Saturday, June 20, 2009


Diana Carson McKinley - My Grandpa Hi

One person that had a lot of influence in my growing up years was my paternal grandfather. Actually, I can´t remember whether his name was William Carl Carson or Carl William Carson because I only knew him by “Grandpa Hi”. We had an unusual family tree because in their second marriages on both sides, my father´s father married my mother’s mother. So my parents were step-brother and sister.

When my grandfather was around 16 years old, he ran away from home and joined the circus. Once integrated in the circus life (I don’t know how or why they accepted him) he became the elephant trainer for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. One night one of the lions escaped from the circus zoo and was hiding under a house in the neighborhood where they were playing. No one wanted to go in after that lion. My grandfather, who had had a few too many drinks, said, “I´ll go get him!” He went under the house and the lion bit him on the thumb, going right through the fingernail. Somehow, he managed to get that lion out without getting himself killed. The circus took one of the lion’s claws and made it into a key ring for grandpa. My brother and I would often ask to see his special key ring and his thumb nail which was permanently split. Then we´d listen once again to his story.

So why was he called Grandpa Hi? Well, he was 6 ft. 6 inches tall. Now you can guess why I ended up at 6 ft. Some of the midgets in the circus were pick-pockets. They couldn’t reach his back pockets to steal his wallet because of his height, so they called him “Mr. High Pockets”. Eventually the name was reduced to Hi and from then on that’s what everyone called him.

From working in the circus, Grandpa went on to work for the Standard Oil Company in Seattle. He took care of the horses that pulled the oil wagons. That was the day before all the big trucks on the highways…excuse me, “roads”. He worked his way up in the company, don’t ask me how. He certainly had no education to speak of. When he retired at 65, he was the Superintendent of the Seattle branch of Standard Oil. When I was a sophomore at Highline, Grandpa helped me prepare a study on the many different by-products we get from oil. It included samples for each one. A photographer came to the class, took my picture with my grandfather and my project and I ended up on a page in the Standard Oil Company magazine.

Grandpa was quite a character. All of our extended family lived to the south of White Center. After his retirement from Standard Oil, Grandpa told everyone that he was the mayor of White Center. They must have believed him. In those days, White Center was a pretty decent place and the fruit and vegetable man and the fish man would give him bags of food when he walked by. Granted, he spent a lot of his free time in the taverns but I never, ever saw him drunk. That was just his social life and it was always during the daytime. He used to say that he was going down to “chew the fat.”

Probably, due to his beer drinking, he came down with diabetes and had to have a daily shot of insulin. One day he was walking down the alley to visit one of his cronies and one of his slippers came off. By that time, his diabetes had got to the point where he had lost a lot of feeling in his feet. He wasn’t aware that one of his feet was bare and he had cut it up pretty badly on the rocks and gravel on the road. Eventually, the unhealed sores turned to gangrene and he ended up in the hospital where he remained for the 3 months before he passed away. The day he died, I was to play piano for one of the school dances with Jerry Bayne´s band. It was something I had always dreamed about. Lind Boyd was the regular pianist but he had a date that night, so Jerry asked me to step in, in his place. I had been playing regularly with Tony Murphy´s band, so this wasn´t something entirely new to me. But I felt so privileged to have been asked and was really looking forward to this. So what should I do? My dear grandpa had just died and I wanted to play for a dance? I presented my problem to my grandmother and she said, “Your grandfather would have told you that the show must go on.” So I played.

Grandpa was definitely a showman at heart. He would often say, “Bring on the dancing girls!” and my brother and I would look around trying to figure out where they were going to come from. He instilled in me a sense of showmanship that put me in the variety hour programs and the school plays at Highline. He always encouraged me when I had to play for a recital. When I was a youngster, he took me to every circus that came to town…Ringling Bros., Shrine, Barnum & Bailey…and anything else that even smelled of acting or theatrics. And we always went back stage to meet the stars because he knew most of them personally. My Grandpa Hi Carson has stayed with me throughout the years in a lot of ways. When I have encountered difficulties in life that could have shot me down, I have often remembered his words, “the show must go on.”

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