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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns arrow A first handshake that felt immediately familiar

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A first handshake that felt immediately familiar


The first time I shook Sid Johnson’s hand I felt an instant sense of familiarity.

His hand was my grandpa’s hand.

It was rough with sandpapery callouses, the fingers thick and gnarled like oak limbs, but it was also protective, in the manner of a wool blanket that is itchy but will keep you warm on a January night.

It was the hand of a working man.

A hand made to grasp a hammer, to plane a board, to build structures that would endure for decades.

It turned out that Sid and my grandpa had quite a lot more in common than well-weathered hands.

Indeed I’ve not met another man who reminded me so much of my grandpa, Edd Jacoby, who died in 2002.

Like Sid, my grandpa built houses for a living.

He built his own home in Stayton, and he built the home, a mile or so away, where I grew up.

I recognized my grandpa in Sid’s seemingly gruff personality, and I heard him in Sid’s rock crusher of a voice.

But I also understood, almost immediately, that Sid’s brusque exterior, like my grandpa’s, was only a veneer, and that beneath it both men were capable of cooing at an infant grandchild with all the delicacy of a new mother.

Over the years — I don’t remember precisely when I made Sid’s acquaintance but it must have been in the mid 1990s — I came to see other parallels between him and my grandpa.

Both men, though they worked at a blue collar trade, also had a perceptible intellectual streak.

Grandpa was a voracious reader and when I think of him the scene, more often than not, is the sofa in his dining room where he liked to recline and leaf through his latest volume.

Sid, too, had a restless mind whose interests were many and varied and whose lifelong pursuit of knowledge seems to me a model worth emulating.

I’d like to think that even in my waning days I’ll still retain at least a vestige of a child’s curiosity, will continue to be invigorated by the discovery of some new fact and to be delighted by a good tale, well told.

When I read the obituary that Sid’s family compiled it seemed to me that they could have been describing my grandpa.

Sid, his family said, was “a prolific writer with artistic talent, he filled journals with stories of his life.”

I don’t know that I could fairly call my grandpa’s writings prolific but in the last few years before dementia robbed him of all but a few persistent memories, he filled a couple of notebooks, in longhand, with stories from his youth in North Dakota.

He also had a local printer publish a brief book — more of a pamphlet, really — that included many of those anecdotes.

But it was the description of Sid’s “artistic talent,” that caught my eye.

My grandpa had considerable natural ability as a sketcher. I remember sitting in his den and watching him take up a charcoal pencil and effortlessly, or so it seemed to me, conjure in a few minutes a horse so realistic I could sense the rippling of its muscles and feel the wind whipping its mane.

Sometime in the 1970s he took up oil painting, and a few of his canvases hang from the walls of my home.

The greater part of Sid’s legacy, by contrast, won’t fit in a living room. Besides all the sap and shed needles.

But the forest that he created on his Alder Creek property has a beauty that not even the most skilled hand can replicate with a paintbrush and a palette smeared with colors.

Nor can any painting produce that unique vanilla-cinnamon aroma of ponderosa bark warmed by a July sun.

I can’t claim that I knew Sid well.

But I am grateful to have known him at all, to have been his guest at Alder Creek, to have sat next to him in a helicopter as pilot Phil Stevenson guided his aircraft over the sage hills so that Sid could find new patches of his great nemesis, the noxious weed leafy spurge.

That Sid reminded me so much of my grandpa, who I didn’t often see during his last decade, seems to me a happy coincidence.

The richness of our lives, I believe, has much to do with those we meet along the way, and in this I have been fortunate.

Some I have shared a name with.

Others, like Sid, I have shared hours of conversation.

And a handshake, a trivial event that will, I suspect, stay with me always.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.

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