Shortly after Andi and I met and began running each other through the gauntlet of initial family meet and greets (the one sure sign or test that you’ve found a decent candidate for life partner), she marveled at just how fortunate I was to have the majority of my grandparents playing major vibrant roles in my life.
That was almost two decades ago.
As I write this, I am closing the final pages on my thirties (with 40 less than two years away) and am just now saying goodbye to my beloved Grandpa Ron. Born in May 1920, he lived a bountiful life – full of early experience and adventure tempered with that suburban domestic bliss that everyone hopes to attain as the years wind on. On June 30, 2010 – over ninety years after my Grandpa Ron graced the planet with his presence, he passed away surrounded by his loving family. He is a great man who will be remembered always.
My Grandpa Ron is my Mom’s Dad. Like all grandfathers, he seemed to have a Tall Tale for all occasions. The difference is, his tales were true. See – he grew up with that Greatest Generation – that brave group of individuals who had their lives cast on a die and rolled when so many good and decent men and woman decided to make a stand against grave Evil. That was World War II – when my grandfather served out his late teens and early twenties employing his skills as a French linguist to interpret troop movements in the French theater of war.
World War II marked the turning point for his own beloved pursuits. A gifted pitcher, he signed on with the Boston Braves (a team that would later relocate South of the Mason/Dixon line) and could have gone on to baseball glory if it weren’t for the vital need to fight the Fuhrer. Of course, baseball lore and war stories colored so many of the true life tales my Grandpa told me. Sure, we may look back on the past and see only the larger than life examples and not the mundane nine-to-five moments that no doubt existed at that time but there’s no question that this was a time of great opposition and some would say, greater opportunity. One looking for adventure didn’t have far to go to find it.
So, my Grandpa enlisted in the Air Force, headed Over There, and put his skills to the test for the Greater Good. Most likely simple decisions made at a time when doing the hard thing and doing the right thing were one in the same ; a no-brainer for stand up guys like my Grandpa who couldn’t have known the indelible mark they’d make on history and the influence they would have on their own family who look back in a state of awe at all they accomplished in a life.
He did more in a decade than I’ll do in my entire time on this orb. That alone is cause for celebration and remembrance. And that alone is the reason that I remember always looking upon my Grandpa – one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’d met – with heartfelt awe. He and his Band of Brothers seemed of that rarified air – more than human to a grandson whose greatest accomplishment was reaching World 8-4 in Super Mario.
But he didn’t see it that way.
My Grandfather thought I was the greatest – as I’m sure he held all of his eight grandchildren in equal regard. Here was a guy who signed on for major league baseball, flew across the world to fight Evil, toured England where he met his wife of 65 years (my Nana Nell) and then returned home to begin a family that would number four immediate children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren (all of whom he’s met and held tight). A hell of a legacy and much more than so many accomplish in a life.
And yet, I always got the sense that as large as he loomed in my life, he really looked up to me.
Even from an early age.
See – I wasn’t the most athletic kid. In fact, when it came to sports, I was pretty atrocious. Sure, I picked up some serviceable skills as I grew older (allowing me to enter pick-up games and not look like a total fool) but when I was younger, I had zero game. Plus, I was afraid of the ball.
But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to play ball. In fact, I used to go to sleep at night wishing that I could somehow chase my fears away and develop some natural ability. After all, my friends didn’t share my affliction and all I wanted to do was keep step with them. Being a shy kid, I never let on to anyone around me that this was the crux of my insecurity. I just rolled with the insults in gym class – hoping and praying that the ball wouldn’t get hit to me way out in right field. Of course, baseballs are nefarious beasties who sense fear. So, every pitch (from a lofty moon shot to the weakest dribbler) somehow found a way to me WAAAAAAAAAAY out in right field and soared over my head (yes, even the grounders) – leaving me to awkwardly scramble after it while a Greek Chorus of Boos echoed behind me. All I can say is “Thank God for Bill Buckner”.
With nary a word exchanged, somehow my Grandpa picked up on my plight.
So, one year he gifted me with the greatest present a hopeless hardball fan could pine for. My very own Louisville Slugger and a handful of balls. Even better – he promised me that he would be on my doorstep each Saturday for the foreseeable future to take me to the local park and provide some one-on-one personal instruction.
I can’t remember to pick up milk nor my own middle name but for some reason every detail of that first morning session is tattooed to my brain. And that has to be over 27 years ago. I remember that he spent hours, tossing slow-pitch at me on the diamond outside of the Memorial Park Elementary School in Rockland, MA – enthusiastically fielding the middling grounders that occasionally slid off my bat. And he kept on ushering good-natured words of encouragement in that warm boom of a voice that he had.
And I felt my nerves relax. I stopped fearing the ball and started enjoying the pure act of just playing a game. I wasn’t quite ready for a call-up to the Bigs but that didn’t matter. Thanks to my grandfather using those innate skills of perception inherent to all people who care deeply for others, I simply started having fun.
Afterwards, we stopped by the local 7-11 where I picked out a celebratory cherry Slurpee and an Amazing Spider-Man comic. I’ve no recollection of the issue # – only that it featured The Scorpion as the guest baddie. That thing could be the most sought-after comic of all time today but it would pale in comparison to the value of that pitch-perfect Saturday morning. A memory that will never fade nor lose itself to the ravages of time.
Unfortunately, my Grandpa, who lived a long, full life aided and abetted by his lifelong devotion to healthy eating and exercise was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease seven years ago. In the early stages, it was the usual sort of memory loss we often equate with getting older. Just something slipped from memory. So, whenever I saw him, it was easy enough to gloss over a random neural hiccup where he struggled to find a name or recollect a treasured memory.
In the last few years, times had changed and I saw just how devastating this illness can be. In fact, the very last time I spoke with him directly (late last year) marked the first time that I felt he had no idea who I was. I was just some nice guy who chatted him up – the type of one-time acquaintance you might run into on the street or at a crowded deli counter.
While that settled hard upon my chest, I came to a conclusion. We live on in memory. Mankind is always chasing immortality through medical miracles but I think we might be looking in the wrong place. It’s through stories passed on from generation to generation – from two people creating life and that life moving on and adding to the legacy – that we find true longevity. I think my Grandpa would agree. So long as we’re here to tell his tales – and our children hear them and recount the stories – we all live long and prosper.
My biggest regret in my life is that I never became the writer I think my Grandpa saw in me. When I went off to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and decided to pursue a career in Journalism, he was ecstatic. A longtime lover of the written word (he collected numerous prints and old books), my Grandpa followed my collegiate career with great enthusiasm. When I would send him my articles published in the Daily Collegian – he would read and re-read them, telling my grandmother that The Boston Globe needed my voice. In my Junior and Senior years, I moved to the Arts Desk where I provided Movie Reviews. My grandfather mailed one to Jay Carr telling him to watch out.
I never pursued that career path. I love to write but not coming from a family of privilege, I wasn’t sure I could live if I wrote – at least not in any comfortable manner in those early years where journalists essentially toil for free under long-term apprenticeships. There was just no way I could make ends meet. And even though I swore that I would get back on track with that career path; life interrupted, my road headed off in a different direction and ultimately I found myself here – with a good life but different from where he and I may have thought it would run way back when anything was possible.
But maybe that’s the point of these pages. Maybe this Blog stands not just as a forum for my voice but also as a tribute to great guys like my Grandpa. Maybe this site is testament to the hopes and dreams he carried in his big heart for all his friends and family.
His is a life that began in the early stages of a century that would see some amazing global changes – some of which he had an eagle eye’s view upon perched high above the Earth looking for enemy troop movements. And here now, as we say goodbye to him, we realize just how fortunate we were to live vicariously through his amazing experiences and accomplishments. We can only dream to reach such heights.
Rest in Peace, Grandpa Ron.