No small thing

By Rob Patrick

Up on the highest shelf, centered and separated from my grandmother’s knick-knacks, it stood[more] in stark contrast. A plastic model, bigger than any my younger brother Mike and I had ever worked on, was displayed among the family pictures and various ornaments.

We’d seen enough old war movies to know it was an aircraft carrier. We longed to get it down, look it over and play with it.

Bambi and Pappy Carl’s house was a familiar place for us, a second home. (Bambi, by the way, is what they got from my oldest cousin, Rick, when they tried to get him to say “Granny” as a toddler.) It was a modest, two-bedroom place with a nice backyard, a patio and a workshop that had once been a garage. It was just a couple of blocks from the University of Arkansas, north of the fraternity and sorority houses on Maple Street in Fayetteville.

We visited often, either for dinner with the folks or family get-togethers with uncles, aunts and cousins. Sometimes, it seems, Mike and I would be there just for fun though, in retrospect, it was probably to give mom a break.
The visits that are most vivid to me were the times when there was a Razorback football game. Mom and dad would park at Bambi and Pappy Carl’s house and walk to the stadium.

We’d play outside, have a snack, and Bambi might read to us — I remember Alice in Wonderland — or play cards with us. She taught us to play canasta and solitaire. If we lost at solitaire, Bambi would say, “Old Sol beat us that time.”

If the weather was nice, we’d take a walk and invariably we’d wind up on the hill overlooking the football stadium. There was a little log-cabin school house — seems to me it was the first school house in Fayetteville or something — on that hill northwest of the stadium. By the time we got there, we were ready to have a seat. So we plopped down on the grass and gazed down on all the red and roaring from the stadium. Every once in a while, we’d get a glimpse of the players.

When we were rested — and always before the game was over — we’d walk back to the house and have a cold drink, usually sweet tea.

Pappy Carl might be in his easy chair in front of the TV “resting his eyes.” (My cousin Jim Bob once said, “It looks like he’s resting more than his eyes.”) Or he’d be out in the workshop which we rarely spent a lot of time. There were saws and vices and all sorts of tools and gadgets. Bambi, I think, feared for our safety and kept us out.

We got in there often enough though that I can still fondly recall the smell. The dirt floor, packed down smooth and dark, mixed with the ash from Pappy Carl’s cigars. Heady stuff.

Pappy Carl worked for the University, at what the folks called “the physical plant”. It was the maintenance shop, I think. He fixed things around campus but I mostly remember him being a painter. Dad always said he was really good at it and I grew to appreciate that more when he and Dad painted our big old two-story house on Washington Avenue. The man worked.

Bambi, by the way, worked for a long time at a department store on the square called Campbell-Bell, in what they called “the foundations department.” (Took me a long time to figure that one out.) She never learned to drive, so Pappy Carl would drop her off there on his way to work.

Playing cards with Bambi was always a treat. She’d clear off the dinner table and we’d spread out. She would shuffle the deck, advising us, “Once or thrice, but never twice.”

And there, looming over the table was that shelf. As she shuffled, if Mike or I was positioned right, we’d gaze up at that model ship.

“Bambi, can we play with that ship?” we’d ask.

“No,” she’d answer gently. “That’s not a toy.”

By then, she was dealing and we were playing, distracted as easily as ever.

But once, Mike followed up with, “Can we look at it?”

Bambi paused for a moment then, much to our surprise and delight, she got up from the table, reached for it and gently brought down off the shelf, placing it in the middle of the table.

“Wow!” we both said at once. And we got up onto our knees in our chairs, leaning in on our elbows to get closer.

It was magnificent. There were little jets on the deck. It was painted flawlessly and all the decals were placed perfectly. The USS Wasp.

“This is a model of the ship that your Pappy Carl served on during World War II,” Bambi explained. “The Navy gave him this when he left the service.”

Pappy Carl never talked to us about any of that. In fact, there weren’t many long conversations with Pappy Carl but, boy, we loved to make him laugh. It wasn’t easy to do. Mike was pretty good at it. Pappy Carl had the kind of laugh that made you laugh too. He was a sweet man, a heck of a fisherman. But the only other indication we had that he had been in the Navy was the tattoo on his left forearm.

As is the case for so many in the service, Pappy Carl, as a civilian, just went to work and lived his life. He passed away just months after retiring from the University. It was a long time ago now.

Many on both sides of our family have served including my dad. My brothers and sister are blessed that we’re still able to talk and laugh and hug dad and thank him for all he’s done for us. Like Pappy Carl, dad downplays his service. But, of course, he served. And that’s no small thing. They're both heroes to me.

But Pappy Carl — on Memorial Day, he’s the one I think about.

And that model aircraft carrier.

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To read about the USSS Wasp and the valiant men including Carl McGaugh, who served on her during World War II, go here.

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