Late last spring I was contacted by an old friend to do some contract work. His company had a client who was donating a large sum so they could create a tribute book for Vietnam veterans. As a thank you, they wanted to help him create a book about his own life as a Top Gun pilot during the war, real estate mogul, and philanthropist. They interviewed him for hours, had the beginnings of an autobiography he’d already written, and turned it all over to me to compile and ghost write.
I spent much of June working on it. Mashing together three different accounts, looking up dates and place names, and turning conversation into a narrative was a lot more work than I anticipated. I had just quit my part-time job, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to pull it all together in a month’s time.
In July I met with the man, a fit and trim 84-year-old who still went jogging each day and rode his zip line that he installed on his property in Hawaii. We spent hours going over my questions, and he gave me more stories. He told me that he’d never been ill in his life, except for in March, when a case of pneumonia sidelined him for several weeks. He was still shaken by the experience, and was impressed that he needed to get his story done now, the sooner the better.
We met again in September, this time spending eight hours poring over nearly a thousand photos, choosing which ones to use, creating captions, and adding even more stories.
The goal was to have his life story edited and ready to print by Thanksgiving, so that he could give it to his family for Christmas. We didn’t meet that goal. Revisions, additions, reorganizations, and lost photos pushed it back a week, then another week. Every time my phone rang, I cringed in worry to see his name there, and more often than not, he was calling to say something was missing, or that something needed to be rearranged.
When a man has adventures from bear hunting in Russia, to finding a gold mine in Nicaragua, to driving a team of mules for hundreds of miles as part of the 1997 pioneer trek reenactment to Utah, then multiple trips to China, the Holy Land, and to his place in Hawaii where he donated extensively to BYU-Hawaii, there tends to be a lot of stories.
But we covered it all, going back and forth with emails and scans and texts and phone calls, and finalizing this, and then that. It needed to be right, and I offered many prayers that I wouldn’t disappoint him.
He wrote me once, after I fine-tuned something that he struggled to write, that I knew him so well. By then, I really did.
Finally, December 14th, it was finished and went to press. He received the hard-bound books, 250 pages worth of stories and photos, just in time to hand them out to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for Christmas. He sent me a crate of oranges for Christmas from his orchards.
Three weeks ago he called me, looking for someone’s phone number. I found it, gave it to him, and as I hung up I thought, “That’ll be the last time I speak to him.”
Today, Al Gardner of Mesa, Arizona, passed away from a heart attack.
Today I also got news that another man whom I deeply respected, a religious leader when I was growing up, also passed away, Harry McSwain.
And I feel today like Jaytsy did in Book Three, that in the last two years I’ve known more people to die than to be born.
I don’t have any clever or insightful endings today. Just this ending.