Standing On the Shoulders of Giants

I’d like to preface this eulogy with a brief story in order to explain the challenges I faced in producing an encomium worthy of representing my grandfather’s life and my feelings toward him so please bear with me for a moment.

My grandmother died on April 21, 1997 and on that same day, I saw a part of Grandpa die as well, for he was never the same afterward. From that day forward, the great oak of a man began shedding his leaves, in anticipation of a winter from which he would never fully emerge. Even so, like a tree that has rotted from the inside, he was good at hiding his pain and, except for his most somber moments, he still, somehow, managed to seem full of life.

One of those somber moments came three months after Grandma’s death when, on July 24, 1997, Grandpa said to me, with sudden determination, “I don’t want a memorial service.” We were up in Maine at the time, visiting Bob and Sam, and had been sitting out on the deck, enjoying the view of the Penobscot bay when he made his pronouncement.

I considered this for a moment, not sure what to say (and not being one ever to argue with my grandfather) and finally, I said, “You know, a memorial isn’t for those who die, but for those who live on after them.”

“I don’t want people brooding over me,” he replied. “Life is for the living. They should be celebrating, having fun.” And then he fixed me with his brown eyes and said in his authoritative voice, “You make sure of it.”

Well, I have no control over how people celebrate or mourn a life, but I could at least inject some fun into this memorial. Doing so, however, has proven a difficult challenge in the last couple of months on which I’ve worked on this eulogy.

First, there was the challenge of trying to produce something that would be fun, and funny, for I would never even think to question Grandpa’s admonitions.

Second, and often in conflict with Grandpa’s words, was the desire to maintain a soupcon of dignity and decorum.

Third, and most importantly, I needed to produce a rousing encomium, one worthy of a life well-lived, one that captured his character, one that demonstrated the impact that his life had on those with whom he surrounded himself. And more specifically, how his life impacted me.

I am a writer and storyteller, and it seems to me, therefore, that the best way to achieve all three of these goals is to you a story about a man named Paul Friedlander. While at times the story goes far a-field, I assure you that it all comes together in the end. It is my hope that you may even learn something about my Grandfather that you never knew before.

Incidentally, the title I’ve given to the story you are about to hear is “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants,” and though Grandpa stood only five feet and change, he was, in my eyes nonetheless, a giant. The story begins nearly three and a half centuries ago…

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On a cold day in early January 1634, Isaac Newton was born. In his lifetime, Newton managed to get an education, avoid the plague, survive the fire of London, and invent the calculus. He was a serious, brooding, humorless man, and yet he gazed up at the night sky and asked why and taught us just how the stars and planets performed their perpetual dance. His curiosity and vision changed the way people looked at the universe in which they lived. Even so, he didn’t do it alone. Newton built on what others had learned before him. He died in 1727 at the age of 84. Nearly two centuries later, my grandfather, Paul Friedlander, was born in New York City, the fourth of six brothers. He died on November 16, 2004, also at the age of 84.

On the day Paul was born, the New York Time announced on its front page that a new stadium would be built for the Yankees. From this, one might argue that Paul’s birth initiated an unparalleled dynasty that has survived to this day.

The year was 1920, the same year that produced science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, actor DeForrest Kelly, fantasist Ray Bradbury, and actor Walter Mathau. Interestingly enough, these famous people have more in common with Paul than just the year of their birth.

Isaac Asimov was Jewish and married a Mormon girl. DeForrest Kelly served in the military during the Second World War. Ray Bradbury graduated from high school, but couldn’t afford college. Walter Mathau was born in New York City. But what about Newton? How does Sir Isaac Newton relate to Paul Friedlander?

Well, have patience. We’ll return to Newton shortly.

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As I said, Paul was born in August of 1920. The exact date is of some debate. He always celebrated his birthday on August 25, but his birth certificate has it as August 28. He once told me that, while he was indeed delivered on the 25th, his mother took one look at him, decided he was not quite finished, and so back he went for three more days.

When I was born, Grandpa was 51 years old. Actually, he wouldn’t want me to say that. He hated being referred to as “umpty-ump” years old. He would often say, “Books get old, newspapers get old, magazines get old. People age!” Well then, when I was born, Grandpa was 51 years of age and three times a grandfather. I was the fourth grandchild, and statistics show that fourth grandchilds inevitably end up being the wittiest, most charming and handsome of the batch. At least, that’s what Grandpa told me, and as I’ve mentioned, I never argue with Grandpa.

I recall a warm spring day in Somerset, New Jersey, when Grandpa chased me around the yard and among the bushes that anchored the front of our house. Mom or Grandma would call my name to come in for lunch, but I was having too much fun, and Grandpa and I would hide behind some of those bushes. It was a time when both he and the bushes seemed nine feet tall to me. Grandpa called it our “secret hiding place”.

That is my earliest memory of him.

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Grandpa was honest, respectful, responsible, hard-working, fair, caring, a good citizen, and had unimpeachable integrity. He was big on education, small on religion, and he valued family over everything else. Now, it’s one thing to stand here before you and remember Grandpa bucolically, where memories seem to defy the facts. It would, in fact, be cliché to do so. Therefore, I will tell you, that he wasn’t always honest. While I often heard him quoting from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” I also recall two occasions when he said to me, “There are only two people I never lie to: my doctor and myself.” I remember feeling chagrined at this, for I was certain I would be one of the two people. Even so, Grandpa was honest enough to admit this.

Don’t get me wrong, he had other imperfections too. The one, in particular, that stands out in my mind was he penchant for singing. Unfortunately, for anyone within earshot, Grandpa had a singing voice of which any walrus would be proud. His rendition of “Goodnight, sweetheart”, which he would sing to Grandma every night it seemed, would peel paint from the walls. It is a sign of the true love that Grandma felt for Grandpa that she managed to put up with his singing all those years without strangling him. Looking back on it, I imagine she just turned off her hearing aid.

Yet for all his imperfections, he integrity was unimpeachable. His was old-school integrity, borne of out what has been called The Greatest Generation. Now it’s one thing for a doting grandson to stand up here and speak of his grandfathers unfailing integrity. If only we could reach back into time and see what his friends and co-workers had to say about it! Well, we can. More than ten years ago, Grandpa started sending me some of his papers and letters for safekeeping. From those papers and letters, it is possible to let some of that Greatest Generation speak:

August 25, 1938
“To whom it may concern: Paul Friedlander has been in our employ for a period of one year. He has worked in the shipping department and has proven to be a capable, honest and trustworthy young man. We recommend him very highly.”

January 30, 1941
“To whom it may concern: In his capacity as a lens polisher, [Paul] has proved himself to be a very apt and conscientious worker. As to his character I can justly say that he is an honest and trustworthy young man. Yours truly, T. Scherer.”

July 12, 1945
“To whom it may concern: Private First Class Paul Friedlander… served under my command at the Station Hospital, Camp Adair, Oregon for approximately one year as an optometrist in the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat clinic. His work was excellent, thoroughly skilled and competent; his work capacity was excellent… Honesty, integrity, and loyalty have never been questioned. Signed, Charles W. Comfort, Colonel, Post Surgeon.”

July 1950
“To whom it may concern: Paul Friedlander was not only my employee for 10 years, but a very good friend. His sincerity and fine character is most outstanding in all emergencies. Respectfully, Aaron M. Katz.”

Even so, this doesn’t quite capture the powerful influence that his morals had upon me. The best I can do is to illustrate with an example:

Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, Grandpa had received word through his network of spies, that while I was supposed to be looking for a job, I was not. I had told him that I was, and in fact, I was, but that is not what he had heard. One afternoon, he called and asked for me, and proceeded to “discuss” with me how disappointed he was that I would lie to him. There was no excuse for it. Well, as I’ve said before, I never argued with Grandpa. I apologized to him, soberly hung up the phone, calmly walked into my room, closed the door–and proceeded to cry. I cried, not because I had done anything wrong. I knew that I hadn’t, and figured that somehow, Grandpa had gotten his wires crossed. I cried because I felt, even so, that I had somehow let him down. I cried because he seemed to believe that I could have it in my to lie to him.

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I didn’t know my Grandpa when he was young in age, but he was always young at heart, and the more time I spent with him, the more I learned that what he was like as a boy was, in many ways, what he was like as a man.

He had a boyish penchant for the macabre. When he was very small, he went to the local movie house, The Progress, and for seven cents, saw Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. He was sitting on the back of his seat and when the Phantom swung out on the chandelier toward the audience, he was so frightened that he toppled backwards off his perch. And yet, as he grew older, his favorite writer wrote of ravens, and pits and pendulums and tell-tale hearts.

He had a boyish love of heroes and adventure. He told me once how he rode in a motorcade with Franklin Roosevelt. “He was coming into New York and going down the Concourse,” he said. “I went with this friend of mine, Jerry. We had bicycles and we rode up a-ways into Yonkers and when the motorcade came down, we followed the motorcade.”

And, of course, he had a boyish temper. When he found out that a new lens grinder, hired into the shop in which he worked, was making more money than he, he grew indignant. He quit his job, stomped across the street to the Army Recruiting Office, and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Grandpa served in the army from 1942 to 1946, reaching the rank of Technician Grade V in the Medical section. He worked in an Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat clinic and showed strong promise in both technical skill and leadership. His immediate commander, Lieutenant Scott Evans, said of him: “He has definite potentialities as a leader… His administrative ability is excellent and [of course] his character is unquestionable. I recommend him highly for consideration as a possible Officer Candidate.”

He was saved from that fate by none other than my Grandmother, Fawn Christensen, who he met at this time, and who, in March of 1943, he married. They were married for fifty-four years. That is a lifetime. Literally. William Shakespeare died when he was fifty-two years old. During those fifty-four years, my grandparents raised for children and had nine grandchildren.

As most of you know, Grandpa spent most of his life in New York City, a place he never wanted to leave. Those of you who knew him in his later years know how he often referred to himself as an “old goat”. I think he would have found it amusing to learn that New York City’s nickname, “Gotham,” is a Dutch word meaning “goat town”. It suited him perfectly.

My grandfather had a wry sense of humor with which he repeatedly bombarded defenseless waitresses: When ordering coffee, he always asked for the cup with the hole in the bottom; when his meal was complete, he would ask if a crane was available to lift him from his seat; when paying the check, he would invariably ask, handing over the bills, if he could get six for a half-dozen. I must have heard those jokes hundreds of times, but I swear that he told them with the enthusiasm of someone telling the joke for the first time.

Even better was his laugh. This laugh–his belly laugh, his from-the-gut-guffaw–is impossible to duplicate. If you never heard it, you never will. But if you did hear it, you know that it’s the kind of laugh that can wake you from a deep sleep in the middle of the night just thinking about it. It’s the laugh of a man who filled his belly with every ounce of joy and life until there was nowhere for the joy to go but burst out like an exploding balloon. It was a deadly-dangerous laugh, one that would have the most stoic man in tears, the saddest man in raptures, and the weak-hearted man in cardiac-arrest. Drifting off to sleep at night, when time hangs heavy and I think about Grandpa and how he’s no longer here with us, it’s that laugh that I hear echoing through the halls of my memory. It not only cheers me right up, but the sudden laughter it induces in me scares the heck out of my cat.

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Grandpa was a philosophical man, a man of little religion but of great faith in his fellow man. He often told me how he thought that religion was the cause of all war. And yet in his next breath he would say that ninety-nine percent of people were good people. There is a famous poem by Leigh Hunt that captures perfectly my grandfather’s attitude toward his fellow man. It’s called “Abou Ben Adhem” and it goes like this:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold–
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the Presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?” –the vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord,”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the Angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night,
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

I recall a time, shortly after Aunt Rose passed away, I spoke to Grandpa on the phone and he sounded unusually depressed. I was in college, three thousand miles away, and there was no way that I could put my arm around him and physically comfort him. Instead, I tried to do it with words. I wrote Grandpa a letter in which I quoted from Plato’s Apology, speaking about his philosophy on death. This is what he said:

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is good; for one of two things, either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but the greatest king will not find many such days or nights, when compared to the others. Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is to gain; for eternity is then only a single night. But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead abide, what good… can be greater than this? …What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? Nay if this be true, let me die again and again!

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It is difficult to judge the level of happiness and contentment in someone’s life, especially when most of us think in terms of the greener grass over there. But I know for a fact that Grandpa had a very happy life. He told me so. He had many more happy days than unhappy ones and that alone speaks volumes. Consider Abd er-Rahman II, the greatest king of Muslim Spain who said, “I have reigned fifty years at the height of prosperity and power, loved by my friends, respected by my subjects, and feared by my enemies, yet in all that time I have known but fourteen completely happy days.”

I was fortunate enough to be a part of many of Grandpa’s happy days. There were occasional sad days too, but the force of his character had long since been imprinted upon me and I learned to look to the bright side even in the worst of circumstances, the way that one looks up to the stars in hope and wonder for the future.

Which brings us back to Newton.

Sir Isaac Newton was famous for saying that if he seen further than others, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. He was referring to scientific discovery which, of course, is cumulative. But I believe that the same can be said of life in general. Honesty, integrity, respect, fairness, caring–we learn these things from the people with whom we surround ourselves. We absorb them, for better or worse, by watching those whom we admire. For some of us, these role models are sports heroes, or artists, or actors, or politicians. For me, it was and is my Grandpa, Paul Friedlander.

And so, if I have tried to be just a little more honest; if I convey a sense of integrity; if I have tried to treat others with respect; if I strive to be open-minded and fair; if I’ve learned to value self-discipline, it is not on account of anything innate within myself. It is, in fact, because I have been fortunate enough to stand on the shoulders of a giant.