A Work of Love

In 1949, my Grandfather was called to see the commanding officer of the Air Force base on which he was stationed for an investigation. My Grandfather had just taken the Air Force’s selection exam to become a pilot and there was a suspicious problem.

“Lt. Varnell. Have you been informed of your score on the exam?”

“No, sir.”

“Would you be surprised to learn that you are the first person in the history of my command to have only got a single question wrong on this test?”

“Yes, sir, I would be. Which question did I get wrong?”

This is my Mother’s favorite story to tell me about her Father. Not, she says, because it’s indicative of his character, but because it seems nothing like him. The cocky 21 year-old pilot, the one in the Air Force Museum as last man to fly a propeller-driven fighter mission, appears a world apart from the person who touched so many lives that the obituary on Monday opened with the line, “if you were down on your luck in Memphis, TN, Henry Varnell probably helped you out; and you didn’t even know it.”

But my Mom loves telling me this story. And when I was at his visitation this weekend, it was this story, and this picture of him in his flight gear, that I cherished most.

When he died last week, Henry Dewey Varnell, II (with his widow, my Grandmother, Boo) was on the board of more charitable organizations in Memphis, TN than it seems anyone can count. I tried, but at his visitation I heard from even more people. People that he had helped via yet another organization I’d never heard of for which he had provided the start-up funds, advice, counsel, or just an interested ear when all others judged them foolish. “He was such a great man,” they said. “And he helped so many people.”

Of course I think he was a great man, but Henry stacked the deck on that assessment. He embodied the values to which I, and every one in my family assigns greatness because we learned to understand the world through Henry’s moral prism. A prism that revealed the value of kindness. Of genuine curiosity and care. And even though you would assume that a man who gave as much as Henry did knew the value of charity, he actually taught me more about mercy. Every one I meet in Memphis has a story about how Henry helped them, and the most common story has nothing to do with money or opportunity. Instead, they tell me a story I have in common with all of them, and you if you had met him. How every time Henry saw you, he stopped. He touched you on the shoulder. He asked, “how are you?” And he meant it.

This is the quintessential story of my Grandfather. How he listened when no one else would, even when there was nothing to be done, and how much it mattered. Søren Kierkegaard calls this mercy. “A work of love even if it can give nothing and is able to do nothing.” Mercy is giving even when there is nothing to give or when gifts are futile. When all we can do is sit with someone and show them the kindness of slowing our own lives to connect with theirs.

And when Henry slowed down, it meant more. Imagine if a freight train pulled up beside you and asked if you needed a lift. The man moved. From the moment he woke up, he was in constant motion. He walked. He read vigorously. He researched. He explored. He asked. He just wanted to know and do and learn everything thing there was. About history. About life. About people.

When I was 18, Henry took me on a trip to the University of Chicago where I was about to be a Philosophy major. He was in his seventies and wanted to see the campus to understand why I wanted to go there. He just needed to see it the way I saw it. He cared because I cared and he need to go there. To walk every street and see every quad. To learn more about it so he could learn more about me.

Henry had all the momentum. So when that freight train slowed down to connect with you, it meant more. He wasn’t bringing you down to his speed; he was sacrificing a little of his just because he was interested in you. No matter how slowly you were going. No matter how many times he had slowed down to sit with you before. The contrasting velocities and perpetual endurance made him unique and made you feel special. Like someone special cared and that made you special. And like you were moving, too. To be a part of this better world that he was ceaselessly moving towards. Driving Memphis towards. And that he was bringing everyone with him. Especially the ones that no one else thought would make it. The ones that no one else thought were special. But Henry did. And you believed him, too. Because he just never. Stopped. Moving.

Until Monday.

The plane that my Grandfather is standing in front of in this picture is the North American F-82 Twin Mustang. She was built to protect bombers as the first “Very Long-Range Escort Fighter.” They were weird. They weren’t fast compared to the jet fighters that were just being released. But once they took off, they could fly non-stop for unbelievable distances, even by today’s standards. As in Hawaii to New York with fuel to spare. And the F-82 in this picture, 46–377, is the last one. Henry is posing because he’s about to fly her from Anchorage, Alaska to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

When my aunt saw this picture at the visitation, she grabbed me and said, “you look so much like him; it’s like that movie Awakenings!” Another aunt took my picture while I made the same pose he had 62 years earlier.

I think I know why my Mother loves to tell the story of her Father smugly and insubordinately asking what question he got wrong on the Air Force Selection Exam. Everyone knows my Grandfather, her Father, was a great man. But very few people know that he wasn’t always that way. He wasn’t always gentle or humble. But there was something in him, and in that story, that resulted in him learning to be the epitome of both.

At his core, my Grandfather was ferociously curious and knew things could be better. Memphis could be better. He could be better. You could be better. But he didn’t judge you for not being there yet. Because he wasn’t there yet, either. His mercy came from the same place that his momentum did. He knew what it meant to forgive someone for not moving as fast as the world expected them to be going, slow down, and treat them with the dignity they deserved for trying in the first place. Because he had to do that for himself for 86 years.

The last conversation I had with my Grandfather, he asked me about Habitry. He wanted to know everything we were doing. What I was learning. What we were making. His last words to me were, “I want to hear more. I think you can really help people.”

Selfishly, I love this picture, and this story, of my Grandfather because people recognize me in it. When people see it they say, “you’re so much like him.” I know I’m not like the great man they knew, but I am slowly feeling less like the smug, impatient, pilot in this old picture. And I know I can forgive myself for not being there, yet. Because I know Grandaddy always would have.

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