“On my 10th birthday, he taught me how to make gunpowder”

“I never realized they were that close,” Jeanine said. Her grandson Jim had called in from the military base in Virginia to talk about his Grandpa Rick. Jim had the steady voice and clarity of a military man, though with uncharacteristic emotional openness.

“He’s solid as a rock,” Jim says of his grandpa, “he’s definitely been a model for me, of what a man should be.” He continues,”He’s not the cool guy, but a really good man: honest, hard working; someone who stands by what he believes.”

Jim remembers his grandpa’s visits, “He always brought fireworks,”he says,“then on my tenth birthday, he taught me how to make gunpowder.” Jim rattled off with pride, “KNO3 , C,  S,” then he  explains, “Potassium Nitrate, Charcoal and Sulphur…there I still know it!” 

Rick would have been touched that his grandson recalls not only the event, but even the chemical formula. Through Jim, Rick was reliving his childhood. For in his childhood, Rick went to the library to look up in the encyclopedia how to make “black powder.” Recipe in hand, Rick got hold of the chemicals he needed (he was a little vague on just how) and then went about mixing and testing until he got just the right amounts to make a big “Boom,” as he put it.

Rick is the proud father of two daughters; one of them is Jim’s mother Jeanette. A single dad, he raised his daughters as best he could, encouraging them in their interests and sharing with them some of his. When his grandson was born, Rick passed along the one interest that he had never shared with his daughters, gunpowder.

For Jim’s 10th birthday, Grandpa Rick brought a large mortar and pestle and a bunch of chemicals. “He forced me to follow the scientific method,” Jim said, “it didn’t work at first, it just fizzled and popped.” He continued, “Grandpa never told what to do, though he’d give suggestions, ‘Have you tried adding a little more of this or that…’” Jim pauses, “It lit a spark in me. I started pursuing chemistry and science. It made me curious about what our universe is made up of; it launched me on my career path in the military.” Jim continues eagerly, realizing what had come of making gunpowder nearly 20 years ago.  “Then there’s blacksmithing, I do blacksmithing. A lot of that is about  knowing the chemical makeup of the materials.” Jim follows another memory. “ For Christmas, Grandpa gave me a stellar map, we looked at the stars through telescopes. Now I’m so interested in space. Space travel, colonizing space; it’s going to be the industries of the future,” he says excitedly.

Jim remembers vividly the Rick of nearly 20 years ago. He remembers Rick with his ten year-old mind, and sees him with his ten year-old eyes. And so Rick becomes a giant, a hero and wizard all at the same time. Even though she didn’t know it, Jim’s mother Jeanine was the link between two men whose connection was deeper than she could imagine.

Telling Rick’s story is also telling Jeanine’s and Jim’s. And so it is with any life story; it is best told by many,  across  generations, across geographic distances, even across centuries. Because for every life, there are many voices.

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