The 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” is one of my favorites. It covers the span in U.S. history from the late 40’s to the late 60’s where we were fascinated with the possibilities of space travel. The movie follows the Gemini astronauts and the early supersonic test pilots, including Chuck Yeager, who set various records for speed and altitude in high-performance jets. (And today, even at 94, is still an ornery character on Twitter, @GenChuckYeager)
Toward the end of the film, Yeager’s character, played with his usual stoic and low-key intensity by Sam Shepard, “borrows” an experimental plane in an attempt to set the world altitude record. After setting the record, Shepard’s plane breaks up and he ejects from what seems like a million miles up in the sky. As he plummets to earth, one of his pilot pals on the ground sees the crash and jumps into an ambulance with a young Air Force medic and they race toward the smoke.
Out of the haze, the ambulance driver spots a man wearing a silver flight suit, covered in oil and soot, walking toward them and carrying his parachute. The medic says to Yeager’s colleague, “Sir! Look! Is that a man?” Yeager’s friend shouts, “You’re damn right it is!”
My grandfather, Jorma “Jerry” Pulkka, was not a test pilot or a lion tamer or a war hero; but he was a man. But to say he was just a man is to minimize his life down to a label. He was so much more than a man.
Jorma Pulkka was born in Finland in 1910. He came to this country in 1927, by way of the Ellis Island immigration wave, and settled in Lainesville, Massachusetts. He graduated from Lainesville High School and married his first wife, who was the sister of the wife of his brother, Kal Pulkka. He joined the US Army in 1943, after his daughter, my mother, was born. Jerry served in France during WWII and returned home as a sergeant to Baltimore in 1946. In 1961, he married his second wife, Nelma, also from Finland. She was his true love and they stayed together in life and in spirit, until his death in 1990 and hers in 1994.
Grandpa Jerry lived well and long in his 80 years here. He touched many, in ways that can’t always be explained or measured. If you look at our family photos of him, they seem as if they are all slightly out of focus. It’s not the camera; he literally had a glow.
Our lives are a collection of little moments; small intersections and interactions with others that combine to form a picture that is either complete or incomplete. Grandpa Jerry’s life was fully complete and the memories he left grow stronger as I consider them.
I have often said to myself, “I wish more of him had rubbed off on me. I wish more of how he was is more of how I am.” One story, of many, helps to illustrate his humanity and his Zen-like patience and ability to see the moment and live in it.
In 1953, when my second cousin was 12 years old, he was sitting in Grandpa Jerry’s car, doing what most pre-teen boys do when they’re in the driver’s seat, which was playing with all of the knobs, controls, and buttons. Back in that era, Grandpa Jerry drove a car that had a column-mounted stick shift. The design was a typical of that day: H-shaped, four-speed, plus reverse, mounted on the righthand side of the steering wheel. Using the clutch (for those of your under 30, ask your parents what that third pedal on the left side of the floorboard was for) and this righthand gear shift lever, you could get your car out of the driveway and up the road.
While this type of transmission went the way of the manual (or the electric, for that matter) typewriter and the Betamax video tape (ask your parents again), they were what people used to shift the transmission gears on their cars back then.
As my cousin was fiddling with the gear shift lever, he snapped it off. I can’t imagine the look of terror that must have crossed his young face. First, he had just broken off a vital part of Grandpa Jerry’s car. Second, they were supposed to go to the beach in Ocean City, Maryland that day. Third, now the beach trip was in jeopardy because not only did the car suddenly not work, but he was sure Grandpa Jerry would be so angry at him, that they wouldn’t go to the shore. (And as a fifth and perhaps side note, if my cousin had broken the gearshift lever off of his father’s car – my Uncle Kal – he was sure to get more than yelled at. Kal was a giant of man, with a booming voice and the personality to match.)
Grandpa Jerry came upon the young man crying in the car and soon discovered the root of his wailing. “Dry your tears,” he said. “Let’s go down to the auto parts store.”
Grandpa Jerry got a screwdriver from his toolbox, shoved it into the broken gear shift hole, and managed to limp the car over to the auto parts store, a few miles away. He and my cousin went inside to spoke to the counter man, who said, “Well, we have that replacement model, but it’s not stainless steel like this one. We only have the chrome model and it’s a bit more expensive.”
Grandpa Jerry paid the man for the chrome gearshift lever and he and my cousin sat in the parking lot as he made the repair on his car. “Look at that,” said Grandpa Jerry, with admiration, “it works perfectly. And this one is shiny and chromed, so it’s a big improvement on the old one. We actually made out better in the deal.”
“Are we still going to the beach?” asked my cousin, hopefully. “Of course we are,” said Grandpa Jerry, and they drove to Ocean City to spend the day in the sand and water, just as he had promised.
Imagine how you would feel if you came out to your car and discovered your kid had snapped off any part of it. Imagine again that you had told that same child not to mess with your car, and in fact, not to touch anything inside or outside the car, or ever even sit in the driver’s seat. If that scenario had happened to me, my yelling at my daughter would have only stopped after I lost my voice to laryngitis (or the cops arrived to see what all the fuss was about).
And yet for Grandpa Jerry, he was able to see the situation for exactly what it was, a young kid who made a mistake. The solution involved a quick trip to the auto parts store, a few dollars, and an easy repair. His ability to see the good in this event (“the new one is better than the old one, so we’re ahead of the game”) was coupled with keeping his promise: “Let’s go to the beach.”
Throughout history, the Zen masters have spoken of life as a collection of moments. They have asked us all, in the ancient and modern eras, to take the good out of each of life’s little moments. Have to wash a sinkful of dirty dishes? What’s good about that particular moment? The water is warm and soapy; the dishes go from dirty to clean because of you; you probably just had a nice meal; and you can think about more important life issues while you do them, because it’s not a high-motor skill concentration activity. The time from start to finish is not long and you can daydream.
Walking to your mail box, it’s easy to feel the dread of bills, bills, and more bills. Why not change that dynamic and think, “Checks, checks, checks” all the way to the box? And if the box was filled with junk mail (a term Grandpa Jerry didn’t use; as a 30-year USPS employee, all mail was precious to him), then as he and the Zen masters would say, “If there are no checks, then at least be thankful there were no bills.”
What is good about each moment you are in, as you are experiencing it? What good can you find (however small or even doubtful it may be at first) with the people around you? Can you be more like a Zen master and live your life like Grandpa Jerry did it, enjoying the people and situations around you, even when things are not always perfect.
Dr. Steve Albrecht is a keynote speaker, author, podcaster, and consultant. He focuses on high-risk employee issues, coaching, and training. In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English. He is board certified in HR, security, coaching, and threat management. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 17 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht