“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
My Grandfather was a man of few words—a doer and not a talker. I remember his patience and forbearance. When I’d gripe, he’d listen, nod, and say.
“It could be worse.”
This drove me crazy. I wanted sympathy! I wanted someone to agree with me, tell me how right I was, complain along with me, and then fix my problems. But he was a true stoic, sympathetic but mostly silent.
It wasn’t until last week that I reflected on the wisdom of his ways.
My path to enlightenment began Monday afternoon when I answered my cell. It was Karin, and her voice sounded strained and faraway.
“I’ve destroyed your car,” she said.
Then line went dead.
Alarmed, I called her back. She answered and I asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice quavering.
And the line went dead again.
I dialed frantically, and for several long moments the phone rang, unanswered. Finally, I got her, and she told me that the front end was smashed, the air bags deployed and the doors couldn’t be opened, and the car was now destined to be a junk-yard ornament.
The news was sobering, but I wasn’t angry about the car. I was relieved that she was OK, and the people in the other car, while shaken, seemed unhurt, too.
For several days thereafter, we were both were in shock. The crash seemed like a bad dream. Reality struck when I had to face an inconvenient truth—I had no wheels. Suddenly stranded, I was reduced to bumming rides from my kids or borrowing their cars—when they could spare them. One day, when no one could help me, I had to drag my old bike out of mothballs to get to the office.
This did not put me in the best of spirits, and I began feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to complain to someone, anyone who’d listen. I began to compose just what I’d say… and then I heard my Grandfather’s voice interrupt my self-pity.
“It could be worse.”
Grandpa. I can still see him in my mind’s eye—his grey hair askew, chopping tumbleweeds. He’s wearing his faded khakis and a pith helmet, swinging his hoe in small, strong, rhythmic strokes.
He could work like this for hours.
On weekends, I’d visit him at “the ranch.” My Mom would press a hoe into my hands and insist that I offer to help him. I’d shuffle into the sun and flail away… for a few minutes.
Then I’d stop to catch my breath, retreat to the shade, and get a drink of water. I’d stand there, nursing my budding blisters, watching him.
“It’s too hot to work, Grandpa,” I’d say.
He’d shrug. “It could be worse.”
Then he’d keep going, focused on his task.
Finally, feeling guilty, I’d stumble back out there and hoe a tiny bit more. I was in agony—and embarrassed. I was twelve, and a sixty-five-year-old man was cleaning my clock. I’d grumble to myself, and he’d watch, smile wanly and shake his head.
But he never complained.
Grandpa was a workaholic. By age 45, he’d built a thriving trucking company and was financially secure. But you couldn’t tell by looking at him. He toiled seven days a week, wore threadbare overalls and drove a rusty Ranchero pickup that ran on 4½ cylinders. He made Scrooge look like a spendthrift.
But he wasn’t stingy.
When I was born—long before the days of medical insurance—I needed surgery. Dad didn’t have the money, so he made a payment-plan with the hospital. When it came time to pick me up, Grandpa was there in the waiting room. He silently slipped my father an envelope stuffed with cash.
What makes this act even more special is that he never said a thing about it. I learned about this years after he died, and so I never got to thank him. But this story speaks volumes about his quiet generosity and ability to help others through tough times.
He gave me other gifts, too—a camera for Christmas, books on my birthday, and a miniature, “antique” Wasp model-airplane engine on no special occasion at all—just because we both loved flying. But as wonderful as that was, it wasn’t the best gift. What I most appreciated about him was his patience. No matter how much I screwed up, he never lost his temper.
And boy, did I screw up.
One time I when I was about eight, I was hoeing weeds on a hillside while Grandpa was off in the distance stacking piles of tumbleweeds. I looked at him, and I decided it would just be a lot easier to burn the weeds right where they stood. Why bother working up a sweat, hoeing, and then dragging all this stuff halfway across creation?
Grandpa had left a spray can of diesel fuel and matches near me. So I sprayed a bush, lit it, and then proceeded to use the sprayer as a blow-torch.
This was a lot of fun until the wind picked up, and my little fire started burning through a patch of weeds heading towards his wooden office building. I quit spraying, wondering what I should do, when I heard him yelling at me, telling me to get clear of the fire.
Fortunately, the wind changed and my fire contained itself. It was fizzling out just as he zoomed in. He was wild-eyed, but he didn’t yell or strike me. Instead he used his shovel to toss dirt on the embers.
Then I braced for a tongue lashing. But it never came.
Instead, he hugged me.
This mystified me then but today, knowing what I do now, it makes me admire him. That’s because Grandpa was more than just patient and kind-he was a living profile-in-courage. His tale has darker chapters that I didn’t hear until I reached adulthood when my parents felt I was old enough to know.
In the depths of the Great Depression, my grandfather struggled to keep his auto-repair business afloat. But a fire destroyed his shop. Undaunted, he borrowed the tools he needed, found another place nearby, and reopened. A month later, it burned the ground, too.
Neither business was insured.
Fire also took a third business he later had out in the oilfields. And yet another fire injured Grandpa so badly that he was hospitalized for months.
His misfortune and suffering would have rivaled that of Job if it had stopped there. But the worst was still to come—two of his sons died in adolescence. Both of them were killed in freak accidents.
His lost oldest son, David, died at age 14. David was struck in the head while playing baseball and died that night of a cerebral hemorrhage. A few years later, his youngest son, Patrick, borrowed a friend’s motor scooter and crashed it into a curb. The scooter spilled gasoline that ignited and burned Patrick. He died shortly thereafter.
I knew none of these stories when I was standing next to the mess I’d caused. Fortunately, my fiery near-disaster ended on a much quieter note. Grandpa looked at charred earth, my blackened hoe and his singed wheelbarrow. He then took the spray-can from me—I think he was trembling—and I braced for my come-uppance.
But Grandpa just stood there, looking at the smoldering weeds. I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. We stood there looking for a long, long time. I felt awful, and the silence pressured me, at last, to speak.
“I’m sorry Grandpa,” I mumbled.
That’s when he put his arm around me, and pulled me close.
“It could be worse,” he said.
For once, this was a welcome phrase.
I’d forgotten all about my experiment in weed removal until recent events have reminded me. Thinking back, I’m deeply moved that Grandpa was able to be so kind to me. I’ve had trouble following his example. I miss my car.
But a few days ago something else happened that gave me an attitude adjustment.
I had to drop by the storage yard that held the remains of my smashed-up sedan to claim the odds and ends it still contained. I combed the floorboards, looking for anything important. I found some half-used ball-point pens, a pair of sunglasses, and a free-pizza card. All this stuff is worth more than my old car.
Even the ball-point pens.
And then, as I got ready to leave, I looked at the deflated airbags, and I lingered, lost in thought.
Air bags… How we’ve come to take safety devices for granted. Walking away from a crash like this is now commonplace. But it wasn’t always so.
Not long ago Ralph and his Nader’s Raiders fought tooth and nail to force automakers to install safety belts and airbags. Thanks to those safety advocates, airbags are now standard on all new US cars.
But thousands of cars, like Karin’s pre-airbag 1971 VW Karmann Ghia, still travel our highways. I thought about this, and I imagined what the Ghia would look like had it been going freeway-speed and pasted itself on the backside of a Ford F-350 pickup. More to the point, I thought about what Karin would look like.
Those thoughts made me shudder.
Karin is still with us, and we’re so lucky. I’ll replace my car eventually. For now, peddling to work isn’t so bad because, as Grandpa would say, “It could be worse.”
And indeed it could have been worse.
A lot worse.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.