This was when men were real men.
I loved my grandparents. They took me in at an early age, and I spent about half of my childhood with them. They taught me about the Lord Jesus. And justice. And right. And wrong. And work. Some of that took hold. It was a start in life.
My grandpa, ol’ John P., was 5’11’, 180 lb of gristle. He started working in the coal mines when he was 13 years old, then switched to laying brick later on after he moved the family up to Ohio. Some people said that he was the workin’est man they ever saw.
Sunday was his only day off. After church and Sunday dinner, he would pile into his bed, and you could hear him snoring all over that old farmhouse. Nobody ever had the heart to wake him up. “Daddy’s sleepin’ ” were the only two words you needed to know.
Later on in the day, he would sit out on that rickety old front porch, rocking back and forth. He would carry on an entire conversation while peeling an apple with his pocketknife and eating the slices right off the blade. He would also use that same pocketknife to carve little monkeys from peach seeds. Whenever he finished one, he would laugh like a little child. He would then dip the little monkey in varnish, claiming he was baptizin’ it.
I’ll never forget how he once pulled me up in his lap and started talkin’ to me straight. He held out his hands and said, “Look at them hands.” I did. They were gnarly. He was a bricklayer. His hands felt like bricks. He said. “I don’t want you to have hands like that when you grow up. I want you to do good in school and make somethin’ of yourself. You’re a right smart boy and you can make your mind up to be anything you want to be.” I wasn’t old enough to know that he was giving me his blessing.
John P. was the closest thing to a daddy I ever had. He was gruff and strict and sometimes a little scary, but he never laid a hand on me. He didn’t have to. He made me want to do good. He made me want to be a little version of him. Of course, I never even got close to that.
John P. was a leader in our church. For a fact, he was the most natural leader I have ever known. The young people adored him. They loved his jokes and his fairness and how he would listen to them. The congregation made him an officer in the church because they knew the church wouldn’t go under as long as he had a dime left. As a matter of fact, he built the church-house with his bare hands, beam by beam and brick by brick. Never charged a nickel. He thought a man ought not to charge the Lord. And he was the first one that those poor people turned to when things got bad.
When ol’ John P. died, I was out in California working for an aerospace company. As I pondered the news that he was gone, it occurred to me that I had hands as soft as a baby’s. That’s what he had wanted. I caught a plane and came back home.
I wrote John P.’s eulogy, and I didn’t have to tell a single lie. I talked about his big ol’ shoulders, and I talked about his big ol’ gnarly hands. I talked about how he walked with his God every day of his life, and how he loved his wife and children, and how he had loved me, and how he had never treated me like I was a burden. The little boy who had received ol’ John P.’s blessing so long before had the last word on what kind of man he had been.