Hall of Fame aviator, patrol captain, musician, husband, father...often so many titles can be attributed to one person. My grandfather is one of these people. Sensitive, but stubborn as a mule, kind, but the family patriarch who you'd better listen to — that's my grandfather. To me he's Papa, but to most everyone else he's Wendall Gibson of Barnwell, S.C., and one of my absolute favorite people in the world.
My grandparents have always been an active part of my life. Growing up, I shared with them a typical grandparent-grandchild relationship, which was wonderful. But when I was 22 years old, that changed.
After college graduation I spent a month with my grandparents — much longer than your typical week-at-grandma's visit. During that time, I got to know my grandparents as much more than just relatives — I learned about who they were as people and more importantly, I discovered them as two of my best friends. It may sound like nothing, but to me, it's one of the greatest blessings I've ever received.
I've had the joy of being there through ups and downs, hilarious adventures and the everyday activities of life. I try to return to my South Carolina roots as often as possible. Recently, a friend asked me, "What do you do there?" I thought to myself, "It's not about what you do, but who you're with that's important!" We don't have to do anything special - taking the dog for a ride in the truck or golf cart will be just fine. Today, I'll be there again when my Papa celebrates his 80th birthday.
My grandmother has already passed that milestone. She's a little older but has always been small and petite. Papa loves to tell the story about their "courting days" when he took her to the county fair. At the gate he was charged admission for one adult and one child! They have shared 60 years of marriage together and love each other more every day. I have to say, that's nice to see — and something very rare these days. I read a portion of Papa's diary that he kept as a teenager. After a date with my future grandmother, he wrote, "I really think she's beginning to love me!" Yes, Papa, she was, and she loves you even more today.
My grandfather has taught me a lot and I love that I have had the privilege of learning from him. He's been a pilot for over 60 years and has shown me the basics of flying — he calls me his last student pilot. A moment I'll remember for the rest of my life is flying above the earth with him as he said, "Those who don't fly just don't realize how beautiful this earth really is."
He is also a very intelligent man, but he misplaces everything, most often his teeth. My poor grandmother has searched the house, cars and trash countless times searching for that small paper towel bundle which holds something very valuable. And, bless his heart, Papa can't hear very well. When someone once suggested he get a hearing aid, I piped up, "It would just be something else for him to lose!" My grandmother aptly replied, "Ain't that the truth!" Papa finally did break down and order one he saw on television, but I have yet to see him wear it because he says it "makes too much noise."
He can repair anything and from him I've learned more about creativity and innovation in using what I have available to get the job done. One of the greatest compliments I've ever received was when he told me I was like my mother because I could do a little bit of everything. But, it's not me — it's them; he and my mother have passed their skills down through the generations. Papa is the one who taught me how to use a drill and a power saw, how to jack up a car and replace the brake fluid in an airplane — which I have to say, I can do pretty well now!
Of his accomplishments, and there have been many which the world would applaud, his greatest joy is always his wife and family. I'm proud to be a part of that heritage.
Today my Papa turns 80, and I want to help him celebrate. To him, it's just another day, but to my family, it's very special. We all want to give back to the man who has given so much to us. So we'll have a big family gathering and then I'll take a ride with him in the golf cart, listening to him reminisce about the day. Whatever we do, it's gonna be great. Happy Birthday, Papa!