What lessons did you learn from your grandpa?
My parents ran away from home when I was quite young. My maternal grandfather took us in — four boys under age six. We called him Pop-Pop.
Later, when we got cool, just Pop.
What I learned from Pop could fill an encyclopedia set, if those were still a thing. But two lessons stuck better than most.
Pop and I took a road trip to North Carolina when he was 80-something. He insisted on driving his sporty little Pontiac. His reaction time had slipped a bit, but his right foot still weighed a lot more than his left.
To take my mind off impending collisions, I decided to interview him and write down what he said. I don’t know if he realized it was an interview. He just told stories.
Great storyteller he was.
At the end of many road-miles of entertaining and sometimes shocking tales, he said, kind of casually: “Whatever situation I found myself in. I just tried to make it a little bit better.”
That immediately struck me as a sensible, yet hopeful, approach to life.
He didn’t complain about his bad luck or fantasize about a Utopian future. He just took life as it came and tried to improve it a little.
Pop grew up on a dairy farm in Philadelphia.
From ages eight to 20, he milked cows, threw hay, mucked out barns, and walked to school.
We call his childhood The Great Depression.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his buddies enlisted to fight. He served as a Sherman tank commander and entered France at Utah beach on D-Day +4.
With Gen. Patton’s Army, he fought through the Battle of the Bulge, until Hitler lay dead in a bunker.
Pop was sitting in a Parisian bar with his older brother, Bud, waiting for orders to deploy to Japan. Then he learned about the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered.
Without those bombs, it’s unlikely he would have lived to be called “Pop” or be there to rescue four abandoned boys.
Many years later, I set a camera on a tripod and gathered Pop’s great-grandchildren around him. The kids asked questions.
What was it like growing up on a farm?
What was it like living during the Great Depression?
What was it like fighting in World War II?
His answer kept coming back the same: “It was the normal of the day.”
In other words, he doesn’t know how to explain what it was like, because it was all he knew.
Normal childhood means rising at 4:30 to milk the cows. Normal means stepping out of the landing craft in the English Channel. Waves slap your face, and you slog to the beach past bleeding comrades, as artillery roars overhead.
It was his life. And that’s the way it was.
After the war, Pop started a community youth association, kids football teams and a baseball team, and he ran a Boy Scout troop and served as a Den leader, while coaching youth football and baseball for decades.
He did this before he suddenly acquired four unruly boys, and after.
“Whatever situation I found myself in, I just tried to make things a little bit better.”
“It was the normal of the day. “
Nothing glamorous, or witty, or shockingly innovative.
But I treasure the wisdom in those two simple statements — and aspire to live like Pop.