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The Avant-Garde Grandpa





Provo, UT USA


Salt Lake City Weekly arts & entertainment
Grand Ole Exit, Ashes to Ashes to Lamb's,
where generations go to share a table
by Phil Jacobsen, Grain of Salt November 2, 2000

When Angela called my house and said it was time to pick up the ashes, I thought it was the start of a joke. As it turns out, the ashes Angela was referring to were my grandfather's. Two years ago after he died from a bout with pneumonia, it was decided that grandpa still had some work to finish-his body was sent to Grand Canyon University to be a medical cadaver. When his work was done, I was told, his ashes would be sent back to the University of Utah. Since my parents live in St. Louis, I'd be the one to "get the call."

Volunteering to "get the call" about my grandfather's ashes wasn't really that surprising. Once I got a call saying my grandfather was found naked in his apartment claiming that Ezra Taft Benson wasn't supposed to be the new president of the Mormon church. God told my grandfather it was supposed to be him. Once I got a call from the Excelsior Hotel in Provo, because my grandfather was trying to turn one of their rooms into a "sound studio." Once I got a call from the Provo Mental Institution, geriatric wing, saying that my grandpa had tried to set the building on fire.

My grandfather was manic-depressive. What that means is that, when medicated he drooled, and the other times he thought he ruled the world. Off his medication, my grandfather became "Mar-Tie" a country music star with No. 1 hits in Seattle and Portland. Mar-Tie knew he would end up on the Grand Ole Opry stage. He may have been crazy, but he knew where to rock. Give grandpa a Casio synthesizer with a button labeled "Polka," and he could write a song about anything. Believe it or not, his music wasn't suitable to the masses, and he died an unknown. But like all great and not-so-great artists, he found a niche after he died.

My friend Penny has a radio show on KRCL Saturday nights called Kicking Judy. I gave Penny a couple of his tapes, and even though Mar-Tie thought he was getting airplay all over the Pacific Northwest, it wasn't until two months after he died that he got his musical debut on KRCL. On that night, a resounding click was heard throughout the valley as people simultaneously turned off their radios. On that night, however, the dial in my car clicked as I turned the volume to 10, and for the first time since his death, sat in my car-the only person in Salt Lake City to know the words to Mar-Tie's "Navajo Lady"-and cried.

When Angela called about the ashes, I hung up the phone. Then I picked up the phone and dialed a number. "Penny," I said, "will you go with me to pick up my grandfather from the hospital?"

"I thought he was dead."

"He is."

"I have Thursday off from work," she said. "I guess you're not in a hurry."

When I picked up Penny, she had one of Mar-Tie's tapes in her hand. She put it into the tape deck, and to the tune of "Roll out the Barrel" came a song about a handsome Iranian boy named "Mona."

At the University of Utah, Angela and Mar-Tie were waiting for us. Seventy-six years plus two years of being soaked in formaldehyde laying on a table with first-year medical students poking and prodding trying to find his zygoma had come down to a five-pound box of ashes. At times like this, it is difficult to smile.

Before my grandfather did research at the Grand Canyon University, even before he became obsessed with country music and mental institutions, he was a sheepherder in and around the mountains of Vernal. So, seat-belting Mar-Tie into the backseat of my car, with "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel" playing from my cassette deck, Penny and I and Mar-Tie headed to Lamb's Restaurant.

Lamb's is known for good, old-fashioned food. It's been in the same Main Street location since 1939, and saw Salt Lake City's downtown in its heyday, the dead years and now the era of TRAX. Known for its decor of yesteryear and visited by every new generation-who think they alone have discovered an old "gem"-Lamb's serves up good, hot food. And of course, they serve lamb. This lunch was my way of saying thanks for the music, Mar-Tie, and so long.

We told the server we needed a table for two. I sat Mar-Tie on the table and Penny sat some crackers on top of Mar-Tie's box. The waiter brought our food, and it shouldn't have come as a surprise that because I ordered the barbecued lamb shank ($11.95), that's what the waiter served. But looking at my plate, all I could think was, "Little Bo Peep, I just found your sheep." There seemed to be little difference between the barbecued lamb served with mashed potatoes, and my grandfather sitting on the table, burnt to a crisp. Ashen faced, I began to pass out.

When Penny saw that I looked worse off than my grandfather, she had the waiter box my lamb and her vegetarian ravioli ($11.95) while trying to soak my face in a wet napkin she'd dipped into her water glass. We paid, grabbed Mar-Tie and left. That night, Penny said she loved her ravioli. I gave my lamb to a guy who jumpstarted my car.

Needless to say, that wasn't how I'd wanted say goodbye to my grandfather. Nor is this the food review I'd wanted to write. Sometimes though, life, lunch and Lamb's don't go as planned. I'll give Lamb's another try. As for Mar-Tie, the best I can offer him is a trip out of my house, out of my closet and out of his brown box to a place called Nashville, where I'll sprinkle his ashes on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.