Sunday, October 9, 2011

My grandfather: high school graduate - NASA engineer

Here's an excerpt from the eulogy I gave for my grandfather today.  Grandpa is the first of my grandparents to pass away; last week I could say that all four of my grandparents were living so this is a new experience for me. (Note: If you don't have a lot of time, skip to One Final Thought.)

I loved sitting and listening to his stories or, more accurately, listening to Grandma tell stories about him.  Grandpa was way too humble to tell stories about himself.  He had a remarkable life and career.  He was born in 1917, shortly before the end of World War I (which is in and of itself remarkable), and grew up during the Great Depression.  Like everyone else from that era he was extremely frugal.  If the room was too hot, rather than turning up the A/C, he would turn off the lights, since incandescent bulbs give off heat.

He was also exceptionally gifted.  He started his own radio station - WIFM (which he jokingly said stood for "We're In it For Money"), joined IBM and worked on the team that designed and built the circuit boards for the guidance system of the Apollo Program that put man on the moon.  (For those of you not from Huntsville: circuit boards are the guts of a computer.  So basically he and his team designed the computers that could not only control a rocket hurtling toward the moon, but were also strong enough to withstand the stress of liftoff and reentry.  Not so small a feat.)  He did all that with only a high school degree and some college-level electronics training in the Navy and the Civil Service.  I think his incredible accomplishments despite the lack of a college degree are not unusual for his generation, which is also remarkable.  Still, I can't help but admire how much he accomplished merely by his grit and determination.

Grandpa was 94 but still just as sharp as ever.  Despite the physical setbacks, he kept right on trucking.  So many times the doctors told us he wasn't going to make it but he'd prove them wrong every time.  About 20 years ago (when he was roughly 75), he was up on an extension ladder trimming branches in the backyard (on a ladder at SEVENTY FIVE!!!) when he fell and cracked his skull and shoulder.  The doctors were really worried but he was home and just fine in short order.  Last year he was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and the doctors laid out the treatment options.  The highest probability of success would have been a fix that involved a significant loss of quality of life.   Grandpa said, "No thanks - I'd rather live it out with dignity."  And he did.

He was just incredible.  He suffered a stroke in February, leading to an international phone call to me from my dad saying that I needed to be ready to come home because the doctors said he would not make it.  Despite the dire prognosis, Grandpa was out of the hospital in only two weeks and headed to what the doctors said would be months in a nursing home for rehab.  You guessed it: not three months but three weeks later he was home and just fine.  It was incredible.

Still, despite the remarkable rebounds, when I got home from Israel I could see the physical deterioration.  He used to stand well over six feet tall but now I was several inches taller than him -- and he was moving slower.  But he was still walking, talking and even driving, with no signs of letting up.

So when I heard he was back in the hospital I didn't really think much of it, but Dad told me I needed to come back because things didn't look good.  Even then I still wasn't concerned.  However, the second I walked into his hospital room I knew things were not good.  That first sight of Grandpa was one of the most sobering and heart-wrenching sights I have ever seen.  Still, Grandpa battled back and when I went back the next day the nurses told me he was passing out hugs like candy.  Even though he was improving, when he was released from the hospital a couple of weeks ago, we all knew that this time things were different.  This time we knew it wasn't likely to end well.  Getting the phone call that Grandpa was gone (a "homecoming" as my Dad called it) was not fun, but God blessed our family with 94 years with Grandpa and a ton of his family was with him at the end.  What a blessing.

Grandpa leaves behind an incredible legacy.  The one exception to his "no stories" policy was his time in the Navy.  He enlisted and served with pride in the Navy during World War II and would always tell stories about how frustrated he was that he never made it to combat.  See, Grandpa finished at the top of his class in all the Navy classes and eventually wound up as an instructor at the Navy Radar School.  I could tell he always immensely regretted the fact that he got left behind and didn't get to see combat, but I wonder how many lives he saved by instructing the sailors and airmen of the Navy.  This was the height of the Kamikaze tactic where Japanese pilots flew their planes into American ships to inflict maximum casualties.  The only way to prevent massive loss of life was to detect the planes early enough to scramble fighters to intercept the suicide pilots or train ship-board anti-aircraft guns on the planes.  Both of those options required early warning from radar, and those operators were trained by Grandpa.  Who knows how many people are walking around today thanks to him?

I may not know exactly how many, but I do know the quality of the lives he leaves behind.  He and Grandma raised two incredible children, my dad and Aunt Carol.  And they in turn have raised some pretty awesome grandkids (if I do say so myself).  Family is God's greatest instrument for good on this earth, and I think Grandpa got that.  He was intensely loyal to all of us.  Even though he was at times a gruff old sailor, we all knew how much he loved us.  One of the best memories I have of this entire saga is a phone call I got from my dad telling me about a conversation with Grandpa.  Grandpa was in the hospital during one of his many stays and Dad was there visiting (as he faithfully did throughout the entire process).  Grandpa turned to Dad and said, "Ya know, this whole thing has made us a lot closer."  In the midst of all the pain, the beeping machines, sleepless nights and uncomfortable beds, Grandpa had not lost sight of what is important.  And I think that is the highest tribute I can give to him.

One final thought: I can't help but see the beauty of Grandpa passing on Rosh Hoshanah.  Rosh Hoshanah is the Jewish New Year, called the Feast of Trumpets in the Old Testament ( Leviticus 23:24Numbers 29:1).  It represents the creation of the world and life and looks forward to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.  On this Rosh Hashanah I praise God for his creation of the life of my Grandpa and I'm so glad that Grandpa could confidently look forward to the day of atonement because his sins are covered by the blood of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Things That Make College Football Great: Classy Gestures

If you know me then you know I'm a die-hard Auburn fan, but I believe in the Biblical command to give honor to whom honor is due, and last Saturday Alabama football fans did something that deserved honor.  Well, actually, I think we need to back-up a bit.

In late July, four members of the Kent State football team, Alabama's opponent in the season opener, came down to help rebuild Tuscaloosa.  They spent a couple of days working in the 100+ degree heat rebuilding houses that had been destroyed.  (See a video about the trip here.)  It was a really classy gesture and showed that while for a few hours on a Saturday in the fall they might be committed enemies, somethings are more important than football.

Fast forward to very early September, in the week before the season opener.  Alabama fans begin to hear about the trip down by Kent State football players and suddenly my Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of Bama fans encouraging their fellow fans not to boo Kent State when they enter the field to start the game.

Apparently it worked because the Alabama faithful, who usually lustily boo the opposing teams and then chant /sing at the end of games that they just "beat the hell out of you", instead rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to the Kent State football team.  I don't think I can say it better than the athletic director of Kent State said in The Birmingham News:

To top it all off, the standing ovation our team received upon entering the stadium Saturday morning gave all of us Flashes fans in attendance goose bumps. It was something unheard of at a college football game, and speaks volumes about the citizens of Alabama and Crimson Tide fans everywhere.
From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for opening your arms to our players in July and again to our team and fans this past weekend. It was an experience none of us will soon forget, and even more important in this time of extreme negativity, it was a perfect illustration of all that can be right with college athletics.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Family

Saturday, the 28th of May

I have quite the entertaining family.  Even just sitting around becomes fairly fun.  For example, today I naively asked my mom if our TV played Blu-Ray.  She looked at me and said, "are you kidding?"  (We have a very old TV and my mom doesn't like movies/tv shows etc.)  David chimed in rather bitterly with, "yeah, my iPhone has better resolution than our TV."  When I started laughing he said, "no, seriously."  Turns out his iPhone 4 does indeed have better screen resolution than our old CRT TV.  Good times.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What A Shame!

Saturday, the 16th of April

Today was a great day despite spending most of it studying.  We went to Sucar again, the great coffee shop I study at frequently (it's my poor substitute for Heritage House), and spent about seven hours there.  Several fun stories emerged from that eventful afternoon.

First, for background you have to understand that Assaf, the guy studying with me, is very good looking (NH).  I can say that with confidence because after hanging out with him for several months now I have seen the way women react to him.  In fact, yesterday a random girl came up to him on the street as we were walking back from class and started straight-up hitting on him.  I didn't have to understand a word of their conversation to know exactly what was going on.  So by now I'm used to being the "funny, if somewhat festively plump, American friend of Assafs" wherever we go.  It's ok because I know I "have a great personality."  Anyways, today at the coffee shop our waitress came to bring our menus and when she came back to take our orders she blurted out, "I knew I recognized you!"  I just assumed she was talking to Assaf but lo and behold, she meant she recognized me!  She said she had seen me at one of the parties the law school threw.  Actually, it was the karaoke/dance party I mentioned here.  I started laughing because as those of you who know me know, I love to sing and dance, even though I am terrible at both so given the chance to sing Hebrew songs and dance Middle Eastern dances I of course jumped at it and took full advantage of the party.  Which I guess made me somewhat memorable.  Either that or being blonde(ish), festively plump and pale (and/or bright-sunroasted-red) made me stick out somewhat.  Assaf protested to the waitress that he was there too but she didn't remember him.  So for those of you keeping score at home that's Matt: 1, Assaf: 38 or so.

After we had been there for a while the air conditioner started leaking near me.  Our friend Topaz, the first waitress, was now off-duty and sitting with a group of her friends at the table next to us but they hadn't noticed the leak yet.  So using one of my very limited number of known Hebrew words I got the attention of the waitress and informed her (using my somewhat more expansive English vocabulary) that the air conditioning was leaking.  Her response:  "What a shame!"  (said in a very dry tone of voice) And with that she turned and walked away.  Topaz and her friends, along with Assaf, burst out laughing.  It was just such an Israeli response to the situation.  "What do you expect me to do about it?"  (FN1)

Topaz's friends turned out to be quite the group of musicians and they used the piano in the coffee shop (yes you read that right) to put on an impromptu karaoke show.  I think maybe it was designed to lure the "blonde(ish), festively plump and pale (and/or bright-sunroasted-red)" singing and dancing fiend back out.  If so, it worked.  Katy Perry's Hot and Cold was all it took for me to start dancing in my chair (while seated because I was studying in a coffee shop so I'm not getting too crazy, besides, I happen to think that dancing while seated is my forte) and singing along.  All in all, it was a great afternoon of studying.

Before all that studying though I went to church and one of my Israeli friends went with me.  I realized while sitting there that taking a friend to church for the first time is like bringing a girlfriend home to meet the family.  You really love your family but there are all these things that you feel like you need to explain.  "Ok, be ready, because my family really loves to play this game called Redneck Life and it's fun, I promise, or at least I think it is but we've never actually finished a game of it."  Or "if anyone says 'bifocal contact lenses' and everyone busts out laughing it's not because my dad actually wears them, but because when he did, he loved them so much that he told everyone about them, even people we met during the middle of our 2006 marathon together, and now it's just a standing joke in the family."  I love my family and I have 26 glorious years of history with them.  The silly things they do that seem (or are) strange have a wonderful, deep, meaning that's just lost if people are meeting them for the first time.  The same goes for Christians.  We have beliefs that might seem strange at first, maybe because we take them for granted and don't explain them well or maybe it's because God's ways aren't our ways.

Also, we Christians are bad about using "code words" (everybody does it really, lawyers call them "terms of art") that we know exactly what we mean but others don't.  For example, he asked me today what the "praise team" was.  When you think about it, that's a strange term yet people in church would never bat an eye at the term since we all have heard it forever.

Plus, church here is pretty different from PCA services back home.  I had to fight the urge the whole service to say "what he means by that is," or "that statement is actually well supported both in Scripture and in scientific literature," or "no one interrupts the preacher during the sermon to share a story back home" (that's an Israeli thing) etc.  All in all though, church was good and I'm really glad he came, I just hope he gets to know my Christian family because I love that family, even if first impressions are probably a little bit quirky.

FN1.  The rest of the story.  Turns out that our sweet waitress' response was lost in translation.  She actually did mean it was a shame and was just going to get the remote control to turn off the unit.  She fussed at everyone in Hebrew for laughing at her while I sat there with my awkward "I'm not sure what's going on so I'm going to look happy enough to not scare any one but not too happy in case what's going on is bad and I shouldn't be happy" smile.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Walked Into That One

Tuesday, the 12th of April

Today we had a marathon session in one of our classes (scheduled for five straight hours).  It was actually my last class for the semester (wahoo!) and now I just have three exams and two papers between me and a summer of fun (and productivity of course).  The class is pretty small and we all know each other really well which leads to a great classroom environment.  In addition, the professor also knows us pretty well, keep this in mind as it will came up later.

Today we were talking about British criminal procedure around the start of the colonial era.  The professor mentioned that prior to this time the penalty for all felonies was capital (read: execution) but at this point in time they started to sentence people to "transportation."  The professor asked, "what does transportation mean?"  I could have answered factually, "the practice of sentencing criminals to exile" but instead I chose to get in a shot at one of our classmates who's Australian so I said "Australia!" and looked her with the "you come from a land of criminals" face.  The professor responded "yes that's right, and also [pause slightly for emphasis] the American South" (looking straight at me).  Boom roasted.  Everyone laughed and I had been put back in my proper place.

Apparently Georgia was a British penal colony at one point.  Boy doesn't that explain a lot?  (See here or here or here.)  Thugs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wow, What a Day

Tuesday, the 5th of April

Today was an incredible day. One of those days where everything went perfectly.  I got up and made my way to the bus stop and it was perfect timing because the bus was pulling up as I was about a block away so I busted out a quick jog and made it onto the bus.

Allow me to take a quick digression.  As you all know, in the US it's uncool to run in public unless you're officially exercising.  You can't afford to risk your dignity.  However, in Israel everyone takes a much better approach: efficiency!  (Y'all know how much I love efficiency!)  If there is a bus coming, people take off running.  I saw a lady in her 50s or 60s run all the way across Kikar Rabin (a large park) to catch the bus I was on one day.  I love it and I always love when I can run to catch the bus because it means I wasted zero seconds.

Anyways, I was on my way to the law school because our social coordinator, Hilly (FN1), had arranged for us to take a tour of Jerusalem.  It was really a great tour.  We started the day at the Israeli Supreme Court.  We got there early so we headed down to the cafe to hang out until our tour was supposed to start.  Hanging out quickly digressed into what I like to call: Matt Defends the South.  (MDTS for short.)  It's a fun game where I explain that contrary to what everyone believes the people who live in The South are rational, intelligent, warm, friendly and not racist.  I then go on to explain that yes, we have indoor plumbing and in fact, the city where I'm from is one of the most educated in the world.  I like to throw in fun facts like that the Patriot Missile Defense System which protected Israel from Iraqi Scuds in Gulf War I, was designed in Huntsville.  I've gotten quite adept at MDTS since I do it, oh I dunno, eight or nine times a day.

Anyways, after our fun game of MDTS we toured the Supreme Court which is an absolutely beautiful building.  The whole building was gleaming and fresh since it is only 15 years old.  It was also funded by one family.  It was pretty crazy to see a supreme court building that's so new and unimaginable to me to see one funded privately.  Can you imagine the uproar if the US allowed one family (say the Kennedys or the Rockefellers) to build the supreme court building?  Allegations of impairing the impartiality of the court would run rampant.  Things are different in Israel because it's such a small country.  People have a lot more connections here because of the small population and because of the tight-knit of the society (having neighbors on all sides who want to kill you tends to do that).

We were able to sit in on the oral arguments of a really intense case.  Last year there was a fire in a national forest in the north of Israel.  More than 40 prison guards were killed trying to evacuate a prison in the path of the fire.  Another three police officers were killed trying to save the prison guards.  The State of Israel wanted to award them with medals to recognize their heroism but the families of some of the victims sued to delay the awards.  The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today about whether or not to delay the awards.  Tons of media was there.  In yet another stark contrast to the US, we were allowed to freely enter and exit the courtroom while oral arguments were going on.  Additionally, armed guards stood through-out the courtroom.  [The court ruled the next day to allow the awards to proceed.]

After the case, we went out for lunch at Sima which I highly recommend.  It was an incredible meal, one of the best I've ever had and a truly different cuisine (so I'm going to assume that means it's authentic).  When we walked into the restaurant they had already setup our table and loaded it down with all kinds of great side dishes and as soon as we sat down they started rolling out the fruit juice to drink and pitas to dip.  Unreal.  The food did not stop coming.  We had Meurav Yerushalmi, aka "Jerusalem Mixed Grill" which contains livers and hearts etc.  It was pretty good but I liked the rest of the grilled meat better.  Speaking of grilled meat, they brought platter after platter of it out.  I do not say this lightly, but it rivaled Thanksgiving at the Hinshaw/Lammons households (those of you who have been know that is the highest culinary praise one can receive).  Dessert was incredible baklava and mint tea.  When I asked Hilly what to order to duplicate the experience when I come back her reply was simple:  "The menu."  Fair enough.

Next we headed off to tour the Old City.  I won't say a lot about this because you really just need to see it.  I don't think I can do it justice so I won't try.  Sufficent to say, we wondered around streets that are thousands of years old, saw the site where tradition holds that Christ was crucified and buried, saw the Western Wall, which is the closest people could get to the Holy of Holies in the Second Temple, saw the Dome of the Rock (but couldn't get in since Muslims don't share very well) and just soaked it all up.  The best part of the tour was when our guide took us down this small dark alley into a courtyard, then to the corner of a courtyard to a hidden stairway that lead to the rooftops of the Old City.  There we stood, looking out over the different Quarters of the Old City and across the valley to the Mount of Olives.  Truly awe inspiring.

We loaded up on the bus and headed back to the law faculty where they were having a karaoke party Israeli style.  Instead of taking turns singing up on stage, they have one song leader with tons of floating microphones, they sing popular songs and everyone dances like crazy.  It was so much fun.  Again, words can't do this justice, but I did grab some video and pictures which I will post (eventually, maybe).

From there we loaded up into a cab and headed to our favorite Tuesday night bar, Friends Underground, to watch Real Madrid play.  Our cab driver was nuts.  He had CDs full of American music which he played and we sang along with loudly.  At one point, as I was belting out Time of My Life with everything I had, a car full of girls pulled up and asked us for directions.  They started laughing pretty hard.  Incidentally, our cab driver almost killed my friend Daniel who was on his motorcycle.  Just another day in Tel Aviv.

FN1 - Hilly.  I really have to give a shout out to our incredible social coordinator Hilly.  She's a 4th year student so she's our age, double majoring, and busy as all get out, yet she does an incredible job.  Social coordinator is one of those jobs you could easily phone-in but she goes the extra mile.  The whole day was incredible and flowed so smoothly.  She literally ordered the entire menu for us at Sima.  That alone was enough to win my stamp of approval. She put together an incredible day for us, and has done so again and again.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"All You Americans Look Alike"

Tuesday, the 29th of March

Had a hilarious experience today in the library.  One of my Israeli classmates told me today that he thought one of our professors looks like George W. Bush.  I vehemently disagreed but he stuck to his guns and even pulled up photos of Bush to prove the point.  At this point the story is only funny to me, so without further ado, here is a picture:

Prof. Jack Rakove
Just in case you were confused, that's not the 43rd president of the United States.  That's Stanford professor and Pulitzer prize-winning historian Jack Rakove.

Now, it's been a couple years since Bush left office, so in case you are having trouble remembering, here's a side-by-side:

You can clearly see the family resemblance, but then again, all us Americans look alike.  Haha.