He was a simple man. Never made a lot of money, never owned a fancy house. In fact his life was spent living just twenty yards from the house he grew up in, on the property that his grandfather homesteaded and ranched. He never dined with kings or presidents, he never gave vast sums to charities or built parks, or monuments. He loved one woman his entire life, and died in the house in which he was raised.
When I was young I heard it said that he ate horse oats and liver for breakfast every day of his life. It explained him and made him even more of a legendary figure in my own mind. Jack was not tall, and at some point had lost all of his hair, from the top of his head to his eyebrows to his eyelashes, to...well, I suppose everywhere else. He had a perpetual tan from working outside, though I swear he never looked his age.
He was near eighty when he came to our house to do stump removal for us. Even my husband, strong construction worker that he is, slinging huge industrial pipe around all day, even he said that watching Jack work made him tired. He could work rings around us, though he was more than thirty years older than either of us. It was a wonder watching him. That man worked near every day of his life. He could do most anything, but what he was great at is sales. He sold farm equipment, huge tractors, combines and other things I don't even know about. He was comfortable with it and the men were comfortable with him. He drove throughout Colorado and Kansas, into Wyoming and New Mexico. I hear that he even drove into Utah to sell the stuff to guys (and gals) who needed it. Then he would deliver it, driving a semi through winding mountain roads, steep drop-offs on the edge of the asphalt, as easily as he would the flat straight roads of the Kansas prairie. He knew every back route through the entire region and kept it in his head.
He was also my “Pop.” Even as a young girl, or perhaps especially as a young girl, I adored Jack. I loved him with a fierce adoration that is hard to explain. ...Or maybe it's not so hard. See, Jack would look at me and his face would light up and he had a twinkle in his eyes that spoke louder than words ever could. I was confident that this funny, gentle, quiet man loved me. More than that, he adored me. It was written on his face. I was starved for that. Oh how I loved him. I asked him to adopt me many, many times and though we always treated it as a joke between us, there was a part of it that contained huge truth, the truth of a fatherly love for this miserable child, and the truth of an aching heart soothed by his care. As I grew older, I could always count on Jack whenever I sang, whether it was church or school, Jack was usually there. I knew right where to look to see his beaming face, glowing with paternal pride. Even in adulthood, long past the stage of cute and adorable, Jack still beamed at me. I counted on it.
I was out in the country, east of town, for reasons I no longer remember, when I got the call from a friend of mine. “Did you hear the news? Jack announced in church that he's dying, and has been given only twenty-four hours or so.” I did not hesitate. I drove straight to his ranch, not so terribly far from where I was at the time. The scene when I got there will stay with me forever. Crowds of people were standing in the yard, cars parked everywhere. His boys and their families were there and some other people I recognized from the church I no longer attended. In addition to that, there were so many more people. People in suits and dresses, people in overalls and jeans. Inside the house it was an amazing sight. People from all walks of life were lined up to see Jack. He was sitting next to the window in his comfortable chair, holding court, visiting with each person or couple in turn. His wife kept a watchful eye on him from the far side of the room, carrying on gracious conversation with those who had come to pay their respects to the living, who had come to say goodbye. There was a lot of laughter in that house and in that yard--lots of tender reminiscing and lots of quiet tears. In time I got my turn with this man who had meant so much to me.
“You know how much I love you?” He nodded. I got him water. He asked about the family and what I thought would be my time to talk to him, and to tell him how I felt, became his time to find out what had been happening to us. The conversation did not go where I had intended, but that was Jack. Always more concerned about the other person than himself. Ever conscious both of his physical frailty, a shocking thing in one so vibrant, and of the line of people waiting, some of whom had driven hundreds of miles for their visit, I leaned in. “Is there anything else to say?” Then we said our I love you's, me adding one last “Pops” and I left. I knew that in that unspoken way we shared, that he knew I loved him, and that he had been valued and appreciated. Apparently that line continued for days. Jack pushed it and lived several more days and did some amazing things, and had a memorial service that was filled with people. He made an impact on so many people in his quiet, ordinary life. Always with a smile, always genuinely concerned, always quietly helping those who were hurting, and he made no distinction between the president of the corporation he worked for or the guy who just got out of prison. That's the kind of man he was. Never heard him say a harsh word about his wife. And when he told you he would pray for you, it wasn't just words. He prayed. It was his habit.
Days after his funeral, as I was driving around, overcome with grief, I was glad to remember that always when I saw him I would sidle up beside him, put my arm around him and say, “Hiya, Pops.” I still get a lump in my throat remembering. But that day, I remembered what I had forgotten. I heard him say, “Hello, Daughter.” With that the memories flooded back, of the times when that was his gentle greeting, and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the paternal feelings weren't my imagination.
He tried to tell me one time, weeks or months before he died, as we were sitting across the dinner table from each other, that it wasn't horse oats that he ate every morning. I said, “Well, it is when I tell the story.” It was horse oats. And liver.