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 23:24 / Numbers 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.