I think of my grandpa every time I eat popcorn. Microwave, kettle corn, caramel corn, movie popcorn, but especially fresh-popped brings one thought to my mind, Grandpa Ed. His popcorn was the best and no popcorn could ever replace the world’s greatest.
My Grandpa never saw me, but I knew he loved me. As a successful dairy farmer, it’s said he’d gotten maculate degeneration and gone blind in the early sixties, I was born four years into the decade.
Every time we visited Valley City, North Dakota our first stop would be Grandpa Ed’s place. We’d visit a couple times a year when my parents brought us to see our cousins. I was always envious of them because they could see Grandpa Ed every day. There were times he lived with them, but the times I remember the most were when he lived in a small second floor apartment next to his business, Ed’s Popcorn Stand, home of the best popcorn in the world, or at least that is what everyone’s opinion was. Instead of using his disability to live off the government, he decided to go into business for himself and set up a popcorn and candy stand.
Arriving in Valley City, we’d park by Ed’s Popcorn and I’d run out the car door anxious to get inside. It was a small building, about 12 feet wide by maybe 20 feet long, about the size of two small backyard storage sheds put together. Three or four adults could fit in the entry and often times at Ed’s Popcorn’s busiest, a line of people would go out the door. Once inside I inhaled the buttery aroma of popcorn and greeted my Grandpa. He always unlocked and opened a little door located under the counter and I would crawl in to receive my welcome hug. My older sister, Cindy would follow and we’d be lifted up with loving arms to have the privilege of sitting on the back counter which housed the candy bins, much to the envy of younger patrons.
The candy bins held so much sugary goodness, it was like our own personal Willy Wonka factory. Grandpa would let us sample whatever we wanted while our parents watched from behind the security screen. Of course they had taught us not to be greedy and we each politely filled a small brown bag of goodies. The decision was always difficult, but the Swedish fish and gummy red coins always ended up in my bag. While we chose our candy, Grandpa would fill a bag of popcorn for each of us, my parents included, to munch on. If it wasn’t fresh, he popped more. There was nothing like its hot salty goodness crunching in your mouth.
Even though Grandpa Ed was a local celebrity, security was necessary for a blind man’s business. The entry was separate by a half-wall where the secret door was hidden under a skinny counter top ledge. The upper half was enclosed with thick chicken wire fencing. A square door in the center of the wire barricade on the counter top allowed the exchange of money and goods. The front window by the candy bins also could be used in a similar fashion, but I only remember Grandpa using the inside door. We would sit on our privileged spot and watch people pass by the window, knowing they couldn’t resist its mouth-watering scents and come in for a treat.
Although he was blind, the rest of his senses were keen. He could feel and identify every coin and always gave correct change. He could smell paper money and tell you what the bill was. The minute the door opened, he greeted his customers with a hearty “Hello.” Legend has it that he had been tested once by someone trying to take advantage of his blindness. They handed him a bill claiming it to be something it wasn’t and he denied service to the person. Never underestimate the heightened senses of the visually impaired.
Grandpa knew where everything was in the popcorn stand. I’d watch as he made his way around the carefully arranged room. Next to the candy bin counter was the famous popcorn machine. He’d measure the exact amount of oil, pour it in and then add the popcorn, not too much or it would burn. He had it down to an exact, perfect-popcorn science every time and soon the magic popping sound would tease our ears and the smell of salty butter would tantalize our taste buds. He always made sure we were safe and clear of its heat.
Next to the popcorn machine was a tall red Coca-Cola dispenser. It kept glass bottled soda pops cold for the thirsty customers. It was the kind that required payment if it were outside the safe walls of the popcorn stand. It’s paint so smooth and shiny you could see your reflection in it. Grandpa had stocked the bottles in order and could feel the painted labels so he knew his customer was getting what they asked for.
Since the entry took up only about half the length of the stand, beyond its end wall sat a freezer full of frozen delights. Grandpa kept everything from push-ups to freeze pops, fudgicles, fifty-fifty bars, ice cream sandwiches and other pre-made frosty desserts. It was an extra special treat when he offered us our choice of the freezer stash. With all the wares of his business filling the small space, he always made room for his young, blind friend to pull up a folding chair and hang out in the back with him.
When Grandpa closed the stand for the day he’d lock up and secure both the back and front entrance and make sure things were turned off. We’d head next door to his second floor apartment. I held the same amazement of his keen senses just watching him ascend the staircase. Inside his simple abode, everything was arranged and placed conveniently for him to find. I’d snuggle into his lap on his favorite recliner and we’d visit or listen to his radio.
Before ending our visit to Valley City, the last stop was always Ed’s Popcorn Stand. Grandpa gave us another bag of candy and we’d leave with extra large bags of his famous popcorn to snack on for the long drive home.
Although visits were few and far between, Grandpa would call us. I loved listening to his voice and hearing his infamous chuckle over the phone. He’d always ask about what was happening in my life and never minded if I complained about how my basketball coach treated me. As I described it all to him, it was like he had been there with me. He loved to talk and listen to us. One year he bought me a talking Flip Wilson doll and on one of our calls requested I pull the string so it could talk to him. I’ll never forget how he laughed at its silly wisecracks. It’s been more than 35 years since he passed away and I can still hear his voice and endearing giggle. I cherish his voice.
Recently there has been a movement of some residents of Valley City to resurrect the old popcorn shed and make it a sort of historical monument. As I have read through the various Face book posts my heart is warmed to hear how many people loved my Grandpa. He was always a gentleman, kind and thoughtful to everyone. His life most likely touched and inspired more lives than I can imagine and I’ll bet I am not the only one who thinks of him when I eat popcorn.
I don’t know much about my Grandpa’s history. I know he was a WWI infantry veteran stationed in France. I don’t know what made him who he was. What I do know is what matters most. He loved us very much and I can still feel his hearty hug embracing my young admiring heart. He never let his disability stop him from doing anything. He inspired many people with his determination, kindness and uplifting spirit. As his granddaughter, I will always think of him when I enjoy popcorn of any kind and can only hope such qualities will be manifested in my life.