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.