Grandpa Bob


My grandfather, Robert Greyling Pike, died last night. He was 98 years old and one of the best people I’ve ever known. I’ve spent the day feeling sad and talking with my family.

I sat down tonight to write a tribute and remembered that I have written about him several times in this blog. I just went back and reread it all and there is not much to add, so I’ll link to those posts and paste in yesterday’s journal entry, written just after I’d said my last goodbye to him. He was in hospice with end-stage Parkinson’s and I was leaving for a two-week trip. I knew I’d never see him again.

*About the links below: if you just read two, read the asterisked two. The others are a bit more peripheral, especially “Violent Storm.” [And sorry about the missing photos in these posts. Photobucket is holding them ransom for $400.]

January 11, 2009: Grandpa Bob Walking Slow *

January 22, 2012: A Violent Storm on the Beaufort Scale

January 28, 2012: Happy Birthday, Grandpa Bob! *

September 7, 2013: Goodbye, Joyful

March 20, 2014: Goodbye, Rollie

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I’m on a United Airlines flight to SFO, currently above the Antelope Valley, heading back to NBTSC for the 18th year. I said my final goodbye to Grandpa Bob this morning, after playing him the Moonlight Sonata for the last time. He didn’t respond, but I think he could hear me and understood. I told him I was sad that I wouldn’t see him again but felt completely fine about him dying whenever he’s ready. I told him that he’s been an inspiration for me to learn new things all my life, to do things my own way, to focus on how I can help others and be useful, to nurture family connections, and to have fun. I said I hoped he was comfortable and peaceful, and that I hoped he was having good dreams and got to see his brother and all the other people he missed. I told him I loved him and kissed him on the head. It seemed like maybe he wanted to say something as I was leaving, but that’s beyond him now.

I’m amazed that he’s still alive. He’s had no food or water for over a week now, and I’ve only seen him move to wave and say hi to Margo or to try and take his oxygen tube off, and not even that in several days. Such a strong man! And he bore the whole process of enfeeblement with such grace and good humor. I get grouchy when I get a cold. He never got grouchy even on his deathbed. It’s something to see and something to think about. The strength of his body makes me wonder if there was something we could have done differently, that if so maybe he could have lived for a few more years.

But he was ready to die and he made that very clear weeks ago. And I don’t feel sad for him at all–I feel sad for us. I feel sad about never seeing him again, his sweet glee when he sees Margo, his little jokes. I feel sad about all of his experiences and knowledge disappearing from the earth. I feel sad that Margo won’t remember him. I feel sad that his capacity for joy, from watching a good movie, or listening to me play piano, or eating one of Maya’s birthday cakes, is disappearing. And that loss makes the world a little less wise and loving, and joyful and interesting.

GBob w little Nathen

Grandpa Bob teaches me something, mid-1970s. Photo by Steve Lester.

My friend Rollie has died. He had an amazing life and taught me a lot. I am not the right person to describe his life and I’d decided not to describe any of his adventures here, but a quick look shows that there is really nothing online about him. So here’s a very short version of one of his typical adventures: In his mid-70s, he climbed K2. The sherpa didn’t want to let him come because he was too old, “But I was not the one who held us up… Not once.” On that trip to Nepal, he caught amoebic dysentery, which he cured himself of with a gruesome regimen involving coffee, hydrogen peroxide, bifidus, and enemas.  “That was not fun, let me tell you, but I got rid of that bug. I went back to the doctors and they said it was completely gone.”

Right now I’m thinking most about what he taught me about getting old. He was still on an intellectual and spiritual mission when I last saw him, a week before he died. (In fact, the moment I learned he’d died, I was on my way to his house with the King James Bible on an Excel file–something he’d asked me to find to help with a scheme he had for decoding the Bible.) His memory and his mind were still strong, though his body was failing. Almost a hundred years old and he would tell me to “google” stuff, like, “Oh, just google ‘swansons’–they’ve got good deals on B12.” You can continue to learn and grow for almost a hundred years. I’ve seen it in Rollie. And you can keep your body going, too, but it’s work. He would say, “Nature is basically on your side until your 70s. In your 70s, you’ve got to work at, get it down to a science. In your 80s, it’s full-time. It’s an art and a science to keep going. In your 90s, it’s between you and God.”

He’s got me thinking about isolation in old age. He had a lot of friends in the community, but he spent most of his time alone and he told me several times that the loneliness was hardest part of his life. He had no family left in the time of his life when he needed pretty constant companionship, someone to notice when he fell. I suppose there is only so much planning you can do to head yourself towards an old age full of care and companionship. There’s a lot of luck involved. But I am thinking about it. It makes a big difference

Rollie was also one of my grandfather’s best friends over the last 60-some years, and the most poignant part of a poignant funeral for me was seeing my grandfather cry. He doesn’t generally cry, and never like that, sobbing. I felt the power of that moment and realized I haven’t known anyone for 60-some years, and I don’t know what that’s like, the depth of a 60-year relationship, the kind of hole that would leave in your life. But that’s how you want it to be, right? You want to have good enough, long enough, deep enough friendships that leave you heartbroken when they die. But you also want to have a lot of other dear relationships around you to take up the slack. My grandfather has that, and I want that, too.

Thanks for everything, Rollie.

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

Rollie (left) with Grandpa Bob, mid-1980s

I just watched Grandpa Bob receive the news of another of his friends dying. He met Joyful (then Nancy Joy) in the early days of LSD and then MDMA experimentation and they developed what he described as his life’s most emotionally open relationship. They lived together off and on for decades. Grandpa Bob says that she had an almost magical way of recognizing exciting opportunities and making things happen, as well as smoothing over tense situations.

I hung out with Joyful on Maui during the year 2000. Joyful was her legal name. She showed me a credit card, which said “Joyful Joyful.” She said, “They told me I had to have a last name.” I’m not a big fan of hippy names, but hers really seemed to fit. She was joyful, and not in that stuck, chronically cheerful way. She also seemed to collect the most interesting people into her circle, always lived in a supremely beautiful space, and was easy and fun to be around. She moved fairly often and seemed to be able to effortlessly recreate that feeling wherever she went.

Grandpa Bob is 95 and by that age almost everyone you have been close friends with has died. All of his high school friends, everyone he knew from the Air Force and WWII, teachers, students, business partners, girlfriends, everyone except his family and his old friend Rollie, who’s 96 and lives down the street.

Knowing that, it was interesting to watch him get the news. He actually brightened up and reminisced for a while, looking relaxed and pleased, about how great she had been and how much he liked her. He said, “Well, she had a wonderful life. I can’t be sad about that.”

Goodbye, Joyful, and thanks for keeping my Grandpa Bob such good company.

My Grandpa Bob turns 93 today. I feel so lucky to get to live with him and interact with him every day–he lives most of the year in a trailer on my parents’ property in Joshua Tree, so we’re neighbors right now.

Grandpa Bob is one of my best role models, and his current living situation reminds me of how he inspires me the most. Instead of focusing on his own material security, for the past 45 years he traveled around the country, helping our his friends and family wherever he went. Whenever Grandpa Bob showed up, you knew that things were going to get done. He’d tune your piano, help build your house or shed or boat, dig a septic, whatever. He would enthusiastically join in or start projects. And when the work was all done, he’d always have good conversation about some topic he was delving into, usually from the fringes of human thought.

The result of this lifestyle is that now, when his memory and mobility are keeping him from being as helpful and active, he has built up so much goodwill that he has a lot of options in his old age. He lives with us in the winters and with our cousins in Idaho in the summers, but I imagine he could live with any number of friends and family around the country who would gladly take him in. He didn’t worry about money. He just built community. And that is a good model for living, in my opinion.

Here’s Grandpa Bob (who actually flew biplanes) with my brother Ely, about to fly model airplanes–both of their favorite activity:

Ely, Grandpa Bob at Sunburst Park, December 29, 2011

Yesterday I woke up to a violent wind storm. I walked up to the house for breakfast and found Grandpa Bob had been blown over in the driveway and he was struggling to get up. A gust had blown him straight over backwards. He was embarrassed but not injured at all. (I hope to be able to take a fall like that at 93!)

Growing up in the desert, wind was my least favorite weather. I’ve been blown into a ditch on my bike and had countless teenage hairstyles ruined by wind. It is kind of exciting to see something so powerful, though. We had gusts at 66 miles per hour, making it a “violent storm” on the Beaufort scale (see below), just between a gale and a hurricane. In the Pacific northwest, and especially in cities, this intensity of wind blows trees into houses and causes pretty radical damage. Stuff around here is built for wind. You might lose your roof and you will definitely lose anything that isn’t “nailed down hard,” as we say, but the plants and other structures will be fine.

Here are a couple of very short videos I took. Turn the sound down–they are loud. Can you see the sandstorm about a half mile away in the first one?

The Beaufort Wind Force Scale, according to Wikipedia:

Calm > 1 mph

Light air 1-3 mph

Light breeze 4-7 mph

Gentle breeze 8-12 mph

Moderate breeze 14-17 mph

Fresh breeze 18-24 mph

Strong breeze 25–30 mph

High wind 31–38 mph

Gale 39–46 mph

Strong gale 47-54 mph

Storm 55-63 mph

Violent storm 64-72 mph

Hurricane  ≥ 73 mph

I’ve been visiting Vancouver for a few weeks and most days we end up commuting at least once from the west side of the city to the east side and back, mostly by car, sometimes by bus. (I’ve done it by bike, too, but not on this trip.)

It’s about six or seven miles each way and takes about 30 minutes. Google maps says 20 minutes by car, and I’ve heard rumors of 15-minute trips, but I’ve yet to experience one less than 30. Yesterday, our commute was 10 miles and it took 50 minutes (extra Christmas shopping traffic, I’m told). That’s five miles per hour in the middle of the day. It was worse on the way home, at 3:30 rush hour.

I found myself quite impatient with this situation. Five miles an hour does not seem a reasonable speed to travel. I think of Los Angeles as congested, but in non-rush-hour traffic I expect to be able to get to another city in 20 minutes–from the train station in Los Angeles to my brother’s house in Glendale, for example.

The thing is, I’d be on the I-5 most of that trip. There are freeways all over the place in LA. This is strikingly not the case in Vancouver. We are on surface streets wherever we go, hitting stoplight after stoplight, very often with no left-turn lanes so traffic piles up behind each turner. Suddenly I miss all of those ugly, loud LA freeways.

Reanna and her family argue that the fact that it sucks to drive in Vancouver is an accomplishment. The more it sucks to drive, the better, because more people will use public transportation or bicycle. We fought to keep freeways out of here, they say. I was reminded of how upset my grandfather gets when he talks about the freeways in LA. The house he built was one of the houses they demolished to put in a freeway (it might have even been the I-5 that went through his house). Freeways went through the middle of neighborhoods, loud and ugly, splitting them in two. It’s very hard to imagine that happening in Vancouver, if only because the real estate is too expensive.

I am pro-public transportation, so when I’m not stuck in Vancouver traffic I think it’s a shame that LA was designed for cars. Maybe it is the relative ease of car-travel that has kept LA’s public transportation from moving to the next level — though LA, at least according to this article, is quite low in miles of freeway per person compared to other major US cities.

This situation does not strike me as a straightforward win for Vancouver, though. People still drive a lot, and in cars constantly in their least efficient mode, stopping and starting all the time. The busses use the same congested, no-left-turn-lanes roads as the cars, so they lose efficiency and speed along with them. Maybe the answer is to have the government quadruple gas prices or insurance prices to make driving a rich-person-only thing, and leave the roads for public transit. I’d much rather see public transportation that wins because of how great it is, rather than because of how crappy driving has become, but I guess I would take what I could get. Not that I could get quadrupling the price of anything related to driving even here in the most progressive part of Canada. That might be less popular than putting in freeways.

In thinking about all this, I wanted to be able to compare the transportation systems in different cities and found it quite difficult to do. We need a single-number transportation index that takes into account the average speed of travel, average energy-expenditure per mile, and how far people travel on average to live their lives in their area. People-miles per gallon-minutes, maybe, or maybe people-kilometers per joule-minute. Any economics or urban planning students out there looking for a project?

Grandpa Bob on Tricycle

Grandpa Bob on Tricycle

Grandpa Bob & Preschoolers

Grandpa Bob & Preschoolers

All last summer, Grandpa Bob lived with Pamela, one of his brother’s daughters, in Haley, Idaho. She runs a cool preschool in her home, where everything is miniature: a kid sized climbing wall, a tiny loft called the owl’s nest, and a miniature toilet in the bathroom. And a lot of little kids, of course. My mom said that they love him and I bet they do. I had so much fun with him as a kid. He knew so much and was always up for a project of any scope. When my family lived in Indiana, he moved into a small trailer in our driveway so he could be near us. I was homeschooling, so I could go out there whenever I wanted and talk to him. It was great. He was always writing letters on an old manual typewriter (He has written several letters a day since I’ve known him.) but he’d stop and tell me about Carl Jung or flying small planes across the country or all the butterflies that lived in the Ozarks. We started a butterfly collection. We built a workshop and designed and made wooden toys, and my first desk (which I still have—my mom’s been using it the last few years). We built a high jump pit and he taught me and Ely to high jump. He had been a seriously competitive pole vaulter in high school.

High School Pole Vault

High School Pole Vault

Grandpa Bob & Me

Grandpa Bob & Me

He told my mom about a conversation he had with some of the kids at the preschool, who said he walked too slow. “I walk slow because I’m old,” he said. (He’ll be 90 on January 28.) “No,” they said. “It’s because you take too small of steps!” Then they tried to teach him how to take bigger steps.

This is funny to me, in a sad kind of way. Grandpa Bob was the fastest walker I ever knew. I practically had to run to keep up with him as a kid. He never seemed impatient, but he also didn’t want to waste time in transit. He liked doing the thing more than getting there. And he did so much in his life! Last year I read a draft of the biography my uncle Don is writing about Grandpa Bob’s life and I was amazed and humbled. I don’t mean to put myself down in any way when I say this, I think it’s just accurate: The story of my life is just a footnote to the story of his life.

It’s difficult to get across what I mean by that. I’ll give a few highlights here, off the top of my head, but it was really the scope and pace of it all that hit me. He was relentlessly adventurous and interested. He was an airline pilot in India during WWII. He trained glider pilots for D-Day. He built a house for his family. He taught classes on mythology and the Tarot. He hung out with Van Tassel and his UFO crowd out at Giant Rock. He is a really good ear-trained jazz pianist. One day in the early 70s, he gave away all of his possessions, including his house, and traveled around the country for a year with a group whose idea was living like Jesus—never have more than your clothes and up to $5 in your pocket, and have faith that you are taken care of. He says it worked and he never felt afraid after that. He delved deeply into topic after topic. My mom remembers one time going to the library with him as a kid and he pointed out the section of books he had just finished—the entire philosophy section. For fun. One of the many topics he delved into was pianos. He learned to play, learned the history, toured piano factories, learned to tune pianos. He loves to tell the story of the two years he spent in Phoenix in the mid-70s: He sold his car, bought a scooter, and scooted around to all the piano stores during the day, tuning their pianos. He would end his day in a downtown store with a beautiful piano in its big front window, and, after it closed, he played into the night for the people passing by. For fun. That was one of his favorite times of his life. I didn’t get the whole story, though, until I read Uncle Don’s book. When he got to Phoenix, he convinced someone to let him pitch a tent in a space in their trailer park, and that’s where he lived the entire two years. The tent eventually rotted and blew away, and he just slept on the ground in his sleeping bag. He never even bought a stove. He just ate his food raw. It’s such a poignant image for me—I cry, sometimes, thinking about it: Grandpa Bob, in his 50s, scooting with such energy and focus around Phoenix, tuning pianos and playing pianos and then falling asleep, under the stars, utterly content. This is what he was doing when he heard that Ely and I were going to homeschool. That was a pretty radical thing to do in the 70s, so he decided to see how it worked, and moved into a trailer in our driveway.

Grandpa Bob is in good health. He loved biking all around Haley on his adult-sized tricycle. His mind is still quite sharp and he’s still interested in things. I spent time with him over Christmas break, showing him how to use gmail, wikipedia, and ancestry.com. And, he’s slowing down. He can’t see as well as he used to and he’s a little dizzy all the time, so he’s fallen down a couple of times. I know he’s going to die one of these days. It might be ten years or so, but that doesn’t seem like very long anymore. I feel sad thinking about him dying. I feel sad thinking about him being old and no longer tearing around the country on one adventure after another. When I’m around him, though, I don’t feel sad. He’s kind of softened in his slowness. He seems to be enjoying the simple things more—family, food, stories. Maybe even transit, if it’s on a tricycle. He’s less interested in figuring things out, too. I asked him what he thought of some new theory and he said, “Well, I’ve decided to leave figuring stuff out to the young people.” There’s something in that for me. I’m like he was at my age. I like figuring things out. I’m compelled to. And there he is, relaxed and pleased, at the end of his life, having figured out that it doesn’t really matter if he figures out a few more things.

Grandpa Bob as a Kid

Grandpa Bob as a Kid

Grandpa Bob the Pilot

Grandpa Bob the Pilot

Grandpa Bob in His 50s

Grandpa Bob in His 50s

Grandpa Bob Performs with Damian, Lester Family Entertainment Night

Grandpa Bob Performs with Damian, Lester Family Entertainment Night