In the last couple weeks, I’ve learned that everyone who knew Frank Vetter knew a different man. As my grandpa, Frank was a weekend at the farm, a pig pile of cousins, stick shift driving lessons in Big Blue, plenty of guns and a yard full of rodent targets. When we were little, he was the grandpa we could crawl into bed with and jump all over. As we grew up, he became more of a measuring stick of expectations. He wanted you to work hard, live frugally and take care of your possessions. His experiences through the great depression kept strong hold on him and shaped his philosophy of our 21st century lifestyles into one word: JACKASS.
And we loved being his jackasses. His favorite was whoever was the youngest, because the youngest always holds the cleanest record. Less than a month ago, one of Frank’s new grandsons visited him at Braddock’s 125th celebration. Frank scooped him up, carried him around and showed him off with a strength way beyond that of his 88 years. In his own words, Frank was “healthy as a horse,” and in fact, enjoyed a game of pinochle with good friends right up until the night before his stroke.
His home was the farm and he was determined to stay, despite the isolation a farmstead in Braddock can bring. He blew his own snow in the winter, mowed his own lawn in the summer and took great pride in caring for my late grandmother’s flower beds. A couple months ago he got a flat tire on the way to Bismarck. He changed it himself and got back on the road. He was strong and stubborn and he gave the tightest hugs I’ve ever received.
Frank lived a bit too frugally for most, but his one indulgence was a new vehicle every few years. His last was a deep maroon Ford 500, which Vic Baumgartner tells me he bought because he fell in love with the color. Frank gave us lots of grief over our vehicle choices and he never let us stay so long we’d have to drive in the dark. “Keep it under 70,” he’d say. “I don’t know where everyone’s going in such a hurry.”
When May got sick, Frank embarked on 12 years of caretaking and naturally assumed the household duties previously reserved for my grandma. On my weekend visits, Frank and I would complain about the state of the world, share stories about luck or lack of it at the casino and wait for the grandkids to come barreling in. And they always came because grandpa played. He flew kites with us, planted trees, played cards with us (or sat out a round so he could tell us when we were bidding like jackasses). He danced with us, made funny faces, wrestled with us. Mom tells me when she invited him to Bismarck for supper, he’d check to see if kids would be there before accepting. He loved having kids around and he made sure we knew it. On our last visit before his stroke, he competed with my sister and her kids over who could tell the worst joke.
We didn’t hear much from him in the last two weeks, but when we did, he teased my brother about robbing a bank and negotiated his cut. Assuming he was sleeping, I told one of his hospital visitors about a fight my cousin and I had over who would keep an unusual rock we found on one of our gravel road rock hunting trips. He added, “Ooh, that fight was a doosy.”
Since we lost grandma four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with Frank on the folding chairs outside his garage and that’s how I’ll remember him best. Just sitting outside quietly, surveying the farm, allowing the silences rather than trying to fill them with small talk. It is the one place in my life where I’m not in such a hurry – the best place in the world to do a little thinking. And I don’t know what I’m going to do without it. But Frank’s legacy isn’t a farm in Braddock, it’s the slew of kids that call him grandpa and their slew of kids that call him papa. That’s the Frank Vetter I knew.