My Grandfather…oh, the stories he could tell!

My Grandfather, my Mom’s Dad, William McKenzie Sim, was born in Aberdeen, Scotland on March 12th, 1892. He married my Grandmother (Jean McRobbie Robertson) on November 14th, 1914, when he was 22 years old. My Mom (Lilias) showed up 2 years later, her brother (Bill) 2 years after that, and their youngest child, (Jack) 2 years after that. As a young father, my Granddad worked in the ship building industry (more about that later) in and around Aberdeen, but when that work dried up, like so many others, he looked to America for better opportunities. He arrived in the United States via Canada in April of 1923, and settled in Chicago, Illinois, and sent for his family. They arrived in August of 1923, and started the life of American emigrants, even though they were better off than most, as they spoke English well, with a definite Scottish accent.

Sim Family

My Mom between my Grandparents on the top step and my Uncle Jack and Uncle Bill below

When I was born in 1950, my Grandpa was 58 years old, and because my Dad’s father had died in 1936, he was the only Grandfather I knew. As they still lived in Chicago, and I grew up in New York, we didn’t get to see them but a time or two a year, but whenever we were together, we were hard to separate. My Grandpa was an inveterate storyteller, and I was a more than a willing listener. If we were at their house on the South Side of Chicago, he and I would spend hours at their kitchen table, him drinking coffee, smoking Camels, and filling my head with story after story. I don’t know if they were true, based on truth with some embellishment, or if they were total fabrication, and I didn’t care then, and don’t now. All I know is that this is what my Grandpa and I did, and I was a more than willing audience. In fact, if he didn’t start telling me a story, I’d ask for one. I even remember making requests for him to tell me certain stories over and over. He died in 1975, when I was 25, and right up to the day he died, if we were together, he was telling me a story abut something! He was a kind, warm, wonderful man, and he died peacefully in his sleep one night. I think that was a fitting way for him to go, and even though he was 83 at the time, it was too early in my opinion. I’m sure he had more stories for me!

So, let’s get to some of his stories…at least some of the ones I remember. It was Susie’s idea for me to write this blog, and re-tell some of my Grandpa’s stories. I guess over the almost 40 years we’ve been together, I’ve told more than a few of my Grandpa’s stories to her, and when we were looking at some old family pictures the other day, she said I should write a blog about him and his stories, so here are some of the ones I remember.

My Grandfather always had what we called, “hot hands”, meaning he could grab a pot off the stove or even something out of the oven without a pot holder. As I mentioned early on, when he was young in Scotland, he’d worked in the ship building industry. His story explaining how he could handle hot things without any apparent effect on him, went back to his early days in ship yards, when he worked as a riveter’s apprentice. The way he told me the story, the rivets would be heated on the dock in a big fire, and the way they got to the riveter working on the ship was to be thrown from one apprentice to another, till they got to the needed location. He claimed that although it was hot and dangerous work, it didn’t take long to become immune to the heat, and that’s why he was able to grab anything hot…he was immune!

Dad Sim in Mason OutfitAs with many immigrant groups, there was a desire to stick together with new and old friends from the “old country”. My Grandfather was very active in the Masons, and my Grandmother was very active in the Daughters of Scotia, the ladies version. As such, many of their friends were Scottish, and even when I was a kid, they had Scottish friends all across the country, that we’d often visit when I was with them. This story has to do with a Scottish friend of theirs who happened to be an engineer at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.

The way my Grandpa told the story, one day this engineer friend of his was in the passenger seat of a new Ford automobile, as a test driver drove around the Ford test track. In the back seat was Henry Ford, and his good friend Harvey Firestone, of the Firestone Tire Company. At one point they hit a huge bump, causing all the occupants to get bounced around. According to the story, Henry Ford said, “My God…what was that?”, to which my Grandpa’s friend retorted (without skipping a beat or thinking), “What do you expect…..Its only a Ford.”. The way my Grandpa told the story, his friend would have been collecting his last Ford paycheck that day, but for the fact that Harvey Firestone got hysterical, laughing so hard that eventually Henry Ford started laughing too. His friend did, however, keep a low provide around Mr. Ford for the near future, but eventually retired from the Ford Motor Company, so I guess the old man forgot about it.

                          A very young me in my Grandpa’s Milk Truck

It wasn’t too long after they got to this country, that my Grandfather started as a milkman. I don’t know if this was the norm at that time, or an exception to the rule, but my Grandfather didn’t work for a dairy. He was an independent contractor, owning his route and clients, and when I was a kid, his milk truck! Their house on the South Side of Chicago had a big three car garage on the alley behind the house, and in one of the stalls, was his late 40s Divco Milk Truck. In those days, a milkman got up in the middle of the night, loaded his milk at the dairy, made deliveries way before folks were up for breakfast, and was home, finished for the day before lunchtime. As a young kid, when I visited Chicago, having my Grandfather home early in the day, and a real milk truck in the garage, was huge! Of course, he had not always delivered milk with a truck. When he started, he had a horse and a wagon, and there were some great stories from those days too.


My Grandparents with my Grandpa in his standard milkman outfit

He had one horse that he claimed knew the route better than he did. Jock was his name, and my Grandfather said he was the smartest horse he’d ever seen, and made his route so easy! As he told the story, he’d load his milk bottle carrier with orders for the next couple of houses, walk down the street or alley making his deliveries, and when he needed more milk, there was Jock waiting at the next house for my Grandpa. He even claimed that the horse knew who was and who wasn’t a customer, as he’d walk right past the non-customer’s houses, right up to their next customer. That was in stark comparison to another one of the horses I heard about. This guy had been a Chicago Fire Department horse in the days before the CFD was using motorized rigs. The stories I was told about this horse had to do with how he still thought he was a fire horse, and if a fire engine happened to pass my Grandpa’s route with the siren blaring, this horse would take off, milk wagon and all, and follow the fire engine! On several occasions, before my Grandpa got rid of him, my Grandmother would get woken up by calls at home about where somebody had found my Grandfather’s loaded milk wagon and his horse. Often times, it was the firemen who’d try and bring the horse and wagon back to where they’d seen him, so that my Grandpa could continue his route. I wouldn’t be surprised if that horse was his inspiration to go from horse to motorized truck!

Another story had to do with the “drunk” my Grandpa stumbled over, early one morning on his route. It was dark, and he was walking up the back alleyway of a house when he tripped over something, fell, and broke two milk bottles. He got back to his feet, saw a prostrate sleeping drunk lying on the path, kicked him as hard as he could in the ass, and muttered, “Goddamn drunk.” He went back to the wagon, got a couple of more bottles of milk, made his delivery, and thought nothing more of it. Later that morning, when he got back to the dairy to return bottles, the manager called him to his office. “Scotty, these two gentlemen are from the Chicago Police Department, and they’d like to ask you a couple of questions”. They gave him an address and said that they’d found broken milk bottles there, and they wondered what had happened. He told them that he’d tripped over a dunk sleeping in the alleyway, and when he got up he’d kicked the guy in the ass, gotten replacement bottles, and gone on his way. “Is the guy complaining about something?”, he asked. The police then informed him that the guy wasn’t drunk, but was dead, having been shot a couple of blocks away, and stubbled to where my Grandpa found him. Well, it was Chicago in the 20s!

Another story he told me about was having a very nice customer who’s name was Capone. He never thought anything about it, till one day he went around collecting, and when Mrs. Capone opened the door, and invited my Grandfather into the kitchen, he found Al Capone sitting there. According to my Grandpa, Al peeled a couple of bills off a wad in his pocket, gave them to my Grandpa, and told him to “take good care of my Mom”. True or not, it was a great story to have your Grandfather tell you when you’re 10!


The Sim Family at my Mom and Dad’s Wedding in 1947.  My Uncle Jack, my Grandfather, my Dad, and my Uncle Bill.  My Cousin Billy, my Grandma, my Mom, and my Aunt Ann

Early one winter morning, when my Grandpa went down to take the truck out of the garage, he discovered that the cold had frozen the newly fallen snow in the alley to solid ice. This ice was right up against the two big swing doors that opened from the garage into the alley. Try as he might, he could do nothing to free the doors from the ice, and the clock was ticking and he really needed to be on the road to the dairy to load up. Absent any other solution he could see, he got in the truck, dropped it into gear, and proceeded to drive right through the garage doors to freedom. I can imagine that at 2 AM or so, on a quiet winter’s night, that noise did not go unnoticed in the neighborhood, but he had deliveries to make. On the way home, he stopped off at the lumber yard, and picked up the supplies he needed to re-build the doors.

This next story really has to do with me more than my Grandpa, but since his being a milkman was central to it, I think it fits here. In 1956, I was in Mrs. Arnold’s second grade class, at Garden School in Jackson Heights, NY. We must have been talking about various occupations, when I raised my hand and told the class that my Grandfather was a milkman with his own milk truck. The discussion must have continued for some time, and I guess I neglected to mention that my Grandfather, his truck, and the dairy they delivered from were all in Chicago. I know that, because later that day, Mrs. Arnold called our house and spoke to my Mom. After the preliminaries, Mrs. Arnold told my Mom what we’d been talking about in class, and wondered if we might be able to arrange a class field trip to visit my Grandfather’s dairy. My embarrassed Mom then had to explain to Mrs. Arnold, that her father lived and worked in Chicago, and that a field trip wouldn’t be possible! Hey, I was 6!

Unlike some people, my Grandpa was someone who really lucked out in the Social Security lottery. As a self-employed person, he had only recently become eligible to join Social Security, and after a very short time in the system, he retired before he was 65. He collected for the next 20 years plus, and my Grandma, who lived to be 93 collected after that, so a very good investment!

This last story has to do with his retirement, and getting out of the milk business. As he was a self-employed milkman, there was no pension to fall back on, just the value of his route and customers. When he was ready to sleep through the night, like a normal human being, he put his route and his truck up for sale. A young man bought the route and the truck, and my Grandpa bid farewell to the milk business. Unlike my Grandpa, this young man was not fortunate enough to have a garage that the truck would fit in, so he arranged with the dairy to park the truck in the same lot they used for their own milk trucks. About 4 months after he started the route, there was a big fire one night at the dairy, that damaged or destroyed many of the trucks in the yard. Unfortunately, my Grandfather’s former truck was one of them. Imagine his surprise when a couple of days later, the wife of the young man who bought the route and the truck called and said to my Grandfather, “Mr. Sim, can you tell me who carries the insurance on your truck, as it was destroyed and we have to make a claim.” I guess these folks really didn’t have a head for business, and I’m sure weren’t happy when my Grandpa told her that as soon as the transfer was complete, he’d canceled his insurance.


On a trip with us to Washington DC

In the early 70s, my Mom had my Grandparents move to New York to be closer to us. They were getting older, and their neighborhood was going downhill, so it was time for them to make a move. My Grandparents put the great old house on the South Side up for sale, and when it was finalized, I flew out to Chicago, and drove my Grandparents and their possessions to New York in their 1964 Ford Galaxie 500. It was 800 miles on the road, I drove and my Grandpa sat in the shotgun seat, and we talked for the 2 days we were on the road (much, I’m sure, to the consternation of my Grandmother, who was in the back seat). Once they were in NY, they had an apartment just around the corner from my folk’s house in Bayside, and we were all together a lot. The story telling continued whenever I was with him.

He was a great Grandpa to have and now, more than 40 years after he died, I still think back fondly on our sessions together, and the great stories he always had for me, and that I continue to tell! I only knew one grandfather growing up, but he was a peach, and I always considered myself very lucky to have that kind of Grandpa!

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