Part I: Life is for sharing
My grandpa was my ideal man, which is why I'm sharing his story on the blog. Though cancer took him, it never humbled him. He stands tall and strong as a pine tree in my memory, looming over my shoulder when I think of the kind of man I will someday choose as my counterpart.
I hope his story inspires you to reach for more, to care deeply about the important things, and encourages you to be brave in love. Choose the kind of man who will take you on a romantic movie date, squeeze your little hand in his, and cry at the sad parts too.
Love is described as a flame, most times. A bright light that leads us out of dark spaces. It was that way for my grandparents, a girl of 19 and a boy of 22.
This photo was taken Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949 in Biloxi, Mississippi. He was a farm boy from the wilds of Oregon, tall and steady like the pines. She was a southern belle just shy of 20 with long raven hair that he adored.
Theirs was a romance that started simple enough. On their first date to a new technicolor movie, he wiped away a tear during an emotional scene. That was the glimpse into his soul she needed. He wore his emotions on his sleeve. The rest wasn't hard to figure out.
They were married seven months later and he was whisked off to war-torn Germany to join the Berlin Airlift.
Young men started families early in that time, and he provided for his growing family of six who followed his call of duty from the gulf of Mississippi to the white sand beaches of Florida.
When duty called, the young boy went running, many times at great personal risk. But he always came back like he promised. His sons described him as watchful.
“If something went awry, his low rumbling growl, was as menacing and ferocious as his smile was sunny and warm.”
Before church on any given Sunday, he corralled his boys between those two giant palms, draped a towel around their necks and dunked their heads under the bathroom faucet. Steadying each little face in his hand, he brushed their wet mops of hair until it laid flat. Flinch or fuss, and his vise grip tightened. No feat of strength was a match for him.
When his boys or daughter got into mischief, the hammer fell hard. In their careless moments of delayed obedience, he snapped like a bullwhip. He demanded respect in every setting, especially of his kids. His gentler counterpart in marriage helped to temper the sting of his impatience.
So up the ranks of service, he climbed. He was a quick study in aircraft maintenance and carried the lives of others to safety as a flight test engineer.
Clocking over 11,000, flying hours, he spent an entire year of his life in the air.
While stationed in Florida, he was asked to join an elite squadron of air commandos that flew tense Cold War-era missions. His kids and wife only knew them as “Temporary Duty Assignments” where he could be gone weeks or months at a time. She was explicitly warned not to question her husband on his whereabouts before or after any mission. Those who did some poking around, did so at their peril. When the base commander at Eglin airfield in Florida held up grandpa for questioning while his squadron was spinning up to leave, the top brass got ahold of him in short order and reassigned the commander—to Alaska.
On paper, those 4 years my grandpa flew with the air commandos never existed. It’s a blank space on his military service record.
The family knows little of what he saw, or where he went. At that time in history, President Kennedy had worked out a deal to neutralize the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba without a ground invasion or unhinging its current dictator through revolt. Our best guess is that grandpa was involved in flying CIA personnel into and out of Central America to train Cuban exiles to overthrow their government with U.S. backing (what we know as the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.)
Till the day that he died, my grandpa expressed disgust over what happened in Cuba. He felt the weight of the lives lost in the botched invasion of the island's south shore that collapsed like a house of cards constructed by fickle American politicians. No doubt he knew many of the men slaughtered in the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. He felt the cost intimately, and he mourned those lives, every day of his own.
He shared scant details of these secret missions but did mention flying so near the ocean that the spray from ocean breakers splashed the cockpit windshield. His missions were in an unmarked plane among men wearing no insignia or badges. If things went sideways, he would be whitewashed from the pages of history— a man with no country in a nondescript plane that disappeared over some far-flung jungle.
Until the day that he died, he never gave full disclosure about those missions or who he worked for. He took an oath and it died with a man who was good for his word.
There is a quote by Winston Churchill that describes his innate sense of duty:
The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, stirring all men’s souls, drawing them from their firesides, casting aside comfort, wealth and the pursuit of happiness in response to impulses at once awe-striking and irresistible, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.
Duty is a word we swear away from love. If we don’t feel it, we don’t do it.
Yet I can’t help but see the beautiful coupling of duty and love in the lives of my grandparents. They threw in their lots together and it proved to be the biggest win of all.
Time was kind to that farm boy and his southern bride. They would take walks in the cool of the evening to check out the state of affairs in their apple orchard or sit out on the back patio at sundown. There were cups of coffee and toast at four a.m. and countless birthdays, Easters and Christmases in that small house that swelled miraculously to fit six children, 19 grandchildren, and 13 great grandkids, sometimes all at once.
There were dozens of new babies held in those wide weathered palms, fresh seafood, peeled and cracked over newspaper-lined countertops, and countless cups of juice spilled on the carpet.
My grandparents were two islands of personalities and gifts that leaned together whether the tide of good times receded or swelled. Their promises sealed and bonded with a holy vow: “For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
I heard my grandmother whisper those words over her love of 68 years, as his soul quietly slipped out of the room on a cold morning in March.
Spring lightning clipped distant clouds and just as dawn broke, his spirit fled with the shadows.
We held those big hands that gathered and steadied three generations and wept.
After it was over, a few of us walked outside to feel the wind sweep the earth like a hollow veil before our faces. As we raised his flag to half-staff in the backyard, I swore I could feel the nauseating turn of the planet from where I stood, hurtling us through time and space without him. Time was a lonely corridor— a hallway, perpetually narrowing into death.
He had gone before us as he always wished, our brave patriarch of 89 years. Many in our present climate use the term “patriarch” as a byword, as if strong male leadership is something to despise. But when the life of a good man is observed at its full measure, there is nothing more awe-inspiring. His death has left a permanent scar on our hearts.
I will never walk down the hallway again and hear his “Howdy” bellowing from the kitchen. I still mourn the loss of that exceptional, commanding voice.
After they took his body away, I walked into the back bedroom to stand in the tiny closet he shared with my grandma. I wanted some piece of him to hold. Breathing in the aroma of his wardrobe mixed with a splash of Brut cologne, dust, and warm skin, it almost felt like he was still lingering. I ran my fingers along the hem of his favorite shirt.
His love still beats in the heart of his wife. My grandmother is the holdout of their shared life. She reminds us of the beauty of family that uplifts and secures all things –togetherness, love, beauty, and the blessing that goes forward.
There is a hedge of rose bushes around the family home that my grandpa loved. Pruned back to stubs, some won’t bloom at all this year. We will count the days till they return. The roses are in mourning, but in time, will show their beauty again.