Live Long

We talk about people who live high and others who have low lives. For a moment let’s change the measurements from vertical to horizontal. I’m advocating a long life is better than a short one, and like the high and low measures, I’m using the terms metaphorically; not in years, but in perspective.

My friend Nad Brown related this experience in a church talk. “Back in 1965 on an airline flight from Denver to Salt Lake City, I saw a handsome young soldier notice a mother trying to arrange her seat space for the needs of her baby. The seat beside the soldier was empty, so he asked the mother if she would like to exchange seats. She gratefully did.”

Nad said he was touched by that gesture. The soldier was a credit to himself, his family, and his country. “I promised myself that when the plane landed, I would compliment and thank that young man.”

Nad never got the chance. At the Salt Lake airport the pilot misjudged. The plane landed hard, caught fire. Some of the passengers died from smoke inhalation; among them the soldier.  The woman and her baby survived. Obviously, so did Nad. He later checked with the airline, and found the soldier was Douglas Reid from Payson, Utah.

When I heard that story a memory flashed back to me, and I instinctively sat up in my seat.  I grew up with Doug Reid.  I never knew a straighter arrow of a boy. He sat straight, stood straight, talked straight, and lived straight.  He was in our church ward (congregation), and no one ever wore a Sunday suit, a scholar’s robes, or the uniform of his country with more respect and honor than did he.  He even sat with his spine glued to the back of the chair in Boy Scout meetings, six feet on the floor, (including his two.)  To the rest of us wigglers, pokers, gigglers and chair tippers this was self control beyond belief.  For all this he was not sanctimonious or even overly serious. He was looking ahead to where his present actions would lead him. He was planning his work and working his plan, and his conduct and character showed it. He also reaped the rewards of that approach to life.  He quietly excelled in the present because he had previously laid groundwork, and also because he was setting his path for the future.  At 31 years old one might say he did not live a long life, but one would be wrong. He lived long, not in years, but in perspective.

He looked backward and forward with a long perspective, and made his current decisions accordingly.  Eagle Scout, honor student, model soldier; he achieved each goal while planning for the next one.  He developed his talents so that when he needed skills they were ready.  He lived up to an honorable moral code and thus married a woman with the same values and created a strong and lasting family.  His influence was lengthened by his children who grew up with stories of his example to guide them.  Along his journey through life he remembered to share his time, his convenience, his seat space or whatever else he had. That’s what I call living a long life.

I have other friends who are living short lives, responding to the near term needs and pleasures of the moment, with little or no thought for the future. Instead of gaining ten years experience every decade they get one year’s experience ten times.

The most successful people I know have lengthened their perspective out even beyond the veil we call death, and are living accordingly.  From my observation, Doug Reid was one of those.  I suspect that had he foreseen the effects of his trading seats that day he would have thought, “Shall I save the lives of a mother and her baby, or shall I look out for my own safety?”  He might have remembered the words of one who made that decision on a cosmic scale; the master of perspective who said, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.”  (Luke 17:33)  Doug Reid would have made the long decision, and traded a short term on earth for an exalted life in eternity.

The Millenium Falcons Among Us

Luke, “What a piece of junk.”

Han, “She’s got it where it counts kid.”

Han Solo talking to Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.”

Making Han Solo’s space ship a beat up hot rod instead of a gleaming Ferrari was a piece of pure genius. It immediately grabbed every guy like me who had tried to turn an ancient relic into a hot rod, or a custom sports car. In high school I ran out of skill, money, and time to translate my dream into reality. But like Pharaoh’s daughter when she found Moses floating in the reed basket, I am in denial. (Sorry can’t pass up a pun.) I still have the 1939 Mercury tucked away in case I inherit a fortune; suddenly discover I am the Michelangelo of the welding torch, and the body hammer; and invent the 36-hour day.

But for people who have not dedicated a portion of their youth to car daydreams, the Millenium Falcon also strikes subliminal chords. The ship was a mechanical David against the Goliath of the Empire’s intergalactic squadrons. It had an off beat erratic personality like its captain and his hairy co-pilot Chewbacca.  I’m as prone as the next rabid fan to stand in awe at the accomplishments of world class athletes. But achievers who win my heart in any human endeavor are the Cinderella teams, the underdog winners, the Millenium Falcons who rise above their seeming disabilities.

Richard Feynman had a bright mind and a ready wit, but a certifiably less than genius intellect. Yet he earned a Ph.D. degree, was a university professor, created numerous new procedures in his field of theoretical physics, and authored books for both students and laymen. The British journal “Physics World” ranked him as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time, and in 1965 he won a Nobel Prize. I have always admired and chuckled over his humbly confident response. “To win a Nobel Prize is no big deal, but to win it with an I.Q. of 125, now that’s something.”

When I was bishop of a young adult ward (congregation) in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of our members was Ali Abbott, a beautiful young woman who had been a high school cheerleader. She could jump, dance, and cartwheel as though she had a personal exemption from the law of gravity. Then a hereditary brain condition threatened her life. Surgery saved her life, but robbed her muscles of their memory. She began again to re-teach them how to sit, stand, and walk. At the end of our ward council meetings, of which she was a member, she would say quietly to her muscles, “Standup, lean forward, put the right foot in front, now the left one…” The cheer leader moves were gone, but not the cheer leader. She led us all to silently cheer for her.

One of my most inspirational Millenium Falcons was a fighter named Elwin Pulsipher.  A professional soldier, he survived two tours of duty in Viet Nam.  Following his retirement, he earned a doctor’s degree, and became a university administrator.  He served his church, community, the Boy Scouts, and reared a fine family. But one of his greatest acts of Millenium Falconism was writing letters of encouragement and inspiration to others.  Many people write such letters, but few do so using only their eyebrow.  That was one of only two voluntary muscles he had left after Lou Gehrig’s disease put him in an iron lung for the last seven years of his life. Wearing a special switch held to his forehead by a head band, Elwin watched as the computer screen scrolled through the letters and some punctuation marks of the alphabet. When the curser came to the letter he wanted, Elwin would raise his left eyebrow and the letter would be added to the document he was writing. After tedious hours the war stories, wisdom, and weekly counsel were compiled. Then his wife mailed the letter to his long list of friends.

I was privileged to be on the list because for a good part of those seven years I would take my guitar and sing to him cowboy songs from his days growing up in Nevada.  I told him I chose him to be my audience since I was pretty sure he would not walk out on me. He responded with the only other muscle left to him, a wisp of a smile in the left corner of his mouth.

Millenium Falcons turn their hardships into star ships.