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Pearl Harbor Revisited

My grandpa wasn't a "kid person." Well, he didn't like me, anyway. Which I always found odd, because I thought loving your grandkids was the main responsibility on the grandparent job description. He got along with my sister because she was older and had an ability to relate with adults. As an empathetic, introverted boy I possessed no such ability. The contrast between my grandpa and I could not have been greater. My grandpa was a Pearl Harbor survivor with arm tattoos. I was a mama's boy with a security pillow.

Technically, my grandpa married into the family so he was not blood relation and therefore, had no legal obligation to show me any kind of warmth or human compassion. My grandpa had the emotional capacity of an ice box, but he was a vast improvement over my mom's biological father who had been an abusive alcoholic. My grandma was the polar opposite of my grandpa, she was a gregarious extrovert who never met a stranger. She would relay to us long, detailed stories about grocery cashiers or telemarketers she had gotten to know on a first name basis. She loved people, church, and her grandkids.

My grandpa preferred the company of machines. He liked tinkering with electronics and would always be on his computer when we visited. His favorite store was Radio Shack (R.I.P.) and he would give them $10 for a box of broken, defective products so he could take them home to fix.

I was not handy at all. Neither was my dad. In fact, I never saw my dad with a tool. As a pastor's family, we lived in a church owned property, so someone else was in charge of maintenance, lawn care, and fixing things. Our area of expertise was the spiritual, we left the physical work to others.

My grandpa saw this as weakness. He was a Navy veteran who was not religious. When he visited our house at Easter and Christmas he would stay home while we went to church. This was scandalous in our family but no one said anything about it because my grandpa was not one you wanted to pick a fight with. He was a hard man, short tempered and cranky. Once he berated me for not knowing about fractions. I was six years old. I felt weak and stupid around my grandpa so mostly, I tried to avoid him. We had a mutual contempt for one another and a mutual understanding that I would stay out of his way and he would stay out of mine.

My grandpa was also thrifty, which was a nice way of saying he was a cheapskate. He would carefully compare prices on groceries and would travel an extra mile to save three cents on milk. He used to shop on the Navy base until he was accused of shoplifting. He had put some medicine in his front shirt pocket so he could hold more groceries in his hands, but then forgot about it when he checked out at the register. He was reprimanded for trying to steal and then banned for life from the base. He was very bitter about this until he discovered Costco and became an evangelist for wholesale shopping.

My grandparents had a timeshare in Sebastian, Florida that my family would go to each year. This became an annual ritual that we all looked forward to. The timeshare, which was located along the Indian River, had a sparkling blue pool, palm trees overhead, and speed boats that could be rented out for the week to explore the intercostal waterway where we often spotted families of dolphins.

As a former Navy man, my grandpa loved driving the boat on the river. He would drive standing up like a captain on the high seas. We would often stop off on one of the many uninhabited islands that were sprinkled along the river. The islands represented adventure and wonder. We would find sea turtle remains, shells, and crucifix-shaped fish bones that we would take back with us as souvenirs.

My grandpa seemed happiest on the water. He would purposefully ride through the wake of other boats to see our reactions as the boat jumped in the air. He would temporarily break character and reveal a wry smile. It was the closest thing to affection I felt from my grandpa.

Sebastian was the one constant in our lives over the years. We moved around to different places but we could always count on our week in Sebastian. Fifty-one weeks a year were devoted to serving others, this week was purely ours. Besides a few close friends and girlfriends I brought along over the years, no one else in our church was privy to this cherished piece of my childhood.

But I'll never forget the year when everything changed between my grandpa and I. We were out on the boat with my sister when storm clouds formed suddenly. On our way back to the boat dock we hit a sandbar. This would happen from time to time, requiring my grandpa to get out of the boat and push us into deeper waters. While my grandpa was in the water, it began to rain and lightning started cracking overhead. He dislodged the boat from the sandbar but the side of the boat was too slippery to pull himself up. The boat drifted into deeper water and my grandpa was desperately holding on to the side trying to get in.

He cried out in a trembling voice, "help me!"

When I reached over the side to grab him I saw pure fear in his eyes. I was only thirteen or so, but I managed to pull him up just enough for him to climb into the boat. As we made our way back to the safety of the shore, we were shivering from the cold rain and the fear that still clung to our bones.

That was the moment our relationship changed. I was no longer the weak, petulant child he despised. At that moment, it didn't matter whether I knew my fractions or knew the difference between a Phillips head screwdriver and a crescent wrench (the Phillips has a flat head, right?). All that mattered was I was able to get him in the boat. And I saw my grandpa differently. He was more than a stoic, crotchety old Navy vet who felt no pain. He was a vulnerable human being who got scared, too.

No words were ever exchanged but we had a new mutual understanding of respect. That was the last time my grandpa went to Sebastian. The traumatic incident triggered his PTSD from Pearl Harbor. It exposed his vulnerability and weakness. The memories stirred up were too painful to revisit. He opted to stay home with his computers where he was most comfortable.

Days before he passed away, I called him at the hospital from my dorm room at college. I asked him if he had any hot nurses to flirt with. My grandma told me later how much that made him laugh. I never told him I loved him and he never said he loved me. That wasn't our thing. But I put a smile on the face of a dying Pearl Harbor survivor and that's no small feat.


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