things that went on in Central America while I was in elementary school. I learned who the Sandinistas were, and the Contras. I read about Oscar Romero. I found out about the young men sent to Central America by Reagan and his underlings, and I've seen a few scars of which they will not speak.

Still, I knew my parents were Republicans, so I figured everyone else in our family must also be Republicans, as a kid. And since politics and religion were the twin no-nos at family gatherings, I never had any reason to think differently. Granddad died five years ago, and we'd never had any reason to talk politics.

Then one day last year my Grandma mentioned a recent speech by Al Gore. "Wasn't it brilliant?" she said.

"Yeah!" I said, surprised. "Uh...I thought you and Granddad were Republicans?" Maybe the present administration had changed her mind, I thought.

She recoiled as if I'd questioned the legitimacy of her birth. "Land sakes, no!" she exclaimed. "We were Democrats even before FDR. You know, growing up in Arizona, I remember knowing miners who were beaten and even killed by 'company men' just for trying to form a union. No, we've always been Democrats. Your mom switched her registration when she married your dad, but not your granddad and me."

Delighted, but still a little confused, I asked, "Didn't Granddad like Reagan, though? I thought he was pretty defensive of Ollie North during the Iran-Contra hearings..."

"Your granddad couldn't stand Reagan," Grandma said. Turns out all that grumbling at the TV was aimed at Ollie his own self, not at his questioners. I guess their vague resemblance, to an eight year old, just wasn't enough to endear the President and his policies to my grandfather.

So RIP to Ronnie. Not my favorite President, he'll still always be the first one I remember, the one whose existence as President had nothing to do with politics in my mind, but seemed synonymous with the USA.

And every mention of Reagan will forever remind me of my Granddad, and of one misunderstood summer TV drama. RIP, Granddad. Wish we could've talked politics, after all.