May 22, 2021
I used to believe, before the events of the last year and a half, that I could fix anything if only I could find the right combination of words to make sense of the chaos.
If the last year and a half has taught me anything, it is that there are some things that no oration can fix.
So instead of embarking on a Sissyphean task to find the right words to make so many wrongs right, I’m going to tell you a story.
It’s a story about a man named Gene, but I mostly called him Grandpa or Old Man.
It’s a story about a man who loved stories. This is a story about a man who most certainly wasn’t a saint, even if an intrepid marketing agency canonized a soft caricature of him as Saint Gene. I’m not sure what the Vatican charges for Sainthood now a days, but I can tell you that if you know the right fella in Indianapolis, you can make a sinner into a saint for about 25 large.
It’s a story about a man who loved dirty jokes and dingy bars and great big pontoon boats where he could stick a three piece band on the front and get a whole mess of people get together.
One of the things he loved most of all was telling people to come see him…if you ever get in the Pentwater area, at the top of the hill over by Val Du Lakes. Or if you ever get down to Okeechobee, I’ll take you on a boat ride and show you an alligator. Or Anderson, come on down and we’ll get you a Spanish dog and a root beer float, just delicious.
Plenty of people say “come see me,” but Grandpa always meant it from the bottom of his heart. He was a man who loved people, not always well, but he loved them the best way he knew how with an open door for all.
This man loved planting Christmas trees, even if that whole growing them bit got tedious. He loved cattle auctions, even when he had no intention of buying a cow and he loved 4-H fairs. He loved old country music and mediocre prime rib.
He was a man who loved pointing out the gentleman’s clubs that he and Grandpa Ivan and Uncle Billy had stopped at between Okeechobee and Alexandria, but he was also the man who, as much as he liked a nap, who always wanted to be awake when we went past Refro Valley, just so that he could tell the story of when Ivan had the only radio around, and people would come over on Saturday nights to dance and play cards and listen to the country music program from the Renfro Valley, “When country music had a little more Gospel to it…you know, like the Gaithers.”
Grandpa loved telling that story, every year, and it illuminated no small part of his character. As a little boy, he learned that if you have something that people enjoy, they are going to want to hang around with you. For a little boy who eventually aged into the appearance (if not the judgement) of an old man, this simple story shaped so much of his personality.
Have things that people enjoy, and people will want to be around you. That was one of the very few lessons that Ivan taught him that he ever took to heart.
Grandpa loved running around the Alexandria area with 50 lbs of asparagus this time of year. He loved it because having a bunch of produce was like a shot clock, and he had to go see people before it ran out. Until I got engaged, I was completely unaware that some people found it impolite to just stop by and knock on the door. That’s what Geno did, and people always seemed to enjoy his company, so I did it too.
He loved playing cards and going to auctions and $5 spaghetti dinners and a big bowl of cherries in season. He loved shooting craps and those godawful blue jump suits and trucker hats from ag companies long before the hipsters tried to make them cool.
He loved telling people that he had two PhD’s from Purdue, which seemed a lot more impressive until you realized that he was talking about the two post-hole diggers he bought on his way home from a 2 week animal husbandry course.
Then it was impressive in a different way.
Geno loved the Eagles and the VFW and the Elks and any other fraternal organization with low enough standards to let him in, because he hated being alone. His philosophy, which he tried, like so many other philosophies to hand down to me and Erik, was that no matter where you are, you can walk into one of these operations and get a drink and your bearings. All you’ve got to do is smile, say where you’re in from, and you’ll meet someone who knows someone you know and then you won’t be alone.
Gene Moorman was a walking analog LinkedIn for another age.
He was also a rolling Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and small-town classifieds rolled into one. Outside of a period where bringing his own bed with him everywhere he went led him to conversion vans, my grandfather drove a truck. It always had a camper shell on it, and often as not, it had a trailer hitched up behind it. Grandpa was always moving, and he had that kind of deep, intuitive understanding of supply and demand. He could have never drawn the graph, but he knew it in his bones like people did before Newton named gravity.
Few things brought my grandfather as much joy as an empty trailer, a pocket full of cash, and a random for sale sign. He loved buying something where it was cheap, and dragging it up the road to somewhere that he thought he could make a few bucks. This included pontoons, snowmobiles, dirt bikes, tractors, and about anything else he could convince someone to help him load onto a trailer.
That love of an empty trailer got him into the Christmas tree business.
A few years ago he told me how the Moorman’s got into the Christmas tree business, and as so many of Geno’s stories went, it started in a bar. He and Dick Fuller were drinking sometime in November after the crops were harvested and the Root Beer Stand was closed for the season. Apparently Meemaw had told him that he had to find something to do that winter, so he looked at old Dick and said, “Dick, whaddya say we get your 1 ton truck and go get some Christmas Trees? I know a spot from when I was up north in the Army.”
Dick must have said yes, and they went back to the barn to weld some poles to the front hooks on the truck, then built a big U off the back of the truck with 2x6s, suspending the whole thing with wire like some gerry rigged Golden Gate Bridge.
They got up to Scottville, and allegedly bought 180 unbaled trees. Having loaded 180 baled trees on a 24 foot trailer, this seems a little exaggerated, but Geno was never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.
They started back down 31, back when it was a bumpy road that ran through every small town from Mears to Indianapolis, and passed a bottle of Old Granddad back and forth. It started snowing a little bit down the road, and those unbaled trees can hold an awful lot of snow, it wasn’t too many miles before their ingenious handbuilt bed extension had snapped off in the middle of the road, dropping trees and creating a real problem.
Geno, always one for getting out of a tight spot, looked at Dick and said, “Dick now there was a fire station back up the road a ways. Go back there, I’ve got an idea.”
I’m sure he walked in with a little stutter in his step as he announced to the fire station, “Good news boys, you’re about to be in the Christmas tree business.”
Like Tom Sawyer, Grandpa convinced these firefighters to go pick up his trees from the middle of the road, and bring them back to the fire station where they could sell them for a little extra jingle before Christmas.
Decades later, that fire station still sells Christmas trees as an annual fundraiser…all because Gene Moorman walked in with a problem created by his own short sightedness and the kind of idea that was proof of his unique genius.
They continued on, before getting to Warsaw. Apparently there was a fire on Main Street in Warsaw, and they had been rerouted down an alley. As they drove down the alley (I assume with a small Christmas tree riding in the middle seat) Dick said to Grandpa, “Damn Gene, that must be a bad fire, they are evacuating, you can see them turning off the lights in each one of these homes.”
Grandpa, realizing that the two 12 foot poles sticking up from the bumper were pulling down all the power lines, said, “You’re right Dick, keep driving, we’ve got to get out of here.”
Eventually the rolling reign of terror pulled into the Root Beer Stand, and Grandpa made enough money to continue on with trees for the next 50 years.
Grandpa loved taking his buddies up to the Farm. He always loved telling the story of when Uncle Billy planted a whole row of trees upside down. He loved the camaraderie when Andrew would bring up a crew to take down trees, and he loved pulling out as soon as the last trailer left and heading to Florida, because Geno HATED cold weather.
I remember, as we pulled out of Bedford after my 8th grade graduation, he was taking me up to Andrew to watch the Little 500 for the first time. We didn’t get 10 miles down the road, when he saw a pontoon for sale, whipped his big Dodge into the driveway, walked around it twice, kicked the tires on the trailer, and said, “Christopher, call your dad and have him meet us out here with a check, I reckon this thing will float just fine.”
Grandpa loved the feeling of chasing a thrill, but was notorious for chasing it a little too long. He loved the feeling of being loved, and having finally found the limits of my grandmother’s patience sometime in the early 80s, decided to chase it unsuccessfully another three times. Any lessons that Grandpa had to teach about marriage were of the left handed variety.
He was one of the luckiest SOBs I’ll ever meet. The fact that his luck ran low at the end was confirmation of its existence. Like the time that he still had 17 snowmobiles sitting at the Root Beer Stand on March 5th, and had no where else to take them. He was about to take a big bath, and frankly he couldn’t afford it because until the Root Beer stand opened up, he didn’t have any money coming in. So Geno calls some random auctioneer that he knows and says “have you ever hosted a snowmobile auction?” Now in Central Indiana, snowmobiles were incredibly rare, so this auctioneer answers honestly, and says, “No Gene, I don’t even know what one is worth.”
Grandpa replied, “well me either but they’ve got to be gone, so I guess we’ll find out together.”
March is a pretty hit and miss month for snow around these parts. But Geno needed a miracle, and a miracle was what he got. It snowed 6 inches the night before the auction, and instead of taking a well deserved bath on these snowmobiles, he ended up turning a hefty profit.
Might we all be as lucky as Gene at his best, but know when to walk away.
Geno loved a hustle. Loved anything that involved a little steel cashbox and a bunch of small bills, whether it was a yard sale or selling parking for Hootie and the Blowfish.
Grandpa had a fool proof plan for a random hustle:
- Find a drinking buddy
- Buddy must have kids old enough to run a cash box.
- Get 2 steel money boxes, two lawn chairs, and put some letters on the old light up arrow sign saying “Parking $40”
- Go have a drink, you just made $3600 bucks.
Grandpa loved being in the middle of things, whether he knew what he was doing or not. One of his many famous lines was, “Well Hell, that sounds like fun.” And he said it to whomever happened to be within earshot about 5 minutes before starting up the truck and heading that direction.
He loved a good long laugh that emanated from a lousy joke. The kind of laugh that ran his lungs to the edge of their capacity, and ended with the shadow of a hiccup and a contented coo, before he pulled of his glasses to wipe the residue of a happy tear from those eternally twinkling blue eyes, as he said “aw shit” ever so softly as he caught his breath.
He loved horses if they were Thouroughbreds and dogs if they were greyhounds. He loved little Cuban men with long wicker baskets strapped to their arms playing jai alai as long as the gambler sitting next to him that would agree that the fix was in.
In short, he loved life. Loved it like few men do. He loved it so much that he never quite came to grips with the fact that one day the party would be over. As Erik and Andrew loaded him into the truck for what we all knew would be his last trip from the top of Hoosier Hill. He didn’t look out across the dunes or the Christmas trees or the big lake with any recognition of his impending mortality.
Just as some people are born without the ability to feel pain, my grandfather was born without an introspective bone in his body. Why would there be? He’d proven the fact that he could not be killed like some mortal man, and why did that string of stirring upsets against the Grim Reaper have to end? He’d been cheating that lousy bastard since he started wrecking cars in his teens.
He was once lost at sea after a floating bender that started on the Ohio River and didn’t quite make it to Key West. This was before I could even remember, but Andrew said that the Coast Guard called the Root Beer Stand and said, “I’m sorry sir but your father was sending an SOS signal from the Gulf when we lost communication, we’re afraid he’s been lost at sea.” In Andrew’s retelling, he didn’t miss a beat before saying “Listen, I’m busy slinging weenies, you keep looking for him, you’ll find him.”
He blew an engine and lost the radio to a rogue wave that time, but 36 hours later, his luck pushed him into a trade wind and he found someone willing to take whatever cash was in his pocket to drag him back to shore.
He blew a two story house six inches off its foundation at the age of 70, and somehow survived both the explosion and the burns.
His brain finally revolted from decades of pickling in Old Granddad, and he was told that he’d never leave a nursing facility over a decade ago. After a few weeks of miraculous recovery, he was right back to his old tricks.
When the Grim Reaper decided that he wasn’t going to get this old duffer on his own, he decided to enlist the professionals in the Soviet Union to do old Geno in. The plot was subtle as it wound its way towards its dastardly ends, and that 4000 pound agent of death known as a Belarus 1522 attempted, much in the vein of Wile E Coyote’s many attempts on the Roadrunner, to do Geno in, to no avail.
There was even one day in the last year that I think Grandpa had finally decided to test the limits of his immortality specifically. A few weeks after Suzanne was killed, he was just flat in a bad mood. Normally, he would have tried to pick a fight with me, given my uncanny resemblance to my father, but this time, he decided to take it out of his defenseless yard, because it wouldn’t shout back.
Before I could even try to stop him, (this was a few months before his uncanny sure footedness finally left him) he was in the big John Deere yelling to tie on the disc. He started tearing up yard just because he could, before finally deciding he’d had enough. He then came back over to where Erik and I were standing, and told us to take the disc off, he was done. We’d barely removed the cotter pins before he was back in the tractor with a head of steam, heading straight for the paper birch trees. He did what Geno always did, gave it hell, shoved down the throttle and barreled towards his quarry.
As he got to the first tree, he started climbing up it with this tractor, coming within a few degrees of flipping the whole thing back over on himself. I wanted to go down and stop him, but Erik, in his laconic wisdom, looked at me like I was crazy, “You’ve never been able to tell him anything before, what is going to change now? If you do down there, the only thing that is going to happen is that the tractor is going to flip on top of you while he walks away.”
Just about that time, the tractor hitched up perilously another couple degrees and the white birch gave way, as things in nature tend to do when confronted with a stubborn man with a tractor.
As I said before, Geno was no saint. Saints don’t have that intractable defiance that says, “You love me where I’m at, or get out of my way.” That’s certainly not the philosophy that parenting books attempt to inculcate. If you were in a bar or NEAR a bar or at an auction or on a body of water, there was no better person on earth to be around than Gene Moorman. He always had some obscure local gossip or an idea to make a few quick bucks or a hot tip on a dog race.
He might have a horse in a trailer out in front of that bar, telling you with a quip “Well the last time that horse seemed like a good idea, he and I were at this bar together. So I figured I’d better bring him back to see if it seemed like a good idea this time too.”
Those characteristics, while they might make a legend, do not make for a great father, and he caused an immense amount of pain, not out of malice but out of his defining characteristic, defiance.
He left, for better or worse, a piece of himself and the echoes of his actions in each of his children and therefore his grandchildren. Sometimes it is easily recognizable, like when you hear yourself saying “Now listen here.” Sometimes it is pretty subtle, like when that switch flips in your mind and your decision making process gets short circuited…and evidence and logic have no place because your mind has been made up.
We can try to escape our inner-Gene, but there’s no getting rid of it. At his best, he was creative, ingenious, warm and inviting. At his worst, he was impetuous, foolhardy and incredibly hard on those whom were tied to him by blood…because in Geno’s mind, that meant they couldn’t leave.
He was however, an absolutely phenomenal grandfather to two little boys, which is a little amusing, because he really didn’t care much for either one of his grandfathers. Our mother’s greatest fear was that we would receive not one, but two Geno genes. And her fears were confirmed, we most certainly got a double dose, even if they were mitigated by the power of nurture over nature. Erik and I are well aware that we got the absolute best of Gene Moorman.
The fun/responsibility matrix was much more favorable in the grandfathering business than it was in the fathering business, and by time I came along, Gene wanted to be good at something.
Grandpa was a lot like the kid who shoots 100% from the foul line, but doesn’t even act interested in playing defense. Down one with the game on the line, there is no one you’d rather having taking the shot, but there were four people who had to work their tails off and take it on the chin for 40 minutes so that those foul shots even mattered.
But when the game is won, what are you going to do? Be mad at him?
I can’t. Not anymore.
He loved being a grandfather. Loved showing up unannounced with a beagle puppy in a box. Loved throwing a 4 year old in the passenger seat and running all around town looking for an autograph from Donnie Adams and a great big teddy bear. He loved a crazy idea, and sat in the 45 degree rain at the age of 85 as Erik and I tore down a greenhouse before jumping behind the wheel and driving us home with hoops hanging over a trailer, an absolute menace to public safety and good sense.
The game is over now, and the gambler didn’t quite go bust, even if he never did figure out when to fold them.
As we lay him to rest, and he no longer acts as the impetus to moving the story forward, there are no shortage of justifiable emotions running through the hearts of those who loved him. Looking back at his life, one can say just about anything about him, good or bad, and be completely correct. As I wrote this eulogy, I finally realized that what we choose to take from my grandfather’s life says more about us than it does about him.
He was a defiantly successful entrepreneur, who never got a paycheck from anyone after he left the Army. He was laughed at by everyone from his father to his friends when he bought the Root Beer Stand from Mr Olson, but that Root Beer Stand paid for four kids and four wives and an old apple orchard full of sand with a view to die for.
He was also a fool who got taken advantage of more times than I could count.
He was a man who loved his family, and raised a son dutiful enough to see him through the last days of his life surrounded by those he loved instead of alone in a state run nursing home.
Or you could see a selfish man whose sins of omission created brokenness in his children that hurts them to this day.
You could see the life of every party, or you could see the man slipping out the backdoor just about the time that things need to be cleaned up.
He was a man whose generosity gained him many happy returns, but he was also a man for whom no punishment could completely absolve him of his many sins.
Hemingway said, “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
By that definition, Gene Moorman was “distinguished.” That’s a concept that would have evoked that laugh I was talking about.
Grandpa would have liked Hemingway, with his penchant for stories and rum and that insatiable thirst to squeeze all there was out of life, but much like Hemingway, the cost of the squeeze was all to often borne by others.
No man is a hero to their chambermaid…nor to the grandson wiping their rear, but my grandfather was a legend in his own time. Whether it was the immediate connection made when I said, “My grandfather is Gene” or the stories told about him told with a laugh in every watering hole from Mears to Okeechobee, he was a character that no one ever forgot.
Again, for better or worse, he gave us an identity if not a stable foundation. We are Moormans, like it or not.
Legends are like that, something to be admired for what they stand for without being fact checked. And now that he’s gone, I prefer the simple legend to the convoluted reality.
Gene stood for freedom and for having enough chutzpah to go your own way. He was a bright shining beacon of hope for all those guys working on the line at Delco Remy, trading a piece of their soul for a steady paycheck. People loved him for that.
He was often the most utterly selfish son of a bitch you’d ever meet, but he’d give you his last dollar. I’ve cursed his foolishness more times than I could count, but in the end, he was a loving grandfather and one of my best friends wrapped into one shuffling old man.
Grandpa was all of these things. He was as simple as it got, from the clothes he wore to the food he ate, but the complexity of his legacy would take a team of experts a decade to untangle.
I hope that we can all take the best of Gene’s life, the good examples and those of the left hand variety that might save us from a future mistake, and leave the rest. I speak from experience when I say that trying to change him was like trying to rewrite the laws of physics, an awful lot of work ending in a very predictable failure.
He was Gene. He was a force of nature, the walking embodiment of the Hoosier accent the Vonnegut compared to a bandsaw going through tin, a helluva good time and a creator of chaos.
The last year and a half has laid waste to the idea that I can fix anything with only the right words, and for those who wanted him to feel some fraction of the pain that he caused, he did. He sat on top of a hill not knowing what happened to his baby girl, being lied to by a man whom he had chosen to trust for 30 years with one of his most valued treasures.
And now the wild ride is complete, and we all feel a little wobbly as we adjust to solid ground.
His whole life, he just wanted to be loved. And I think, on the balance, that he was.
I hope that Saint Peter has a sense of humor, and that the piety standards aren’t quite as high as the Church of God folks would have us believe. I hope when Grandpa got up there, that he got to talking to someone so that he didn’t hear his name get called to be judged. And I hope that the maxim that God looks after babes and fools is true, and that he can find a place in His infinite mercy for a flawed man who wants to see his baby girl one more time.
But most of all, I hope he knows that he was loved, and that while the circus might not be quite as exciting as when he was the ringleader, that it will continue with his name on it.
“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”
Goodbye old man. It was a helluva ride.