Connecting with My Grandfather

I’ve never met my grandfather, Ralph. My father didn’t really know him either. He was an alcoholic and he abandoned my dad at the age of 8. I assumed that was all there was to know.

Dad only told one story about him. The story took place on the roof of what would become my childhood home. After years of repeatedly disappointing my father, he was trying to reestablish a connection. Ralph chose to reconnect by helping my father build our house.

CCC working
CCC men dig a ditch.

It was 1970. Ralph was in his mid-60s. He and my dad were putting the roof on the house. While they were hammering and tarring, Ralph started talking about how the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) ruined his life. It was the reason he lost his job, and the reason he started drinking. The CCC was part of President Roosevelt’s economic recovery plan for America during the Great Depression. It allowed the government to hire three million men to build roads, plant trees, and dig ditches across the country between 1933 to 1942.

The story has always confused me. How could a program whose sole purpose was to hire millions of people put my grandfather out of work? I had no idea.  I decided to look into it, hoping to understand him a little better.

In the 1930 census, I found him listed along with my great-grandparents. He was working for a county in Iowa as an assistant engineer three years before the CCC began. Mystery solved, I thoughtThe CCC, being a national program, must have made the County guys, like my grandfather, obsolete. Roosevelt formed the CCC; Ralph lost his job.

In the 1940 census, I found this:

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 3.54.32 PM

So, my theory was wrong. My grandfather wasn’t let go when the CCC started. He kept his job well into its heyday. Not only that, somewhere along the way he had picked up a wife and 2 daughters I didn’t know about. Holy cow!

Using phone directories (which listed peoples’ professions alongside their addresses back then), I find out that Ralph was let go as an engineer sometime in 1941. With that information, I had to form a new theory: the CCC must have finished all the work a county engineer would be hired to do. When the CCC started to disintegrate, the county probably realized there was no more work for my semi-educated 36-year-old grandfather.

I say semi-educated because the censuses consistently list Ralph’s highest level of education as 8th grade. ‘Engineer’ was just a title; he didn’t have a degree.

In 1942, Ralph was divorced from Gladys, broke, lacking purpose, and living in Flint, Michigan. The directory states that he was running a pool hall there. Before, I would have blamed him for allowing himself to be near the alcohol in the pool halls, accelerating his and his second family’s self-destruction. But I realize now that if I had lost both my job and my family in less than a year, I might start drinking, too.

I don’t like that he took such a long time to get his act together, but I’m grateful that he eventually did it. That he was there in 1970 on that rooftop with my dad. That he tried and succeeded to connect.

(l to r) Bill James, Eva Burns, Ralph James
My grandfather is the man on the right.


16 Replies to “Connecting with My Grandfather”

  1. Whoa, how did you get records to the census? That is so cool. I love reading history and learning family stories…

    You’re not alone … I’ve heard it more often than not, about grandpas secretly having another family and the first family not knowing about it.

    What’s striking to me is that a lot of people think their family is broken and dysfunctional, so they hide these family secrets, not realizing that everybody else (myself included) come from broken dysfunctional families too.

    Alas, There is so much wisdom, growth and strength that results from that kinda history though, and I think you summed it up well at the end, how even though your grandpa wasn’t present for much of your fathers life , in the end he tried to do the right thing.

    Thanks for sharing this and I’m glad I got to read it from the grid!

    1. Free census records are on I think you can still see the 1940 Census for free on ancestry too. If you’re an international friend, I know some other free sites.

      What amazes me is despite all of the bad things that happened to him, my dad along with my mom managed to provide me and my brothers with a great childhood. Thanks for reading, sfs.

    1. Yes! Good memory. It’s also the basis for the relationship between my characters Crannog and Jarlath in that line of stories.I have to say it’s a bit of a relief to no longer have to hate someone you’ve never met.

  2. It’s always amazing to find the story behind the story. Did your feelings about him change? And how much do you share with your family? Fascinating read, Nate.

    1. Thanks, Meg. Funny. The version you read wasn’t accepted in the non-fiction grid, so I rewrote it and I think the new version answers your first question. Hopefully, that means the gatekeeper will let it through, too!

      As for your second question, I found out my dad knew about the wife and daughters. Apparently after my grandfather died, they called my dad to try to get money. I try to reserve my judgment of them.

    1. He stayed in there to do the right thing at the end, so yeah, he was a survivor. Thanks for reading, Kathy.

      PS. I’ve edited since you read this. If you wouldn’t mind reading the new version, please tell me if you think it works better for you.

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