I loved my grandfather like I have never loved any other member of my family. Granddad taught me to swim, to ride a bike, to drive a car, and pilot a boat. I spent at least a month with him every summer, and looked forward to holiday visits as if Granddad was Santa himself.
He didn't give many presents. In fact, Granddad was tight with a dollar. So tight in fact that when I once asked him to buy me a bicycle seat in August, that request opened the door for him to teach me an important lesson. He made it clear that he'd buy me the seat, no questions asked. But when my birthday rolled around I would have to recognize that I'd gotten my present months before.
I agreed, he bought the seat, and I found out just how literally he meant what he said on my next birthday.
Born in central Florida in 1898, Granddad was a racist. I'm not proud of that fact, but there it is. He truly believed that non-whites were somehow lesser beings than whites were. That one point of contention is the only aspect of our relationship that caused friction during our time together on this planet.
As a seventeen year old kid with long hair, a laissez faire attitude about life, and not much else – I was granted the plum assignment of picking up Granddad from the airport. He still lived in Florida as a retired gentleman of leisure, but he visited Boston each Fall to see an ophthalmologist due to the fact that he was blind in one eye, and had a cataract that limited his vision in the remaining one.
For the first time, I was picking up Granddad on my own, without adult supervision or caretakers. I felt like the king of the world as I rolled into the parking lot at Bradley International, in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. I sauntered inside with confidence, found the right gate, and settled in to wait for his flight to arrive.
This was before metal detectors, TSA guards, security checkpoints, or anything else that would identify the modern airport as a high intensity screening facility. In the late 1970s you could walk right onto the airplane with your departing loved ones and chat for a while before the flight. The airport was a fun, light, enjoyable place. It was practically fun to spend time there.
Granddad's flight arrived from Atlanta on time, and I met him with a big smile as he stepped off the jetway. We began walking at the pace an old man walks, headed toward the baggage carousel. We were about half-way there when I realized that the man walking behind us was Bill Cosby, the comedian.
Cosby was about as famous as famous could be. And although he was known to be funny, engaging, and smart as a whip, the man looked tired, haggard, and in no mood to hear from a pimply-faced teenage fan.
The fact that he had just recently experienced the inauspicious ending of a television series probably wasn't helping his mood at all.
Granddad and I continued on to the baggage claim, where we lined up facing the conveyor belt in anticipation of the luggage that would begin spewing forth momentarily. We talked about the weather, the flight, my grades in school – all the usual things. And then Granddad noticed the tall black man standing next to him.
Granddad turned so that his good eye could take in his neighbor more fully. He looked the man up and down, then turned back to me. He leaned over and in the sort of booming voice that the nearly deaf think of as a whisper, but the rest of us think of as a well projected voice, he said, “Son, isn't that that nigger boy who just got his television show cancelled?”
I stood there looking at the baggage carousel as if it was the most fascinating object in all the world. Slowly I turned my head. Bill Cosby stood silently, studying the carousel just as I'd been doing, studiously providing no indication that he'd heard the insult at all. I knew better. There was no way he could have missed it, standing no more than a foot away from the man who had just demeaned him in public.
I stammered, I paused, I thought as fast as I could think – but I couldn't imagine any response that wouldn't make the situation worse. “Yes sir, I think it is,” I finally replied.
I loved my Granddad, and I still do – flaws and all. But I have always wished that one day I would bump into Bill Cosby again, just for a moment, so I could stand before him as an adult, with more confidence, and a better understanding of what that moment in time might have meant – so that I could say what I should have said then. “I'm sincerely sorry, Mr. Cosby. You didn't deserve that. Nobody does.”
Cosby walked to his car in silence, threw his bags in the trunk, and left. He may have forgotten that slight fairly quickly. Certainly it was neither the first, nor the last time he suffered public insult. But it was a first for me. And I have remembered it vividly ever since.
The irony is that I learned to keep an open mind from a man who didn't have one. And I learned that unconditional love is not an easy condition to live with. I also learned an important lesson from Mr. Cosby. Pick your battles. Even if you're in the right, that doesn't mean it's time to throw down and go to war over even a completely unwarranted comment made by a racist old man.
Tomorrow is another day. Perhaps, I can do something to make it just a bit better. Because of that one, brief exchange, that is my mission in life. So I try. That's the best I can do. But I try, and I will keep on trying until I can't raise my head off the pillow anymore.
I hope you'll try, too.