The headstone is one of the new ones at the Idaho Veterans Cemetery. It gives the usual information about his rank and years of service in the Navy before adding, poignantly, that he was “Our Papa John.”
How do I tell you about John Leo Ryan, my late father-in-law and one of the most complex and unforgettable men I’ve ever known? He had an Irish temper, a cantankerous tongue and a glare that could cut stone. He also had a Gabby Hayes giggle, a heart of gold and an underlying sweetness that belied his grumpery. A man of contrasts.
We met in his kitchen in Olympia, Wash., where he was installing a refrigerator. His first words to his future son-in-law: “Here, hold this!”
With that he handed me a length of copper tubing and shoehorned himself into the space between the wall and the refrigerator. Only when the job was finished did he emerge, offer a calloused hand and say, “Hi, you must be Tim. I’m John Ryan.”
It was clear from the start that he was a straight-talking, no-nonsense man of action. When he wasn’t installing refrigerators, he was likely to be building furniture, repairing a balky boat motor, building a cabin, trolling for salmon in the pre-dawn mists of Puget Sound, volunteering at his church, traveling the world as a ballroom-dancing instructor or other of his eclectic pursuits.
He was raised in his mother’s boarding house in Lincoln, where his father was a railroad worker. The youngest of four siblings, he learned early to work hard, eat before the food ran out and speak up when rubbed the wrong way, a talent at which he excelled. His reaction to a slight at the Boise River Festival was vintage Papa John. When a portly woman arrived late and set up her chair in front of some people who had been been waiting for hours, blocking their view of the floats, he politely suggested that she move. She rudely refused, prompting a more pointed response:
“Move, blubber butt!”
Part of his penchant for pungent repartee could be attributed to his years in the Navy. No one gets in and out of the Navy without learning the art of colorful conversation. He was the radar officer aboard a destroyer, the U.S.S. Morrison, on the morning of May 4, 1945, when a kamikaze plane crashed into the bridge. Three more followed, sinking the ship and claiming 152 lives. Half a century later, the Navy awarded medals to those who survived. He wore his “kamikaze survivor” cap almost to his dying day.
It’s impossible for me to think of him without recalling his way with a phrase.
On the temperature in the Morrison’s boiler room: “It was hotter than the hubs of hell down there.”
On catching a lucky break: “Even an old blind dog gets a bone once in a while.”
On his beloved Washington Huskies, usually following a Washington touchdown: “Best team in the nation! Nobody can touch ’em!?
On the Huskies after a Washington miscue: “Worst team in the nation! They’re a buncha’ chowderheads!”
On his hapless Chicago Cubs: “The Cubs are like grains of sand tossed on the water. Sooner or later, they sink to the bottom.”
Papa John-isms were uttered with a hundred-watt smile that reflected his Irish humor and a gentle side. When the transmission froze on the car he loaned us for our honeymoon, he drove most of the way to the Washington coast to fix it, cheerfully and without once mentioning that the culprit was my shifting. When we bought our first house, he loaned us most of the down payment. When we bought Maintenance Manor, our second house, he loaded up his tools, drove from Olympia to Boise and spent a week helping us work on it, a kindness that was repeated again and again during our years there. (He told us at the outset that the best thing we could do was knock the house down and have a new one built on the lot. It was the best home-improvement advice we ever got.)
None of us will forget the day that our son, then a toddler, fell out of Papa John’s boat in a storm. We’d never seen anyone move faster. He was over the side in a blink. If not for him, we’d still be grieving parents. He never bragged or even reminisced about it. To him, it was just something that had to be done.
He wasn’t reticent, however, when it came to dispensing advice about what had to be done. At the end of one of his Maintenance Manor visits, he took me aside and advised me to take a firmer hand with our daughters.
“They get away with too much,” he said. “If it keeps up, you’re going to have trouble with them when they get older.”
I took his advice, in moderation. None of us ever really know how successful we are as parents. One of the girls’ teenage years were decidedly rocky, but they both turned out okay. Part of the credit for that has to go to their grandfather.
In his later years, he was hard of hearing. We still laugh about the time our youngest granddaughter, then four, yelled at him through an open window behind his favorite deck chair.
“Hi, Papa John. I’m right behind you.”
“HI, PAPA JOHN! I’M RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”
Softly, “Hi, Papa John. I’m right behind you.”
It was hard to say which was worse, the Alzheimer’s that claimed the mind of the brilliant mathematician and accountant who served as Washington’s deputy treasurer, or the prostate cancer that took his life.
Mercifully, his Alzheimer’s was the slow-progressing variety. At first, the differences were subtle. In the later years, they were devastating. He forgot that he spent a week’s vacation with the family in Mexico almost before the plane home had touched down. A hundred times a day, he asked his wife, Elsa, where the bathroom and bedroom were, whether he had eaten, even how to eat. Resisting the temptation to preserve her own sanity by putting him in a “home,” she took care of him to the end. They don’t give medals for that, but they should.
With the end in sight, they moved to Boise to be with family here when it came. It came slowly, and was heart-breaking to witness. The cancer had spread to other organs and was so painful that even the pressure of a sheet against his skin made him cry out in agony. This from an old salt who had gouged fingers with fish hooks, smacked thumbs with hammers, even fallen through a roof and rarely mentioned pain.
Powerful drugs helped — for a while. In addition to easing the pain, they gave us precious time with a Papa John we had rarely glimpsed. Gone were the glare and grumpiness, replaced only by the sweetness that had had made him lovable in spite of them. He sang, danced with his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters.
In the final weeks, not even the most powerful drugs helped. The pain was beyond helping.
“I’d like to go to sleep tonight and not wake up,” he said one memorable afternoon.
Then, quietly breaking our hearts, “Would that be okay?”
We told him it was. No one should have to suffer that much. Defying the doctors’ predictions, he hung on until his daughter Mary could arrive from her home in Washington. When she, too, told him it would be okay, he got his wish.
It was nearly dark and an unusual thunderstorm was brewing when we got home from the hospital that evening – an ominous blue-black, punctuated with flashes of lightning.
“What a strange storm,” Elsa said. “… Maybe it’s John.”
It was dry lightning — wind and thunder, but hardly any rain. A lot of bark, not much bite.
It was perfect.