Sunday, May 1, 2016

Happy 100th Birthday George King

Hello, George. You were, and always will be my grandfather. You would have been 100 years old today. You were born in a small house along 5 & 20 in rural upstate New York. You pointed it out to me one day, while we were on one of our many adventures together. The doctor that came to the house that day charged five dollars for your delivery. A few years, when your sister was born, he charged ten dollars for the delivery, and your father “was mad as hell”, you said. This is how you came into the world. 

You were a tenant farmer’s kid, and lived a fun, but hardscrabble existence on the outskirts of Phelps, NY. You learned to hunt and fish. You finally began school at 8 eight old, and were promptly sent home on the first day for hitting a kid in the eye with a rock. You were a wild kid, you once told me. 

You loved playing baseball. The photo you gave of the Phelps High School school baseball team may still be my most favorite photo in my possession. Your hat is to one side, your jersey is half-unbottoned, and you have a grin that screams “bad-ass”. You got a tryout with a St. Louis Cardinals scout in Geneva, NY. They didn’t pick you because you “didn’t have the arm”, they told you, but I think that it had more to do with that you were already a few years older that the other players that they were scouting. Despite that, you went on to coach Little League baseball in Phelps, and you always rooted for the Cardinals. 

By this time, you had met the woman that would become my grandmother, Mary. You both were headstrong, liked to dance, and shared a sharp sense of humor. For six years, you two kept a long distance relationhip between Phelps and Rochester, where Mary lived and worked. By 1940, you and her had been together for six years. You had been a farmer, had shoveled coal at a factory, and were unsure of what to do next. So you signed up for a two-year enlistment in the Army, becoming a part of the inaugural class of the 9th Division. You were supposed to come home for a visit on December 7th, 1941, when word of Pearl Harbor came. You didn’t come home for another three and a half years.

You were proud of your time during World War II. Africa, Italy, D-Day. You were there. You became a staff sargeant, staying on the front lines for two years. When I attended Army reunions with you in the 1990s, your fellow soldiers would pull me aside to tell me how much they had looked up to you. But war was hell. Italy was hell, you once told me. When you narrowly survived a volley from a Nazi tiger tank three weeks after D-Day, they pulled you from the front lines. With two purple hearts, and later one Bronze Star in tow, you spent the rest of the war in England, training pilots to be foot soliders for the invasion of Japan that thankfully never came.

By September of 1945, you had come home. You and Mary got married and began raising a family. Finding work in Phelps was difficult. You took a job as a mailman because you enjoyed driving. Money was always tight. You took a desk job with the post office for more mony, but you hated it. Sitting in one place all day long. You soon went back to delivering the mail for less money, but happier for the travels. The experiences of the War didn’t leave you for many years to come.

By the time I came along in November of 1972, as your first grandchild, you were ready to a change. Your children were grown, or about to finish high school. You were starting to think about retirement. I didn’t know all of this, back then. All I knew is that you, and Mary and I just had a great time together. You and I would travel all over to visit your friends, go to restaurants, go for ice cream. You liked to go for breakfast at 6am, laughing and joking with your friends at the local diner. I pretended not to hear all of the good curse words that you all said, but I did. I just sat there, listening and laughing, and looking at you. 

For years, I could never figure out why I couldn’t connect with others the way that I connected with you and Mary. I finally realized that you both were the exception, not the rule in this world. Some people search their whole lives for people that they have a bond with. You just happened to be among the first people that I met in my life. You showed me what was possible in living a life that was based more on what one wanted to do, instead of what we often have to do. You understood me, and I understood you in ways that I thought no one else did, for a very long time. And we both accepted that, and had a great time in being who we were, together.

In the summer of 1991, I came back to visit you. That same week, my former classmates in Seneca Falls, NY were graduating from high school, and I really wanted to be there. It had been eight years since I had moved to North Carolina, but those kids still meant something to me. I had thought about all of the ways that I could get to the graduation, but when I told you of my plans, you said, “I’ll take you”. You sat with me in the bleachers as we watched the graduation, and then sat there quietly smoking a cigarette as I said hello to all of my former classmates. I still regard that day as one of the most fun things I have ever done, and I am still in touch with many of those classmates because of that day. In a world where things are too often driven by people doing as little as possible, you did something that you hadn’t planned on because of what it meant to me. And I am still empowered by that lesson.

After Mary died in 1990, you kept going. But it was never easy. You moved away from the old house in 1994. You pointed out a giant box of old photo prints and negatives in a box, telling me to keep anything that I wanted. I grabbed every old photo that I could, and the experience planted a seed that became a life in photography a couple of years later. You moved away from Phelps, and then you moved back. You dated other women, but they never got you the way that Mary did. You were still headstrong, still independent. Still smoking. I didn’t see you as much I wish I had those past few years, but I know now that you didn’t want me to know how ill you were. The last time I talked to you on the phone, I told you that I loved you. You were a little surprised. You and I were never much for saying such things to each other. But you said, “I love you, too”. I’m really, really glad that I did that.

As I recently told one of my cousins, I never really got over you passing away on that cold day in January of 2000. You just learn to get used to the hole inside of you that now exists, and try to move on. All of these years later, I feel like I understand you more. Who you were, who you were at different times. And still, there is what you meant to me. Just by you being who you were, you and Mary showed me possibilities of living and adapting in this world on one’s own terms. That what we care about is worth fighting for, and worth achieving. Not in grand gestures, but in the everyday act of quietly doing what you wanted to do. Day in, day out. Sometimes, it’s not what we leave behind to many, but instead who we are to a select few that defines our time on this earth. You had a lot of fun in those adventures, and that love of experiences yet to be lived is something I continue to carry with me, and something I can never re-pay. Sometimes I wonder what you would have thought of the things I have done since you left this place. Of my travels, of my career. You would have liked me wife. She’s headstrong, and has that sharp humor that you and Mary had. And somewhere, I hope that you’re still proud of me.

I intended to drive to New York this weekend to celebrate your birthday. To drive to all of the places that you used to visit, and stop and eat. I think- heck, I KNOW- that I wanted to spend one more day with you. Of course, work came calling, and I am somewhere else, thinking of you. “That’s fine”, you would have said. “Take the work. Don’t worry about me. I’m a tough old bird.” Yes, George, you are. But know that wherever you and Mary are today, your old kid still misses you both, even though you never truly left me. You’re still here. In my heart, in my head, and continuing the ideas and travels that you started me on, all of those journeys ago.

Happy birthday, ol’ kid. Wherever you are.
-Daniel Coston
May 1, 2016

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