Actually, we never called him that. He was always Grandpa Clapper. Just as my other grandfather was always Grandpa Nielsen.
Grandpa Clapper was a genius. Not just smart – a full blown genius. And if the stories about him are true, he was more than just a bit wacky. Like on his way to get married he thought it would be cute to eat the bridal bouquet. So he did.
He grew up with his two brothers, Leland and Carl, in Two Harbors, Minnesota, around the dawn of the 20th century. His brothers never left the area and I believe their families are still there. Grandpa Clapper, however, headed to Ames, Iowa, where in three years he earned a degree with honors in civil engineering.
All three of them worked for the Duluth, Mesabi and Iron Range Railroad carrying iron ore to the boats in Two Harbors. One story had it that every year the three brothers stocked a boxcar with provisions, then parked it on an abandoned siding where it became their base camp for the hunting season. I believe it – Leland was chief engineer for the railroad.
It must have been there that he met and married Jenny Jones, a pretty Welsh woman whose story I know little about. The poor woman didn’t even get flowers for her wedding. Their two children, my father, John, and his brother, Leland Carlyle (guess the inspiration for that name), were born twelve years apart.
While Leland and Carl worked for the railroad, Grandpa specialized in improving concrete technology. Two of his inventions ultimately resulted in patents (see below) and had long lasting impact on concrete itself and the methods for utilizing it.
When war broke out In 1941 his family was turned upside down. Grandpa, a proven civil engineer, was called upon to help build runways for the Army Air Corps. Elder son, John, had a new baby – me. Wife, Jenny, died of cancer. And Leland, now thirteen, was up for grabs. Ultimately we all (I speak as though I remember something of this) landed in Texas.
Grandpa remarried almost immediately, but his new wife had a hard time coping with a confused adolescent so Leland bounced back and forth between his father and older brother. This meant that I was blessed with an uncle who doubled as a big brother to me – a relationship that still means the world to me, but that’s another story.
After the war, the families moved back to the midwest: Grandpa with his wife to St. Louis then Chicago; Mom and Dad to Park Ridge; while Leland was in limbo until he was old enough to join the Air Force.
Grandpa’s hasty choice of a second wife proved to be difficult for everyone. Between his idiosyncrasies and his teenage son, at varying times both were invited out of her home. Now in my teens, I was sharing my bedroom with aging Grandpa – the beginning of Grandpa Clapper as I really knew him.
By this time he was an absent minded professor – living in a cloud that excluded most everyone around him. He had become quite hard of hearing. While for most, this would be a disability, for him it was a blessing. When he didn’t want to interact with people – most of the time – he’d simply turn off his hearing aid.
The one interaction I could always count on was his love of cards. But if one of us wasn’t around to play canasta or pinochle, he was perfectly happy playing double deck solitaire. Whatever the game, he was a formidable player.
Being with him was an experience not to be forgotten. He always had an abundant supply of cigars. Cheap ones. The aroma permeated everything around him.
Especially his car. Not only did it reek – whether new or old it was a wreck. His absent mindedness extended to his driving. While living with us, we “enjoyed” the use of his car. Although it was less than a year old, it had been in two collisions. One was literally a train wreck.
It was during these, my teen years, that I fully appreciated his genius. When I struggled with math problems I could always turn to this 75 year old man. I’m not talking about algebra – I was taking AP calculus. He never bothered to memorize equations for complex problems, he’d just use calculus to derive the solution directly. And he did it faster than I could with a slide rule.
I like to say I’m good at arithmetic – my GrandpaLyle was a mathematical genius.