The Man They Called Grandma

JOHN started it. I took him on as a partner in my wood-cutting business. I said, ``You don't cut wood with me without wearing a hard hat.'' He didn't argue with that. He knew it made sense. Even if you're so good at it that trees always fall exactly where you want them to, a top or a branch can break out of a tree and hit you, or a tree can fall into a green tree and part of it can be thrown back and hit the cutter. He didn't like it as well when I watched him work and said he was going to have to revise some of his techniques. He'd been felling trees longer than I had. I said, ``It doesn't matter how long you've been doing it. Some of your work isn't as safe as it could be.''

Sometimes, when we sold a load of wood, we picked up my wife and daughters and drove to Sumpter to eat dinner in a restaurant, and John usually had a drink, or several. When he ordered the first drink, I held out my hand, and he deposited the keys to his rig in it. I wasn't, and my family wasn't, riding with anyone who'd been drinking. John took all of it well, and it was all by agreement, but sometime along the line he started calling me Grandma. ``Okay, Grandma, we do it your way.''

I took a job as site manager of a Girl Scout camp in the Rocky Mountains. The camp director, counselors, everyone who works at the camp has a camp name. The site manager can have a nickname or not. I couldn't think of anything and didn't care much about it, so as we started gearing up for resident camp, I was just Jon.

Then I had security problems. Too many people knew the combination of the gate lock, and some of them abused their privileges by coming in late. Somebody who came in late didn't lock the gate. I photocopied rules from the manual and distributed copies. I changed the combination and gave it only to authorized personnel. I lectured everybody about security. I lectured again about visitors. ``Read the rules. I have to know who's in camp. If somebody comes to visit without letting me know, they're unauthorized visitors, and they go out, and the counselor being visited gets called on the carpet. Clear it with me first, and they're authorized.''

I upbraided the animal-care specialist for tying the llamas wrong. ``They have to be tethered on a swivel, so their ropes can't wrap around anything, or they have to be watched. They could wind their ropes around those trees and choke to death.''

Then we had a staff meeting, and the camp director asked me, ``What's your camp name?''

I thought of my friend John, and I said, ``Grandma.'' That caused surprise, so I explained about John; then I said, ``I'm responsible for the safety of 25 counselors and up to 150 Girl Scouts, and I'm never going to give anyone any peace until I know they're observing every rule about personal safety and camp security, and John thought that concern for safety and the willingness to keep after it was a grandmotherly quality, and he was probably right, so call me Grandma.''

And they did. And they told the counselors, and the counselors called me Grandma. Most of them. There were a few who just couldn't do it, and that was fine. They called me Jon, and nobody objected. And the counselors told many of the Scouts, and some of them called me Grandma and seemed delighted that this grizzling, bearded man answered quite naturally to that name.

And something happened that I couldn't have predicted. That name helped the rest of the camp personnel and me be at ease with each other in a way that otherwise might have taken us weeks to work our way to.

I did my best to manifest the positive attributes of a grandmother. It's all part of my job, but somehow, being known as ``Grandma'' made it easier to reassure counselors and help work out ways to keep Scouts and adults warm, fed, and at ease when a summer snowstorm weighted down our power lines. The sagging lines created bright blue flashes across our small valley, then strange behavior in lights and electrical appliances, and caused us to go most of the night and half a day without electricity and, consequently, without propane for heat.

Having that camp name seemed to make it easier to work our way through all the emergencies that came up through the summer: I think there's something reassuring in calling Grandma for help.

Some of the counselors delighted in drawing me over in front of parents who hadn't met us before and calling me Grandma. It took practice to keep a straight face, to act totally natural about it, and we all took pride in achieving it.

That summer and that group of counselors are gone from the mountain, and most of this winter has passed. I'm starting to look forward to the time, early next summer, when all the counselors who have been hired meet and I stand up in front of them to explain rules, how to take care of kerosene lanterns, how to use fire extinguishers, and say, quite seriously, ``My name's Grandma.''

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