Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Jerry Don Test

This is the eulogy I delivered for a great friend last week.

Jerry and I have been friends for over fifty years. Our paths have diverged and crossed many times. During times when we had more in common, we traveled the same paths for long periods. We helped each other get through stressful periods in our lives. Then he would go off and do his thing and I would do mine. 

Our interests changed, but I always knew I had a friend in Jerry, a friend I could call on who would come running and bring all his tools and equipment. A friend who was not afraid to get his hands dirty helping out.   

I first met him when I worked at City Pharmacy in downtown Commerce. He had left the job I held at the drugstore to become a men’s clothing salesman for Jim Clark’s down the street.

He sat down at the counter one day about closing time as I was wrestling with the wooden pallets behind the soda fountain. He made some suggestions as to how to do it more efficiently. I looked over at this handsome fellow all decked out in a tie and sport coat. That’s the first time I remember seeing Jerry Lambert. I admit I was a little irritated at his unsolicited advice, but he soon proved himself to be sincere and friendly and shared a few more helpful hints about the job he had held before me.

Our kids grew up together. Kim and Shelly have maintained a friendship from about age 6 to now. I won’t mention how many decades that covers. Jerry and Derek built the fence around our yard almost thirty years ago. By the way, Derek, that is the only fence on the place that I have never had to repair.   

When I first heard that Jerry Don was ill, several things came to my mind immediately. One is the way that Jerry liked to get “up close and personal”. We were about the same height, but he usually managed to get himself up under my chin, even going so far as to bump his shoulder against my chest or put a hand on my arm when he was talking to me. I noticed that it was his habit to talk to everyone that way. He liked looking you right in the eyes. That’s just one of the ways Jerry Don showed how much he liked people and why he had such a loving family and so many friends.

When I went to see him at home the first time after hearing that he was not going to survive, he seemed like his usual exuberant self, not much subdued from pain or medication, ignoring the elephant in the room—the forecast of his impending death. I listened to him describe the path his illness had taken, the decisions he had made, the courageous path he had chosen in how to live the last days of his life. 

We were sitting side by side on barstools and when he turned to look at me directly, I asked him if I could tell him a few stories—if I could relate the memories that had flooded my mind and stayed there.  But first, I told him about another friend that I had visited a few years back who was in a similar situation. I admitted that as I drove away after seeing that friend for the last time, I knew he had done more for me than I could ever do for him. 

I had not had any eloquent or soothing words for that friend and I regretted that I did not have any for Jerry. All I had were memories. He asked me to tell the stories. I think they say a lot about Jerry Don Lambert.

The first has to do with the dune buggy he used to own. After being chained to a desk twelve hours a day for twelve weeks of tax season, I always thirsted for the outdoors. Jerry, in his usual generous spirit, always loaned me the Volkswagen he had converted to a dune buggy.

One year, I found a particularly good stretch of off-road to my liking and, exercising what I viewed as superior driving skill, plunged that VW into an embankment, bending at least one wheel. I feared the entire frontend would have to be replaced, definitely repaired.

I got it to the shop, called Jerry, offered profuse apologies and promised to repair the damage. His cheerful response:   “Don’t worry about it, partner. That thing is for having fun. It’s made to take rough treatment.”

Then there was the ping pong tournament. We were in New Mexico on a skiing trip with our families and a few more many years ago and found ourselves in an after-ski place that had a ping pong table. There were four or five of us guys, so I suggested a tournament. Before we started playing, Jerry picked up a paddle that quickly looked like a natural appendage to his arm. He tapped the paddle on the table and said, “I have to warn you, boys. I cut my teeth on a ping pong table”.

I smiled, thinking of the hundreds of lunch periods I had spent in the rec. room of a defense contractor I worked for, playing ping pong, pool and shuffleboard. But we all quickly found that Jerry was not exaggerating. He had cut his teeth on a ping pong table and had lost little or none of his hand-eye coordination.

Jerry played his first hole of golf with me. Neither of us remembers the exact details, but I had a set of cheap clubs, had just finished nine holes and was ready to head home just as dark approached. I saw Jerry in the parking lot and told him he should start playing with me sometime. With his usual enthusiasm, he said, “How about now?”
Well, it was almost dark and he didn’t have any clubs. Not to mention the flip flops he was wearing.

He looked down at his feet and at the rising moon. “Can I borrow your sticks? We’ll have time for at least a couple of holes. With that moon, we might play nine.”

I hit the first ball off the tee to show him how it was done. I cringed a little as he teed up the ball and took a couple of practice swings that seemed dangerously close to his toes. Then he hit one, turned to me and said, “Is that how you do it?”

I winced when I saw his ball in the middle of the fairway about thirty yards past the one I had hit in the rough. “Yep, that’s how you do it.”

He developed this habit of forecasting his shots that I found annoying at first.  What made the habit annoying was that, about half the time, he was right. I quit playing a few years after that. Gave up in frustration. But Jerry kept going.

His golfing buddies tell me that Jerry kept forecasting where the ball was going to go and actually making it go there. Occasionally, he would hit one in the rough and leave himself a really tough lie behind a tree or two. Instead of playing it safe, taking a stroke and punching one out into the fairway and taking a bogey or, in my case, a double bogey, he would take the more difficult path.

“Okay, boys. I’m gonna hook this a little to get past that first tree, make it duck between the two limbs on the second, then fade it right. I figure about three bounces will put me on the edge of the green. With a thirty foot putt, I can get it in for a birdie.” 

His buddies stopped laughing at those predictions a long time ago—because Jerry almost always made the ball perform just as he predicted. He was usually the smallest guy in the group, but hit the ball the longest distance.

My favorite story as we talked was the footrace. Jerry and I compared notes on this story, so if there is anyone here who ran in the footrace or remembers it differently, forever hold your peace. Jerry and I agreed that this is the way it was. 

This story also begins at Sand Hills—also at sunset. A close round of golf had left some young men’s competitive challenges unsettled. Horseplay and boasting soon led to more challenges, more boasts about who was better, stronger and faster. It was too dark to settle their scores playing more golf, so the young men settled on a foot race.

As we recalled, Jerry and I were only spectators up to that point. When we went outside to watch the race, Jerry started to roll up the legs to his jeans. I asked him what he was doing. He said “I’m gonna run in this race.” He sat down on the # 1 tee box and started removing his shoes.

Even I was surprised. “Barefoot? Have you thought about goat heads?” Jerry ignored me as he took off his socks. The race was from the tee box to the green and back as we recalled—a distance of about 700 yards. “Have you looked at these guys? They’re all taller and have longer legs than you. Plus they’re a lot younger.”

He started to limber up. “Yeah, well, I probably won’t win. But I used to be pretty fast barefoot.” I remembered the ping pong remark, but hand-eye coordination is one thing, stamina and running barefoot for long distances is another.

Well, the excitement was surprising and contagious as the runners left the tee box. All of us spectators were caught up in this unplanned event. It was too dark to see the runners touch the flag on the #1 green, but I soon heard the sound of their shoes clomping on the grass on their return from the green to the tee box.

But I could not hear bare feet, so I worried that Jerry might have cut a foot or given up and was walking back. No shame in that, I thought. It was too dark to make them out at first. But, eventually, the dim lights of the parking lot and clubhouse revealed a set of arms pumping, knees going high and strong. I will never forget my surprise (make that shock), when I saw that the guy without shoes was out in front.

Without ever mentioning it, Jerry was a natural at visualization. It helped him in his golf game to verbalize what he saw in his head. He saw himself winning that footrace, too. He used the same technique in hunting and fishing. He saw in his mind, where, when and how he was going to hunt or fish, what type of equipment he was going to use and how he was going to use it. That often resulted in his harvesting the most fish or quail, the buck with the biggest rack. 

The final story has to do with a flat bed trailer. I lived in town in those days, and had no place to park a flat bed trailer, so I didn’t own one. But almost everyone has an occasional need for one. I, along with people from at least four counties, borrowed Jerry’s. I have seen that trailer all over Delta, Hunt, Fannin, and Hopkins counties, often overloaded, always pulled by someone other than Jerry. Sometimes, it came back much the worse for wear. But I never heard Jerry complain about it.

Those other stories exemplify Jerry Lambert’s gregariousness and adventurous spirit, his affectionate nature, his love of people. The trailer exemplifies the man’s kindness and generosity. There are many more examples of all those things. There are dozens of hunting and fishing stories, for example. All of us here today could tell Jerry stories for hours.

One other thing, I don’t recall ever seeing Jerry get angry. I have seen him a little upset, but never just plain mad. He seemed to like people too much to harbor any time of grudge. I am sure there were times and events that I am not aware of, but they must have been rare.

When we finished with the stories that day, Jerry leveled with me about the heartache and struggle facing him, reiterating his long held conviction that material things don’t really matter much when it comes down to it. It’s love that counts, particularly love of family.  He was not ready to say goodbye to Joan, to Derek and Rhonda, to Kim and Joe and their families. And he wanted to see his grandchildren grow up. There were other things he was not ready to give up, but he was determined to make his peace with it.

I know that he had already started checking things off his bucket list. I know that his loving family made it possible for him to check off a few more before departing this life.

It’s obvious to everyone who knew him that Jerry also had a lot of good friends. He and Joan entertained regularly, opening their home to a pretty steady stream of guests. Jerry wasn’t ready to give that up, either.

One of the measurements of a man’s life is the people whose lives he touched in a positive way. By that measure, Jerry Lambert stands tall.

The stories over, our chuckles subsiding, I took his hand to say goodbye. The handshake quickly turned into a hug, our laughter to tears. And as I headed home, I realized that, though my intentions were good, Jerry had done much more for me than I had done for him. I expect that this room is full of folks who can say exactly the same thing about Jerry Lambert. Now that’s a legacy any person would be proud to leave behind.

Immediately after the visit and for all the days since, I use his visualization technique and imagine Jerry talking to me each time I found myself complaining about some task I have to do or some minor misfortune or inconvenience that comes my way.

I vowed to put each of those tasks and misfortunes to what I call the “Jerry Don test”.  Given his situation, would Jerry Don be doing this? Would he worry about this misfortune or laugh at it, recognize it for how little it really matters? He always has a good answer. It’s a test I hope to continue for the rest of my days.

Another part of the legacy of a good, kind, and generous husband, father, grandfather and friend.   

Jerry Don Lambert left us with our memories and a warm feeling in our hearts November 8, 2012.


EarlStubbs said...

Your words make me wish I had known Jerry...Earl Stubbs

Charlotte Hilliard said...

What a beautiful memory.