Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
- Requiem, Robert Louis Stevenson
He was a tough wiry man.
He was on the short side of medium.
He was thin his whole life, but he was one hell of a lot stronger than he looked, people constantly underestimated him that way, usually to their detriment – and he was never in a fight that he lost.
The songs talk about an “impish grin” and “sparkling eyes,” with him the grin and the sparkle were the literal truth. Those were the very first things you noticed.
Sandy-haired and handsome in the Irish tradition, he always had a good story to tell and he could make you laugh with the way he mangled words but still managed to make you wonder if it was everybody else that had the pronunciation wrong.
Back then, in 1960, you could always hear him coming, the unmistakable sound of jaunty heels clicking on polished tile preceded him down the hallways of General Motors. His steps sounded like he was wearing tap shoes and not just because he was the best dancer you ever saw, but also because he wore metal heel clips on his shoes – otherwise he tended to wear them out faster than they could be replaced, the result of a slight tendency to drag his heels and the fact that he was always in constant motion.
That was his defining characteristic, constant motion.
He was always moving, even when he was asleep his legs churned restlessly as if he was climbing mountains in his dreams.
He’d always been in motion, since the very fist day he’d entered the world back in 1934. He couldn’t sit still. He was always going going going.
As a Catholic kid growing up in Grand Rapids in the 1930’s and 40’s it was stickball and pick-up baseball and football and kick-the-can and any other improvised sport he could manage. He rode bicycles everywhere and raced pell-mell though the neighborhoods of the Polish and Irish and Dutch immigrants who made up that part of town. Word is that he was hell on wheels in his teens, there’s a story involving a bench-seat T-Bird and a police chase that ended badly … but that’s a tale probably best left for another time. He watched his older brother go off to World War II, a medic on the beaches of Normandy, but he was too young to follow. He was old enough when Korea came though, and he ended up a Radioman in USS Shakori, ATF-162, a US Navy Powhatan Class ocean-going fleet tug and rescue ship. The vessel was a relic of the previous conflict and she sure wasn’t pretty and she sure wasn’t fast – her top speed was only 16 knots, but she could tow a battleship at 12. Most Navy ships are women, Shakori was a bulldog. That tough little ship was the perfect home for a tough little Irishman and she took him around the world, twice. He went to Korea and later served in Cuba during Castro’s first failed revolution – indeed there’s a picture of him and Fidel Castro standing together on the Guantanamo Naval Base back when the US was giving the revolutionary refuge against the corrupt Batista government. Oh, could he tell you stories of pre-revolution Cuba, most involving Hatuey (The One Eyed Indian), a local Cuban beer, and he never ever forgot a single detail of any of the myriad adventures he had during those days nor the men he served with and the tales of those times have entertained many generations since.
After the war, he ended up back home in Grand Rapids, an expeditor in the Materials Control Division of GM’s Fisher-Body Plant #2.
That’s where he met her.
She was a clerk-typist in Materials Control. She’d started out there back in 1954, then moved up to receptionist for the company’s doctor, and then back to Materials when the plant reorganized and went from making airplanes to car parts. She’d seen him around of course, all the girls had, he was a regular cock-of-the-walk and impossible to miss. Her boss, a tough old coot named Chet Barger, who had once been a Texas Ranger and had rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders, used to say that “the only thing that boy needs is a good spanking.”
Likely Ol’ Chet knew what he was talking about.
She ran into him one day, literally.
Or he ran into her, depending who’s telling the story.
Maybe she didn’t hear his heels clicking on the tile … or maybe she did. What’s for certain is that despite the advanced warning they slammed into each other coming ‘round a corner. After that, he started finding reasons to stop by her desk. It’s possible that she was flirting with him. It’s also possible that he noticed.
She wanted to learn how to play golf.
She asked around, it seemed the best golfer anybody had ever heard of was already dropping by her desk on a regular basis.
So she asked him to teach her the game.
He agreed – but only if she’d have dinner with him.
You can see where this is going, of course, and it wasn’t long before they were married.
They said it wouldn’t last. He was an Irish Catholic, she was a Dutch Protestant – worse, a Presbyterian – and his family disapproved, to put it mildly, back when such things mattered. He was wild and impulsive, she was deliberate. He couldn’t balance a checkbook on a good day, she always knew where every single penny went. They struck sparks off each other and would for the rest of their lives but it turned out they had more in common than they didn’t and they proved everybody wrong.
And they spent a lot of time golfing.
Their first child, a son, followed the marriage after the requisite amount of time, and another son two years after that. They were living in a trailer in Grandville, but with two boys, they wanted something bigger, so they moved to Jension and bought a small house with a couple acres of land – large enough for a big garden (In all the years that followed and all the places they lived, and all the things they went through, they always had that garden). Alongside the corn and cucumbers, they raised Irish Setters. And there were many cats and chickens and a duck or two, rabbits and a goose named Slippery, and various other critters now lost in the mists of aging and unreliable memory. I could tell you stories from that time, about how he moved an entire garage a hundred yards with just the help of a few friends, or how he tilled that huge garden with an antique walk-behind tractor, a bucking beast of a machine that would have knocked a lesser man senseless (and did, but again, that’s a story for another time). He hunted and fished and gigged for frogs in a tiny fold-up boat made by his father-in-law. He owned not one, but two Corvairs, and parked them next to the station wagon.
He still worked for General Motors and one day while conducting an inventory, a job he wasn’t supposed to be doing but there was a strike and management had him doing tasks that normally would have gone to a union man, a defective lift cable snapped and he plunged sixty feet in an elevator cage to the warehouse floor below. The fall shattered a vertebrate in his neck, he could have been paralyzed and for a while it looked like he might be, but a year of surgery and neck braces later and he was mostly back to his old self. Mostly.
But that’s where it started, the collection of injuries that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The doctors fixed the shattered bones in his neck, but he would always have problems with the injury. He had numbness in his hands and trouble turning his head and if she hugged him too hard with her hands behind his neck, the pressure on his spinal cord would drop him to the floor like a puppet with cut strings – a side effect the doctors forgot to mention and something that he learned about the hard way. These were the 60’s, nowadays he would have gotten a decent settlement and maybe long term care, back then what he got was let go.
Rather than complain, he went on to other things and other jobs. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do, they might have invented the term “Jack-of-all-trades” just for him, and he was master of quite a few. He could do plumbing and electrical work. He could do any kind of carpentry. He could build fences and dig ditches. He had the best wood shop in the neighborhood. He could wear a suit and tie as easily as a Caterpillar Cap and a pair of Levis – though he always called them “dungarees,” a legacy of his time in the Navy. They bought a new house, had one built, in one of the new suburbs of Jension. The house was bigger, the lot was smaller, but still they had that garden. They camped and fished and drove cross-country on family vacations. By now it was the 70’s and instead of a crew-cut he had a beard and long hair and there was a lot of plaid – the pictures from that time are hysterically funny to his grand children.
It wasn’t all roses (though he grew those too, and they were gorgeous). He drank. Like many a Navy Man of that time, he’d always been a hard drinker, Pabst Blue Ribbon usually, chased with Pall-Malls. And after a while it started getting the better of him. There were some rough times. They’d started their own business by then and after a couple years of backbreaking labor, it went under – but not before he was nearly electrocuted (the details of which are again, a story for another time). The short version is that an electrical shock burned a dime sized hole in his wrist, the high amperage cauterized the wound and you could look into the bloodless hole and see the bone. The electricity traveled straight through his heart, it would have killed another man but not him, he walked out of the hospital. His drinking got worse after they lost the business. Eventually she gave him an ultimatum. And so he joined Alcoholic’s Anonymous and found sobriety. Like I said, those were rough times, they nearly lost the house and a number of other unpleasant things, the OPEC Oil Embargo was in full swing along with the energy crises and the floundering economy. But through it all they had each other and they persevered. He worked a variety of jobs, from janitor to hospital security guard – and, man, the stories he could tell about those places would have you in stitches no matter how many times you’ve heard them – nothing was beneath him, he’d do whatever it took. He even went back to school and got his GED and some college.
He calmed down after he stopped drinking. He’d always been there for everyone else and now he went at it with a will. He helped others stop drinking, he didn’t preach or lecture, but when they were ready, he’d help them find their way to sobriety. He became a deacon in the Presbyterian church (his family had long ago made peace with his departure from Catholicism). He’d always been a scout leader, even before his own boys were old enough to be Cubs, back when being a Boy Scout actually meant you were something other than a bigot. In 1976, he took a troop of Scouts to the BSA high adventure ranch in New Mexico, Philmont, and they hiked nearly 200 miles in two weeks. He had some trouble keeping up – even then a pack of Pall Malls a day was starting to have an effect, especially in the high altitude mountains of New Mexico, a harbinger of things to come. On the morning of the United States’ Bicentennial, he quietly woke his Scouts up before dawn and with practiced ease and huge shit-eating grins they broke camp in complete silence so as not to wake the other troops, then they climbed The Tooth of Time in the dark using only the light of the moon to arrive at the summit just as the sun rose over the Rocky Mountains. Every Scout in Philmont that year had wanted to be first up the mountain on that particular morning, after all there could only be one troop, ever, first to summit on the morning of America’s 200th Birthday, and there had been some less than good natured boasting in base camp the night before among the Trek Leaders. He didn’t boast, he just did what he always did – he outfoxed them. His Scouts ended up on the cover of the Bicentennial Edition of Boy’s Life (if you happen across that issue, I’m the blond-headed 14 year old Scout in the front of the hiking line). He got in some trouble for that, and more when he commandeered the troop bus (an aging repurposed school bus painted like a giant Bumble Bee) and took his Scouts on an unauthorized trip to a local Mexican restaurant as a reward for all their hard work and where those Michigan boys learned about real genuine New Mexican ‘green’ chili for the first time (Jesus H. Christ!). On the four day trip back to Michigan, whenever the other Scout Leaders from the other Michigan Troops would attempt to chastise him, he’d lead the bus in a rousing rendition of 10,000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and drown them out.
He got a job as the resident manager of a YMCA summer camp out in Middleville. The place was a wreck, but he cleaned it up and turned it around and thousands of kids owe some very happy memories to him. He was in his element, wrangling horses and giving hay rides behind the tractor, zoo keeper to an ever changing menagerie of animals from goats to raccoons to cows (I’d tell you about the time one of his boys, and I’m not saying which one, locked a very angry goat in the chicken coop as a Father’s Day surprise, but that’s really a story that needs to be told in person and out loud with lots of enthusiastic hand waving. The short version is that he was indeed surprised that Father’s Dad. Very. Ditto the story about the dead cow, and how Old Man Mesick grabbed its tail and cranked it back to life after … well, again, that’s a story for another time). He had a garden there too, a big one and more and more he thought that’s what he wanted to do full time – garden, farm, grow things. The job lasted a decade or so, long enough for his kids to leave home and go off into the world on their own, one to the Navy, one to the Air Force.
Eventually he left the YMCA and they moved to a small farm outside of Middleville. He went back to school, this time to the Michigan State Cooperative Extension and became a certified Advanced Master Gardener. They owned a couple of acres and they bought more, and they converted almost all of it into a specialty garden and artisan farm. They opened a farm stand and started selling fresh produce in their front yard. It wasn’t long before they were known across half the state and people came from all over for a chance at their stock in trade. He helped others become Master Gardeners themselves. He worked at the local Co-Op and Grain Elevator, testing soils and doling out advice to local farmers. One day the town fathers approached him, they were thinking of starting up a farm-market, something they hoped would revitalize their slowly fading village. And so it did. And so they became founding members of the Middleville Farmer’s Market, and there you could find them, rain or shine, every Friday, the center of life in a small Midwestern farming town. Everybody knew him, he had a thousand friends and when he walked into the local diner a dozen people smiled and waved and called out his name.
He got older though, and his health went to hell. He finally quit smoking, but by then it was too late. The old neck injury calcified and his hands got gradually weaker and more numb and one day he could no longer change fittings on the tractor with a normal wrench, he just didn’t have the strength anymore. So, being him, he got out the biggest damned pipe wrench you’ve ever seen and fitted it onto the tractor’s PTO, figuring all he needed was a little more leverage. Unfortunately the tractor was in gear, and when it shifted the PTO rotated a turn … and that huge damned wrench swung through a full arc that just happened to intersect with his leg. They had to insert a steel rod and fit the shattered bone back together with screws and if you think it slowed him down or taught him a lesson you haven’t been paying attention. Eventually he went back under the knife and the doctors were able to clean up his neck and he got both feeling and strength back in his hands, sort of closing the barn door after the tractor has done rolled away down the hill so to speak. But even as he got his strength back he was developing COPD, that’s the new innocuous word for emphysema. He ended up on oxygen. He had to give up golf. He kept looking for things that he could do, he became an avid birder, a member of Cornel University’s legion of bird watchers. He knew everything there was to know about birds and his backyard was filled with feeders of a dozen different kinds.
But the world just kept closing in on him, every year he could do a little less and for a man that had been ever in motion it got harder and harder.
The end came suddenly, an infection he just couldn’t shake, which led to congestive heart failure, kidney failure, and a dozen other things. His heart stopped in the emergency room, but they got it going again. He had beaten the odds so many times in so many different ways and those who knew him figured the feisty little Irishman would somehow find a way to outfox fate this time too.
And for a while, it looked like he just might pull it off.
But it just wasn’t to be.
On June 8th, 2013, at precisely 11:06AM, a beautiful Saturday morning, two days before his fifty-second wedding Anniversary, he finally stopped moving.
His wife was at his side along with his sons, the Navy Chief Warrant Officer and the Air Force Master Sergeant.
He was laid to rest at the Fort Custer National Cemetery with full military honors, next to his comrades in arms beneath the cold white granite, still at last.
His name was James Gordon Wright.
And he was my dad.