By Brad Willis © 2006
Grandpa lived in a house that smelled like pipe smoke and old books. His wife, a one-eyed lady named Ruby, sat forever in the corner of the couch, reading and marking out the author's dirty words.
I thought I knew a lot about the couple. I knew Grandpa had a Navy tattoo and had been a small-church minister. I knew Grandma and Grandpa had been married on Halloween and once had hosted a radio variety show. Frankly, I thought I knew everything.
I did not.
Grandpa died last Wednesday at the age of 89. He had died much in the same way Grandma Ruby had. He'd fallen, broken his hip, had surgery, and never recovered from the trauma that surgeries cause old folks. This past weekend, I was supposed to be in Mississippi at a debutante wedding. Instead, I flew through Chicago and down to southwest Missouri to say goodbye to a man I was sure I knew in full.
I thought I knew myself. Before I reached Vegas this summer, I knew I was a card player and considered myself a good one. I was sure of my discipline. I had little doubt in my resolve and knew that I was in control of myself and my faculties most of the time. My ability to control my emotions--or the willingness to purposefully let loose of that control--has always been among the traits of which I am most proud.
I enjoyed all of this with the belief that all of the qualities were self-cultivated. While I hold undeniable love, affection, and pride for my family, I was sure that my personality was one I created for myself. My life-perspective, my ability to see things in a rational and purposeful way, they were all mine.
Sometime in mid-July, though, a small amount of doubt began to creep in. Something wasn't quite right. I remember sitting with a friend one night and saying, "Six months ago, I was sure of who I was. Now, I have no idea."
There may have been an unintended amount of hyperbole in my statement, but the simple fact was this: I was lost in Las Vegas. Even worse, I was lost in my own head.
Mom was making coffee while I tapped away on my laptop's keyboard.
"You should take a look at those photo albums on the floor," she said.
While I am a sentimental guy, I had made a personal vow to not get sappy while on the road home to Grandpa's funeral. I was there for one reason: to support my dad while he said goodbye to his father. As such, I had little desire to take a five-album walk down memory lane.
I've seen all those pictures before, I thought and continued to peck away at busy work until it was time to go to what was sure to be an uncomfortable open-casket visitation.
After a few minutes, I could see my mom watching me and I felt like I should at least make an effort to look like looking at several hundred pictures was something I really wanted to do.
Five minutes later, I was alone in a world of black and white history that I never knew.
Grandpa's jaw was stronger than I ever could've imagined it could be. As he stood beside a beautiful and buxom woman that would someday be my grandma, Grandpa looked like movie star from 1940. His hair was slicked back. He was a young and tough kid raised in the dirt farms around Garza County, Texas. He was to be the eventual father of nine children, one who would die before he saw five years old, and eight more that would outlive their father.
On the face of one picture, a shirtless John Willis painted commercial signs in the hot Texas sun. Written on the back of the picture in pencil were the words, "A way to make ends meet."
I had always thought of Grandpa as a man who had fought in World War II and gone on to live a life of a minister. As it turned out, both of those pursuits took up less than ten total years of his life. He'd been a sign painter, a father, a radio man, a bowler, a lover of beagles, and, at his retirement, a guy who worked at a paper cup manufacturing company.
The pictures told a lot of stories, but none really meshed with what I thought I knew about the man. Much like I believed for 32 years of my life that my father was born in El Paso (I learned two days ago that Dad was actually born in Houston), I also believed my grandfather had been on a Navy ship around Iwo Jima. Lately, I had come to doubt that story and wondered whether my grandpa had done any more than swab the deck of a navy ship in an American harbor.
As it turned out, there hadn't been an Iwo Jima for Grandpa, but he had seen Asiatic action in WWII. And the story of how he ended up there is the one that has me thinking this morning.
The black and white photo didn't show much. A lamp lay broken on the floor. The rest of the room was a mess. Unlike most of the photos that showed Grandma looking like a 1940s magazine advertising model, this one was out of place. Written on the back of the photo were the words, "The work of an intruder."
Grandma was living alone in New Orleans. She had some money in her purse and a kid to take care of. Once the intruder left, she only had the child. Her family packed her up and moved her back to Texas. Left unanswered in the picture--and in any stories told to me before this weekend--was the location of my grandpa. As my dad would say as we sweated in a 2006 Missouri heatwave, "He was a good father that did the best he knew how."
It seemed everyone believed that. But, if so, who leaves his wife in the ramshackle confines of one of America's roughest cities to be looted and violated in the middle of the night?
The early 1940s were a time of war. It was a time when a man could simultaneously be patriotic and earn enough money to feed his wife and child. Grandpa, like his brother-in-law Grady, enlisted in the military. The black and white photos of the two young men arm-in-arm would make them look like recruitment posterboys. The photos would not show Grady's death at St. Lo, France or the bullet hole through his dog tags.
As Grady made his way toward France's northern shore, Grandpa made his way toward the Navy. He ended up in a shipyard in New Orleans. Combat was certainly a possibility, but, perhaps not a big one. As Grady would die, the simple hope of three generations not yet born would've kept Grandpa on American shores. If Grandpa had run over a dune and into a bullet on D-Day, I would not be here. While that may be no huge tragedy, my son would not be here. That would be depriving the world of something perfect.
I've long known a mischievous grin on Grandpa's face, but it never really made sense to me until my dad ended up telling me the story while my grandpa laid in a casket a few feet away. As it turned out, it was a story that could be my own. The following is not word for word or, perhaps, even all that true. It's how I imagined it as my family recounted the legend. As someone said later in the weekend, "I have full confidence that every story Grandpa ever told at least had its genesis in truth."
Can you hear that sound? It doesn't belong on a ship or barracks, at least as far as the man with the stripes on his arm was concerned.
It was a few whispers, a few louder voices, then a tell-tale clicking. One man shouted, a few groaned. Then it all fell silent as The Man walked in.
Kneeling down on the floor were six men. They surrounded a few small piles of cash and two ivory dice.
Maybe they called it craps. Maybe they called it dice. The Man called it forbidden. In wartime, several indiscretions may have been permitted. Among Granpda and his friends, though, there were two forbidden pleasures. They must not fight. They must not gamble.
Grandpa did both.
As the piles of cash found their way to pockets, there were warnings given and promises made. Never again, The Man said. Never again, the men promised.
The next night they did it again. The Man gave another warning and the men offered more empty promises.
The warning eventually seemed just as empty. The Pacific was a world away and the war would certainly be over soon. And, really, would The Man send them away--send them to war--over a few silly games of dice?
Six months later, Grandpa was in the boiler room of the USS Adair as it set out from San Diego and to the waters around a land called Japan.
A farm field in southwest Missouri is the last place anyone wants to be in August 2006. It was nearly 100 degrees by 11am and the 40 people standing along the fence were sweating faster than they could dry their faces. It had been more than 60 years since Grandpa's ship had navigated the waters around Okinawa and made it back to American shores. It was a mission for which he would receive several medals, among them, ironically, one for good conduct.
I stood in a ten-year-old suit and stared at the flag-draped casket. In the distance, three uniformed men stood with guns at parade rest.
My sister-in-law nudged me.
"Look at the butterflies."
I turned to my right and looked at the 20 acres of purple-flowered weeds on the other side of the fence. I was still struck by the odd placement of the cemetery, but now I was transfixed. Like ten thousand tiny flags, a swarm of butterflies danced and weaved over the purple blossoms. There was nothing particularly poetic about it. It was simply a 20-acre scene of beauty that could not have been created by anything other than the God my grandpa loved. It was haphazard, hard-working nature. There was just enough randomness to make it exciting. There was just enough control to make it beautiful.
The uniformed men leveled their guns and fired in unison. The mourners jumped at each shot, then bowed their heads as one of the men played taps through the humid air. The men then marched in line to the casket. They folded and presented the American flag to my father.
Grandpa may not have been one of the men to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, but he was an American war hero all the same, at least in the eyes of the people who loved him.
More than that though, I remembered my dad's words: "He was a good father that did the best he knew how."
It was not an epitaph worthy of a headstone, but it was my Grandpa's life.
When people die, their life--no matter how mundane--often takes on legendary status. Their stories become bigger than the actual man was in his breathing years. For Grandpa, though, his stories, his tall tales, and his pictures were not larger than life. They were life. From painting signs as "a way to make ends meet," to falling victim to his own mischievousness, to making it back home to love his wife and raise eight children to adulthood, Grandpa lived a regular life of a man who made ends meet until he died at age 89.
I wrote all of this in a South Carolina coffee shop while waiting for my dog to get out of surgery. In about 15 minutes, I'm going to pick her up and take her home to my son. My dog surviving the surgery and my ability to take her home to someone who will love her unconditionally is the reason I woke up this morning.
I am a gambler. I know that now. And regardless of whether the story of my grandpa getting sent to war over a game of craps is true, it's helping me understand myself. I am a man of mischief that I control less than I thought I could. I am rational, but I am not perfect. Youth, or a mind still set in youth, can be a dangerous thing. Still, it gives us--no, it gives me--time to figure everything out.
When Dad told me Grandpa was a gambler, I only responded, "That makes a lot of sense."
What I meant was, "I understand."
I understand that life is like the field surrounding my grandpa's grave.
There is just enough randomness to make it exciting. There is just enough control to make it beautiful.
Brad Willis is a writter from Greenville, SC.