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A Grin at the End: My dear, departed brother – From Mayberry to the Grand Canyon

carl sampson

When he was 12, my brother Paul had a knack for comedy. He could do a spot-on impersonation of Andy Griffith, who got his start in show business as a stand-up comedian before starring on television in The Andy Griffith Show.

We lived in a house trailer in Bossier City, Louisiana – my dad was stationed there in the Air Force – and often, as we were going to sleep, my brother would transform himself into Griffith, telling stories he made up and others that he had memorized. In one, he told about the two good ol’ boys who bought their first car with an automatic transmission.

“What does the ‘D’ stand for?” one wondered out loud, looking at the shifter.

“Must stand for ‘Drag,’” the other said, as he shifted to “D” and hit the gas pedal.

As they drove faster, they got to 50, 60 and then 70 miles per hour.

“Wonder what the ‘R’ stands for,” one said.

“I don’t know, but we’re going so fast, it must stand for ‘Race,’” the other said.

The driver slammed the shifter into “R” and they both proceeded to witness the transmission and engine flying out of the car.

To me, an eight-year-old, that was the funniest story I ever heard. Every time my brother told it, I’d laugh and laugh.

“Tell me another one,” I’d beg.

And Paul would spin another tale out of the darkness, until our mom yelled for us both to shut up and go to sleep.

Only my brother could make me laugh like that. I still smile when I think about those times. We had so much fun squirreling around, laughing and making up jokes.

As we got older, though, Paul hit a string of bad luck. It seemed like he was living out that line in the blues song, “If he didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all.”

When our family moved to Alaska, Paul joined the Boys Scouts. During a winter camping trip the leader got them lost and my brother – and several other scouts – got frost bite. Paul spent two months in the hospital recuperating.

That’s the kind of luck he had most of
his life.

Paul wasn’t good at many things, but when computers came along he was in his element. Out of college, he worked for General Electric’s Missile and Space Division, and then became one of the top computer whizzes at Lockheed Martin.

He showed me that perseverance – and being hard-headed – were assets.

Then his bad luck took hold again. He met a woman online, they married, and she proceeded to clean out his bank account and left him. He lost his house and his car because of her.

To me, his main flaw was that he was too nice, and an easy mark for those who weren’t.

Then he had a string of health problems – including, but not limited to, a heart attack, a series of “mini-strokes” and then, a couple of months ago, he had a major stroke and died. He was 72.

I still think about those times in Louisiana and the easy joy of kicking around in the trailer park, and trying to jiggle the soda pop machine at the laundromat to make it cough up a free grape Nehi.

Though his health didn’t allow him to do much of it, Paul liked to travel. He went to Africa, Japan, Alaska and around the continental U.S. His favorite trip of all time was rafting down the Colorado River. He would talk about it as if it was yesterday. Describing the roiling water caressed by the many-colored Grand Canyon walls always brought a smile to his face.

Today, I think about Paul often, not only what was but also what could have been. I think about the cheerfulness he maintained in the face of a lot of plain old hard luck.

When I’m alone, I close my eyes, and there he is. He’s on that raft on the Colorado, with water and wind whipping through his hair. He’s crashing over rapids and whooping and hollering with not a worry in the world.

The way it should have been.

Carl Sampson is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in Stayton.

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