Monday, August 22, 2016

A Wing and a Prayer

"First of all, single mothers don't date. They've been to the circus, you know what I mean? They've been to the puppet show, and they've seen the strings." Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Jerry Maguire, (1996).

Lyle Carter's oldest daughter was a mom when we met in 1991. Her son - a man I would come to love and admire as my own - regarded me warily, as he should have. But... I was mostly concerned about her dad.

We had, of course, compared notes about our parents. Her father had grown up in a very rural part of Minnesota. He'd enlisted in the Marine Corps midway through high school and served in Korea during the war there. He'd come home to work trades - that is, he did things. He was employed as a construction estimator at that point. 

He was, for all intents and purposes, a carbon copy of my dad - enlisted in the Marines at 17, served in a war. Dad was also a cost estimator, but his field was electronics. He did not suffer fools. Neither, I suspected, did Pat's father.

We'd been "an item," my new girlfriend and I, for a short time when the parents stopped by to say hi. Nervous small talk...well, I was nervous anyway. Somehow, the subject of the vacuum cleaner entered the conversation. Don't ask me how, it has been twenty-five years.

Pat reported that it was on the blink, and that we...between us, we had about twenty bucks...might need a new one. "No," I said. "I took it apart and found a model airplane wing blocking the intake port. It's fine."

A small, knowing smile greeted me.

My father-in-law was a doer. He helped build, in one role or another, many of the office buildings in downtown Denver. When we demolished the porch on our house in Northglenn he picked up the jackhammer and showed us "boys" how it was done. He was probably seventy by then.

He was also a lover of classical music, having been raised on it. Out on the farm the family had a radio that ran on batteries. They listened for a couple of hours each week, to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The Lyle I knew did not care for contemporary concert pieces, which can often lack a clear melody. "Long-haired music" he would say dismissively when we visited he and my mother-in-law during intermissions at Boettcher Hall.

It was during a trip - my wife and I, Lyle and his beloved Jean (who he always referred to as "Mother") - to see the Colorado Rockies play spring training games in Tucson that we heard the rest of the radio story. A relative had to travel to their house to tell them about Pearl Harbor.

But a man like that is not swayed entirely by a simple appliance repair. I drove our Rodeo down to Arizona, Pat handling the map. Pre-GPS we arrived in Tucson and promptly departed. We were looking for an Embassy Suites, but the sign "Mexican border ahead" suggested we were lost. We pulled over. A few minutes of back and forth in the cockpit ("Pilot to nav...WTF?") with the passengers - my in-laws - sitting in uncomfortable silence. We were, indeed, heading into the hills that were Mexican soil.

All we could do was laugh. A lot. We had both, in obsequious obedience of directions from MapQuest, obliviously driven away from the tall buildings of an obvious city in favor of scrub, two lanes and rusting signs announcing the border with another country. Later in the trip, piling into the SUV, Lyle asked casually "So where shall we get lost today?"

He was a good man in a storm, a great friend to my parents and a comfort as I said good bye to them - first dad, and then mom. The last time we truly spoke I was on a lunch break, wearing "Range Reds" that identify Law Enforcement firearms instructors. We joked about his stint in the facility where he was undergoing physical therapy. He would do what he was told, demonstrate proficiency in the skills he had to master and get the hell home. That's what Marines did.

My youngest daughter recently posted a picture from several years ago. She is arm in arm with her "Grandpa Lyle," a man she adored for the simple reason that he loved her. My oldest daughter took a photo of him with her to Army boot camp, a reminder of the dignity and honor she hoped to emulate.

And the son? He stood by during the crisis, a pillar of strength and devotion as grandpa battled cancer, every bit a man Lyle loved and respected.

We prayed for strength as a family as we gathered to say our last good byes this weekend. We prayed for wisdom, and comfort. In reality, the man who had done so much had already taught us where to look.

Each other.

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