My dad angrily stormed out the back of the car lot with Grandpa following close behind. “Get in the truck!” my dad shouted at me. Dad got in the driver’s seat, Grandpa got in the truck beside him and I sat between Grandpa and the door.
Dad started the old truck and drove fast out of the drive, throwing gravel out the back as the tires spun. I can’t remember a word Dad was saying, only the shouting and the spitting and the veins pressing out from his bald head as he yelled and screamed at my grandpa. To this day I don’t know what set Dad off or what the argument was about. I only remember my feelings of fear and shock at seeing my father so angry and disrespectful to the man I idolized.
Grandpa’s home was only across the Wabash River from the car lot, barely a mile away so, luckily, the yelling didn’t last long. As we approached his home to let him out and while Dad was still yelling, Grandpa turned and asked me, “Isn’t it awful the way a son treats his dad?” He was wrong, I now know, for asking that question but those were the only words he managed to get in on the eternal one mile ride.
On the way back to the car lot, Dad was silent most of the time but had only one thing to say to me as we pulled back onto the car lot. “Son,” Dad broke the silence with anger still raging deep, “there are two kinds of people in this world. There are dreamers and there are doers. Your grandpa is a dreamer and I’m a doer.” With that, he opened the car door and stormed back into the car lot. Nothing was ever spoken about it again. This was one of my earliest experiences at the car lot.
My grandfather and father often argued and disagreed about the way the car lot should operate. I remember the frequent shouting and arguing and the long days of silence afterward. Grandpa owned the business up until he sold it to Dad in 1976, the year I graduated from high school. So I was always curious about why Dad acted as though he was the boss, as though it belonged to him long before it ever did. I now understand that dreamers and the doers often naturally clash.
South Side Sales grew from a small lot on the corner of Canal and Broadway, offering only a few cars for sale, into an inventory of 20-30 cars. It took the doer, Dad, to push the dreamer, Grandpa, into spending more on inventory that the customers were clamoring for. Their specialty was low mileage, four door, “post” sedans. Post sedans were four-door cars with steel posts between the two side doors and were cars like late-60’s and early-70’s station wagons, Chevrolet Impalas and Ford LTD’s. They sold those as fast as they bought them. Every conservative old lady, farmer, and German Baptist from around the area flocked to South Side Sales to buy these reliable used cars.
Ironically, the dreamer and doer joined to make their inventory work very well for them. Grandpa and Dad bought mostly post four-door sedans but they often bought a car for the dreamers to put front-and-center in the inventory lineup. At times it was a bright red convertible or a cute little coupe. Dad admitted to me that he bought those cars to attract the dreamers like the young kids who couldn’t afford them. They would come onto the lot just to sit in the driver’s seat and dream but they had to drag their parents onto the lot to do it. More frequently, the parents wound up buying the ugly four-door and drive away with their kids’ dreams dashed. Occasionally, the car lot would score big and sell both cars to the parents, one for the spoiled child and one for the conservative parents.
Strangely enough, while Grandpa, the dreamer, and Dad, the doer, often fought in ways that made me cringe, it was in the appeal to both types of customers that made their business so successful. I don’t think they saw the irony in the clash between their own different styles and in the symbiotic connection between the two styles in their merchandising.
Grandpa was a dreamer and a visionary, but not really in the entrepreneurial sense. Oh sure, he started a doughnut shop that failed and, 20 years later, a car lot that flourished and in both cases, he rose from the ashes of defeat and started afresh, following a dream of what could be. He didn’t allow his doughnut shop to dash his hopes of success in his later venture. That’s the trademark of a dreamer. Grandpa’s dreams were loftier and more enduring than building a business empire.
The real indication, for me, of Grandpa’s tendency to dream came in the way he would instill in me a vision for a deeper and more profound sense of family connection as I grew up. Every couple of years, Grandpa and Grandma would take me on family history trips. They took me to the places where they grew up and played as children and where they met and fell in love. We followed the path where my early ancestors moved through the years as they settled the wilderness of what is now Indiana. I spent many hours in museums and libraries researching family history and searching for the names of ancestors.
On one memorable occasion, when I was about 12 years old, we walked together in old Vincennes, the oldest continually inhabited European settlement in Indiana. It was founded in 1732 by French fur traders on the Wabash River. As we stood on the banks of the river, Grandpa would say with his hand motioning across the water, “Just imagine, Stan, that your ancestor ventured up this river on a flatboat from Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania and landed right here at Fort Vincennes in 1780.” Then he’d wax eloquently a vivid description of the challenges they faced in forging a new home in the wilderness. My eyes would clearly see his dreams as he passed on to me the same stories his grandfather shared with him when he was young. Grandpa was looking out across the Wabash River with a dreamer’s eye. At that point, I was too.
On another family history trip, Grandpa and I stood atop the hill at the old Williams Cemetery on Route 67 just south of Freedom, Indiana. In that cemetery are buried many of our early ancestors including the first of our line born within the territory, William F. Williams. He was born in 1803 in a stockade fort, Fort Knox, Indiana, just a mile upstream from Fort Vincennes on the Wabash River. The cemetery is perched high on a hill overlooking the White River Valley and offers a beautiful view, especially in the fall. I followed him as he showed me some of the gravestones and he shared memories of the family buried there. He talked about his bearded grandpa, Solomon, and how he moved in
with them after his grandma died. He told me about helping his grandpa keep the grass trimmed in the cemetery by herding sheep up to the graveyard where they would be kept there overnight to trim the grass and how the dew on the grass would give them the water
they needed. Then, the next morning, he and his grandpa Solomon would walk back to the cemetery atop the hill and herd the sheep back to the farm. Then, with the same wave of the hand across the scenery, Grandpa said, “Stan, at one time, as far as the eye could see, lived only members of the Williams family.” I was seeing it all with the dreamer’s eye.
He understood that in doing this, he was instilling within me a sense of purpose and responsibility that extends far beyond me. He was connecting me to ancestors through stories, library research and time spent with them so they could tell stories to make my ancestors come alive. Grandpa was helping me understand that all I am today and ever will be is built upon all the sacrifices and hard work from family before me. He wove within me a profound sense of responsibility to my family name. I grew to understand that whatever I do in word and deed either diminishes or enhances the family legacy.
When my oldest son, Kyle, was about 17 years old we were having a testy father-son moment. During the heated exchange about something he wanted to do that was impermissible, he said, “What does it matter, dad? If I screw up it doesn’t hurt anyone but me.” From the depths of my being where the memories from my family history trips took root, I responded firmly and with the conviction of ancestors to back me up, “It doesn’t hurt just you! What you do in all of your life either detracts from or adds to the respect and character of your last name. I will not allow you to soil the good name given to you!” I cannot remember what the issue was. I only know that I must have channeled my grandparents and all their teaching in that one very firm and deeply passionate response.
It takes a dreamer’s eye to see well beyond the immediate moment of one’s own selfish motives. I saw this in my grandfather and grandmother. I saw it in the way they lived and passed on a sense of family connection and legacy. And, most recently, my dreamer grandfather spoke to me once again in a poem he wrote many years ago but I only read recently. My Aunt Myra McKenna, his daughter, sent it to me along with a treasure trove of old letters and poems he wrote over his lifetime. This poem was likely written when my grandparents moved from their familiar childhood homes near Freedom and Spencer, Indiana to Indianapolis in about 1928 where they began their family. This poem proves my father correct. Grandpa was a dreamer.
 German Baptists, or Old German Baptist Brethren, are a pacifist religious group that eschews modern conveniences and dresses plainly in much the same way that Amish do, except they drive (but only dark colored sedans without radios).