As I hope you can tell from the remembrance below, the trip my Pop and I took with Honor Flight to visit the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. was incredibly special to both of us. It will be one of my most treasured memories of a gentle man we will bury tomorrow in Somerset. If you can, I would love it if you would make a donation to Honor Flight in tribute to H.D. Jasper's life and service.
In the fall of 2013, I got to accompany Pop on a trip to Washington, DC sponsored by a nonprofit called Honor Flight. This is a program that flies veterans from across the country to visit the memorials in DC. Every veteran travels with a chaperone and I was Pop’s chaperone. A few days before the trip, I got a call from the organizer of our trip. The voice on the other end of the phone was deadly serious, no chit-chat. He said, “Look, I normally don’t like family to be chaperones because family don’t understand that they’re not on this trip as tourists. They don’t understand that they have one job. You have one job. One job: nobody falls!” I assured him that I understood. One job.
So, we fly to DC and the whole time I’m saying to myself, “No falls. No falls. No falls.” And, we’ve got guys in wheelchairs, guys in walkers, guys using canes, guys on oxygen. All in their eighties and nineties. We’re getting on planes, climbing up into Greyhound buses, climbing down the steps of the buses, walking around monuments and memorials. There are chaperones everywhere all chanting to themselves: “No falls. No falls. No falls.” We’re lining the staircase of the Greyhound helping guys up and down. We're saying it to each other using only our eyes: "No falls. No falls. No falls." And, then there’s Pop, literally waving everyone off, including me. He’s using the handrail when there are hands all around him to help, he's walking off the path and over knotted tree roots, and I’m going to be the “tourist” who let his grandfather fall on the Honor Flight.
I’m not sure what the right verbs are because it’s hard to say that a man in his nineties “bounded” or “hopped”. The adverb “lithely” isn’t quite right, either. But, to the extent that a man who was born before the USSR was founded can be said to have a spring in his step, at 94 years old, Pop had one that day. I would never say that Pop was showing off, but he did seem to really enjoy not needing our help.
Pop took real pride in living independently and being able to care for Dixie after her stroke. I’m sure every grandkid will agree that Pop’s bear hug was surprisingly strong every time he gave one. Again, not showing off, but showing you that he’s still got it. When I asked Pop what the key to staying fit into his nineties was he said, “Keep moving and don’t sit on your butt.” I am not sure whether the Jasper family has a crest, but I would like to propose this as the official Jasper family motto. I’ve never seen such a bunch of doers.
A few years ago, Pop started rounding his age up. When we met John Yarmuth, the Congressman from Louisville, on our trip to DC, Pop immediately invited Congressman Yarmuth to guess how old he was. The Congressman guessed 87, because, “that’s how old my dad would be today.” “Ninety-five,” Pop replied. Walking away a few minutes later, I said, “Pop, you’re 94.” “I know,” he said, “but I’m closer to 95 than I am to 94.”
Here is an all-purpose blessing you have my permission to use without attribution: may you live so long that you start rounding up.
I will forever be grateful that Pop lived so long, because, really, it took me a long time to know my Pop. The trip we took to DC was one of the first days we had ever spent time together one-on-one. When I was a kid, I was too young to go on fishing trips up to Canada. Technically, I guess I’m probably still too young because what Pop said at the time was, “You’ve got to be old enough to put your own worm on your own hook” and I’m not sure I could pass that test today.
So, on our trip to DC, Pop eventually ran out of war stories and started telling me stories about growing up in Somerset, about getting punched by a shoplifter, about meeting Grandma at Newberry’s when she was working in the stationary section, about honeymooning with Grandma in the Smokies where a bear grabbed their picnic lunch out of their back window. He told me what tree made the best hiking sticks (sassafrass). He told me about the time in 1978 when he drove himself five miles to the hospital while having a heart attack. “Why didn’t Grandma drive you?” “Well, I was afraid to have her drive on the snow and ice,” he said.
He told me that he retired in 1982 after another heart attack. “I’ve been retired a long time,” he observed. While some of my earliest memories are of traveling by train to visit Pop and Grandma in Pennsylvania before he retired and they returned to Somerset, I’ve only ever known Pop as someone who was retired.
One of the hard truths about family is that it takes a long time to get to know those closest to us.
Part of that is that we’re too close: like trying to read a book pressed against our nose, our hearts can’t focus on the things closest to it.
Part of it is that we get stuck in our old patterns of thinking and fail to recognize the changes in each other and ourselves as we grow, learn, and age. We expect people to stay the same and it is hard work to see a loved one for who they are right now, today. It’s as though we look into a kaleidoscope and remember a design that was particularly beautiful or surprising or jarring and forget that the kaleidoscope is continuing to turn. New patterns are forming and dissolving at every moment.
And, part of knowing someone else, of seeing them in three dimensions requires knowing yourself, becoming yourself. In other words (and to state the obvious), part of understanding depends on who is doing the understanding. As I changed, what I understood about Pop changed.
If Pop had passed away sooner, I’m almost certain that I would remember him as a bear-hugging, gardening gentleman who blew my mind as a child by encouraging me to touch the Touch-Me-Nots growing in his backyard and who long ago spent a freezing winter fighting Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.
But, if he had passed away sooner—before I had a family of my own—I’m not sure I would ever have grasped that while Pop had some remarkable stories about chasing bootleggers and shoplifters and Germans, those stories don’t really describe what I treasure about Pop or what I came to understand about him and from him just in the last few years of our lives together. Instead, to me, what made Pop remarkable was his steadfast devotion to Dixie before and after her stroke and the way he cherished his family.
After being born in rural Kentucky in the 20s, going to war, and having a bunch of heart attacks, there was probably no one more surprised than him to discover that he had lived long enough to meet a great-great-granddaughter a few weeks ago.
When a German sniper shot the barrel of his 35-caliber carbine in two on his first day of combat in World War II, Pop had the good sense to throw down his useless gun and say, “Lieutenant, I’m getting out of here!”
When Pop returned from the war, he had the good sense to love his family, cherish them, and devote himself to them.
As a young man, it was easy for me to understand and admire Pop’s service during the war. It took me a lot longer to understand that it was what he did after the war that made him the man we dearly love, the man we will always miss, and the man who showed us how to live and love with a servant’s heart.