When my grandfather was born, there were places on this earth called Siam, Saxony, and the Ottoman Empire. Women could not vote. Movies did not have sound. He was older than television—older than hair spray—older than sliced bread. He was twenty years old before there was ever such a thing as a ballpoint pen. In his 92 years, he saw the world reinvent itself a thousand times over. Wars. Trans-Atlantic flights. Prohibition. (I think he was happy THAT whole thing got straightened out.) Social Security. Rockets. Spaceships. Hippies. He saw the Berlin Wall go up, and he saw it come down. Civil Rights. The Beatles. Star Wars. The Internet. In 2004, he was alive to see the Red Sox win the World Series. He was also alive the time they won before that…
And he had an opinion about every single thing that I just named.
How does a man, whose birth precedes plastic, remain so germane, so connected, so relevant—his whole life? He certainly figured out how to hold his respective place in a moving world. I was continually mesmerized at how forward thinking he was in regard to politics, culture, current events, philosophy, social dynamics, and the human spirit. He had much to say. He was ingenious and is one of those rare individuals who is truly timeless.
He was not the sort of man who needed anyone to agree with him on any issue. No validation necessary. He could stand on his side of the fence all by himself, thank you very much. If you heard the words, “Clam up!” the conversation was pretty well over.
Ben had a work ethic that was staggering. His hands were never idle. His wit and his willingness to venture into so many endeavors filled his life with experiences that were so rich. Few of us ever even imagine finding ourselves in the places and situations he’s been. He earned a Soldiers’ Medal for that same ‘wit and willingness’ that prompted him to put out a fire that had ignited on an airplane in WWII. Not long ago, we talked about that day. I asked him, “What exactly did you get that medal for, Grandpa?”
He told me, “That medal was for not having all the necessary information. There was a row of planes all lined up on the tarmac, and one of them had caught fire. Everybody ran the other way, but I grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran straight for it. I put the fire out.”
“So, what information were you missing?” I asked him.
He said, “Nobody told me that every single one of those planes, sitting side by side, on that tarmac had been fueled up. If I’d known that, I would’ve run the opposite direction like everybody else.”
I told him, “It sounds pretty brave to me.”
“Brave?” he said. “When they told me that all those planes were filled with gasoline, I almost passed out. There’s bravery for ya. I got that medal for not having adequate information—and that’s it!”
When an officer suggested to him that he could have a long and successful career in the military and that he should go over to the next building and re-enlist, he said to the man, “Now, which way do I go to talk to those people?”
The officer smiled and replied, “You go THAT way!”
My grandfather looked at the building he was pointing to and said, “Then I’m going THIS way!”
He came home from the war a man who was content with simplicity. The happiest years of his life were spent in a space that was 12 x 28 feet, with the woman he cherished. He kept the same tee-time every Saturday of his life for over 40 years. All he needed was the air in his lungs, the woman at his side, and the little Smokey Joe charcoal grill on his front porch. This is the man who taught me how to be happy—because the best years of my childhood were spent in that little olive-green, singlewide trailer, eating barbequed chicken legs, watching MASH, and listening to him play the guitar. Or at my Grandma Jean’s house during the summers when we swam in the pool that he kept sparkling clean for us. Or spending the holidays there, waiting for Grandpa and Grandma Polly to take the turkey out of the oven. Or the parties that my Grandma Jean threw, when my grandfather would stand at the big BBQ grill with a Pabst Blue Ribbon in one hand and a big metal spatula in the other.
My favorite memories of my grandfather: His little sayings and rhymes—none of which can be repeated here. I loved all his stories. The best is probably the one where he was a little boy of about 6 or 7, sitting in church and a rather large woman—we’ll call her ‘a woman of substance’—was sitting in front of him. When the congregation stood up to sing the hymn, he noticed from his view that her dress was stuck in the… uh… well, the middle of her rear end. He thought he’d be helpful, so he yanked it on out. She turned around and clocked him right in the head. Those were the days you could not only smack your OWN children in public—you could smack other people’s children! She turned back around and started singing again. He was feeling badly that he had taken her dress out and made her so upset so he went ahead and just put it right back. That’s the best story ever. And I don’t care what anybody says—I believe it with all my heart!
Most of all, I loved how he loved our Polly. I loved the way he laughed and wiggled his eyebrows whenever she told HIM to clam up! I loved how he protected her whenever I took them out to the store or to doctor’s appointments—they looked like two little birds in the storm—he always cradled her right under his arm. He never left her side in her final days.
When his precious Polly passed away, we all worried that he would not be far behind her. But he rallied. It was because he believed with all his heart that, no matter what, life is precious and life is a gift from God, and not one minute of it should ever be squandered. I knew he was so grieved when Grandma Polly died, but the day I stopped being worried about him was the day he said to me, “Maybe I should buy a laptop computer?”
He was 84.
He said, “Well, I don’t really know how to work one, but you know, a person should never, ever stop learning.”
He never stopped learning, and he took every chance he was given to live. The evolution of Elmer Bennett never lost momentum—not for one second of his life. He kept learning until the very day he died. He learned to forgive. He learned the power of surrender. And he learned to say, “I love you.” I was blessed to hear that often.
I believe this is why he has remained ever so germane and connected and relevant for the entirety of his life: Forgiveness, surrender, and love. He never lost his wit. Even when the nurses in the hospital during his final days were asking him questions to see if any senility had crept into his mind, he set them straight.
When one asked him, “Ben, do you know what day this is?”
He said, “Why? Do I have some place to be?”
And you know what? He did have some place to be. He needed to go be with his dear Polly—in the place where she has been waiting for him. The emptiness that we feel now is filled up with the knowledge that this is so.
Erma Bombeck said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything You gave me.’”
Surely, this man we honor today, has already looked God straight in the eye and said those very words: “I used everything You gave me.” And I can only imagine that our Heavenly Father threw His head back and laughed, rested His hand upon his servant’s shoulder, and agreed, “You certainly did, Ben. Well done. Well done.”
There are the words we all long to hear at the end of our journey: “Well done.” Those two little words hold so much. They are the validation for how we’ve used the sacred, precious life God gave us. Grandpa Ben loved life so much that he could not waste it—nor should we. I think that’s the message he would want us to have today: Don’t squander one precious moment of the life that you have—live it to the fullest. Don’t miss the humor in life—find it! Or better yet, create it. And most of all, love well. Cherish those around you. Learn to BBQ. And be grateful for every moment you are given.