The funniest thing happened today while I was in my Mom’s office for lunch—my grandparents dropped in unannounced. For exactly a week now, I have been writing and re-writing the intro to my grandpa’s interview without any satisfaction to publish it. I had just been complaining about it to my aunt, when the door opened and I saw my grandparents. I was ecstatic.
The reason my grandparents stopped by was so that my uncle could fill out a time sheet (if you haven’t guessed it by now—yes, it’s a family business). So while my aunt was helping him with that, I began asking my Grandpa questions in hopes to be inspired to write.
“Do you remember when you retired from the Naval Base?” I asked.
“What?” He answered.
I repeated myself.
“Oh, I don’t remember,” he said. For some reason, it’s been hard to pin-point the exact age my grandpa retired. As a kid, I remember riding along with my grandma when she took him to work at the Naval base, so I know he worked well into his 70’s. But the exact year our field trips ceased has become somewhat of a mystery, like most of my grandpa’s life.
“I think it was the 80’s. Wait, the base closed in ’98 I believe,” my Grandpa continued.
“Shoot Grandpa, I don’t remember.”
“You must have retired in the ’90’s then.”
“So what are you doing today?” I asked trying to change the subject.
“Awe, nothing. Can’t work, can’t make no money.”
I laughed. He continued on about the base, “It had to be sometime in between then.”
“Between ’88 and ’98? You worked all the way into your 70’s, right? That’s what I’m trying to get at.”
“I thought so. That’s what I was going to write.”
Right then, my Grandma yelled, “Jana, just go ahead and bring him home when you’re done.”
I turned around just in time to see her hobbling out the back door with cane in hand. “Grandpa, you better go,” I said while laughing, “She’s gonna leave you.”
My Grandpa grinned, scooted off his stool and ran out the door after her. As he closed the door my aunt and I started cracking up.
“That’s just like Grandma,” I said. “She can’t handle it when Grandpa gets more attention than her.”
“I know,” my aunt agreed.
“She’s so funny. She didn’t even say bye. That’s so classic.”
A few minutes later the door cracked open and we heard, “Bye bye. We’ll see ya’ll later.” Although we couldn’t see her, there was no mistaking that it was my grandma. We laughed hysterically.
“It’s that. How do I capture that in writing?” I said while raising my hands.
“You can’t,” my aunt replied. And so I think she’s right. My grandparents have this amazing understanding of each other. I have to imagine it is the true definition of love because they’ve lived like this for 53 years.
My Grandpa wrote this lyric, “You can eat all the turkey you want, but don’t flap your wings.” It makes no sense when I look at it in print, but when my grandpa sings it out loud—like he has done to me for my entire life—it doesn’t matter because I know what he means by it. It means that things will be OK and not to worry and so I listen to him.
This interview makes me laugh out loud for all of the reasons above—it’s simple, profound, entertaining and of course, close to my heart. Enjoy!
Jana: Grandpa, would it be OK if I interviewed you?
Grandpa: For what? What do you mean? You want to ask me questions?
Grandma: He’s gonna need to go change his clothes. [I am not as good as my grandfather in ignoring my grandmother’s comments and so, I have included some of them in italics.]
No he doesn’t need to change his clothes; it’s only a voice recorded interview. And yes Grandpa, I want to ask you questions.
Grandma: You don’t want to interview me; I’ve had too many strokes. My memory’s not so good.
Would that be OK?
Last year, we found out your turned 91-years old, not 90. How did we forget about one year of your life?*
On my birth certificate I’m 91.
I know, but why did we think you were 90?
I didn’t think I was 90.
Then why did I? What happened to that year?
Well, it was the military. Their records don’t change; they stay the same.
So the military’s records were wrong?
How can that be?
When I went into the military I told them [my birth date was] April, 2 1917. I didn’t have no birth certificate.
And they took your word for it?
Yeah. They put it in the records. You know what I mean?
Yeah. But how come you didn’t have your birth certificate?
That was back in the old days … people didn’t know what it was.
What do you think has changed the most in your life time?
[Pauses] My age has changed quite a bit.
[Laughs] Do you think things have changed for the betterment of society?
Oh yes. A lot of people can get around. Knowledge can build your way of thinking.
If you could go back in time, where would you go?
Some of those places I’ve been before [like] Germany or Korea. I would do a lot of traveling if my age was younger.
Grandma: He’s tired of me and ready to go.
I’d look for better things in life; spend more time in education.
Did you finish school?
What grade did you top out in?
Then what did you do after school?
I’d take walks.
You’d take walks? What else did you do like … for fun?
Volleyball? You liked to play volleyball?
Did you like music?
Oh yeah. I’d tried to write songs and stuff like that.
Did you ever go to any concerts?
What kind of music did you listen to?
You’ve told me you were an orphan. When, where and how did your parents die?
Well, I don’t remember much. I think my mother died of Rheumatism. That Rheumatism will kill you.
How old were you?
I was about 4-years-old. I guess I must have been 10, 8 or 9 when my daddy died.
What did he die from?
I guess old age.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I think [pauses] nine.** I was the youngest.
So where did you go to live after your parents deaths?
I stayed with some people … in Alabama.
Grandma: They put you in an orphan home Ruben.
Were they your foster parents?
Yeah, he was a farmer. He had corn and stuff like that.
When was the last time you spoke to them?
What did you talk about?
They didn’t have too much to say. I left them for the military.
When did you join the service?
September 16, 1935
Why did you join the service?
I got a little knowledge. How we lived—on a big ole farm—we didn’t have much. I looked up at the sky one day and said, “Forty years from now, will I be like that old man sharecropper?” And something came in my mind, “If you don’t do something with your life, you will.”
Huh. You mentioned you’d like to go back to Germany and Korea and that’s because you served there in World War II and Vietnam. Which place do you remember the most?
Germany, I guess.
Did you think that war was necessary?
You mean World War II? Yes.
Did you know what you were fighting for?
What was your position in Germany?
What did you do as a sergeant?
A little of everything. [I was] head of the company; we worked on trucks.
Have you kept in touch with anyone from those times?
Not recently. I had some friends when I came back from Germany and Korea.
Grandma: Ruben, two of your good buddies got killed.
What was it like in World War II?
What was it like? A constant roar of guns … and fighting—night and day. The first army invasion was the toughest part, over 3,000 were killed.
Did you ever fear for your life?
No, I never worried too much about it. I kept that out of my mind as much as possible.
Was your role in the Korean War the same?
Pretty much the same.
What was different?
I was in heavy maintenance there. We pulled tanks off the front and worked on them. We were about 4-miles from the front line. You could hear grenades and guns going off all the time, all around you.
What are your thoughts about the war we are in now?
Well, the war we’re in now is something particular. In other words, it’s something beyond figuring out I guess. I think it’s gonna kick into World War III … as long as nations make war material, they’re gonna fight.
When did you meet Grandma?
[Laughs] That’s a long story.
Well we have a long time.
Let’s see I met her … it was back, way back—‘43 wasn’t it? ‘44? I believe it was back in ‘42. Yeah I seen her, but I was somewheres else.
Grandma: Oh shh, nobody don’t know about that.
Where did you see her?
At her church. We started conversation; I guess love is inside.
How did you know you wanted to marry her?
I messed up so many times in life; I figured I’d be right after a while. [Laughs]
How did you get her to marry you?
You got to ask to receive.
You’ve been married now for 53 years, what is the secret to staying together?
You got to give and take. If I say something she don’t like; I change it back.
So basically, you just tell her what she wants to hear?
Yeah. [Laughs] That’s a pretty good interview, isn’t it?
Are there any words of wisdom you can give us?
Wisdom is knowledge. Knowledge and wisdom work together.What’s the key to having a happy, successful life?
Doin’ the right thing and staying out of trouble. And don’t go with trash; you’ll become the same thing.
What have you taught your kids and grandkids?
I tried to teach them to do the right thing.
Are you where you thought you’d be at this age?
I never thought I’d be this age. I mean, I figured I’d live to [the year] 2000.
Well, you better make some new goals since you’ve flown right past that.
What do you spend your time doing now?
I walk around. I work in the yard and get a little exercise.
Since I can remember, you’ve played the lotto each week. What has been your biggest win?
I don’t remember right off hand.
Grandma: Don’t you remember that big ticket-tale you have?
I messed up on one number or I would have had thousands.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
Well, I’d stay normal.
What about all that money?
I’d put it in the bank.
What’s the bank going to do with all that money?
It’d get interest. You can make more on it that way.
Interest? How long do you plan on living for?
Let’s see, I’ll be 92—so 102.
You have ten more years left in you? Well there you go, bank away.
Have you accomplished everything you wanted to in life?
No, I could’ve accomplished more.
Is there anything else you’d like to do, but haven’t yet?
There’s a lot of things I wanna do, but can’t. I can’t play ball.
Have you tried to play ball lately?
So then how do you know you can’t do it?
The doctor said I can’t lift more than 5 pounds.
[Laughs] I don’t think a ball weighs 5 pounds.
It makes your blood pressure go up.
True. Well you should listen to your doctor.
Yeah, he says that’s what I got to do to get to a 100 and keep my health.
I am going to name a few words. Can you tell me what comes to mind when I say them? For example, food—what is your first thought when I say food?
Eat …egg pudding.
Grandma: Awe shhh. I haven’t cooked egg pudding in years.
How about money?
It don’t worry my mind cause I’m gettin’ along.
Purple’s your favorite color?
Take everyday one day at a time. Don’t worry about death because it’ll come anyway.
Love never stops. Love will always be here as long is God is around.
As long as the world is here there will be work.
Music is a good way a life; turn on a record—it’ll impress you.
Like drawing? I don’t know too much about it but I guess it’s a good thing to know.
Could be better.
What do you have planned for tomorrow?
I got plans today, not tomorrow, because tomorrow might not come.
Well, what are your plans for the rest of today?
I might watch some TV later, like the news.
Grandma: I’ll tell you what he’s gonna do, he’s gonna sit in his chair.
I’ll take a nap.
Interview Date: 11/6/07
* Last year, my family discovered that my grandfather was one year and ten-days older than everyone thought. The discovery of the extra year came from the dire need of a cruise ship to have his birth certificate before he could board. With the unwillingness of Royal Caribbean to accept the main source of his identity for the past seventy-four years, his Military ID, we were pressed to search for a document we never knew existed. Surprisingly, a birth certificate did exist in Bledsoe County, a very small town in Tennessee. Even more shocking was that the certificate proved his prior records wrong. It stated Ruben Skyles was born April 12, 1916, not April 2, 1917 like his Military ID suggested.
The reason for the inconsistency, come to find out, was that my grandfather told the military the wrong birth date when he had enlisted. Unfortunately, both of his parents died when he was very young, and so it seems, his facts became confused during the shuffle between orphanages and foster care. If I know my Grandpa, like I believe I do, I doubt he even asked about his well-being since he tends to not pry into affairs, even ones that concern himself. He probably just did (and believed) what he was told—something I have a hard time wrapping my head around because I seem to have an innate need to know as much as possible about everything.
**According to the Bledsoe Census, my grandfather did indeed have nine siblings. It’s amazing he can recollect this as they are much, much older than him (and no longer around today).