Sunday, August 26, 2012

He Never Drove A Car

Well, that's not quite right. I should say I never saw him drive a car.

He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet.

"In those days," he told me when he was in his 90s, "to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it."

At which point my mother, a sometimes salty Irishwoman, chimed in: "Oh, bull----!" she said. "He hit a horse."

"Well," my father said, "there was that, too."

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. The neighbors all had cars -- the Kollingses next door had a green 1941 Dodge, the VanLaninghams across the street a gray 1936 Plymouth, the Hopsons two doors down a black 1941 Ford -- but we had none.

My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walk the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.

My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938, and sometimes, at dinner, we'd ask how come all the neighbors had cars but we had none. "No one in the family drives," my mother would explain, and that was that.

But, sometimes, my father would say, "But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we'll get one." It was as if he wasn't sure which one of us would turn 16 first.

But, sure enough , my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership downtown.

It was a four-door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn't drive, it more or less became my brother's car.

Having a car but not being able to drive didn't bother my father, but it didn't make sense to my mother.

So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father's idea. "Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?" I remember him saying more than once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps -- though they seldom left the city limits -- and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.

Still, they both continued to walk a lot. My mother was a devout Catholic, and my father an equally devout agnostic, an arrangement that didn't seem to bother either of them through their 75 years of marriage.

(Yes, 75 years, and they were deeply in love the entire time.)

He retired when he was 70, and nearly every morning for the next 20 years or so, he would walk with her the mile to St. Augustin's Church. She would walk down and sit in the front pew, and he would wait in the back until he saw which of the parish's two priests was on duty that morning. If it was the pastor, my father then would go out and take a 2-mile walk, meeting my mother at the end of the service and walking her home.

If it was the assistant pastor, he'd take just a 1-mile walk and then head back to the church. He called the priests "Father Fast" and "Father Slow."

After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he'd sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Cubs game on the radio. In the evening, then, when I'd stop by, he'd explain: "The Cubs lost again. The millionaire on second base made a bad throw to the millionaire on first base, so the multimillionaire on third base scored."

If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out -- and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream. As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, "Do you want to know the secret of a long life?"

"I guess so," I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

"No left turns," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"No left turns," he repeated. "Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic.

As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn."

"What?" I said again.

"No left turns," he said. "Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that's a lot safer. So we always make three rights."

"You're kidding!" I said, and I turned to my mother for support "No," she said, "your father is right. We make three rights. It works." But then she added: "Except when your father loses count."

I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing.

"Loses count?" I asked.

"Yes," my father admitted, "that sometimes happens. But it's not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you're okay again."

I couldn't resist. "Do you ever go for 11?" I asked.

"No," he said " If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can't be put off another day or another week."

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90.

She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102.

They both died in the bungalow they had moved into in 1937 and bought a few years later for $3,000. (Sixty years later, my brother and I paid $8,000 to have a shower put in the tiny bathroom -- the house had never had one. My father would have died then and there if he knew the shower cost nearly three times what he paid for the house.)

He continued to walk daily -- he had me get him a treadmill when he was 101 because he was afraid he'd fall on the icy sidewalks but wanted to keep exercising -- and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.

One September afternoon in 2004, he and my son went with me when I had to give a talk in a neighboring town, and it was clear to all three of us that he was wearing out, though we had the usual wide-ranging conversation about politics and newspapers and things in the news.

A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, "You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred." At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, "You know, I'm probably not going to live much longer."

"You're probably right," I said.

"Why would you say that?" He countered, somewhat irritated.

"Because you're 102 years old," I said.

"Yes," he said, "you're right." He stayed in bed all the next day.

That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night.

He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said:

"I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet"

An hour or so later, he spoke his last words:

"I want you to know," he said, clearly and lucidly, "that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have."

A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I've wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long.

I can't figure out if it was because he walked through life, Or because he quit taking left turns. "

Life is too short to wake up with regrets. So love the people who treat you right. Forget about those who don't. Believe everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said life would be easy, they just promised it would most likely be worth it."

Written By Michael Gartner, president of NBC News

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Actress and the Actor


My husband, Richard, never really talked a lot about his time in Viet Nam other than he had been shot by a sniper. However, he had a rather grainy, 8" x 10" black and white photo he had taken at a USO show of Ann-Margret with Bob Hope that was one of his treasures.

A few years ago Ann-Margret was doing a book signing at a local bookstore. Richard wanted to see if he could get her to sign the treasured photo so he arrived at the bookstore as soon as he could for the 7:30 pm signing.

When I got there after work, the line went all the way around the bookstore, circled the parking lot and disappeared behind a parking garage. Before her appearance, bookstore employees announced that she would sign only her book and no memorabilia would be permitted.

Richard was disappointed but wanted to show her the photo and let her know how much those shows meant to lonely GI's so far from home. Ann-Margret came out looking as beautiful as ever.

He presented the book for her signature and then took out the photo. When he did, there were many shouts from the employees that she would not sign it. Richard said,

"I understand. I just wanted her to see it." She took one look at the photo, tears welled up in her eyes and she said,

"This is one of my gentlemen from Viet Nam and I most certainly will sign his photo. I know what these men did for their country and I always have time for 'my gentlemen.'"

With that, she pulled Richard across the table and planted a big kiss on him. She then made quite a to-do about the bravery of the young men she met over the years, how much she admired them, and how much she appreciated them.

There weren't too many dry eyes among those close enough to hear. She then posed for pictures and acted as if he were the only one there.

Later at dinner, Richard was very quiet. When I asked if he'd like to talk about it, my big strong husband broke down in tears.

"That's the first time anyone ever thanked me for my time in the Army," he said.

That night was a turning point for him. He walked a little straighter and, for the first time in years, was proud to have been a Vet. I'll never forget Ann-Margret for her graciousness and how much that small act of kindness meant to my husband.

I now make it a point to say "Thank you" to every person I come across who served in our Armed Forces. Freedom does not come cheap and I am grateful for all those who have served their country.

~ Author Unknown ~

Editor's Note: Ann-Margret Olsson was born in 1941 and was part of Bob Hope's troupe in the 1960's in Viet Nam. According to Bruce Thompson, the webmaster of which is her official website, this story is indeed true.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rich At Last


Bernie was my father's idea of a rich man. When I was a kid in Minnesota, watermelon was a delicacy. Bernie, was a prosperous fruit-and-vegetable wholesaler, and one of my father's good friends. Every summer, when the first watermelons rolled in, Bernie would call. Dad and I would go to his warehouse and take up our positions.

We'd sit on the edge of the dock, feet dangling, and lean over, minimizing the volume of juice we were about to spill on ourselves. Bernie would take his machete, crack our first watermelon, hand us both a big piece and sit down next to us. We'd bury our faces in watermelon. We'd eat only the heart: the reddest, juiciest, firmest, most seed-free, most perfect part, and throw away the rest.

Bernie was rich. I always thought it was because he was such a successful businessman. Years later, I realized that what my father admired about Bernie's wealth was less its substance than its application. Bernie knew how to stop working, get together with friends and "eat only the heart of the watermelon."

After becoming a very successful businessman, what I learned from Bernie from my exposure to him as a young boy is that "being rich is a state of mind" and also includes making time often for those things in life that are the very sweetest to you. Some of us, no matter how much money we have, will never be free enough to "eat only the heart of the watermelon." Others are rich without ever being more than a paycheck ahead.

For many years, I forgot that lesson I'd learned as a kid on the loading dock. I was too busy making money and adding accomplishments to my resume.

Well, I've re-learned it.

Now I make sure I "eat the heart of the watermelon" often, in fact every day. I do those things that are sweetest for me, I do them first, and I do them often. Frequently, for me, some of these things are taking the time to enjoy the accomplishments of others and to take pleasure in the day. And I remember that it's ok to throw the rest away.

Finally, I am "rich.”

~ The Author is Harvey Mackay who is Chairman and CEO of Mackay Envelope Corporation, an $85 million company he founded at age 26. He is the author of the New York Times #1 bestsellers "Swim With The Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive" and "Beware the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt.” He is also a nationally syndicated columnist, popular business speaker, and a director of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute ~

Thursday, August 9, 2012


As a new widow, I was painfully beginning the hard task of packing away my husband's belongings, trying to distribute his things to those who would most appreciate them. One morning, I went to the busy grocery store in town to get some boxes for packing his things.

As I entered the store, I was overwhelmed with grief. I stood alone, waiting for someone, anyone, to notice me. I did not need groceries, and was unsure who to ask about the boxes. Checkers were busy, carryout boys were sweeping by me, grocery carts loaded, helping others out to their cars.

The receptionist at the customer service desk was busy behind her counter, handling the people in line. Customers breezed by me without a glance.

I felt as if I no longer existed! With my husband's death came the awareness of complete personal insignificance. My husband had always been the "front man", shaking hands with strangers, asking for assistance, introducing me to everyone. Now he was no longer there, and I felt invisible. The longer I stood there, the more shy I felt.

What is wrong with these young people, I wondered. Can't they see that I need something? Even as I resented their inattention, I hated the idea of interrupting them in their tasks. I considered just going back outside and returning later, but just as I turned to leave, a young woman came through the door, obviously in a hurry.

We made eye contact, and she looked me over as she reached for an empty cart. She glanced back at me as she went by, and

once again, I was alone. But then she turned back to me, and said,

"I could not help noticing you standing there. Is there something you need?" I was astonished that someone who did not even work there would ask me this question, but I told her,

"Yes, I need some small empty boxes to pack some things."

"Oh! Well, that should be no problem" she answered. Then she continued, "Why don't you sit right here on this bench and let me find someone to help us?"

The word "us" delivered a message of human connection. I was not invisible, and I was not alone. As I sat down on the bench, I felt as if she had just pushed a very fragile vase further back on the shelf, to keep it from crashing to the floor. I was so grateful for this kindness. Within two minutes, she was back, with a cart load of empty boxes.

She did not send a boy back to me. She brought them herself. Then she asked one of the sackers to help me to my car, and went on her way. As she turned to make sure there was nothing more I needed, she smiled a radiant and reassuring smile. I blurted out my thanks, and she said,

"Well, sometimes it only takes a tiny bit of time to make a real difference. I am happy that I came by just at the time you needed me!"

She was absolutely right. I DID need boxes, but I needed her even more. This gentle assist helped me to see myself as an individual who was not alone, but one who was part of the whole of life. If she existed, and acknowledged that I existed, I could not possibly be invisible.

The sadness and fear that had engulfed me was no longer there, and I determined to watch for people who needed my attention in the days to come.

~ Author Unknown ~