We Were Friends, Me and This Old Man

One of the main reasons I started smoking cigarettes was because everyone else in my family quit. Everyone except my grandfather.

During family get-togethers, when my parents and aunts and uncles would be in the house, I would sit on the back porch with the old man and have a smoke. He’d tell me army stories, and tales about growing up in Ohio during the Great Depression. He talked about rationing during the Second World War when he was a child, and how he used to hunt rabbits with an old single-shot .22 to help feed his family. He had nine brothers and sisters. Lots of mouths to feed.

He talked about all the times he got in trouble with the local police, or his parents, or his teachers, and how he was eventually kicked out of school when he was seventeen. He told me about joining the army at the start of the Korean War. I loved his stories about basic training.

The old man, as a young, cocky man in the Army

Did I really need to smoke cigarettes to hang out with the old man? Of course not, but it was something we shared. From the time I was a young child, I always had a special connection with my grandfather.

Eventually, we had another unique connection. I joined the Army myself, right before September 11th. I wouldn’t be able to see the old man much over the next four years as I traveled the world from Hawaii, to Thailand, to Iraq. He wrote me three letters, which are probably among the only dozen or so he ever wrote. He started one off with the words, “Dear Nick: I think it’s well past time to get a few lines written. As I told you before I am not into letter writing, sure not a scribe or an author, so excuse the mistakes…” He would go on to tell stories in the letters, stories I had heard a hundred times but never grew tired of, and he would write about his yard, and bitch about the never-ending battle he waged on the gophers that kept tearing it up.

When I was home on leave, we would sit together and swap army stories. We were the only military veterans in my family, with the exception of my paternal grandfather who was a navigator on a bomber in the Pacific theater during WWII. But he died when I was young, maybe ten or eleven.

I called the old man Papo, a name that came from my inability to say “grandpa” as a two year old. It stuck. To all of his grandkids after me, he would be known as Papo. His real name was Richard Lee Wills, Sr.


Home on leave, helping the old man install satellite radio in his car

After I left the Army in 2005, I was able to spend more time with the old man, though not as much as I would have liked. His wife—my grandmother, Mamo—died in 2002. I didn’t like the idea of him being alone; but try as I might, I couldn’t convince him to move to Austin where I lived. So, I made regular trips to Corpus Christi.

He loved being on the coast. We would go fishing on my uncle’s boat, catching reds and trout and flounder, or sometimes nothing at all. We would cook dinner together. He was always a great cook. And, of course, during family events, we would sit on the back porch, and smoke, and talk. These are some of my fondest memories.

Eventually, our back porch “smoking and bullshitting” sessions would come to an end. When I was thirty and he was seventy-eight, Papo was diagnosed with lung cancer and emphysema. He quit smoking immediately and underwent surgery. Part of one of his lungs was removed, and he had a pacemaker put in. He recovered, and while he was still able to get around, still able to drive his car and care for himself, his overall health and happiness seemed to diminish.

Me, Papo and my mom, camping while home on leave. He hated to camp, said he got “enough of that shit in the Army.”

Over the next two years, we would still hang out and bullshit, but we no longer smoked cigarettes. I still smoked, but not around him. I’ll never forget the time Papo looked at me and said, “Goddammit, Nick…I wish I’d never started smoking.”

He would hound me to quit every time we got together. I think he somehow felt guilty about my unhealthy habit, but he shouldn’t have. I made the choice to smoke. Eventually, a few years later, I would quit, but he wouldn’t be around to see it.

Great-Grandfather Papo

I was finishing up at work one day in January of 2012, when I got a phone call from my mom. As soon as I heard her voice I knew he was gone, even before she said the words, “Nick, your Papo died about an hour ago.”

My cousin and I went on a bit of a bender that night, killing a handle of Jameson and swapping stories about the old man until the early hours of the morning. I went to work a couple hours later with one of the worst hangovers of my life and somehow got through the day. I could have called in sick, but the old man wouldn’t have done that. So, of course, neither would I.

I have my own children now, and they have their own “Mamo and Papo,” except they’re called Grandma and Gramps. It turns out that my amazing parents are also amazing grandparents. I look forward to my son, James, sitting on a back porch somewhere with my dad, swapping their own stories. Without the smoking, of course. And, hopefully, without the Army service, as well.

I am extremely lucky. I’ve had so many great male role models in my life–my dad, my uncles, and of course, the old man. And while I, too, now wish that I had never started with the cigarettes, I wouldn’t trade the time we spent together, smoking, talking, and forming a bond that has helped shape me into the man I am today. I have big shoes to fill. My dad and my grandfather are two of the most amazing people I’ve known, and while I haven’t accomplished everything I’ve set out to do in my life—who has?—I still like to think the old man would be proud.

I miss Papo. But I don’t get too sad when I think about him. My memories are all happy memories. He lived a full life, a good life, and was surrounded by people he loved and who loved him. And in the end, eighty years isn’t a bad run. We should all be so lucky.

Author: Nick Allison is just a banged-up Army Infantry vet of the War in Iraq. He lives in Austin, TX with his wife, their children and two big, dumb, ugly mongrel dogs. Don’t take anything he says too seriously… he’s just trying to figure out this ride we call existence like everyone else. Also, he enjoys writing his own bio in third-person, because it probably makes him feel more important.

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