This is a column not about travel, per se, but about a special traveler.
I met Jack, my wife Sherrie's father, shortly after Sherrie and I began seeing each other. She called one Saturday morning and asked me to come over and see why her car wouldn't start. Tossing a tool box in the trunk, I rode off to save the day.
Sherrie had called Jack to come over, as well, and soon we were diagnosing all sorts of possibilities. At some point, as I stared down into the carburetor, I asked Jack to pump the accelerator pedal, and nothing happened. The car was out of gas.
We had the first of what would be thousands of good laughs to come over the years.
Some weeks later I was invited over for Sunday dinner to meet Sherrie's mom, Billie, as well as Sherrie's two brothers and their wives. This was getting serious. After exchanging introductory pleasantries all around, Jack looked at me sternly and asked, "What part do you sing?"
Jack had been a minister of music, and singing was central to his family life. The only question was which part I sang. I replied "bass," to which Jack opined that that would do, since there were already a tenor, baritone and lead singer in the room.
And so began an adventure.
At the time I was national sales manager for a capital equipment company and traveled every week. Fitting everything together and planning a wedding had us focused on July 4th. Sherrie and I were married in Jack and Billie's front yard before a handful of friends and relatives. At the reception, in the midst of all the celebration, Jack sidled up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and observed: "Son, there's just something wrong about getting married on Independence Day."
I share that with you to underscore his wit and sense of humor and our growing relationship that brought us in many ways closer than with my own father.
Among his many activities, Jack sometimes helped with funerals. A church member had passed away, and family and friends were gathered at the cemetery. The preacher's wife was a bit on the vainglorious side and an elegant dresser. A passing bird made a "deposit" on her hat and dress. As Jack stifled a laugh, the funeral director, Wendel, looked at him quizzically. Jack motioned with his head toward the preacher's wife until Wendel finally saw the stain, and then he, too, struggled to remain composed. Jack walked over to Wendel and said, softly, "The birds just sing for most of us, you know," and they both lost it. It took some time for things to settle down.
Jack was senior vice president of sales and marketing for Cumberland-Swan Manufacturing, an over-the-counter drug and pharmaceutical company, when he retired early at age 63. At a time when most men his age spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing, Jack decided he was going to finish the requirements to become a 32nd degree Mason. For those unfamiliar with the process, it requires committing massive amounts of information to memory and reciting that information verbatim without error.
Jack also took up making stained-glass pieces and was really good at it. I don't have a clue how many hundred angels, light-catchers, flowers and other pieces he made. We still have quite a few of them, but most were given to charities to auction off or to facilities that could use a bit of beauty to brighten someone's day.
Jack and Billie really took to this whole retirement thing and began traveling the world, making up for all the sacrifices they had made raising a family.
Billie and Jack soon took their first cruise, on Carnival Cruise Line, on Sherrie's recommendation.
It was the first of many as they traveled to places they had only dreamed of seeing. Jack and Billie were generous, taking the entire family of 14 on two cruises and a resort vacation.
And they were great fun. On one of the cruises, the four guys entered the passenger talent contest on a whim. Sherrie recorded the whole thing, and when the emcee announced that we were from Nashville, the groans and derisive comments were plentiful. Except we were good, giving a rendition of "Elvira" that would have made the Oak Ridge Boys proud (I thought the bass breaks were especially well done). Catcalls turned to cheers and a standing ovation. What a memory it made to see Jack's talent recognized by so many.
Jack and Billie traveled all over the world. And, oh, the stories he would tell.
A few years ago, we began to notice that Jack's memory wasn't what it had been and wondered if it was the first signs of Alzheimer's disease, which had afflicted his mother. It became apparent that Billie was mentally sharp, Jack was physically able, and between the two of them things worked.
Billie's health began to fail, and Jack's needs were more apparent. One day after Billie had been moved to a nursing facility, I went over to their home to fix a door (he was convinced I could repair or build anything). As I was leaving Jack shared matter-of-factly "I know my memory isn't what it was, and I miss a step now and then, but I am not stupid, and I don't appreciate people treating me like I am".
I promised him I would always be on the square with him, and no topic was off limits. And when he asked in early October how much time I thought Billie had left, I told him it might be two weeks. We had moved Jack to an assisted-living center barely a week before Billie passed away ("Billie's final odyssey", Nov. 2, 2009).
Over the next few years, as I went to shave him each Saturday, the evil that is Alzheimer's became more apparent. The lights were growing dim; he first couldn't recall the latter part of his professional career, then the middle part and finally none of it. He always remembered Billie, though, and how the "best day's work [he] ever did was the day [he] married Billie." And we could always talk about his Navy service in World War II on Guadalcanal in the Pacific.
Then one Saturday, he asked Sherrie, "Now, what was your mother's name?" And he couldn't remember his children's names or mine, and then he couldn't remember Guadalcanal.
The lights went out on Jan. 25. I have come to understand that people gather together at a funeral not because someone died, but because they lived. It was a celebration sharing memories, funny incidents and anecdotes of a good man's life.
And the cemetery service was moving, with a color guard from the U.S. Navy and a vault with the Navy seal and Jack's name on it. As Sherrie and I turned to leave, she whispered, "Be still for a minute. A bird just (pooped) on your shoulder."
I miss you too, Jack.