Pappy Rothwell and Painted Houses
Wed, 03/16/2022 - 1:18pm admin
Born in 1879, George Oliver Rothwell’s obituary in 1969 indicated he had been a lifelong resident of Willow Springs, but he lived in other areas of Howell County, including Lost Camp and Hutton Valley. I only knew him as Pappy. That’s what my stepfather and mother called him, and I did, too.
In his younger days, he was known for his physical strength that came from hauling railroad ties. In the vernacular of the time, he was a horse—a strong man. He developed a grisly hump, the size of an apple, on his shoulder from carrying 90-pound ties. By the time I knew him, the lump had atrophied to a shadow.
When he wasn’t hauling ties, he managed to have nine children, including my stepfather, George Harold Rothwell, and Nan Marie Rothwell Shryock, the mother of Willow Springs resident Rev. Joe Shryock.
After Pappy’s s wife Lula passed away in 1954, he lived alone in a two-bedroom house on East 9th Street. When I was in Jr. High School, I used to ride my bike over to visit and mow his lawn. I have no idea what his educational background was; I suspect not much, but I could tell he was smart. He confused me explaining the metes and bounds of legal descriptions, and he seemed to always be reading paperback books.
It occurred to me that all the Rothwells must be smart. My stepfather, who dropped out of school to join the Navy, could do algebra equations in his head. His sister Nan used to write articles for the Springfield newspaper, and her son Joe was an excellent student at WSHS.
The Rothwell brothers and sisters were occasionally known to fuss with one another. Once, sister Evelyn sent a letter to Nan with the salutation, “Dear Nanny Fanny.” Not to be outdone, Nan responded with a letter that began “Dear Evvy-Wevvy, Erky-Jerky, Poopsie-Whoopsie.” My kind of writer.
Often when I visited Pappy, he wanted me to play the piano while he played his fiddle. One problem—I can’t play the piano. Oh, I could make one chord with my right hand and three notes with my left hand, but that was the extent of my ability. But that was fine with Pappy. I’d pound that one chord and three notes as he slid the bow over his old fiddle.
After a while, he would pause his fiddle playing to dance a few licks. If you have ever seen actor Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett dancing on the TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies,” then you have an idea of Pappy’s dance moves.
He gave a name to his dance style, which I didn’t recognize at the time and can’t remember now, and then proceeded to show me a special move he called the “double-shovel.” Years later, I realized he had actually been saying “double-shuffle,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a clog dance characterized by fast syncopated taps of the feet.”
My stepfather decided that Pappy’s house needed to be painted. Perhaps, because he was a retired Navy man, George had an obsession with painting. If something didn’t move or salute, it got painted. A few years before, he decided that my grandparents’ house in Montier, which by all appearances had never been painted, needed a paint job.
This was not an easy task. The weathered clapboard of the two-story structure would soak up paint like a sponge. George prepared for the task with military precision. He assembled an array of brushes, paint, linseed oil, and a peculiar tool he called a “man-helper”—a six-foot pole with a paintbrush taped to the end, which he used to paint surfaces he couldn’t otherwise reach.
George seemed genuinely happy when he painted, wearing paint-splattered shoes, khaki trousers and shirt, and a sailor’s cap pulled down over his ears. From inside the house, I could hear him singing an unfamiliar ditty: “It can’t be me, I ain’t been here long, it must have been the dude with the derby on.”
He recruited me for “training purposes.” It seemed important to him that I learned the finer techniques of painting, including the nomenclature. He insisted that I understand that paint consisted of a vehicle and a pigment. I acted as if I understood, but didn’t understand that it simply meant a liquid to carry a color. I believe he had an ulterior motive.
Not surprisingly, George assigned me the task of painting Pappy’s house when I was 14. He delivered the supplies and didn’t show up again until the job was completed. But Pappy regularly inspected. With his eighty-something eyesight, he mistook shaded areas as spots I had missed. My explanation wasn’t convincing, so I just repainted the areas in question. George paid me $25 for my week’s labor and I felt wealthy.
Because Pappy was a widower, an older, unmarried lady in town took a shine to him and started dropping by to visit and bring cookies or other food. It became uncomfortable for Pappy, who wasn’t interested in any female entanglements, but he didn’t know how to get rid of her. He did not want to seem rude, but she hadn’t responded to his hints.
He discussed his problem with my stepfather, who came up with a plan. George found out when the lady would be showing up at Pappy’s and arranged to be there at that time. He filled two empty whiskey bottles with brewed tea and took them and a deck of cards over to Pappy’s house.
When the unsuspecting, “altruistic” lady arrived, she was not prepared for the scene. George and Pappy sat at the kitchen table apparently playing poker and drinking whiskey like movie cowboys in a Western saloon. George, no doubt, puffed away at an ever-present Chesterfield cigarette. It must have appeared that Beelzebub had invaded the house.
Not being an eyewitness, I can only imagine the look on her face, but a two-dollar word I learned in a college psychology class comes to mind: cognitive dissonance—the mental discomfort that comes from holding two different beliefs. In shirtsleeve English, when your mind can’t believe what your eyes are seeing. I don’t know what, if anything, the poor, shocked lady said, but according to George, she left quickly and never returned. Pappy was safe to continue life as a bachelor.
For the record and to my knowledge, Pappy did not drink liquor, but he did chew tobacco. When I was in high school, he broke his hip and stayed in our living room in a reclining chair while he convalesced. I was delegated two responsibilities during his recovery: lifting and carrying him to the bathroom as necessary, and emptying the #10 can he used for a spittoon. The former task was easier than the latter—enough said.