Our grand­par­ents, on my father’s side, lived upstate in San­ta Rosa, about a ten hour dri­ve. Around Christ­mas time, we went up for a vis­it. My Gram­my, Lor­na, was a tall hand­some woman, a real look­er when she was younger. She mar­ried Ken in the for­ties after divorc­ing her first hus­band, Wayne, my father’s father. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I have no mem­o­ries of my grand­fa­ther, Wayne, because I was very young when our paths last crossed and I would nev­er see him again. Ken Gillie was our sur­ro­gate grand­fa­ther, though we nev­er addressed him as Grand­dad. He was always Ken. But he was a gra­cious man and sin­cere­ly grand­fa­ther­ly as he could be.

Gram­my and Ken’s house was a ranch style house with a pool in the back yard. Their prop­er­ty was next to an orchard sep­a­rat­ed by a split-rail fence. Their two chil­dren, Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Gary were teenagers then, and put up with us as we invad­ed their home. Jeanne was a very sweet girl who smiled polite­ly at me when I made eye con­tact her, but we rarely spoke after how do’s were exchanged. Con­ver­sa­tion was awk­ward between a ten-year-old nephew and a six­teen-year-old aunt. Seemed like they should have been our cousins, I guess. Uncle Gary was assigned to enter­tain Joe and I and gave us a tour of the place. We hung out in his bed­room and lis­tened to the new Bea­t­les album, Rub­ber Soul, as we read Flash and Green Lantern com­ic books and shuf­fled through his base­ball card col­lec­tion. I was envi­ous Gary had his own room and that there was a pool just out­side his win­dow.

He asked us if we want­ed to see his fort and led us out the side yard. I expect­ed a tree fort or a club­house in a con­vert­ed shed or some­thing as I looked around and saw nei­ther. Instead, he led us to a tarp next to a huge pile of dirt. We were impressed when Gary whipped off the tarp and exposed his under­ground fort. It was an impres­sive feat of engi­neer­ing, and to this day I nev­er saw one like it. He pushed aside some wood planks and we descend­ed a lad­der about six feet to the first lev­el.

We sat on a large wood­en plat­form about 6ft x 8ft built into the side­walls and sup­port­ed from below. Gary pulled out a flash­light and climbed up the lad­der and pulled the tarp back over us. He had a stash of cig­a­rettes in a bag inside a small niche dug into the wall behind a wood­en plank and lit one up as he spoke of his plans. He was bull­shit­ting us, of course, but said he planned to dig a mile deep until he reached the cen­ter of the earth. That way he could heat the place and light his smokes on the molten core when he ran out of match­es. We peered into the depth that went down, maybe 12 feet. The walls were sup­port­ed with cross­beams and the walls framed with two-by-fours and scrap wood. At the bot­tom was a buck­et tied to a rope next to a shov­el. He saw how it was done watch­ing the movie The Great Escape. We hadn’t seen it. He told us about the tun­nels they dug through a floor in the bunkhouse. Gary went on and on and about Steve McQueen, who did his own motor­cy­cle stunts, jump­ing barb wire fences when he tries to escape the Nazis.

Gram­my Gillie was ner­vous and some­what over­whelmed by the sud­den inva­sion of their qui­et abode. We were like a pack of wild dogs run­ning through the sud­den­ly packed house, sniff­ing around, snap­ping at each oth­er and lap­ping up all the soda in the fridge. We were warned to set­tle down after the first day, or else we’d all be out in the dog­house. They didn’t have a dog though. Joe and I would have glad­ly slept in Gary’s under­ground fort if it came to that.

When my grand­par­ents met, Ken was a Pri­vate Detec­tive and met Lor­na who worked in the Los Ange­les Dis­trict Attorney’s Office. The gumshoe and the sec­re­tary fell in love and mar­ried soon after. They were devot­ed to each oth­er and shared a long and lov­ing mar­riage. Ken was now a Team­ster, who rose from the ranks and became a local leader. Gram­my told me he once had din­ner with Jim­my Hof­fa. Ken was a man’s man, a for­mer sailor, team­ster and an avid hunter and fish­er­man. He was as com­fort­able in his own skin as he was in a wool plaid shirt. We nev­er saw the tough side of him, but you could tell it was there by the way he car­ried him­self. Ken loved a good cig­ar and puffed on it con­tent­ed­ly in his easy chair as my sis­ters combed his sil­ver hair. The tough guy’s eyes became heavy, soothed by the lov­ing atten­tion and the sweet tobac­co, he drift­ed into a peace­ful slum­ber.