May 10, 2003
After I posted a piece about my mother’s childhood, a number of people noted what a hard man my grandfather was. True, but all my memories of him are good ones. Growing up, I knew he was a force of nature and not to be crossed, but mostly I remember him smiling or laughing, or leaning forward to tell me something important.
I was told that William L. Braun, the son of German immigrants, ran away from home when he was a boy, crawling out a bedroom window to escape his family. And that no one in his family bothered to look for him. He had no schooling. In his obituary, one of his friends said that he came up through “the College of Life.”
My grandmother once said that he was a complete gentleman during their courtship, and for the first week of their marriage. Then one day, he came home from work shouting, and he never stopped. (I always felt the change may have been related to Grandma Braun’s belief that all men were beasts and that intimate contact with them was a loathsome thing to be endured only for the sake of a marriage. Not exactly gladsome tidings to a groom who has just said, “I do.”)
Although he was not a tall man, Grandpa Braun seemed bigger than anybody. It could have been his personality, or it could have been his head, a big head with a shock of white hair, a wide smile, eyes that sparkled with energy, and perhaps the largest ears I have ever seen. Tall ears that framed his head like French doors.
Grandpa had terrific scars on his chest, from a splash of molten metal at his shop. “The doctor said it would have killed any other man,” my grandmother told me, the one time I ever heard her speak of Grandpa with anything approaching pride.
Whenever my Grandmother was upset with him, she’d say, “Oh, Will!” I heard that dozens of times.
He always walked like he was in a hurry, bent a little bit forward, charging into the day. When he drove, he drove too fast, and was pulled over in spite of his Police Athletic League medallion. My cousin told me that he once slipped a cop a $10 bill folded with his license; it came right back with the speeding ticket.
Grandpa’s doctor worried about his heart. He told him not to be in the same room with the television when the Friday Night Fights were on. So he watched from out in the hall, shadow boxing, throwing punches in the dark.
Grandpa loved to go hunting. He shot the second largest caribou taken in Alaska one year, and the largest brown bear. When I was very young, Grandpa had a retriever named Freckles, who was not allowed in certain rooms of the house. And because I was so small, I was not allowed in the same room with Freckles. But I could stand in a doorway and look at him. My brother, who was older, learned the secret of befriending the dog. All you had to do was give him a Clark Bar, of which there were many in my grandmother’s kitchen. But by the time I learned this invaluable piece of intelligence, Freckles had gone to play in the fields of the Lord.
Abbie Winship, my father’s mother, told me about the time Grandpa Braun came to Salamanca to go hunting with Grandpa Winship. This was cause for alarm. Grandpa Winship was every bit as grumpy and grouchy as Grandpa Braun. (In fact, I never heard him laugh as long as I knew him, and only saw him smile on Christmas Eve). Everyone feared this was going to be a clash of titans, the meeting of two storm fronts. And they’d both have guns. The day of the visit, Abbie spent the whole morning cleaning her house on Academy Street. The absolute last thing she had to do was put a new bar of soap in the bathroom upstairs. She came down to get one and there was Grandpa Braun at the front door. Hello, hello and up the stairs he went, and a moment later, Abbie heard him shout, “What kind of a house is this? They don’t even have soap in the bathroom!”
Grandpa was never at the center of family gatherings. He would put in cameo appearances, but mostly he stayed in his lair. At the Lasalle Avenue house, he had a bedroom and den on the top floor, with oak furniture, oriental rugs, a Hudson’s Bay blanket on the bed, a lamp glowing on his desktop, a real man’s room. It was like Aladdin’s cave to me. I could stand in the doorway and talk to him, but I couldn’t set foot in the room. At the house on East Depew, I was allowed in his den, and it was a privilege. I used to read his copy of Shooter’s Bible and look at the guns in his gun case. “This is an elephant gun,” he told me once, cradling a particularly large rifle. I had no clue why he kept an elephant gun in Buffalo, except perhaps for the pleasure of having it and seeing his grandson’s eyes grow large.
I remember him reaching into his safe once, pulling out a small bag and rolling four or five gray stones in the palm of his hand. “You know what these are?” No, I didn’t. “They’re uncut diamonds.”
In his mind, everything he owned was the best. He took me out to the garage and showed me his new Cadillac one afternoon, while my mother and grandmother were inside chatting, and said, “The dealer said to me, ‘Bill, this is the finest automobile that has ever been made.’ ” He drank Black & White scotch, or Haig & Haig in the “pinch” bottle, but one day he showed me a bottle of Ne Plus Ultra, and said, “Kihm, this is the finest Scotch money can buy.” It was the Cadillac, the elephant gun, of Scotches.
One of my favorite stories about my grandfather was that he went to four different doctors before he found one who would prescribe Canadian Club. A drink in the afternoon and a drink in the evening as a mild heart stimulant. If every patient followed instructions as well as my grandfather, we’d be living in a healthier country for sure.
He explained altitude and oxygen to me with a story about the time he had just arrived in Mexico City, had three drinks and couldn’t get off the bar stool. He brought me back peso notes from that trip, for my foreign money collection. He often bought my cousin Daryl stamps for her stamp collection.
Grandpa was not much of a domestic. In the summer, Grandma, Aunt Rhea, and my cousins Snookie and Daryl used to go to Alexandria Bay for a week or two. Once they asked Grandpa to water the plants, of which there were scores in the house. Grandpa said fine, he’d take care of it. When they returned home, they found each and every plant with a pool of clear water sitting atop bone dry soil. “He must have remembered it when he heard their car in the drive,” my mother said, in telling the story.
Once my brother was home from college and went to visit Grandpa at Phoenix Die Casting, his business in Buffalo. “What do you want?” Grandpa greeted him. “I just came to say hello and see how you’re doing,” Kent replied. “Oh,” Grandpa said, “in that case, have a drink!” pulling a bottle of Scotch out of his desk drawer and doing the honors. While they were chatting, the postman came in. “Hey,” Grandpa said, “have a drink!” and the bottle came out again.
On June 10, 1965, Grandpa died of a heart attack while shaving. My grandmother was “upset,” and I thought that an odd choice of words, but my mother insisted. Until that morning, I’d had four grandparents, the full complement, and no familiarity with death at all. I went to the funeral, my first. The following Monday, I began my summer job at Elmlawn Cemetery, and on Friday, I trimmed the grass around my grandfather’s grave.
My legacy included a five-pound, hand-knit Cowichan sweater (now in Japan) and a trophy deer head, a fine looking buck (now in my house).
Grandpa had been a Rotarian since 1929, and in his obit in the Rotary magazine, his friend Milton O. Hager wrote, “He was an astute business man with unswerving honesty and integrity… He worked long hours and had no compromise with things half done. As an employee or an employer he gave his best and expected those who worked with him to do the same… Bill was an independent, positive thinker, unafraid to take a stand on what he believed to be right. He had a great gift for separating the worthless things of life from the relevant and the essential… He enjoyed life with its hustle and bustle. He liked the society of his friends. He appreciated a good story. It is his laughter that I remember best today.”
Before he died, Grandpa set up a trust fund to take care of his wife and daughters. His lawyer said, “It’s the closest I’ve ever seen to somebody taking it with him.” That was Grandpa.