Grandpa’s Path to Simplicity

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My interest in sustainability started with my fun-loving grandpa.

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 read “Wylie Rose Blake.” Later on, his parents must have thought better of the “Rose” part. The nickname made it a moot point.

Raised in Oklahoma by Okies and Texans, he was a storyteller. As was the tradition in that part of the country, his stories were loud, entertaining and occasionally factual. His father was a slight, blue-eyed cowboy who never weighed more than 130 pounds. His mother was dark-skinned and big, topping 300 pounds. Physically, Wad took more after his mother. Among his towheaded siblings, he claimed he “looked like a rat turd in a bowl of rice.”

He greeted everyone with a booming “Well, howdy!” or “Que hubo?,” depending on their native language, and an enthusiastic abrazo. He spoke Spanish and taught me the rudiments. He also taught me how to say “Kiss my ass” in Choctaw. I thought he was brilliantly fluent and articulate. I can still hear his confident Mexican slang delivered in an Okie drawl. It makes me smile.

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, where simple living was the way of life. 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. Twenty Grand once bucked so high that Wad and the horse landed in the bed of a wagon. Wad’s Uncle Will was so strong he could lift a 500-pound cotton bale on his back. His dad, while riding the trail drives between Texas and Kansas, was once thrown into a tree by a herd of stampeding cattle.

I could go on and on. I gradually stopped believing in the accuracy of his stories, but I never stopped believing in their integrity.

Grandpa surrounded his yard, located 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,” but on the sign he’d misspelled belly as “Belley.” He loved pointing that out to visitors, just so he could share a laugh at his own expense.

Wad built his home from three defunct wooden boxcars nailed together, and mounted them on a cinder block foundation. Because he was a signal maintainer for the Southern Pacific Railway, he got a tip that the railroad was selling cheap, worn-out boxcars. They had been refrigerator cars, and were already insulated with sawdust and newspapers a foot thick inside the wood-frame walls. He had them hauled to the 2-acre plot of land on a sand hill near the foot of Mount Cristo Rey in Anapra, N.M. I was 6 when I “helped” him build the carport. When I was 18, he was still showing guests the ragged notches I sawed in the rafters when he wasn’t looking. Over the course of a couple of decades he enclosed the crawl space and put up siding. It didn’t look half bad, and by local standards it was pretty nice.

He showed acquaintances his gas bill to prove how well-insulated his boxcar-house was. A small gas space heater in the center room warmed the whole house. It was “air-conditioned” by a single swamp cooler. We would sit in front of the grate and let the cool, moist air condense on our faces.

Grandpa took me everywhere. He took me to Mexico and California, the feed store and the barber. He put me on horses and tried to put me on a unicycle. 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.

Wad despised racism, even before that word was widely used. He intentionally got us kicked out of a remote Oklahoma diner for speaking Spanish. Evidently we were mistaken for Mexicans, because 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 to the sidewalk.

He admired frugality and invention. He spray-painted the tubs of old washing machines and turned them into outdoor planters. He revered recycling, another word not in use at the time. The house, the sheds, the fences and the yard art were all created from junk. He loved simple living well before it became a lifestyle choice.

Wad thought I should learn how to make lye soap and how to skin opossums. I was barely out of diapers when he started telling people I could read. I figured out how to read just to live up to my billing. He told people I was strong, so I started carrying big rocks around the yard.

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 simply — even more so 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 out his theories by practicing them 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.

Bryan Welch, Publisher and Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.