My family kept Grandpa in a shoebox on the top shelf of the closet. We knew he was tucked up there in the corner, and we discussed why he sat out of reach. My uncles told funny stories about him and his friends living out in Arizona. We saw him at family gatherings when they’d travel through town towing Airstreams on their way somewhere else, but we kept our distance, never disturbing the layers of dust covering what we might discover about him.
Even now, almost five years after his death, I’m not sure how to refer to him. My uncles called him dad, Mom referred to him as “my father,” and as children, my sister and I called him “Grandpa Wal-Paul” in his absence and avoided being in his presence.
How does one relate to a man who abandoned his wife and five kids, the youngest of which (your mother) was only eight at the time, and who came to town once a year around Father’s Day?
What do you do with a guy called Wally who changed his name to Paul for Biblical significance?
What do you make of a salesman from Ohio who, believing a prophecy foretelling nuclear war, joined others in the Arizona desert to build a community of houses complete with fully-stocked bomb shelters?
How do you trust someone who became the leader of the group known nationally as the Undergrounders because they retreated into their bomb shelters and only came out after three months because local police went in to save a man’s wife and children reported as missing?
How do you carry on a conversation with a man who spent the remainder of his days convinced the world would burn, and the only place of safety was the one he and his friends built?
The shoebox containing my family’s collective memories of Grandpa could reveal stories and truths about him I never knew existed, which is a loaded gun mixed in with the mementos. Searching through the box, I might find stories of how he taught my mother and aunt how to ride their bikes or my uncles to drive, but it’s just as likely I’ll exhume tales such as the time the group took my paternal great-grandfather down into a bomb shelter called “The Holy of Holies” where they talked to him for three days without food or water until he confessed belief in their mission.
I want to know how Grandpa’s leaving affected my family, but at the same time, I may find out how his leaving afflicted my family among others. This incident wasn’t isolated, and the community in Benson, Arizona carries on today, more than a half century later.
My raising questions to my aunts and uncles has raised questions in at least one of my cousins, and I’m scheduled to interview him next week. Though we may choke on the dust together, we’re going to sort through some pictures and in the process begin unloading the gun.