Butterscotch Moment 76: Popeye the Sailor Man
Posted on September 2, 2015
Growing up, my grandfather “Popeye,” was the most fascinating person I knew.
He’d briefly run away on a train when he was 15 – just for kicks. Had falsified his age to join the Navy and shot down bad guys in the Pacific. He was a Train Master for the Cotton Belt Railroad through riots, natural disasters, and even a circus train derailment. Popeye knew everything about surviving in the wilderness, wooed my grandmother by commenting on her skinny legs, and gave me an Italian nickname “Pasquale” (Pass Qual E)).
It all seemed unfathomably exotic to a kid who’d barely left Texas. Whenever I saw him, I’d ask him to recount his stories. He’d always oblige, sometimes telling them loudly to everyone in the room and other times like secrets that could be entrusted only to me.
He elbowed all other grandpas off the pages of history.
Popeye’s on the left.
“Did you get mail on the destroyer?”
“Oh sure,” Popeye said. “The mail during WWII was censored, and some letters would include words or sentences blacked out, but they tried to make sure we got mail. Come rain or hell fire.”
Popeye smiled. “I remember one piece of mail well.”
His mouth compressed into a frown, then a crooked smile.
“We were in the middle of the Pacific,” he started, and I straightened up. “The rockets sounded so loud and long it startled you when they stopped. It was my shift off the gun, so I decided to read my mail – if for no other reason, to take my mind off what I couldn’t control. So sitting under a canvas tarp next to the gun. I opened a letter from Imogene—
“Your beauty queen sister?”
“That’s the one,” he said with a nod. “My hands shook as I opened her letter while the on-duty gunner steadied himself to fire furiously. My eyes stopped at her first words.”
Popeye did his best Imogene voice and fluttered his eyelashes, “‘Oh Louis! What I would give to trade places with you now!’ Apparently, she was having boyfriend problems.”
Popeye shook his head. “Under that tarp, waiting for the next bomber, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “I’ll do it, Imogene! I’ll trade places with you!”
Popeye is 90 now. He’s the same handsome old gentleman with white hair and clear blue eyes. Unfortunately, those blue eyes didn’t have Popeye’s work ethic, and they gave out a little too early. Still, even blind, Popeye’s out every day working on the farm, driving a tractor (watch out), building a fence, or reading a good book (audio, of course). But it’s not easy.
“Pasquale and I are going to run into town,” Popeye shouted to my grandmother.
“You two be careful!” she admonished. “These heavy rains may have washed out roads. Turn around, don’t drown!”
“Come on,” Popeye said, grabbing my elbow. “We better leave before she ties me to that chair.”
My grandmother had been right. Signs of flooding were everywhere. The heavy rains had left the roads saturated with water making it hard for cars to pass and washing away parts of the road.
But as I drove towards town, my grandfather and I began to talk about more than just the weather.
“You know, Pasquale,” he said, without turning, “up until this point, life has always been exciting. But now, I find myself confused.”
“Well, you’ve made it to 90 before dementia set in so consider yourself lucky,” I joked.
Grandpa laughed and then became quiet.
“No, I’m confused because I just don’t know how my story’s going to end. I can’t see it – figuratively or literally.”
I couldn’t bring myself to look at his blue eyes, now brimming with tears. I was defenseless against the reality of my grandfather being 90.
Slowly I stopped the truck in front of a completely rain-covered area of road.
“Popeye,” I said, changing the subject. “I don’t think we’re going to make it past this stretch. I can’t tell how deep it is.”
Popeye opened his door and began to walk toward and then into the water, judging the depth of the water by his waders.
He climbed back in the big truck. “Yeah,” he sighed, “I guess we’d better head back to the house.”
I could see the disappointment on his face so I surveyed the road. I looked at the line of trees alongside us, evidencing that there wasn’t a drop-off. I watched a small Honda as it crossed—the water barely reaching its underbelly.
“Popeye,” I said firmly. “You know how you were saying you couldn’t see how your story was going to end?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Let’s take a chance of making it really exciting.”
My grandfather chuckled. “No, no. I don’t want your story to end with mine!”
“We got this, Grandpa,” I said softly. “And so do you.”
My grandfather sat still, considering my words. The hum of the truck mixed with the sound of water gently flowing into still pools along the side of the road.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do it!”
After we had crossed the water, I yelled, “We made it! We made it!”
And we both clapped and laughed.
Because we had.
Our Popeye is a man of fierce independence and great accomplishment – who is still coming to terms with his blindness and his age. He’s active, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving, and, I can now add to that list: vulnerable.
He’s still feeling his way around his world of shadows, but he’s learned to accept help from people who extend an arm. He’s learned that he has a wife that is a tough as him who doesn’t shy from adversity. He’s shown that – even at 90 – living fully in the moment with your loved ones by your side is the best defense against fear.
And that’s the most fascinating story so far.
Yep, he walks on water.