Poet Phil Kaye remembers his grandfather and reimagines traditional masculinity


AMNA NAWAZ: Now another episode of our series
Brief But Spectacular. Phil Kaye is a Japanese-American poet and
filmmaker. He’s also co-director of Project Voice, an
organization that partners with schools to bring poetry to the classroom. The title of this poem is “Surplus.” PHIL KAYE, Poet: My grandfather wasn’t a strong
man, but he knew what it meant to build. In 1947, after he and my great uncles returned
from the Second World War, they opened up Union War Surplus Store. The store slogan, “From a battleship to a
hunting knife, we have it, or we will get it.” My grandfather wasn’t a strong man, but he
kept this word. The place was half store, half encyclopedia,
packed all the way to the basement with people that somebody somewhere else might forget
about, but not here, like Richard, Richard, who didn’t work there, but showed up every
Sunday afternoon in his full military uniform, never once bought a single thing, but once
brought his little girl, held her hand, said, “This is what it smelled like when daddy was
a hero.” My grandfather wasn’t a strong man, but he
kept us safe. We walked together in the park one night. And a jagged man with more tattoo than skin
walked up directly to my grandfather, said: “Hey, old man. My mom took me your store once when I was
a kid, and you shook my hand like I was a man.” I still remember that. They called my grandfather Cheerful Al, with
his big belly, bald head, long gray beard. Little kids would see him and go, “Santa Claus.” Six years after Union War Surplus Store opened
its doors, my grandfather had a son, my dad. He is not a strong man, but he knows what
it means to build. One summer, when he was a teenager, he built
a door in the back. It’s still there. Forty years after Union War Surplus Store
opened its doors, my father had a son. I’m not a strong boy, but I’m trying to learn
what it means to build. One summer,when I was a teenager, I worked
at the store, built this display that went all the way up to the ceiling. Ran up to my grandfather, showed him what
I had done. “Very good, Phil. Very good.” When I asked him what to do next, he handed
me an old piece of paper, a beat-up pen. When I asked him what to do with it, he shrugged
his shoulders and laughed. And I began to build the only way I know how. I wrote this when my grandfather passed away. I think traditional masculinity can be somewhat
of a trap. And so to have my grandfather, who wasn’t
particularly strong or tough, or even cool, be kind of the pillar of his community in
these ways was really inspiring and important to me to see as a model. The thing that makes me happiest after this
piece is when people say, my grandparent is still around, and I’m going to call him. My name is Phil Kaye. And this was my Brief But Spectacular take
on my grandfather, Cheerful Al. AMNA NAWAZ: You can watch more in our Brief
But Spectacular series at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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