Artist of the highest degree, entrepreneur and storyteller extraordinaire, my Grandpa Jack died last night at the age of 88.
He collected talents like tools on a work bench and flipped through the wildest stories you’ve ever heard as though casually shuffling a deck of playing cards.
Throughout my childhood, he curated a magical 40-acre plot outside of Bishop, Calif., that – though we were only there for a short time each summer, and a short time each November – has come to be the setting for the majority of my most vivid memories.
It was a land of minnow-laden creeks (Or “cricks” as he would say), willow trees and cottonwoods, critters, secret passageways and an honest-to-goodness swimming hole.
There was a pool table, and a hand-made bridge arching over the crick; a hot tub and a collection of antique California license plates mundane individually but beautiful in concert. He had a garage full of incredible vehicles – a Model T, and a sunshine yellow Jaguar, a vintage motorcycle or two.
The entire property was covered in his and my grandmother’s art – fine art, the kind you see in galleries with blue ribbons hanging off of them (and there were blue ribbons on many of them) that people spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on individually. Watercolor, oil, wood carving. If it was there, they made it.
I tried explaining it to my children this morning and they said, “So it was a Magical Palace??”
Yes, I suppose it was.
I experienced my first earthquake there – I can still see the collection of antique clothing irons on the shelf above their fireplace rattling around as I was quite sure the ground was about to collapse below my feet. I can remember everyone running outside to see something called “aftershocks.”
I learned how to drive there – first on the back of his rider lawn mower, and later in my family’s Plymouth Voyager minivan as The Beatles’ “Michelle” played on the radio.
I learned how to fish there, and how to shoot there – with a Daisy BB lever-action carbine rifle, which he helped us out the back door with and led us out a hidden gate to my great grandpa’s property, where we shot at rusty coffee cans.
He used those coffee cans for everything. He created barbecue charcoal starters out of them, and they worked better than anything you can buy at the store now. When we bought our home, he gave me a coffee can full of old nails and screws. It’s on my work bench in regular use today.
He used everything for everything.
Helping him move here many years later, he was insistent that hundreds of odd pieces of wood, boards, tree branches, stumps and logs made it onto the moving truck. It was an mild annoyance at the time, because I couldn’t understand what possible use they’d have at his new home. We did have trees in Nevada, after all.
In the years that followed, though, I saw those branches, and stumps, and logs again – carved into the images he’d originally seen when he gathered them.
He was just like that. Everything had a purpose. And a second, and a third and a fourth purpose after that.
He didn’t see things as they were. He saw things as they could be.
There is a tremendous amount of value in that.
If I learned nothing else from him, it’s that your ability to complete any task in the world amounts to your willingness to use the resources at hand, the level of inquiry you’re willing to apply and the amount of elbow grease you’re willing to expel.
But I did learn something else from him. Lots of somethings.
He taught me that a story is only as good as the amount to which you invest yourself in it. That you can’t capture an audience’s attention without earning it, and to earn it, you have to care about every detail of the story you’re about to give them. That the greatest stories aren’t found by sitting around waiting for them to happen. That there is an interesting story in just about everything, if you’re willing to take the time to find it.
He taught me that you can work as hard as you can, with all of the effort you have, and sometimes, even then, you can fail. And when that happens, you just have to find a way to work harder. That failure isn’t an ending, rather an opportunity to see where you need to improve.
He taught me that there is always humor to be found, even in the toughest circumstances. That regardless of how bad things seem, it’s going to make a great story in about a week.
I had the great privilege, some 18 years ago, to drive with him back from Texas, where I’d been going to school. It was hours and hours of stories, some of which I’d heard before, and some of which I’ve never heard again.
He talked at length and in great detail – and it was the strangest thing to me at the time because it was the farthest thing from my mind – about running a business.
The ups and the downs. The work demanded. The character required. What to watch for, in people and in yourself.
I wanted to dismiss it, almost entirely, because I simply was never going to run a business of any sort. But he was direct, and intent – to a degree that demanded to be remembered.
How remarkable was God’s provision, that those hours on the road between Fort Worth and Gardnerville became an introduction to my livelihood – absolutely crucial nearly 20 years later.
We loved him. And he loved us. He was a remarkable, humble man with remarkable tales to tell. He could have a room laughing with just a few well-chosen words.
And he was proud, so proud, of his children, his grandchildren and his great grandchildren.
And we were proud, so proud, of him.