Tales from the Boxcar: A Grandfather Remembered

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Bryan Welch with his grandfather, Wad Blake

My grandfather’s name was Wad Blake. Wad was a nickname, of course, but no one ever called him anything else. He signed his checks John W. Blake, but his birth certificate said “Wylie Rose Blake.” His parents must have thought better of the “Rose” later. The nickname made it a moot point.

Raised in Oklahoma, he was a storyteller. In the tradition of that part of the country, his stories were loud, entertaining and occasionally factual. His father was a little blue-eyed cowboy who never weighed more than 130 pounds. His mother was dark-skinned and big, topping 300 pounds. Physically, he took more after his mother. Among his towheaded siblings he said he “looked like a rat turd in a bowl of rice.” He greeted everyone with a booming, “Well, howdy!” or a “Que hubo?” depending on their native language, and an enthusiastic abrazo. He taught me how to say, “Kiss my ass” in Choctaw.

Most of the stories he told were about the animals, people and scenes of his youth. They took place on or around the small subsistence farms of the Ozark Mountains. He chased stray mules through the brush and camped out with his family’s cattle on “borrowed” land in the mountains. His horse, Twenty Grand, was the fastest and meanest horse in the country. His Uncle Will was so strong he could lift a 500-pound cotton bale on his back. His dad rode the trail drives between Texas and Kansas, and once was deposited unconscious in the top of a tree by a herd of stampeding cattle. I could go on and on. From the time I was about 3 years old, he took me along to his hangout at the cafe in El Paso’s Southern Pacific train depot. He spoke Spanish and taught me the rudiments. I can still hear his confident Mexican slang delivered in an Okie drawl. It makes me smile.

I gradually stopped believing in the accuracy of his stories, but I never stopped believing in their integrity. Grandpa surrounded his yard on a sand dune at the Mexican border with wagon wheels he scavenged and brought back from the Ozarks. He called his place “Blake’s Belly Acres.” He built his home from three defunct wooden boxcars mounted on a cinderblock foundation and nailed together. He was a signal maintainer for the Southern Pacific Railway, and he got a tip that the railroad was selling worn-out boxcars for cheap. Because they had been refrigerator cars, they were already insulated with sawdust and newspapers a foot thick inside the wood-frame walls. He had them hauled to a two-acre plot of land on a sand hill near the foot of Mount Cristo Rey in Anapra, New Mexico. It didn’t look half bad. By local standards, it was pretty nice.

Grandpa took me everywhere. He took me to Mexico and California, the feed store and the barber. He helped me raise a flock of pigeons. He taught me how to kill the squabs with a knife, humanely suggesting that I push a little harder to end their lives more quickly. He intentionally got us kicked out of a remote Oklahoma diner for speaking Spanish, evidently mistaken for Mexicans, since the sign in the window explained that such foreign personages were not welcome there. He helped me spell it out–“No Mexicans Allowed”–after we were ushered out to the sidewalk.

He despised racism, even before that word was widely used. He admired frugality and invention. He spray-painted the tubs of old washing machines and turned them into outdoor planters. He showed acquaintances his gas bill to prove how well-insulated his boxcar house was. He was a big man with enormous hands who made his way among rough people in rough places. I was a skinny, fearful kid and I believed I was the apple of his eye. I guess I still believe it.

My grandpa was keenly interested in sustainability, but he certainly wouldn’t have called it that. He loved cheap, beautiful things. He loved inventing things from junk then showing them off. He loved the kinship he felt with the poor people he lived around. He was willing to live a little more simply than necessary in order to celebrate that kinship. He loved the feeling that, with a little ingenuity, a person could create a fine life from almost nothing. He loved working his theories out in the real world. His stories were populated by horses, goats, chickens, cattle and mules, inventors and visionaries, crackpots, goofball ideas and technological miracles. And now, of course, my stories are too.

Excerpted from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want by Bryan Welch, publisher and editorial director of Natural Home & Garden. Read his blog, Rancho Cappuccino.