Friday, April 06, 2007

Great Story

This is a wonderful piece by Michael Gartner, editor of newspapers large and small and president of NBC News. In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Well worth reading and a few good laughs are guaranteed.

My father 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 Van

Laninghams 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, and 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 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


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


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.............

Thanks Bob H.

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