Papa's garage

By Daniel Dunkle | Jan 31, 2013

One of my earliest memories is Uncle Peter tearing across the lawn behind the parsonage where my grandfather lived back in the late '70s.

This was Hazleton, Pa. Uncle Paul, his twin brother and somehow polar opposite, was right on his heels. There was some giggling involved. They weren't much older than teenagers. Peter had Paul's shoes and threw them up on the roof of the garage.

I was probably 3- or 4-years-old. I don't remember how the chase ended, but imagine Sgt. Paul Green, U.S. Army, was able to catch civilian Peter Green, disco enthusiast, and if it were not Paul's wedding day, he probably would have tackled said civilian, and they would have rolled around in the grass like a couple of bear cubs.

I haven't set eyes on that backyard and the garage since 1983, and if it's like other scenes from my youth, the landscape has changed so much since then that nothing I remember remains.

But I remember it so well I can feel it, taste it, smell it.

Behind Papa's house there was a big tree and a hammock. I used to rest in the hammock on sunny summer afternoons. I used to fire my pearl-handled cap guns out by the tree, reenacting the “Lone Ranger” reruns my grandfather was so fond of.

My grandfather was the pastor of a Pentecostal church in the city. I remember he had the key to the city hanging in his office, next to the window overlooking that backyard. People probably think most preachers sit around all week thinking about their next sermon, but my uncles tell me Papa was pretty busy with the work of the church. He visited people in the hospital, holding their hands and saying prayers, sometimes when they were dying. He visited people in jail. He took calls from people at the house, sometimes in the night.

His could be a voice of comfort as often as it offered stern warnings.

Grandsons see a different side of their preacher grandfathers. In the summer when I would come to visit Papa, I often found him in his two-bay garage, hands black with grease, work clothes filthy, pulling exhaust systems off the bottoms of big ole '70s cars.

Sometimes there would be some other old guy out there with him. One of my very clear memories was stepping with my brand new sneaker in a metal bowl of motor oil.

“Can we wash it off?” I asked.

He was pretty sure the sneaker had run its last foot race.

Uncle Paul said the only time he ever heard Papa swear was when he was fixing a Datsun.

Preachers often didn't know they were going to be preachers, so they had other skills or careers. Papa had been a farmer up in Canada when he got the calling. He had other jobs.

Some preachers work on houses or build furniture. Sometimes working on a car is less frustrating than dealing with people.

On Sunday mornings Papa and I would walk to church. He looked handsome in his nice shoes and snazzy suit, but his hand was rough from work when I held it crossing the street.

I commented once to my mother, years later, about how immaculate my grandfather's appearance was.

“That was all your Nana's doing,” Mom said. “She picked out his clothes. If he had his way, he would have worn work clothes all the time.”

It's funny how years after someone's death, you're still getting to know them, how another layer gets peeled back. But this piece of information seems to square with what I remember. Now that I think of it, unless he was going out somewhere, he was dressed more for work in the yard or the garage than for church.

Most of his favorite activities were the stuff suits shy away from — camping, fishing, boating, riding his motorcycle, working on cars.

Little kids don't think to ask the questions they will wonder about later. What did he think about while he worked in the garage?

Did he worry about his grown children? Did he think about the members of his congregation? There's no way of knowing at this point, but if I had to guess, I bet it's like my guitar. At the end of a long day, I like to play a song or two, maybe learn a new one. It requires enough concentration to blot out the worries of my day, but not enough to add stress of its own.

For all I know, he thought about his own grandfather and the talks he wished they could have.

If I drove down to Hazleton, I probably couldn't find that garage, and if I did, it wouldn't be the same.

For me, its floor will always be strewn with wrenches and exhaust pipes and bowls of oil.

And Paul's wedding shoes will always be on the roof.

Daniel Dunkle is news editor for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife and two children. Email him at or follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Peter Glen Russell Green | Jan 31, 2013 19:13

good reading.  I'm just glad you don't have pictures to go along with this post.


Uncle Peter

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