Nurturing the Next Great Generation

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Veteran Wisdom

This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me. My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an…

This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me.

My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an American pilot in World War I. His job was to fly over the trenches and take photographs that could be used for military intelligence – a pioneering use of what became known as aerial reconnaissance. I remember seeing a picture he’d taken over Verdun (one of the more notorious battlefields), showing a hellscape of shell craters and smashed trees. Gramp was tall, with an aquiline nose and piercing eyes, always eager to tell stories or sing a song, one hand behind his back while the other accentuated his words like a conductor. In World War II he became a colonel in the Air Force, stationed in England.

My grandfather, Fred Fish, in World War I.

My father, William (Bill) Page, studied radar in grad school at Harvard and put his knowledge of the nascent technology to use as a lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh, an attack transport ship in the Pacific theater in World War II.

On the rare occasions when dad talked about his war experiences, he’d recount the horrors of the battle of Okinawa.

His long face would get a steely, almost detached look as he told of his ship being dive-bombed by kamikazes, the men shouting for smoke to shroud the ship, seeing the planes hurtling towards the ship—so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots—the deafening explosions, a leg floating in the water. I never fully realized just how traumatized dad was by all this throughout his life, an inner demon that would show itself unexpectedly. The color red sometimes made him unhinged with terror. I remember once my mom handing him a bowl of cereal in a red bowl; his face became a horrible mask of clenched teeth and deeply furrowed brow and intense glaring eyes and he shouted, “Blood! Blood!”

My dad (back row, 6th from the right) aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh 1945.

Gramp and my dad were very different people. Gramp was a lifelong Republican, a salesman, a football fan and fisherman. My dad was an intellectual Democrat, a chemical engineer who read voraciously. But through their very different stories ran a shared thread of wisdom that became woven into my memory and thoughts on war.

When I asked my dad what his takeaway was from all his experiences, he looked very thoughtful for a minute, then said quietly, “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty.”

Dad felt terrible guilt over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though the bombings may have shortened the war (and he might have died in an invasion of Japan), there was simply no justification for incinerating children. “War was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen,” he’d say.

Gramp’s thoughts on war were less direct, but just as powerful.

One Easter Day in 1969 we gathered at my grandparents’ house, stuffed ourselves on ham, potatoes, peas—and many pieces of pie—then sat in the living room of their ranch house. Gramp was a master at holding court, sitting in his wing-backed chair, while all around him sat me, my four older brothers, and three cousins (two of them young men). We wore jackets and ties. Somehow the topic of the Vietnam War came up.

“Boys,” Gramp said, “Let me tell you. I was in France in World War I. Well, they called that ‘the War to End All Wars.’ But that wasn’t the end of it. World War II came and we had to go back and fight again.” He raised a finger and wagged it, “You’d think that would have been the last one, but then we had Korea. And now we have Vietnam.” He looked at us intently, all these boys and young men gathered around listening in rapt attention.

“All I can tell you,” Gramp said, “is that it’s always the old men who start wars, and the young men who are sent off to fight them.”

Gramp never told us not to go to Vietnam. Two of my older brothers were eligible to volunteer or be drafted. I was too young. But everyone in the room drew their own conclusion.

Here’s my take. To honor our veterans, I mean really honor them—not just say the words “Thank you for your service,” we need to listen to them. Through hearing their stories and sharing them with our children and grandchildren, we can find the peace that every generation has longed for, and perhaps in the process create the greatest generation of all.

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Reunion

Seven years ago when I found out I was going to be a grandpa I immediately sought advice on grandparenting. The prospect of being a grandpa seemed daunting. Surely there…

Seven years ago when I found out I was going to be a grandpa I immediately sought advice on grandparenting. The prospect of being a grandpa seemed daunting. Surely there were a million things for me to learn. Books to devour. Professors to consult.

But first, I spoke with my Aunt Lois.

Lois, now 95, is my late mother’s sister. In her career Lois was a much-loved music teacher as well as an accomplished cellist. During WWII she became a pilot to help ferry mail across the United States.

My Aunt Lois during the war.

Most importantly, Lois has 6 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. So I asked Lois for advice on how I could be a good grandfather.

Lois looked thoughtful for a moment, raised one hand and pronounced with gravitas, “Be there for them.”

At first I thought this was just the preamble to a speech. Nope. “Be there for them” was it, not so much a statement as a command. I have done my best to live up to this deceptively simple advice.

Being a grandpa has meant not sitting on the sidelines.

When I take the grandkids to a playground I’m there to play with them, not chill on a bench. In one of our favorite games I play the role of the “Tickle Monster.” I run around trying to catch them, and when I finally do (which requires real work given how speedy these kids are) they get tickled without mercy. Peals of laughter can be heard for miles. But like any good fisherman I release the little ones so they can be caught again.

Hanging out with the kids at home entails all kinds of activities together. Like creating castles out of couch cushions. Or reading The Lorax while snuggled up on the couch first thing in the morning as they glurp milk from sippy cups. Or Goodnight Moon at bedtime, the sound of my voice gradually lowering with the sun to lull them towards sleep and the realm of dreams.

All of this came to an abrupt end at the dawn of the pandemic.

It’s been said (notably well by the writer Paula Span in her article The Year Grandparents Lost), that the pandemic was especially hard on grandparents. Not only did the pandemic cause more deaths among older age groups, it also built a wall between the generations just when everyone needed their loved ones the most. For my wife and I, being apart from our children and grandchildren felt like being exiled to a foreign land. Some kind of Siberian gulag of the soul. Fortunately my wife has proven to be an excellent pandemic buddy despite her leaving countless balls of used Kleenex around the house strewn like wet flowers after a storm (truthfully, the list of my transgressions would require an entire story all to itself, but somehow she puts up with me).

Playground romps and bedtime books were replaced by rations of Zoom and FaceTime. It’s not that the video chats were infrequent; we were jumping on the phone multiple times every day. But too often our calls seemed like constant reminders that we could not really be there with our grandkids.

And all the while we knew they were growing up without us.

That hurt. Still, we reminded ourselves that our parents’ generation had it a lot worse; they lived through the Great Depression and a horrific world war. Surely we could manage through the masks and isolation.

Job one was simply to stay alive. In the case of my mother-in-law, Dorothy, this was unfortunately not possible. After months of near total isolation in a nursing home she succumbed to COVID, alone, in a Providence hospital in September of 2020. Her tragic death made us double down on our resolve to stay safe so we could one day all be together again. Which meant staying alone.

The surprising chorus that ushered in the spring of 2021.

I went to get my first shot of the Pfizer vaccine in March. It was in a big open space of a community center on the North Shore of Massachusetts, buzzing with nurses and volunteers and people like me. For months I’d seen the absolute misery and pain of front-line healthcare workers struggling to help COVID patients in the face of short supplies and overwhelming caseloads. But in the hall that day a different mood prevailed. The space was suffused with hope and happiness, and while I could not see the smiles under the masks of the nurses, their eyes spoke volumes. At last here was something positive and meaningful they could do.

After the quick jab I sat in the hall for the required half hour. And it was there, as I thumbed through emails and posted on Facebook, that a song welled up on the loudspeakers. It was Bill Withers singing Lean On Me. Quiet at first, then building as one by one, like a wave, the nurses, volunteers and patients started to sing along.

“Sometimes in our lives
We all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there’s always tomorrow
Lean on me
When you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on…”

Behind the big sheets of plexiglass the nurses sang and swayed to the music, this rapidly growing chorus of those who had been beat down but were now rising, together. I sang, too. It was an electric feeling, a moment I will never forget.

“Please swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill
Those of your needs that you won’t let show…”

Within a few months, the second vaccine shot behind us, my wife and I were finally able to see our children and grandchildren again. There were many hugs and tears.

I hoisted my grand girl in the air and carried her on my shoulders…

 

…I chased my grandsons through playgrounds, the Tickle Monster alive again…

 

I met our newest grandbaby for the first time, a lovely girl born in March.

 

“Lean on me when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend…”

In a way, our grandchildren seemed the same (although bigger). But when my oldest grandson—now 6—grabbed a book so we could read together, it was now him proudly reading to me. The gap of time we’d lost together was suddenly palpable. This made me sad, yet I was also happy—filled with joy, actually—because despite the many challenges of the past year our family had continued to grow and persevere. Our bonds had become even stronger. And once again, with the love and support of all those around me, I can be there for them.

“I’ll help you carry on…
For it won’t be long
Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.”

 

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Merry Christmas from Captain Teddy

Hello Good Grandpa friends! It’s been quite a year for all of us, hasn’t it? But somehow we’re making it through together. Like so many grandparents, I can’t be with…

Hello Good Grandpa friends!

It’s been quite a year for all of us, hasn’t it? But somehow we’re making it through together. Like so many grandparents, I can’t be with my kids and grandkids this year. That’s hard. So in addition to the usual FaceTime chats I made my own little video to spread some holiday cheer. Enjoy.

Grandpa Ted (a.k.a. Captain Teddy)

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The Accidental Guardian

This true story was first published in Boston Magazine, and later in my book of stories, The Willoughby Chronicles. I return to it now during this holiday time of pandemic…

This true story was first published in Boston Magazine, and later in my book of stories, The Willoughby Chronicles. I return to it now during this holiday time of pandemic separation. Like so many grandparents around the world, it’s likely I won’t see my grandkids on Christmas. But this story reminds me of how we are all connected through our love of family, and the infinite beauty of the simple concept of grace. Enjoy.

My father braced himself against the high wind, his hands shaking with age, his gray hair swept sideways. Rags of mist blew past like tumbleweed over the jagged rocks, and down below, about a quarter mile distant, the Lake of the Clouds came into view, then out, obscured by the fast-moving clouds. It could have been a scene from Macbeth, but we were actually on Mount Washington again—me, my father and my brother, John.

For years, it had been a family tradition that we climb on Hiroshima Day, August 6th, to honor the victims of the blast.

Throughout the 1970s we made it just about every year. Back then all five brothers made the trek, following Dad up the steep slopes of New England’s highest mountain. By last year, though, John and I were the only ones willing and able to go.

Dad took out his notes. It was time for “the speech.”

John and I had heard it a million times before, but somehow it still got to me. Dad spoke of the war in the Pacific. Kamikazes diving at his ship, so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots, the sailors shouting for smoke to screen the ship, the explosions, the horror. He said to himself, “Oh God, just let me live through this day and I will do good things for the world. Just let me live today, please God.” He spoke of the atomic bomb. There was just no way, in his view, to justify the annihilation of a city. Everyone shared the guilt, he said.

There was a time I used to protest: “But Dad, you were at Okinawa. If Truman hadn’t dropped the bomb, you probably would have died in the invasion of Japan.”

Dad would shake his head sadly. “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty,” he’d say.

This time, though, I just let him speak. I had the feeling this would be our final trip up the mountain.

Dad said it was our duty to carry on his work. The world needed to better understand human nature so that we could avoid war. John and I sat and listened without talking. The wind made a whistling sound through the crevices, and I could sense the ghosts of our past selves, all the brothers together, climbing over these same rocks.
John and I were just starting to get up, thinking the speech was over, when Dad said, “There’s one last thing I need to tell you. It’s a true story.”

John and I looked at each other, wondering. We’d heard the speech many times before and this was not part of it.

“Something happened a long time ago,” Dad said slowly, “that put things into perspective. I was waiting to board a flight in Los Angeles and this woman—she was a total stranger—came up to me and said: ‘Excuse me. I was wondering if you could do me a favor. I understand you have a ticket for the earlier flight. Would you mind switching seats with me?’ Well, she took my seat. And I took her seat on the later plane.”

Dad paused for a moment. He looked me in the eye.

Then he said, “Her plane crashed. Everyone on that plane died. And I would have died, too, if she hadn’t taken my place. So, you see, this is all grace. All the years since then, grace. Every day I’m alive is a gift. And I can’t waste that gift. It’s too precious.”

John and I were stunned. Finally, John said, “This happened?”

“Yes.”

“When was this?” I asked.

“Oh,” he replied, “years ago. Before you were born.”

“So what you’re saying is that if this woman hadn’t switched seats with you, I would never have been born?”

My father nodded. “Yes, Ted, you would never have been born.”

I was shocked. Dumbfounded. The whole thing felt like something out of It’s a Wonderful Life, the old Frank Capra movie.

In the film, a guardian angel named Clarence jumps off a bridge to prevent George Bailey—the Jimmy Stewart character—from taking his own life. At the end of the film, when George hugs his daughter by the Christmas tree and she reminds him that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings, forget it. I blubber like a big baby. All six feet six inches of me.

We resumed our hike, but in the days and months that followed I found myself preoccupied with questions.

If William Page had died young—and I had never been born—what would the world be like? Exactly where and when did this crash take place? Who was this mystery guardian angel who saved my father’s life?

I hunted for information. And what I found blew me away.

My father had escaped the most horrific air disaster that had ever occurred in America up to that time. It was June 30, 1956. A TWA Super Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 collided in midair, then crashed into the Grand Canyon. Everyone on both planes died—128 people. The first domestic crash ever for either type of plane. The first civilian midair collision over the United States—and in the wide-open spaces of the Great American West. Americans were used to thinking of the West as incredibly vast, and suddenly, in one split second, the frontier skies had limits.

Hopi and Navajo Indians held a 24-hour prayer vigil for the dead.

The New York Times showed a list of the passengers of both planes. Who was this mysterious woman? I badgered Dad with questions. He remembered she was not from California, and she needed to get home to her family. She was mature. Anglo-Saxon. I scanned the list. For the first time in my life I had an inkling of how people feel when they’re hunting for their biological mothers. After all, this woman, like my mom, was responsible for my existence.

I asked United Airlines for help in finding her, but they said I was looking for a needle in a haystack.

It’s just as well. What would I do if I found her? Hey, folks, don’t feel so bad—your wife/mother/grandmother died, but look what I have as a result?

So I’ll refer to the mystery woman as Kate. I picture her in the Los Angeles airport in 1956. She’s probably medium height, 43 years old, wearing pearls. Her blue dress is classic ’50s. She rushes into the crowded waiting area where many people are trying to get on the nine a.m. UAL flight. The airline can’t help her; the flight is booked. She scans the room for someone she can ask a favor of.

And then, in the same way the flick of a butterfly’s wing can set off a chain of events that lead to a hurricane, her eyelids flutter. Blink, blink. There’s a balding man in a bow tie. No, not him. Blink. That other one there. Hmm. No, he looks cross. Blink. Blink . . . blink. That man . . .

Kate sees my father.

He’s tall, in a charcoal gray suit, white shirt, thin tie. He has Gregory Peck good looks, black-rimmed glasses, dark brown hair neatly combed. Him.

“Excuse me, sir, I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

Dad’s a gentleman, always has been. He opens doors for people. Even in Cambridge’s nasty rush-hour traffic he lets people go ahead of him, never swearing, always cool and calm. No matter how much the world swirls around him, he finds a way to be the eye of the storm. So when he sees Kate before him in the hectic terminal, he agrees on the spot. They go to the counter and exchange tickets.

Kate boards the flight.

Out of her window she can see another plane—a beautiful craft with three tails and four propellers. Very distinctive. Kate doesn’t know it yet, but this other plane is a TWA Super Constellation. It will leave L.A. three minutes ahead of her.

Kate settles down to read her book. Perhaps it’s The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, a New York Times Best Seller that week. She thinks, Thank goodness that nice man let me use his ticket.

Kate reads quietly, then falls asleep. About an hour later, the voice of Captain Robert F. Shirley wakes her. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re just passing over the Grand Canyon. There are some pretty big thunderheads ’round these parts today, but I think I’ll be able to steer clear of them to give you a better look.”

Kate stares out her window. Her jaw drops in wonder. Majestic towers of rock, and two rivers running deep through the rock. “The larger river is the Colorado,” the captain explains, “and the smaller river—the blue one—is the Little Colorado.”

Turquoise, Kate thinks, like an Indian necklace. How pretty.

At 10:31 a.m. and 21,000 feet there’s a sudden fierce jolt as the TWA Super Constellation and the United DC-7 collide. The tail of the Constellation is torn off, its fuselage ripped open from the tail to near the main cabin door. The DC-7’s left wing is severely crippled.

The Constellation crashes and burns about 1,000 feet up from the Colorado River at the mouth of the Grand Canyon. Aboard the DC-7, there is pandemonium. Those not wearing their seat belts are flung into the air as the plane careens.

The captain screams his last words into the radio: “We’re going in!”

Is Kate thinking, I’m not supposed to be here—it’s not my time?

Near the confluence of the deep blue Little Colorado and the muddy Colorado stands Chuar Butte, a 3,700-foot-high pedestal of rock. The DC-7 hurtles toward the cliffs of red-hued limestone, striking with such force that about half of the wreckage scatters over the plateau. During the following week army helicopter rescue crews will brave high winds and treacherous conditions to get to the remote crash site. They find only small pieces of the DC-7. Nothing recognizable has survived.

 

My Christmases are different than before.

Sure, I buy presents for my wife and children, but I don’t really care about receiving anything in return. I already have something that can’t be shrink-wrapped or put on sale. It’s that grace my dad was talking about. Grace—a funny word, not easy to define out of context. For me, it’s the smell of coffee brewing. It’s swimming in the icy waters of Willoughby Lake. It’s swallowing the moon and watching the light shoot out from my fingertips. It’s a passionate kiss I never want to end, that perfect moment in Beethoven’s Ninth when the soloists are all by themselves, soaring. It’s watching my children sleep.

I was raised a Unitarian. You’ve probably heard the joke: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Answer: Someone who knocks on your door for no particular reason. I tend to think that there are rational explanations for things that happen in nature. And that whatever science doesn’t explain now, it probably will in the future.

Kate was, I believe, the Accidental Guardian.

Still, it is not a huge leap of my imagination to think that something happened that day back in June of 1956. Amid the chaos, the Grand Canyon echoed with terrible sounds, from the rumble of thunder to the wail of bending metal, to the final horrific boom of exploding fuel. And yet, above all these sounds, simple and clear, there was the ringing of a solitary bell.

My dad—always the engineer—has a more grounded view. After we had trudged down the mountain he turned and smiled at John and me. He said, “And the moral of the story is: If someone asks you for a favor, do it.”

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The Babysitters

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami? My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been…

For us grandparents, babysitting sick grandchildren is just part of the drill. But could we withstand the dreaded norovirus and puke tsunami?

My daughter Abigail and son-in-law Ryan had been having a tough time of it. Grandson Henry—now a long and lanky five-year-old—had come down with a bad stomach bug – the dreaded norovirus. So bad he’d been vomiting non-stop to the point where dehydration gave him double vision.

Abigail was deeply tired and stressed out caring for poor sick Henry while our youngest grandson, Charlie, still demanded attention (as three-year-olds do).

Abigail brought Henry to the emergency room where he needed to be attached to an IV to get rehydrated.

Her stress permeated anguished texts that described how she and several nurses had to hold Henry down as he thrashed and howled when they put in his IV. Henry had screamed, “Help me!” and all Abigail could do was keep holding him down for his own good.

“It’s so hard,” we texted back, “we know.”

I was brought back to the time I had to hold down our 6-year-old son, Nicholas, when he needed a spinal tap to diagnose meningitis. The procedure was so traumatic the doctors gave Nicholas a drug so he’d never remember the experience. I thought, “Where’s my drug?”

Henry made a speedy recovery, just in time for Charlie to come down with the same bug; he began vomiting (apparently all over the place). Abigail’s dog, Rory, was also puking.

To make things even more stressful, Abigail and Ryan had a tropical getaway planned for that weekend.

We grandparents had been lined up months in advance to babysit, and were determined to help them get far from the December New England chill and the puke tsunami.

When we arrived, Charlie was still sick with a fever and totally miserable. He kept saying, “My tummy hurts,” and instead of doing his usual routine—running laps around the house—he was curled up on the couch. Rory kept making “gak” sounds from deep down in her throat as if on the verge of bringing up dog chow like a fire hose. Henry wanted someone to read him a book. Or play Frosty the Snowman on the Kindle. And get him a cup of milk. The picture window in the living room showed the dreary tangle of maple trees in the sloping back yard, grey-brown leafless trunks darkly wet in the slanted curtain of freezing rain and snow.

“I feel so bad leaving you with all this,” Abigail texted from the plane.

“Don’t worry,” Nancy texted. “We’ve done this before.”

Walking into this environment where one touch of a microbe-infested doorknob or sniffle might lead to days of feverish hurling was just part of the drill. Mere mortals would have been excused from this duty. After all, if a five-year-old got so sick he required hospitalization, what would the norovirus do to a sixty-year-old like us? This bug is known for being extremely contagious and tough to kill. It can live on a toilet handle for two weeks, and is so resilient it just laughs at Clorox wipes. The only thing that kills it is industrial-grade bleach like you’d have in the rescue truck along with your hazmat suit in a Congo contagion zone.

Over the course of the next three days we gave Charlie Tylenol and stroked his back, read many books, and watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer and other Christmas favorites.

We did dinosaur puzzles and other activities – taking frequent breaks to scrub down our hands with hot water and soap like surgeons.

It kept raining and snowing for days, a nasty wintry mix. And all the while we’d see Abigail’s Instagram stories with her and Ryan’s smiling faces bathed in warm sun, drinks in hand at a beach.

Each picture of Abigail happy and rested was a thank you for the gift that we had brought, this gift that sometimes only we grandparents can provide. A blessed break from it all. A chance, however brief, to relax and take a deep breath. To bask in the sun, knowing that the kids were ok. More than ok, actually. In very experienced hands.

Sitting in the living room in dark Connecticut where the dog was going “gak!” and Charlie was moaning and Henry wanted attention and the cold rain tapped against the windows was a pleasurable duty—an expression of our love and commitment—and I could feel that tropical sun on my face with a warmth I can never fully measure or convey in mere words.

Abigail and Ryan returned after three days, and Nancy and I headed back to Boston. That night Nancy’s stomach started to hurt very badly, and soon she was praying on her knees to the porcelain God, her temperature 101. I tucked her into bed, wondering if I would be next.

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