“…You know, feelin’ good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee.” (1969) “Me and Bobby McGee” Composer: Kris Kristofferson
(This is my first time using the new block editor. Forgive me if this post falls short in format.)
It was August of 1961 in Berlin, Germany. My uncle, 21 year old, Bobby Atherton, guarded his post as a proud American Army soldier, keeping an eye on the barbed wire, followed by the concrete. Piece by piece he observed the Berlin wall being built, separating east and west Germany. It was a horrific time for the German people, and others. His heart broke when individuals ran across areas not yet walled up only to be captured or shot dead where they stood. When ordered, he was often the driver of the jeep transporting the generals from one place to another during this world-shaking event. With his rifle slung over his shoulder, he would daydream about his home back in Texas, his wife and his baby boy, Woody. He spent 3-4 years there before coming home safely into the loving arms of his family.
Some thirty years later, my mom (his baby sister) and I, gave him a ping-pong ball sized piece of the Berlin Wall. It was a part of the rubble left behind when the wall came down in November of 1991. I will always recall seeing his eyes fill with tears as he held his gift and thought back on those trying times in Berlin.
I don’t remember his army days as I, and his son, Woody, were just toddlers at the time. That is not to say my mind and heart isn’t full of precious memories of him. I could spend a few pages writing down mental video clips with Bob Atherton as the headlining star. Most of them surround his willingness to serve. He knew what servanthood meant when the rubber hit the road. He was incredibly intelligent, especially in the arena of mechanics, electronics, and computers. He brought those talents to his parents house whenever something needed repairing, replacing, or removing. You could say he was the handyman for my grandparents, especially as the years took their toll. He was always there at a moments notice.
Although he had a soft heart, most just witnessed his well-known rough exterior. I remember being a bit afraid of him when I was a kid. He was loving, but he also knew when to lower the boom if he thought the boom should be lowered. He was tough on his two sons, Woody and Little Bobby. Frankly, as I got to be a teen, I felt he was too tough on my cousins. But let me be clear, he was never abusive. Being without a dad, I always looked up to him. He always made it easier hearing him call me, “son” all my life.
Once or twice the very blunt pastor of their church offended him. At some point, he made the decision to abstain from church services, but never leaving his personal faith in Jesus as The Savior. So, it was the norm to see him drive my Aunt Ellen to church on Sundays, then waiting in the church parking lot for her to make her exit when services concluded. You might say he was always a sensitive sort, much like me, which often caused him to run from the church and its pulpit politics. Jesus wasn’t into preacher’s politics, and Bob wasn’t either.
Through their 61 year marriage, my Aunt Ellen developed many, many heath issues. Her husband, Bob was incredibly loyal, with the heart of a nurse. Throughout the decades he took great care of her, tending to her every need. Those needs were many. From doctors visits, to cooking meals, whatever she needed, he was Bobby-On-The-Spot. Around 1988, or so, she was hit with a stroke. They placed her in a Dallas hospital just a few blocks from the radio station I worked for at the time. I recall getting off the air and rushing to the hospital where I would find Bob sitting in her room, or outside in the hallway all by himself. I returned each day she was there, spending some excellent quality time bonding with my uncle for the first time ever. It was a dark time in their lives, yet our relationship brightened.
A few short years ago, he grappled with throat cancer. Not too long after he won that battle, he began to slip into dementia, followed by full-blown Alzheimer’s, just like his mom before him. Suddenly he was the one in need. While in the jaws of this long-goodbye disease, his throat cancer returned to my already weakened uncle. The family had watched my grandmother go through the stages of Alzheimer’s over a span of some 14 years. We knew what to expect, what to look for, what to prepare for. The disease is so unkind, and certainly not a respecter of persons. It was so hard watching this strong, healthy, old soldier waste away.
Yet, at the same time, his loving kindness broke through the shackles of this disease. It was amazing to witness. One of the aspects was his displays of affection. He so loved just holding your hand if you were within reach.
Over the last couple of years Bob enjoyed sitting out on the front porch just watching the cars go by. He had a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles over the decades, taking cross-country road trips. Any time one rumbled by, his eyes would sparkle and shine.
Alas, I have another cousin I don’t talk much about. From his teenage years he turned to drugs and crime for his life. He has been in and out of county jail and/or prison so many times I have lost count. He has been known to steal money and property from his own parents, grandparents, and even yours truly. He is abusive and untrustworthy. He can, and has been been violent. He can be a great con artist when it suits him. He is good at using people. But most of all, now at 50 years old, he has rubbed his life and mind away with his choice of lifestyle. One day, while my uncle sat in his chair out on the porch, along with his loving daughter-in-law (who is one of his care-givers) this particular cousin walked down the street, fresh out of jail once again, and stopped at the house when he recognized his ailing uncle out on the porch. He took the opportunity to cross the lawn to approach our mutual uncle. He asked for a glass of water. At this point of the scene, I should tell you my Uncle Bob was at a stage where he didn’t recognize most extended family members. Not to mention, his crime-ridden nephew had aged a lot, even to the point of being unrecognizable to many of us. When Bob greeted this stranger on foot, he reacted by getting up, went in the house and retrieved a glass of water for his long-lost nephew. I am happy to say, my cousin, for whatever reason, drank the water, handed the glass back to him and walked away without causing any trouble. Shortly after, Bob sat down and went to sleep.
For Bob Atherton, even in the firm grasp of Alzheimer’s, all he saw was a tired, worn man who asked for a glass of water, water he knew he could give. It’s just fascinating to me that even while on his way to the final stage of this devastating killer disease, Bob Atherton saw a need and felt the call to fill it. Even then. Part of me wants to say the Uncle Bob I knew would have recognized his con artist nephew and would’ve briskly shown him the curb. The other part of me wants to say he wouldn’t have been able to refuse his nephew a glass of water. (He might’ve returned to the porch with a glass of water in one hand and a pistol in the other.) Nevertheless, Bob didn’t allow a concrete wall to divide his heart when he saw a need which required kindness, humility, and a helping hand.
We lost Uncle Bob to this disease a few days ago, August the 8th, at 81 years old while asleep in his bedroom. He had an appointment, and he kept it. Strike up the band. Another soldier went home.
This quiet strong man taught this fatherless boy many things without even realizing it. I have seen too much when it comes to the righteous meeting death. I have learned it is possible to show a heart of humility toward others even when the mind is gone.
The day he passed, I wrote a quick tribute on my Facebook page. My cousin Woody read it aloud at the graveside service. It reads like this…
“Some are kind, but stern. Some are courageous, but quiet. Some are loving by action, but sharp when needed. Some are wise, but hesitant to reveal it. Some are highly intelligent, but unwilling to boast or parade. Some have been filled with compassion, but unwilling to showcase deeds. Some are warmly welcoming, but won’t hesitate to show the exit door when appropriate. Some shed tears for others, but do so privately to God. Such a man was my Uncle Bob Atherton. Oh, if I could only measure up.”
A life well lived begins with fuel for the race.
“Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:7-8 (NAS)