Preface: I write this on the occasion of my beloved grandfather’s passing. His wishes were that there be no memorial service or funeral. He wanted to go out with as little fanfare as he desired while he was still alive. For him, he was just a man. For so many others, though, he was so much more. This is the eulogy I would have given had he had a service. Instead, I share it with the world, so those who come hereafter know the story of his remarkable life and the impact he had on so many.
Last Thursday, March 31, 2011, I received the dreaded call. It was about 7:45 AM, and the caller ID told me that it would be more than just a friendly hello. My grandmother told me that my grandpa had been given morphine and wasn’t expected to make it beyond 48 hours. Around 11:30 AM, I received the final update. He was gone.
He was Earl Raymond Rocklein. Born in California in 1929, as the youngest of five children with a strict Catholic mother, his childhood was not unlike so many others born in the depression era. He and his brothers and sisters had clothes on their backs, food in their stomachs and a roof under which to rest, but they had little more. When he was four or five years old, his father died. If you asked him, he would tell you he could recall very little about his father. Unlike so many other boys of future generations, he didn’t become a victim who would later blame his troubles on the lack of a father figure. He simply grew up, albeit earlier than he should have had to.
After finishing the eighth grade, he dropped out of school and went to work. Then, at sixteen, he made a decision that so many others of his generation made. He lied about his age to the recruiter and went off to help save the world. His choice was the U.S. Navy. He dreamt of aiding in the World War II effort, but things were already winding down in both theaters, so his naval service took him on only a few, short deployments. One of these included a trip through the Panama Canal. The picture below was drawn by a shipmate of his in 1948 and perfectly captures his bright personality and lust for life. I was fortunate enough to unexpectedly receive it from him in the mail. All he said was, “I thought you might like it.” He was partially right. I don’t just like it, though. I treasure it.
After being discharged, he returned to California and settled back into civilian life. As The Avett Brothers would sing more than fifty years later, he followed the philosophy of: “Decide what to be, and go be it.” There was no self-serving lament or complaining about things. He made the decision to become a carpenter. It may have been more out of necessity than desire, but he didn’t just do it. He did it well. He did it for more than thirty years professionally, and, then, he did it for more than twenty more as a hobby and, even later in life, as a labor of love. It was while working in construction that he picked up the nickname “Rocky”. Even he wasn’t sure how it had come to be, but he proudly answered to it for the rest of his years.
On January 13, 1951, my grandfather married my grandmother. He didn’t do it as a passing fashion, as we so often see today. He married her forever. If there was something beyond forever, he would have been married to her through that, as well. I told their “married in Las Vegas and lasting forever” story in January of this year. (Read it here.) It’s a story of which I am very proud and one on which I have modeled my own marriage. There is no other option than forever. They settled into typical 1950’s life. He worked. She stayed home (and worked of course). They had two girls, one of whom would become my mother. I will not try to depict that things were always perfect because, as everyone knows, life is anything but. Through the good times and the not-so-good times, though, they kept going…together.
In the mid-1970’s my grandparents moved to Oklahoma, to be near my maternal great-grandparents. My grandfather wasn’t necessarily happy about it, but he did it. For the 30+ years that followed, he was often heard to say, “I don’t know why I ever moved to this cotton-pickin’ state.” In truth, he did know, and I have no doubt he would have done it again.
(Note: Please don’t infer anything from his choice of adjectives. He was a man born to a different generation, who harbored no ill-will toward a single man or woman of any race, color or creed.)
Since he was a young man, he had a great love for motorcycles. From Harleys to Hondas, he owned and rode many throughout his life. He and my grandmother took many a trip together in the 1970’s on their Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. He often spoke fondly of those times, not just about riding but also about how much he enjoyed the time he spent with his beloved wife.
Nearly two decades ago, he finally retired from construction, but he didn’t hang up his hammer, as one might expect. Though he no longer received a weekly paycheck, he still kept working. He built another addition onto their house. He fixed roofs, patched cracks, and would do generally anything that kept his hands from falling idle.
In his later years, he progressed beyond just building practical things and began creating things. It started with windmills and birdhouses. From there, he moved on to studying photographs of things like ornate shelves and adirondack chairs and, then, created his own, equally-impressive versions.
For me, the most impressive creation in his collective body of work was that to which he contributed as a volunteer. Some years ago, he was part of a team that formed within the community. Their goal was to build my hometown’s first playground that accommodated special needs children. While he didn’t do all of the work himself, it’s safe to say that he did much of it. His mark is all over the place and will be enjoyed by all children, not just those with special needs, of both current and future generations. Included among the bricks commemorating the donors and outstanding volunteers who made the Freedom Trail Playground a reality is one with not just his name, but my grandmothers, as well. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
I had the good fortune to take my firstborn son there twice. Each time, my grandfather and grandmother accompanied us and smiled as my son, his grandmother, my wife and I played. It is a special memory, which he’ll hopefully carry with him forever and, eventually, share with his little brother.
These are just a few highlights of my grandfather’s life. It would be impossible for me to mention every significant event or impact he had on my and my family’s life, not to mention those who had the good fortune to work, befriend or simply just meet him. I have no doubt that I could fill an entire book with his accomplishments, adventures and contributions. Perhaps one day, I will. Of course, in fairness, I must also admit that he could be grouchy, opinionated, stubborn and ornery. He would gladly admit to the same. Ultimately, though, he made even these things seem positive, by flashing a mischievous grin and saying, “Well, how do ‘ya like that, dude?!“
My grandfather’s lessons to me started when I was no taller than a yardstick and continued on even after his death. He taught me that the mixture of smells of sawdust and sweat represents an honest day’s work. He taught me, through long hours of fishing quietly, that it’s not necessary to hurry life along. Things will come when the time and place are right. He taught me that the circumstances into which you are born do not determine who you will become. He taught me that just putting a grin on your face and whistling a happy tune go a long way toward making even the worst of days more bearable. He also helped me learn that if you need something that doesn’t exist, whether it be tangible or intangible, create it yourself because there isn’t always a blueprint for what life may bring. He taught me, through both his strengths and weaknesses, how to be a good husband, father, friend and samaritan. He taught me that adding “dude” to the beginning or ending of any sentence can make the recipient feel much more at ease, even if you may sometimes appear serious and formidable. Even after he passed, he taught me the importance of proper planning to ensure those you leave behind are taken care of and have a few less things about which to worry. He taught me these things and so many more. For this, I will be forever grateful. My only hope is that I am able to pass on, not just stories of him, but the values and lessons he gave me.
I sit finishing this in my grandfather’s workshop exactly one week and almost exactly to the hour since he passed away. My iPad is carefully placed on the workbench, so as not to disturb the tools and work he left unfinished. It has taken me nearly a week to finish, as my vision has inevitably become clouded each time the words begin to flow. While my hobby and creative craft of choice may be writing and not carpentry, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of pride at practicing it in the very spot in which he practiced his.
I know he was proud of me for many reasons because he told me so often in his later years. He told me many times that I was lucky to have built such a beautiful family, professional life and blessed life, in general. I always said, “Thank you,” and felt proud simply because my grandfather was proud of me.
Though I’ll only hear him say it again, via the revisiting of memories in my mind, I would like to close this by amending my answer:
Grandpa: “I’m proud of you, dude. You’re lucky to have made such a beautiful family and good life.“
Me: “Thank you, Grandpa, but you’re wrong. I’m not lucky to have made it. I’m blessed to have had a man like you teach me how make it. So, thank you, for just being you. Without you, I would be neither the man I am today nor the better man I will always strive to be. I’m proud of you, Grandpa.“
He often told me over the last fifteen years that I have lived in Puerto Rico, how much he wanted to visit the island. Before falling into ill health over the last few years, the only reason he wouldn’t was because he refused to leave my grandmother, who was unable to travel long distances and really didn’t like airplanes, alone at home. Though he didn’t want a funeral or memorial service, he did have one wish. My grandfather wanted his ashes spread in the sea, a place that he had always loved and missed throughout the latter part of his life. At the end of this week, He will finally get to make that oft-discussed voyage to Puerto Rico. I will proudly take him home with me, to spread his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
I will always miss my grandfather. I will always be thankful for having had him in my life and as my grandfather. I will always remember the lessons he taught me. I will always be proud of the man he was.
So, once more, thank you, Rocky….for everything. We love you, dude.
Earl Raymond Rocklein
Husband, Father, Grandfather,
Master Carpenter and Great Human Being
April 10, 1929 – March 31, 2011
“Always remember, there is nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.” – The Avett Brothers