Some lessons last a lifetime.
Today would have been the 100th birthday of my grandfather Alan “Papa” Gilbert. Although he passed away in 2006, he was my most meaningful mentor and his influence on my life remains a constant source of inspiration. To celebrate his life I have shared the short story below; I first wrote it for his 80th birthday in 1995 and have revised and reflected on it many times since.
While I was aware of the impact of his insight when he first shared it, I more fully understand its importance and relevance to my life as an adult. I hope my sharing this story inspires you to positively influence others and appreciate individuals who have helped shape you into the person you have — and still can — become.
The morning sun yawned above the foothills, revealing the reservoir below, as Papa and I descended the wooden staircase towards the water’s edge. Stubborn fog, which had tightly held the surface of the water, melted away into daybreak.
“What a beautiful day,” Papa said as he bounded down the stairs like a child on Christmas Day.
We then walked along a narrow dirt pathway and, after a few short paces, discovered our canoe: 15 feet of green fiberglass and aluminum. But for Papa, it was perfection. I watched as he gleefully approached the vessel and attempted to release it from the chains restraining it.
“How did I manage to do this?” Papa said, frustrated with the intricate web of chain links in which he had wrapped the boat a month earlier.
“Do you need a hand, Mr. Houdini?” I inquired. “Or shall I call you a nurse?”
“I stage one breakout and suddenly I’m a criminal,” Papa joked.
A few years earlier Papa had an allergic reaction to medication while in the hospital. It was so severe that seconds after receiving the dosage, he became the Incredible Hulk. Highly agitated, he attempted to forcibly extricate himself from his bed to the great surprise of his nurse who quickly summoned backup.
Within minutes, four additional nurses were trying to sedate him. With all other options exhausted, they confined him within a restraining jacket, which was then anchored to the bed.
When Papa awoke later that day – in a much calmer state – he took issue with his restraints. So, he liberated himself using brains over brawn. When the floor nurse returned to check on him, she discovered the discarded restraints and deserted bed. By the time she returned to the room with a search party, Papa had returned and was resting comfortably in the bed.
With the defeated device dangling from his fingers and a grin that would put the Cheshire cat to shame, Papa calmly inquired, “Were you looking for me?” Even with clipped wings, Papa found ways to fly.
“Let’s go!” Papa exclaimed after unfurling the lock and chain.
We squatted next to the canoe and grabbed onto the edges. Papa positioned himself towards the front of the canoe, while I awaited his instruction at the stern. I stretched briefly and inhaled the rejuvenating air that surrounded me.
“One, two, three!” Papa said. “Up she goes.”
With the craft elevated over our heads we began walking towards the dock. Small pieces of gravel crackled beneath our feet as the weight of the canoe traveled through our bodies and into the ground on which we walked.
Beads of sweat amassed on my forehead like troops awaiting the signal to advance into battle. The pace of my breathing increased dramatically. My arms quivered as they strained to balance the weight.
Looking ahead, I saw that, despite his advanced age, Papa was in great condition. Biceps the size of grapefruits rippled underneath his shirt while he easily supported his end of the canoe – and a portion of mine I suspected.
Maintaining Papa’s quick saunter was challenging. His vigor and vitality often masked his years just as his mature wisdom serves as an odd counterpart to his progressive ideas. Wiping the sweat from my forehead with an elevated shoulder, I persisted.
“Are things all right back there? You’re awfully quiet.”
“I’m just trying to keep up with you!”
“I disagree. You’ve been pushing me this whole time!”
Within a few minutes we arrived at the end of the dock and our two-man army came to a halt. I felt the wooden platform rock slowly beneath me as I tried to maintain my balance.
Firmly grasping the metal rails of the canoe I awaited the next command like a soldier at inspection. The aluminum lip burrowed into my shoulder and my arms slackened. I ignored the pain and glanced at Papa for inspiration.
“Up and over!” he instructed.
Following his lead, I slowly lifted the craft over my head and – in unison with Papa – gently placed the green fiberglass hull into the murky water. I seated myself in front, allowing Papa the helm, an honor he earned long ago during a family canoeing trip on the Russian River.
After recovering our spinning canoe from a whirlpool with the calm and command of Odysseus, Papa heroically rescued several other craft from the same fate. Papa was my personal hero: strong, gentle, humorous, sensitive, reliable, generous. Adjectives cannot adequately define who this man was and what he meant to me.
“Off we go,” Papa explained as we pushed away from the dock.
“Into the wild blue yonder,” I added.
“Right-o,” he said.
Silence engulfed us, save the soft splash of the paddles stroking the water. We didn’t speak, words were unnecessary. Though void of sound, our time was full of meaning.
Papa was always more of a friend and colleague to me than a grandfather. As a child, he was my favorite playmate. During adolescence, he was my ping-pong partner. When I became an adult, he was my confidant.
When I became a parent, he reprised his earlier role and became a playmate to my son, Jacob, who embodies Papa’s kindness. My younger son, Max, was born six months before Papa passed. While he never met Papa personally he possesses his joie de vivre; adventure is his middle name!
Forever my protector, Papa always appeared when I needed a shoulder to cry on or an arm to lift me up. He was always very giving of himself, his abilities, and often, his well-being. Papa had an innate ability to understand people and bring them joy.
When World War II involved America, Papa was 26 years old. Although newly married with a promising life ahead of him, Papa volunteered to fight. Sacrificing his own future for the survival of his nation, Papa answered the call of a country in need.
His military service well suited his personality: he was captain of “The Biscuit Bomber,” an Army Air-Corps C-47 Skytrain in the 55th Troop Carrier Squadron, 375th Troop Carrier Group. Based in New Guinea, Papa transported personnel and supplies to forward bases in the Admiralty Islands, New Britain, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
In 22 just months Papa logged 1,450 flight hours flying missions throughout the South Pacific. During three years of service in this unarmed aircraft, Papa continually risked his life to ensure the survival of others.
One particularly poignant situation occurred when he was transporting Japanese prisoners of war who were under guard by Australian soldiers. Midway through the flight he heard a commotion in the cargo area. Upon investigating the situation he found the Australian soldiers trying to extract the gold teeth from the Japanese soldiers’ mouths.
Incensed, he pulled out his sidearm and aimed it at the Australian soldiers, instructing them that the POW’s were his responsibility and he would not tolerate them being harmed or harassed in any way. The Australian soldiers acquiesced. In the bleak circumstance of war, Papa shed some humanity. Had he been a fighter pilot his stories may have been more exciting, but they would have been less meaningful.
Anyone can kill. It takes someone special to sustain life.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from him was to always help someone in need, even if doing so was inconvenient or promises no recognition. Considering all he did for me, I can attest to the power of this philosophy.
If only everyone were as kind and generous as Papa, perhaps the world would be a more positive place. Sadly, I have found that, more often than not, people are less like Papa than they are like him.
Nevertheless, I strive to live in the same sincere and sensible way as he did, although he was often too agreeable to the demands of other people. Despite his incredible generosity to others, he often gave away too much of himself to make others happy.
The one unintentional lesson I learned from him is that if you give too much of yourself to others you can lose yourself in the process. As a result, I often felt he was a bit unfulfilled, yet, admirably, he never said as much. I appreciate his fortitude in this regard, but often wonder what might have been for him, had he embraced his promising potential.
After World War II he could have enjoyed a lucrative career as an airline pilot. The plane he flew during the war, the C-47, was the military version of the very popular DC-3, which was widely used in commercial aviation after the war (many are still flying and being used commercially).
He would have easily been hired by any of the airlines and enjoyed a rewarding and meaningful career. Instead he chose — though I often feel he was pressured — to stay close to home. Whereas he could have been flying the friendly skies, he commuted every day from New Jersey to New York and managed a dry cleaning store. He did this for many years until my Dad hired him to work for his company.
While I admire his fortitude as a father and grandfather, I often wonder if he was truly content as a man? After he died my family discovered that he had been taking rides with a local private pilot in a small twin engine plane. Some dreams never die, I suppose, and I am glad he never fully deserted his dream to keep flying.
I can also say that while he never made $400 an hour to turn a phrase, $1,000 a day trading stocks, or $10,000 a week as a professional musician, he was richer in character and wealthier in spirit than any one of those people could ever hope to be. Money and material possessions can never replace integrity, humanity, and authenticity.
Although he never accumulated a huge fortune, Papa contributed more to the world than most people I have known in my life and, presumably, will come to know in the future. He also never felt the need to elevate his ego by trying to make others feel inferior.
Ultimately, he made the most of his life and, in doing so, helped others make the most of theirs. Papa’s unique approach to life provided me with many priceless lessons. One of those lessons took place that day at the reservoir: spending time with someone special is worth more than anything that person could purchase for you. Although, that doesn’t mean letting that same someone cook for you had no allure!
“How would you like it if we head home and I make you some Belgian waffles?” Papa asked, breaking the silence and inviting me out of my introspection and into the present.
“You just said the magic words!” I exclaimed as we made our way back towards the dock. Like the canoe, Belgian waffles had been one of Papa’s trademarks. Whenever I stayed over with him, he would whip up a batch of waffles covered in whipped cream and strawberries.
As we approached the dock, just before we reached out to pull ourselves in, Papa said something that surprised me:
“I think next month you should take the helm.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. But only if you feel ready.”
I briefly considered his offer.
“I certainly do,” I asserted. “After all, I had you for a teacher!”