Grandpa Otto’s Hammer by Hubert Caloud

My middle name Otto is from my maternal grandfather Otto Wesley Vlasak. He was born in 1896, he was a World War I veteran and died in 1984.
I don’t remember Grandpa telling me anything about his time in the army until I came home from Marine boot camp. Then he told me several stories about his service. Some of them seemed totally out of character with the tall stern no nonsense grandfather that I grew up with. He was a strong presence in my life until I left home for the Marine Corps.
He entered the army in September 1918 but the armistice was signed while he was in training, so like many other WWI Doughboys he never went to France. He told me about the bayonet training and drills they did at Camp Dodge [Johnston, Iowa]. I never forgot and used some of the yells he told me when I was a bayonet instructor at Parris Island. He told about the large amount of deaths during training they had from the Spanish Influenza epidemic, and carrying out dead soldiers in the morning who had died during the night.
He said when they finished basic training, him and his buddies rented a hotel room and among other things some not to be repeated here bought dozens of eggs and threw them on brand new Model-T cars parked and driving by below. Just like Marines who had finished boot camp and were celebrating. . . .
After basic training he took a train as close as he could get to his home place, then friends brought him the rest of the way by horse and sleigh. It was winter time. He was assigned as a guard to Hospital 22 in Philadelphia. It was constructed for long term care of amputees, blinded, gassed, and shell-shocked veterans from Philadelphia.
He also did guard duty in the Philadelphia money mint. Grandpa showed me his green army wool “Horse Blanket” overcoat that had a small pouch inside one sleeve for a large caliber derringer he was armed with on duty. He was discharged as a PFC in 1919. I’ve seen several pictures of him in army uniform.
He married my grandmother Vera Sevcik several years after his discharge in 1924. The two of them were inseparable I have hardly any memories of seeing one without the other.
My grandfather died in 1984 when I was stationed in Hawaii getting ready to go TAD to Fort Benning, Georgia to Army Jump School. My orders were modified to stop in Iowa en-route to Fort Benning. My cousin Chuck Sienknecht was in the Navy at the time and the two of us folded the flag on his casket and presented it to my Grandmother Vera.
He was a charter and life time member of the American Legion and his post comrades from the Hora-Machacek Post in Clutier fired the volleys and played taps over him. Grandma Vera died in 1990.
Ella, Mike, me, my mom’s parents, my parents. This is the home I grew up in. My mother has lived there since shortly after she married my dad at 18. Mom is prairie tough lives alone and is 88 now. My older brother farms his own place nearby and also farms mom’s place tends her livestock etc. We are all lucky to have such a great older brother with the same passion for farming that I had for the military. Delbert had other options, had a degree in electrical engineering worked for different companies in the private sector but when dad died he transitioned back to our roots and his passion–farming and livestock. 1979 or 1980
Grandpa Otto was old school. He hunted fox with a long barreled Model 1897 Winchester 12 gauge shotgun and two grey hound dogs. He wore Stetson covers, “Osh Kosh by Gosh” bibbed overalls, possessed only what he thought what was essential, and those items were carefully chosen. I remember on the cabinet desk beside his dining table were a series of Barclay 3-Inch folder pocket knives with the blades sharpened to toothpick size his sharpening stone nearby. The stone was so worn it had a U shape in it.
He usually had a pack of Black Jack gum beside it. He rarely smoked or drank but kept a case of Bud Long Necks in the root cellar they took shelter in during tornadoes for those who did. He would make “Irish coffee” on holidays or special occasions one of which was when I finished Marine Boot Camp.
He had a full head of long straight white hair he combed directly back in the style of his time as a young man and kept it in place with hair oil. He didn’t talk too much had kind of a snort when he laughed. When he did speak he had something to say that he wouldn’t repeat so you needed to listen and remember what it was.
When my grandmother Vera died I was sent two things from their estate. A ceramic figure of a Marine setting his sea bag down getting ready to hug his mom that I had given Grandma sometime but I don’t remember when. I’m not sure what happened to it but know I don’t have it anymore.
What I do have is my grandfather’s hammer which I treasure. Grandpa Otto didn’t hang onto junk or extras and what he had was carefully chosen and maintained. It’s a wooden handled finishing hammer. When you pick it up its perfectly balanced light in your hand and will drive a nail in hardwood without much effort. I can picture him in a hardware store picking up every hammer in the basket swinging all of them to chose exactly the one he wanted. The wood handle had to be smooth without any knots or slivers, head perfectly set\attached and other small details I probably wouldn’t know or think of.
Ella and I have moved many times around the world since I received that hammer in 1990s Maine. Whenever we move his hammer is something I always track where its at and that it gets where we’re going.
Thank you, Grandpa, the older I get the smarter you seem. You were a man.
I was a boy.
Hubert Caloud is a retired US Marine and the site Superintendent of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.


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