Ohio Life

My Ohio: Travels with Charlie

Want to learn about life? Spend your boyhood riding around with your grandfather.

My paternal grandfather, Charlie, took a boat to Europe during World War II, and the trip made him physically ill. He also refused to fly, at one point forbidding my father to take lessons, saying — and this was after the moon landing — that aviation hadn’t been perfected yet.

But Charlie would drive to the ends of the earth. In World War II, he drove a truck for the Redball Express and his jobs after the war involved a lot of driving as well.

He retired in 1976 due to disability, and I was born a year later. I was his first grandchild, and for the last 18 years of his life, I accompanied him on many of the rides he had to take.

My grandfather earned the nickname “Racetrack Charlie” for his lead foot, having once being pulled over twice in the same day by the same policeman along U.S. 224.

He had mellowed by the time I came along, but Charlie still favored big sedans and refused to drive anything without a V-8 engine in it. The earliest memory I have in this life is going for a ride with him from Youngstown to Pittsburgh to pick up Grandma.

We often drove around Youngstown together when he had to run errands. I went with him to the bank, to the grocery, to Cornersburg Pharmacy.

One of his regular stops was Banner Supply, a commercial hardware store on the city’s south side. My grandfather wasn’t a particularly eloquent man, but he could swear in two languages as if he were paid by the four-letter word. He was in his element at Banner Supply. I just stood there and marveled. I had no idea adults talked like that.

Along the way, Charlie would show me off, amazed that I could read at a young age and even more amazed at the facts I would learn and be able to recite on cue. He was even more proud of what I wouldn’t say.

One of the great traditions of our day trips was that they always included a stop for a hot dog or an ice cream cone. He would ask if I wanted one, and I learned that if I said yes, that meant he could stop guilt-free. But he still made sure to say, “Don’t tell Grandma.”

Charlie took my brother along on a couple trips too, but Adam always rolled. He was terrible at keeping secrets. He’d tell us what we got for Christmas as soon as he came home from shopping with Mom. And it hasn’t changed. After I made the announcement that my wife and I were expecting, three people said, “Yeah, your brother already told me.”

Charlie and I spent a lot of time in Columbiana County, even though my grandfather lived in the city of Youngstown or adjacent to it for most of his life. We’d drive through places not much different from the coal-patch town near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where Charlie was born. From time to time, he’d point at a building and say, “I installed the air conditioner there,” or “I installed refrigeration cases there.”

My mother always thought our road trips together were mystical bonding experiences — that Charlie would reveal the wisdom of his years to me while gaining some measure of energy from my youth.

He did reveal some of his wisdom to me — none of which is fit for public consumption — but our road trips were loud, raucous and fun excursions. He’d get lost, he’d swear, I’d swear back, he’d tell me a few funny stories and we’d get things done and go home.  

We bonded over cars and shared secrets, flashing each other a knowing smile when Grandma would say, “One of you lies and the other swears to it!”

More than that, we bonded over our love of the open road that stretched out before us, taking us to our destination and maybe an adventure along the way.

Come to think of it, maybe my mother was right.

Vince Guerrieri is a journalist and author who lives in Elyria.