Reflecting on 80

My grandfather, Bill Andersen, turned 80 earlier this week. The feat alone was, in his words, pretty remarkable.

I couldn’t be back home in Montana to celebrate with the rest of the family, but I called him and asked him what he thought about entering his eighth decade on Earth.

“Well, Matt,” he said in his thoughtful patter. “There’s been lots of times I thought I probably should have died.”

He told about falling through a ranch roof he was working on, his head landing just a couple feet from his axe. He told me about falling through ice on a lake and needing his cousin to fish him out before the cold or the ten-foot waters took him. He told me about driving home after having too much to drink one night — not that much, he assured me, but more than enough.

“Holy moly, I thought, ‘Man, I got away with one there,” he said.

Leaving my home state has stoked my interest in the history of both sides of my family. If the Andersens and their offspring are to be believed, Bill and Judy have Lived. They moved a lot, uprooting my mom and her siblings to follow Bill’s job on the railroad. My grandparents migrated from Livingston, Mont., out east to Minnesota and Wisconsin, finally back where they met.

I love my grandpa — and my whole family — very much, but sentimentality aside, I’ve met few men who work as hard as Bill Andersen. He’s a Montana Hemingway — a hunter, fisher, builder, fixer; a drinker and a smoker. When he asked to go fight in Korea, his country told him he was too valuable fixing its airplanes to leave. When he finally retired from the railroad, the company hired three people to do his job. When he and my grandmother wanted a cabin on their mountain property, the two of them built one from the ground up.

So, as one of the wisest men I know (though he may never outwardly agree to that description, and I suspect that’s a key to his wisdom), I had to ask him: What’s he learned?

After raising three kids, committing to a fifty-year marriage, beating prostate cancer and surviving a career of using his hands and his mind, what’s the shortcut to bliss?

“The closer you get to the end of it all, the more you realize how inevitable it is you’re going to meet your maker,” he said. He didn’t say it somberly or with a laugh. He said it because I asked.

“Just appreciate the people around you. And learn to be happy with what’s around you.”

I’ve never thought it was bizarre or out of the ordinary that my grandfather and grandmother have frequented different churches. Bill is a Catholic with a capital C: Notre Dame football and St. Bernard’s mass on Wicks Lane. Judy often joined us at a nondenominational across town.

And that’s what I respect about him — the ability to carve out a long, ostensibly happy and fulfilling life of being himself.

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