My dear Grandpa Snail, on Mama Snail’s side, passed away in 2006, and I like to spend some time remembering him on his birthday, January 4, each year.
As I’ve written before, Grandpa Snail was born in 1920 and grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Here’s a picture postcard of his grade school class:Don’t they look straight out of Our Gang/The Little Rascals? I’m guessing the class is in first grade or so, making the date c. 1926. Grandpa Snail is first on the left in the second row. The photo is a little enlarged here. (Actual size 3 1/2″ x 4 1/4″.) I have it framed on my shell wall.I think this picture postcard is from Grandpa Snail’s family too:I wish I could ask Grandpa Snail who Ben Hur here was. I’d also love to know about his teacher and classmates in the school postcard. I think it’s very cool that not only was Grandpa Snail a Jew in such a small Midwestern town at that time, but that he had an African-American classmate. But I’ve often wondered whether the one black student’s placement in the back corner of the photo was more than coincidence. Did the photographer want him hidden? Did the other kids exclude him?
Even though all the photos of Grandpa Snail’s childhood look so charming to me, as Council Bluffs still did when I visited, he and his siblings all left town as young adults, and avoided going back for decades. When Mama Snail joined her cousins for a tour with her uncle, Uncle Babe sped them through, refusing to stop anywhere. He, Grandpa Snail, and their other brother and sister always called it “a mean little town.”
The library moved to another building around 2000, but the old library building now appropriately serves as a Union Pacific Railroad Museum. This postcard isn’t mine, by the way. I found it on a wonderful webpage of antique Iowa postcards.
Any way, the great industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded the building of public libraries all over the world. If you’re in a small American town with a library built before 1920, chances are it’s a Carnegie library. And for some reason, after New York and Ohio, Carnegie built more of them in Iowa (101) than any state, fortunately for Grandpa Snail. I think of my grandfather any time I see The Music Man. Sadly, instead of the Iowa town ultimately embracing Marian Madam Librarian and her love, the two librarians who looked after little Grandpa Snail were run out of town for being lesbian lovers. Grandpa Snail never forgave Council Bluffs.
But one New Year’s day, his straw-lined coat barely keeping him from freezing, Grandpa Snail caught a radio broadcast of the Rose Parade in Southern California, “And it’s a beautiful day here in sunny Pasadena. Clear skies, highs in the mid-70s…” Grandpa Snail bought a train ticket to Los Angeles that day. His sister was already settled in L.A. as an actress, and his younger brother whom I’ve mentioned, Uncle Babe, was living there too. Uncle Babe was dating a young woman who was having plumbing trouble in her apartment. Uncle Babe told her his brother had just gotten into town and he was an engineer, he’d send him over to see what the problem was. The young woman opened her door one day to find Grandpa Snail ready to help, and her first thought was, “He’s cute…” So that’s how Grandpa Snail met Grandma Snail.
I don’t know if he figured out what was wrong with the pipes in her apartment, but Grandpa Snail had served in the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII. That’s when the Iowa boy from the mean little town discovered he loved to travel. Grandma Snail did not, but fortunately, his work as a civil structural engineer often took him to the Pacific due to post-WWII American expansion. New infrastructure was called for, for instance, when Guam became a U.S. territory in 1950. Grandpa Snail’s life had turned from The Music Man to South Pacific.This was the happiest period of Grandpa Sail’s life. His work called for him to live part-time in Hawaii, which became the fiftieth American State in 1959. Here’s a postcard he or Grandma Snail brought back of the Surf Rider Hotel in Waikiki that year:
“Boat Mail 2¢ Air-Mail 4¢”
Toward the end of Grandpa Snail’s life, Mama Snail gave him a coffee table book of Midcentury Hawaii photographs. He had advanced Alzheimer’s then, but when we’d look at the Hawaii book, he’d light up with recognition.
Check out this post of more of Grandpa Snail’s midcentury Hawaii postcards.
Grandpa Snail’s last Pacific project was for a reason opposite of the others. In 1986, the post-WWII U.S. trusteeship of Micronesia was up, allowing the country to declare independence. Grandpa Snail worked on roads, schools, and hospitals in preparation for the transfer of power. He brought back a gorgeous set of postcards. This is a bank! The state of Yap’s traditional currency is coins of shiny calcite stone. Quarried from distant islands where the natives were not always welcoming, a coin’s value depends on its size and the difficulty in bringing it to Yap. That’s why the coins in this photo are larger than the children. The holes through them made it possible to carry the stones by pole. Carrying the largest ones require twenty men. Although the U.S. dollar is now the national currency, ownership of stone money is still transferred–though the coins usually stay in place at the bank due to the effort of moving them–for traditional occasions such as marriages, transfer of land title, and to compensate an aggrieved party for damages.
Click here to see the rest of Grandpa Snail’s Micronesia postcards.
The one trip I took with Grandpa Snail was for a reunion to the extended family’s homebase of Omaha, Nebraska.Omaha is just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs, so it was on this trip that I got to see Grandpa Snail’s hometown with him. Mama Snail took a picture of us on the library steps.
Grandpa Snail’s last trip was to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Grandma Snail brought back this postcard:Uncle Babe organized the trip for his wife, kids and grandchildren. When he asked Grandma and Grandpa Snail to come with them, travel-nervous Grandma Snail of course didn’t want to. But her old beau Uncle Babe was one of the few people who could persuade her to do something. She ended up having a marvelous time, and was so glad she and Grandpa Snail went for a last trip together.
He always loved warm places. A handsome man with a nicely tanned face, he relished the seat in the sun no one else wanted. Even when he’d basically shut down, so to speak, with Alzheimer’s and physical frailty, Grandpa Snail relished sitting in the sun. One of the strongest mental pictures I have of him is him outside in a white grated chair, eyes closed, and face tilted up to the light.