My Grandfather, John Norman Botkin, died 11 years ago, on September 21, 2001. I was in France — I had moved in with a French woman only two weeks prior after studying French for all of four months, and was dazed from the constant barrage of this largely-unknown language, from the sudden uncertainty of 9/11, and everything else that went with that. I was unable to go back for his funeral. He was buried with military rites.
Over the years it has occurred to me that although I was around him often throughout my childhood, I knew so much less about him than I wanted to. He was born on May 1, 1918, grew up during the Depression “without a penny,” according to my Grandmother, and his father was a street preacher for awhile. I knew he was a soldier — an Army man; he was in the Corps of Engineers in WWII and led troops as a Major in Korea. Perhaps for both of these reasons, he could come off as stern, and he worked hard. He was fastidious about correcting my grammar and word choice growing up, and woe unto you if you said “guy” in his presence. “They are not guys,” Grandfather would say “guy is a derogatory reference to Guy Fawkes.” But he could also be quite jovial. One of my earliest memories of him took place on his porch swing, and as he sang me “Rock a Bye Baby,” his end of the swing fell to the ground. He began to laugh. “Down will come Grandfather, cradle and all,” he said.
He took a lot of pills for his health — heart medications, cholesterol medications — after his heart bypass, which happened when I was still quite young. He was a larger man, and he enjoyed his hamburgers even after the bypass. For my fourteenth birthday, he bought me a subscription to National Review. I was a little in awe of him. He’d gone to Harvard. He’d studied law there, but decided that he could not bring himself to defend guilty men, so he switched schools and emerged a geophysicist instead. He said he never took notes at Harvard because he was working too hard outside of class to support himself. “I didn’t have time to study,” he told me “So I just paid attention.” Years later, when I went to college, I remembered this, and in between taking notes I would just stare intently at the professor and attempt to memorize every word. It seemed to work pretty well, actually. Perhaps we shared an ability to remember large amounts of spoken data, to store it and reassemble it when the time came. He graduated in 1942 with a slew of extracurricular activities on his roster, including debate and writing. That’s his senior picture. The day he graduated, he was drafted into the Army.
He met my Grandmother, Halcyon Heline, during the war, and she started writing him letters. For the longest time, he did not know the extent to which she’d written other soldiers letters. He discovered it one day when we were eating a hamburger together. Grandmother’s brother was in the war — was killed in the war — so she wrote a lot of letters to try to cheer the men up. She was charming and vivacious, the daughter of a natural diplomat, so I’m sure she succeeded. Grandfather chucked at this revelation. “I thought I was the only one,” he said.
“I knew your Grandfather would make a good father,” said Grandmother. “He was a good man.” So on April 10, 1952, at the ripe age of 31, she settled down with him, and they had four children in quick succession — so close together they had to hire a nanny. They often lived where the oil was, spending time in Iowa on numerous visits back to the Heline farm. They eventually moved back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, into the house my Grandfather was born in.
They sent their children to public schools in Tulsa, and this is where things start to get a little bit controversial. According to previous conversations with my Dad, school was a time for putting grasshoppers in the fan and exploding their guts all over the classroom because there was little better to do. According to my uncle Geoff, growing up attending public schools made him into a Marxist — I assume that’s what he means when he says “I was trained to be a compliant, rational Marxist. I was recruited to be a self-conscious supporter of a social order that was Marxist. This required my willing trust in the state as a utopian savior and antagonism to the God of Christendom,” since you could not possibly assert that my Grandparents or any of their friends were Marxists. As far as the wishes of my Grandfather were concerned, the four children were trained to be conservative, God-fearing Christians, although they were apparently not forced to go to church every Sunday. I suppose my uncle might believe that the fact that he learned math from teachers whose salaries were paid by taxes means that he was implicitly inculcated with the idea that taxes should pay for education — while perhaps concurrently assuming that taxation (or public school) is more or less Marxism. Or perhaps that’s a veiled reference to the fact that he grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Or perhaps, unknown to any of the rest of my family, he really did toy with the idea of Marxism in high school or college. He attended high school in the late 1960s, shortly before his move to Norman, Oklahoma, and personal conversion to Christianity in the early 1970s. I suppose it’s entirely possible that he knew people who talked about Marxism during this timeframe. Whatever the case, it would be a great blow to my Grandfather to have been lumped in with a supposedly-Marxist upbringing, which is what some people seem to assume about him based on my uncle’s assertions.