Conversations with Gramps

I spent the past week in Buffalo, New York visiting my aunt and cousins and grandparents; we stopped by the Broadway Market for makowiec and placek, spent an afternoon wandering around Forest Lawn Cemetery and went wine tasting in the Finger Lakes. My favorite part of the trip, though, was going through old family photos with my grandfather and hearing more of his favorite stories. I thought I’d share two of the stories here–and I hope they make you laugh as much as I did.

Cardinal Mindszenty High School, Dunkirk, New York

My grandfather attended high school at Cardinal Mindszenty in Dunkirk, New York in 1958 at the age of 16; one October evening, after school, he and his friends were wandering around the city–and ended up at the old tunnel under the railroad tracks. One of his friends suggested that they fill the tunnel with fallen leaves, and another–Gramps assured me that it was not his idea–convinced the rest to light the leaves on fire, just to see what would happen. And I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

According to Gramps, the fire lit up the tunnel, and the autumn wind sent it into a frenzy. The flames filled the entirety of the tunnel before arcing up and forming a circle around the train tracks above. And that’s when they heard the train–and it was heading toward them, toward the tunnel and the flames. Gramps says the fire would have been hard to miss, though, and the conductor pulled the brakes just in time. He and his friends bolted–and they were never caught.

The second story takes place a handful of years later, after my grandfather returned home from the Vietnam War and married my grandmother 50 years ago. Gramps had recently lost his job in Jamestown, and he’d driven out to Dunkirk to visit his parents for the weekend. He stopped by the local bar on Saturday night and ran into an old friend from high school; when the friend asked him where he was working, my grandfather didn’t have a good answer–so he made one up.

Yearbook photos from my grandfather’s high school years

Gramps told his friend that he was employed by the city, and he claimed that he was working with a team on a field study. The study? Whether or not it would be possible to convert their old, abandoned high school into apartments for new families moving to Dunkirk. He thought it would be a good idea–an important use for Cardinal Mindszenty High–but it was completely untrue. He told his parents all about it at dinner on Sunday evening.

What he didn’t know, though, was that a reporter for the Dunkirk Evening Observer–as well as the radio host for Dunkirk’s local station–were having drinks at the end of the bar. And that next Monday morning, all of the headlines were about the field study at Cardinal Mindszenty High. His mother called him first thing that morning; when he answered, there was a pause, and then, “What have you done?” It was a small town, and I guess any news was major news; Gramps had to lay low for a few weeks until the story blew over.

Random photos from my trip to Buffalo

What’s the lesson of this one? It’s probably that you shouldn’t be, well, like my grandfather, actually. Maybe it’s a public-service-announcement reminder to ask questions and record family stories before it’s too late. But in any event, these stories made me laugh–and cringe–and they felt like the perfect stories to share for 52 Ancestors’ “comedy” week. I’ll get back to the ancestor profiles next time–

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