Sunday, September 7, 2014

(February 27, 1925 – September 3, 2014)

The Good Do Not Always Die Young

 An extraordinary man has left us. Perhaps he was more extraordinary to me than to others. He was my friend and more importantly my mentor. He was the man who taught me with great humor how to enjoy a Cuban cigar a very dry Martini, bridge, the theater and most importantly, good food in good restaurants how to embrace life to its fullest.
“Pat” Grissom was wounded in World War Two by a German bullet on March 26, 1945 in the village of Lamperthiem. He remained in a wheelchair thereafter. If that were all there were to say about him, it would be enough. Yet for the then twenty year old farmer from Syracuse Kansas there was so much more.
I met Pat in 1967. For reasons known only to him he decide I was one worth saving and we became great friends and over the next fifteen years I was regaled by his wonderful stories always told with the loudest voice in the room and the best sense of humor as well. I’m not sure I ever saw Pat mad. I’m not at all sure he knew how to be. He could find humor in the most awful situations.

One of the stories he loved to tell was about being in the field hospital after he was shot. Pat was stricken by the anxiety of how he was going to tell his family that the bullet severed his spine since he could not at that point imagine how he could have a wound in his back unless he was running away from the gunfire. Finally, he screwed up the courage to ask the doctor why the hole was there. “Oh,” He said, “That’s the exit wound, you were only shot once,” pointing to the wound in his side, “that’s where it entered. The other will heal in a few days.” At this point in the story, Pat would throw back his head and with a great laugh of self-deprecation, exclaim his relief that he needn't explain it at all.
For a time Pat was the third National President of a nascent group of veterans with spinal cord injuries. He was one of the few I knew who lived until last Wednesday that could claim he picketed the Truman White House for better benefits for returning war veterans. While he was president of The Paralyzed Veterans of America, he helped get Congress to pass the first accessible housing grant legislation. It gave all veterans who used wheelchairs a $10,000 grant to build the ramps and modify existing homes or build new ones without obstacles. He built his own on Sunburst Street in the San Fernando Valley soon thereafter. He lived there the rest of his life until he became a long term care patient at the Long Beach Veterans Medical Center.
While he was busy with his trips to the Hollywood Bowl, The Amundsen Theater, and visiting friends in Malibu, and understanding life and its possibilities far better than most of us, he managed to survive two major earthquakes. The first destroyed the old San Fernando VA hospital where he got his post hospital care and the second the Northridge quake, destroyed his house while he was sleeping in it. When the noise stopped he said, and the dust settled, he realized that the wall to his room was gone, the fireplace lay in the yard nearly intact, and he was gazing out on the street in the dark of the early morning. His garage and his house guest survived so they drove his van to a friend’s house just a few miles away which had hardly any damage where, by his description, he remained a “homeless veteran” for the next year while he rebuilt. By then I was living elsewhere and called a few days after the event. His message machine was miraculously intact and I assumed my friend was well and safe. He wasn’t obviously, and without any thought that anyone might have been worried about him, he threw the machine away without ever retrieving the full message tape.

There is neither space nor time to tell all the Grissom stories. He lived too long for that. He was a legend. He was a technical advisor and crowd member along with 45 other veterans in a 1950 Stanley Cramer movie which starred Jack Webb and Marlon Brando. The Men proved to be important at the time, much as “The Best Years of Their Lives” was since it raised the public’s awareness to the problems faced in re-entering society by seriously wounded veterans.
In those early years in the Birmingham VA hospital before all the spinal cord patients were moved to Long Beach, Pat and the rest were visited by more movie stars than family. Seeing Robert Mitchum walk down the hall was not a particularly big deal on a Saturday afternoon. He and the others who experienced it would tell those of us he always called  “the young pups” about these and so many things there is as I said, neither time or space to relate them all.
Suffice to say that men like Patterson Grissom do come this way often. They are special people, made more so by their ability to adapt to the new life they found when they came home.

I once suggested that he was the most “rehabilitated” man I ever met during a discussion about how to define that term. I still believe he was despite the fact that he worked only two months after the war in a lawn mower shop, but could recite Supreme Court citations and the latest Johnny Carson joke with equal alacrity. He was an educated man because he made himself one and yet he rode the train every summer back to the farm in Syracuse Kansas to visit his parents for many years after he was injured.
He was a man of remarkable talent and fortitude who I am sure was smiling before he went to sleep for the last time Wednesday night at the age of 89.

I will miss him even though we haven’t seen each other in a long time. I was one of many he helped see life as a better place. I thank him for that as do so many others he helped in his quiet and gentle way. May he rest peacefully now, perhaps with a good Havana and a very dry Martini nearby.

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