He Sings like a Soldier: A Tribute to my Grandfather


When I think of my Grandpa, I think of his hands first. It’s the first thing I remember, my earliest childhood memory of him. There are so many after that…

As a little girl, I sat on his lap. I haven’t done that in a long time, but right now I wish I could. I wish I was small enough to curl up with my head on his chest and feel the vibration of his voice as he debated with such passion about something I didn’t understand or even care about. I cared about the sweet orange he was peeling for us to share, or the apple he was slicing with his ever-present pocket knife. I’d recognize those hands anywhere. The tiny sun-bleached hairs on the back of his wide blunt fingers, he always had one or two bruised fingernails, the blue veins vining underneath his skin, like my Dad’s only twistier, the sunspots on his forearms that all blended together to make his skin darker than anyone I knew. Even at Christmas, when everyone else was pale, he looked tan from years of working in the sun.

He washed his hands whenever he came inside, and scrubbed them hard before eating (I’ve watched him do it a thousand times), but they always seemed dirty to me. The calluses and cuts, deep wrinkles and crevices were forever stained by oil and earth. You don’t see hands like that anymore. None of the men I know have hands as strong or capable or discolored from years of daily labor as my Grandfather’s.

He taught me how to drive the putt-putt. Letting me ride on the seat with him, my hands beside his on the handles, we zoomed past the barns and the garden, through the apple trees, around the pond and down the hill to the blueberry patch, my little brother left behind playing in the dirt under Grandma’s watch.

On Sundays at church, if I sat beside him we would share a hymnal, Grandpa holding one side and I the other. He would turn the pages and point to the right verse when I got lost listening to his rich bass voice, purposefully praising God in the small sanctuary with the high wooden ceilings and the hard church pews. I have always thought he sung like a soldier… brave and believing. And then during the sermon, he would nod off, and I took it as my personal responsibility to nudge his elbow if he snored too loud. Every time I had to wake him, he would open his eyes and smile an instant secret thank you. I tried not to giggle in church.

If you are a Sloan, then you have blue blood. Not from any special pedigree, but from all the blueberries you ate as a child at Grandma and Grandpa’s blueberry patch. Most of us worked there at some point during our growing years. And most of us remember our berry picking lessons. I do…

It’s already hot out because I got up too late, but Grandpa has been working out here for hours already. Laddie, the farm dog, is lounging in the shady grass underneath the tall bushes and I’m jealous. Grandpa stands beside me with his clipboard and row chart, rifling through the bush at the start of the row he’s given me. Even though I did this yesterday and the day before, and the summer before that, He STILL makes a point to lift the low branches to show me the bounty underneath. “Make sure to pick the whole bush before moving onto the next one. Don’t just pick the branches in front of your face. There are lots of berries down low too” I listen to his admonishment against laziness and nod, waiting for him to go so I can daydream and pick at my own pace. Before he does, he reaches out automatically. His left hand pulls the branch close to my bucket and his right hand cups a cluster of shiny blueberries. With his thumb, he deftly rolls each berry from its stem into his palm, efficient and gentle all at once. He pours them into my bucket and they make a satisfying staccato of kerplunks. He pops the last two blueberries into his mouth and says, “I hear customers. Grandma’s up front if you need something.” As my Grandpa strides quickly away to meet the guests, I look at Laddie, hoping he will stay and give me company. He will for awhile, until he gets bored and decides to go look for baby bunnies.

I have so many memories like that one, and I am inexplicably thankful that my daughter was able to know her great grandpa for the first five years of her life.  It is a special thing to me that Sylvie has sat on his lap and waited for her orange slice, too. She loves to tell the story of when the three of us hiked 5 miles to the top of a mountain in Alaska in the cold rain, a long way for a 5-year-old and an old man with cancer. When we got to the top, the mist was so thick we couldn’t see the view at all, but it was worth it to see Grandpa sing and dance in his blue rain poncho to scare off the bears. As his first great-grandchild, she had the privilege of hearing him sing like a soldier, still strong and convicted and booming… even in his last years. 

It’s been 8 years since my grandfather died and there has been a strong trend of Sloan baby boys named Charles or Everett, including mine. My son will never get to meet his namesake, but I can promise you that he will know what a wonderful great-grandfather he had. I will keep sharing my memories, showing photos and talking about him whenever he pops into mind. Charles Everett Sloan was a man of faith, loyalty, integrity, sacrifice, leadership, adventure, and love. And my kids are going to know all about him.