On Saturday, Angie and I built an outdoor compost bin for my mom’s backyard. We made it out of an old wooden pallet that we got for free from a neighbor. This was my first time to work with a pallet. I had no idea they were that heavy and hard to break down. Needless to say, our little project took the better part of the day.
Making the compost bin reminded me of my Grandpa Willie. In his lifetime, I’d dare say that he transformed more than a thousand old pallets into beautiful new porch swings.
Several years ago I wrote a story about my grandpa’s swings. The story was published (in part) in the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO) in September 2008. The message of that story is just as timely and relevant today as it was back then – do what you love and nothing else will matter.
September 21, 2008 – Adults are funny creatures. We are surrounded by a world of bright blue skies, purple mountains, green grasses, yellow fields, and orange sunsets, yet all too often we filter that world through a black and white lens and see only gray sidewalks. Unlike the days of our youth when a bicycle could be a horse, a motorcycle or even a unicorn, today it is just a bicycle. A house is just a house. A car is just a car. A job is just a job.
As adults, we define ourselves by our job titles and status symbols, yet we complain every moment because our dull, boring lives center around those things. What if it wasn’t that way? What if a house was the place that friends gathered for coffee? What if a car was a space ship that took you to exotic places instead of that office you dread going to? What if a job was that thing you loved to do every day?
My grandpa Willie was a hard worker who knew how to use his hands. For more than 30 years he worked in a factory. Towards the end of his career, his job was to oversee deliveries. Every day new parts would come in to the factory on pallets, which my grandpa would stack outside the loading docks for the truck to pick up the next day. During this routine, an idea struck him. He knew that the pallets they were using were made out of oak, to safely secure the glass that was being transported. He also knew that once a pallet was damaged, it was destroyed. With that in mind, he struck a deal with his employer – he would sort the pallets and keep the damaged ones. What started as a project to build a porch swing for his wife, turned into my grandpa’s second career.
For more than 20 years after his retirement, my grandpa continued to collect pallets from different factories and turn them into swings. I can remember standing in his workshop as a teenager and watching him work. Making swings wasn’t a way for him to escape. It wasn’t a diversion until something else came along to occupy his time. It wasn’t a hobby. Making swings was his passion. He loved what he did and it showed in every nail that he drove and every coat of stain that he applied. When I asked him once why swings he said very simply, “Because swings bring people together.” And he was right. As quickly as he could make a swing and put a “for sale” sign on it, it was gone.
All along our street on any lazy southern summer day you could hear the creak of chains as kids and parents alike rocked to and fro in my grandpa’s swings. You could see bashful teenagers secretly holding hands, shuffling their feet to move his swings to the rhythm of a love song only they could hear.
My grandpa Willie died making a swing. He sat down to rest in his own swing and fell into an everlasting sleep. He was 84. In life we have few true role models – people we aspire to be like. My grandpa was my role model. He taught me to do what you love, not what you think you’re supposed to do.
My grandpa wasn’t CEO of Porch Swings, Inc. He didn’t call himself Mr. President. In fact, if you asked him about his work, he’d say, “I’m just a builder”. He wasn’t just a builder though; he was a man with an idea who pursued it. In his career, my grandpa hand-crafted and sold more than 200 swings. Knowing my grandpa, I’m sure when he built that first swing he ran right in the house, pleased as punch, and told my grandma he was going to make a dozen more. I’m sure, knowing my grandma, that she said, “OK, Willie, you go do just that”, all the while asking herself what on earth were they getting into this time.
This week, I’ve thought a lot about my grandpa and my own path in life. Pursuing one’s passion is a hard course to chart, even when you know where you want to go. I am just as guilty as the next person of seeing a house as just a house, a car as just a car, and a job as just a job. Sometimes though, opportunity presents itself in an unusual package. It doesn’t always come in a power suit, wrapped neatly into a leather briefcase or tied around a stock certificate with a gold name plate. Sometimes it shows up as a pallet full of nothing more than its own infinite possibilities.