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All That Glitters Is Not Gold

by Frances Giles

My Czech-Moravian maternal grandfather was a talented, if sometimes quirky, man. He spent his early youth with his family in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Germany when he was 14 to learn a trade and complete his scholastic education, and when he immigrated with his family to Texas at age 18, he brought some of those carpentry and building skills with him. He and my grandmother spent a lifetime sharecropping, growing cotton, mainly, and living in the landowner's houses as part of their income. He taught other farmers in the Burleson County area some of the European techniques for plowing hilly, uneven land in order to prevent soil erosion.

Aside from farming, Grandpa also had some artistic inclinations. He once sent away for plans to make violins and made at least 3 or 4 in various sizes, two of which I have, employing his skills as a hand carver and some newly learned ones involving steaming the wood in order to make it curve and bend as necessary to make the body of the instruments. He hand carved cow horn to make the lower string connectors and also hand carved the necks, including scrolly tops. A couple of old Mrs. Burn's horses in a nearby pasture provided the horsetail necessary to string the hand carved bows.

One year he decided to make some yard art, long legged storks, I think they were supposed to be. Storks figure in Czech culture and folklore, but I'm not sure where, precisely. He carved two wooden frames of the birds' outlines in two different poses and, using rebar rods for the bird's long legs, thinner rods to reinforce their necks and wire mesh for the bodies, he poured a cement mixture in the molds and let them harden. Then he painted them in several different colors and tones to create detail and poked the rods in the ground in the front yard of their house in Caldwell. One year Grandpa painted the birds in shades of salmon pink and my brother Butch and I decided they had become flamingos since our last visit.

That painting thing, that was perhaps Grandpa's most quirky habit. He was a great one for barter and also enjoyed doing things for other friends and neighbors, especially older people. He loved to trade for “stuff”, too, rather than being paid in money. Somehow he seemed to end up with a near continuous supply of leftover paint from some of these trades, and he managed to use almost all of it, often to my Granny's chagrin. He painted everything in sight until the paint was all gone, the wooden fence, the trim on the house, outbuildings, those storks, the metal lawn chairs and his late 20's Model A Ford, a four door flat topped sedan, if there was enough to go around. The big question always on our minds as we neared Caldwell from Beaumont was what color we were going to see plastered everywhere as we rounded the corner to the left onto O' Neal Street. My mother and her sister usually started wondering aloud when we reached Brenham, about 36 miles out. The usual expression upon sighting the house and yard was usually a variation on “Oh, Daddy, what were you thinking?” Or “I thought he couldn't get any worse than the last time!” From Granny we heard “Oh, that Frank Nedbalek, such a crazy!” in her heavily accented English when my mother or aunt asked where he had gotten that particular batch of paint. Grandpa saved string, rubber bands, nails, screws, bits and pieces of wood, but never did he seem to have any leftover paint. He seemed compelled to use the very last ounce of every color. Who knows, he might have become another famous Moravian painter like his countryman, Alfons Maria Mucha, had he been able to further his fine art studies.

The most arresting, startling might be a better word, example of the unleashing of Grandpa's inner artist was what came to be known informally as “The Year Of the Aluminum Paint”. On that visit we rounded the corner on a very bright, hot, sunshiny day, anticipating hugs from both grandparents, of taking a spearmint leaf from the plants by the front door and crushing it between finger and thumb, a tradition followed by every member of the family, of being able to chomp into Granny's prune and poppy seed kolaches and checking out any new chickens and ducks that may have been added since our last visit. Instead we were blinded, retinas frying right inside our heads, by the sight of just about EVERYTHING covered in gleaming silver metallic paint, the house trim, the wooden fence, the mailbox and wooden post, the big tractor tire planters in the front yard, the storks, the metal lawn chairs, the Model A, right down to the spokes on the wheels, even the big outhouse way at the back of the lot, the toilet seats inside also gleaming in the dim light. Nothing escaped Grandpa's deranged brush, it appeared. The sunlight seemed to reflect from every surface, and for once Mama was speechless. Not even a low moan escaped her lips. Once my brother Butch and I recovered from the initial shock we were captivated by the surreal scene before us. I don't recall so many things ever being monochromatically adorned before that or after. This was truly the zenith of Grandpa's efforts to “redd up” the home place. He must have stumbled onto the mother lode, hit pay dirt, scored a bonanza in the silver mine of paint. I think he must have acquired gallons and gallons of the stuff, more than he usually ended up with. I'd be willing to bet that the gleam could be seen as far away as Rockdale which, coincidentally, was home to the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Not only that, but Granny and Grandpa's lot was located directly in front of the Nagel Aluminum Chair and Ladder factory. Hmm, I wonder if there's a connection? I can still look back over the years and imagine our Grandpa Frantisek Nedbalek as the Tin Woodsman in J. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Yep, I believe he had searched for, and finally found, the highly sought silver lining in an otherwise ordinary life.

© Frances Giles
"True Confessions and Mild Obsessions" June 21, 2015 Column
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