Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
and technology


Monday, September 05, 2005

The universe, reconfigured

Robert J Williams died on Sept. 1 from not-unexpected heart failure. This has brought a fair amount of misery to us on what was otherwise a beautiful weekend.

My memories of Grampa go all the way back. Back to summers when I was about 8 and we would take his yellow fishing boat out to a different lake near Florence every day and see how many perch we could catch. Even though any single fillet would make little more than a potato chip, catch enough and Grandma would have a fine breakfast for us the next day.

Grampa let me drive the boat, which was just big enough to have a steering wheel and a throttle next to it. I'd have to learn not to gun it too fast, or the bow would just raise way up and all the gear would slide to the stern -- and maybe someone would fall out (never happened). Also, learn to let it sit in neutral before switching into reverse, or the gears would grind -- he'd yell if I did that. And kill the motor if you're accidentally floating right over your crabbing net rope!

At the house in Florence he taught me to weld with the world's oldest, crappiest welder. It was so weak that you'd actually have to drag and scrape the rod on the target metal to get it to start sparking and hopefully start an arc. Trying to get started like this often resulted in the rod getting stuck on the target, and the little welder would then let out a hum and I'd jerk like crazy to break the connection before the welder could overheat. In time I built a "welding table" out of rebar with that welder, it was pretty good actually, and Grampa really liked it.

Grampa made me in charge of cutting a trail behind the house from the edge of the lawn to the property line. It was completely overgrown with coastal foliage back there, and chopping away with Grampa's machete was damn fun, I did that several years.

He had a nice air pistol, too, and I got to use that a lot, shooting targets all over the property. Sometimes we'd shoot other guns. Grampa loved to fish and hunt. He gave me a new 12-gauge when I got my hunting license (at 14 I suppose), and he obviously thought this was an important gift for me and he was proud to give it to me. I got a few pheasants with it (I don't remember if I could ever hit a duck, but not for lack of trying). Although he thought I'd always keep it, when I was about 18 I gave the shotgun to my dad, I didn't want it anymore, and this puzzled and disappointed him and Grandma.

When I was 7 or 8 he would let me drive the riding lawn mower around the one-acre yard in Walterville. One time I made this huge braid with some branches on the huge weeping willow in the yard -- Grampa thought it was ridiculous and cut it down and fed it to the horses, ha! Another time I remember him cutting off the heads of chickens matter-of-factly. He had a little black and white dog at the time, Mike. Mike got run over. I think we asked about what he was like when he found him, and he said matter-of-factly "he was pretty flat." Eventually he would inherit my dog, and boy did that cocker spaniel get spoiled -- I think they'd even cover her with a blanket at night.

"What d'ya know?" was always the first thing Grampa would say to you in a very friendly way. Although when I was young, he was tough too. He'd give me a jab in the ribs -- "watch out or I'll put you into orbit!" -- and sometimes it really hurt. He could also get mad, and he could yell. I don't remember him yelling at me specifically, though it happened a few times. He could especially yell at a disobedient dog (an attribute my dad picked up, but its just vestigial in me), and sometimes to other people. He could raise his voice to Grandma, but she'd just yell back louder. I remember my cousins would bust up laughing when Grandma and Grampa would have a little fight.

Once he bought me a new fishing pole from his friend who owned a small supply shop, Petroni's, and we went straight out to fish, but Grampa broke the pole almost immediately. I thought he had been too rough with it, but I didn't say so, he was convinced that a fishing pole shouldn't break like that even if the line is stuck and you pull on it until it's bent clear over. We went straight back to the store, and when Petroni didn't want to replace the pole, Grampa yelled and cursed right there is the store.

I think this owes to probably the most defining event of Grampa's life: serving as a Marine in the South Pacific for all of WWII. From the USS Enterprise to Guadalcanal and Guam and Bougainville etc., he did things and saw things that most of us will never do or see, and we are fortunate for that. This would be somewhat speculatory, as Grampa had no interest -- absolutely none -- in talking about the war for most of his life. At the most, when I was a kid I'd sometimes ask him something that a child might ask but no respectful adult would ever ask, like: did you ever shoot anyone? Why? I remember plain as day his answer: well sure I shot them, it was either that or they shot me. How close were you? Sometimes no further than the length of this room.... Even as a kid I knew that that was the point to leave it alone.

But in the last few years he's been talking about the war, and watching war movies. No one in the family is sure why he changed in this way. Maybe it finally seemed so far away emotionally that he could talk about it -- although the more he talked about it, the more he'd complain about having nightmares (60 years after the fact!). Recently I would ask respectfully about which islands he went to, what they were like (and Bougainville is very different from Guadalcanal, mind you), what was life on the Enterprise like, etc. And he would answer me, but he would also tell me memories that occurred to him. Some of these memories I think he never told anyone else, before or since, and they were so horrible and obviously haunting ... it makes more sense why he had an angry side for the rest of his life.

In recent years the anger was entirely gone (unless you mentioned President Bush and Iraq -- he hated war and having our soldiers get shot up, naturally enough), he was very sweet and he mostly just cherished visits from family and friends. He'd ask Amy about Africa just about every time he saw her, and he'd be fascinated by everything she'd say, and then he'd tell her things he wouldn't tell anyone else, and she loved it. To me he'd say "you're my buddy", and he meant it. I'm not explaining well how wonderful he was, but he was very interested in the world (recently he liked to flip to the Space channel to see what was happening; and he got himself and me subscriptions to Civil War Times) and in other people, he was fun and loved to kid you. I've really had a lot of fun thanks to him. Everyone liked Grampa. I have to feel very sad that I did not visit him more, that I was not a better buddy, but as Grandma says we all have regrets about what we didn't say to him.

The last time I saw him up-and-about was at Elias's 1st birthday party. I was busy for the whole party, but at the end I walked him out of the house and down to the street. It was a very hot day, but Grampa chilled easily, so I think it felt just right to him in his long-sleeved shirt and jacket. He got down the back stairs just fine without my help, even though he had looked tired and weak all day. We walked down the driveway, very slowly, I don't know what we were talking about. The last few years I have cherished all moments like this, knowing that they were going to stop at some point. He wore his WWII hat, complete with many of the ribbons he had earned pinned on top -- this represented the better side of his relationship with the war, that he was quietly proud of having served, and strangers would see the hat and stop him to thank him for his service. When he finally got into the car I told him I loved him and he told me the same back. And they drove home to Salem. There had been a lot of doubt that they would be able to come to the party at all, because he might have been having "a bad day", so we were very forunate to have him there. He's in the pictures of Amy and I helping Elias blow out the candle.

I saw him a week later, but he was just sleeping in his bed, even though it was afternoon. Grandma said he had been sleeping all day a lot lately. I thought: that's not good. A few days later he would collapse a few steps away from his bed, exactly as the doctors had been predicting for 3 years. I think his heart said "alright, Old Man, I've given you more time than any of those doctors told you I would, but now I really am worn out." He was 84, which is really amazing given the decades of high blood pressure, multiple heart attacks, esophogeal cancer, bypass surgery, broken back, artery stents....

The universe has changed for the worse, and it cannot go back to how it was. I would like so much to hear from Grampa just one more time ... I will adjust to him not being here, but I will never like it.


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