Celebrating 100 years

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I posted this on my Courier-Journal blog on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, but wanted to include it here, too. (The photo at left was taken at the last of his several big parties, taken four days after his birthday by Everett Garrison.)

My (other) big story

There won’t be millions of people at the celebration I’m attending this afternoon, but I want to tell you about it anyway. After watching the big event in Washington D.C., I’m heading to Stanford, Ky., where Delbert A. Crawford, my father’s father, celebrates his 100th birthday today.

Everybody seems to know my dad, former C-J columnist Byron Crawford, or at least has a story to tell me about him. Some of them may even be true. And when you write sports columns, everybody seems to have an opinion of you.

But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you something about a man born 100 years ago today, whose influence runs heavy in both of us. And more of the following comes from my dad’s recollection and composition than my own.

Delbert Crawford was born in Madison County, Ky., in the waning days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. When he was 9 years old, the family moved to Stanford, Ky. Delbert, his older brother Harry and their father George drove a one-horse wagon, pulled by their trusty horse, Old Henry, over the mountains from Laurel into Lincoln County. Because he was the smallest and lightest, Delbert was instructed to drive the wagon with all their belongings to the top of the mountain, then wait for his father and brother. He had such a big time on the ride that he didn’t stop until he got down the mountain and into the town of Livingston, where he finally held up and waited for them.

Something about him, it seemed, already wanted to roam. During the 1930s, he and his friend Joe Hackley, who had studied geology at Harvard, and another friend, struck out in a Model-T Ford for New Mexico to go prospecting for gold. One day, he has told many times, after a day of prospecting he wound up on the wrong trail on the way back to camp. He found himself lost in a box canyon, riding up one hill and down another, taking wrong turn after wrong turn as the sun was setting in the desert. He finally noticed that his burro kept wanting to go a different direction, so he finally just let the animal go where it wanted. It led him straight back to the campsite.

Delbert hung on for a year with Joe Hackley before deciding to seek his fortune elsewhere. He wound up herding sheep on the high range in Arizona, and I remember him telling me about searching for lost ones, and fending off rattlesnakes. I believe it must have been those snakes that ran him out of that line of work. He worked alone with a herd of sheep and a dog, living in little more than a lean-to tent, with the rank owner riding out to replenish his supplies of beans and bacon and other delicacies every few weeks.

He made his way all the way out to California, lived in Los Angeles for a time. But money got low and work was hard to find. And when he figured when he had just about enough cash to get home with, he ought to do that. He bought a bus ticket back to Kentucky, and home he came, riding through a Midwest dusty with Depression.

In a hundred years, I suppose, you do just about everything. He rode a horse to school and remembers racing a high school classmate, Robert Martin, who would go on to become a prominent state legislator and president of Eastern Kentucky University. Delbert remembers that his horse, Buck, was so fast that “he’d usually take off before I got on, and I had to throw myself up on his back while he was running.” He wanted to be a jockey for a time, but outgrew it. He played football for a while, and was one of the fastest players on his team at Stanford High School. But a tendency to stop suddenly when he encountered big linemen led to a premature end to that career. He worked for the A&P Grocery Co. in Louisville — back when the shoppers brought their lists to a counter and the clerks went scurrying to put together the order. He and his brother Harry owned a small trucking company that hauled cattle and tobacco in central Kentucky for a time.

But mainly, Delbert farmed on his family’s property along Hanging Fork Creek, married the beautiful Lucille Garrison, and had one child, my father.

I haven’t been around many 100-year-olds, I must tell you. But I’d bet that he remembers more about his life than I do about mine. This past summer, we were at their home on a quiet street in Stanford — where they moved after leaving the farm years ago — and someone interested in family genealogy called their house. He’d never met the person, but talked for 20 or 30 minutes, answering their questions about relations he knew.

And he still has a surprise or two. Years ago, on his 50th wedding anniversary, he revealed a secret. He told Lucille that, “Joe Hackley and I left two gold claims unworked in the mountains of New Mexico. They’re hidden in Prince Albert tobacco cans with our papers inside and buried under two piles of rocks. I’m giving you those claims for our golden wedding anniversary.”

For years, many have believed he had a fortune in gold buried out in those New Mexico mountains, and only worked as a shepherd and farmer so no one would suspect he was wealthy.

If that’s the case, he has taken the ruse a long way. He once gave my grandmother, whose birthday is Dec. 22, one new house slipper for her birthday, and another three days later for Christmas.

Outside of his wife, I don’t know of anyone who has aged more gracefully. He doesn’t hear or see as well as he used to, but never seems to despair over it. At age 99, he still was able to beat my dad at a game or two of pool. Several years ago, he remarked that he was still helping wife Lucille mow the yard.

“She’s never started the lawnmower yet that the tank hasn’t been full,” he said.

I have three children who love him, and love being around him. He once walked down his basement steps, maybe for the first time in a year, because my 3-year-old son wanted him down there.

He recalls seeing Teddy Roosevelt on a whistle-stop train tour. Has lived through two World Wars and the Great Depression. When Barack Obama takes the oath of office today, it will be his 19th President. When Delbert was born, there were but 46 stars on the American Flag, Ty Cobb was leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series and the Wright Brothers were trying to develop flying machines for the U.S. military. The first Model-T Ford had just rolled off the line one year earlier, and there were perhaps 20 miles of paved roads in the U.S. Delbert was born in the same year as Barry Goldwater, Errol Flynn, Eudora Welty, James Agee, Jessica Tandy and Benny Goodman. And the man who is the closest thing to a real cowboy that I know was born just months before the death of Frederic Remington, the most famous artist of the American West.

It’s a life, frankly, that’d take more than a hundred pages to do justice. But I just wanted to give you a little bit of the picture. On a day that will go down in history, I’m proud to be celebrate a man who has lived it.

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