Over the weekend, we traveled to Florida to commemorate the passing of Jenny's uncle, Carl B. Mattson. He was a good guy, sorta quiet but whip-smart. Indeed, as family members mentioned a few dozen times during our conversations, this guy literally was a rocket scientist.
Carl spent the latter part of his boyhood years in Largo, Florida, home after his mother relocated a family of three boys and one girl (Jean, Jenny's mother) from Wisconsin following the untimely death of the family patriarch. Carl was raised to be independent and resourceful. And though he was a shy and unassuming person, he followed his father's example by enlisting for active duty during wartime.
Starting with a tour in the Vietnam theater, Carl applied his love of aircraft to a steadily increasing range of responsibilities, from painting planes to working as an engineer for the Space Shuttle program. He was such a humble guy that we found out only after his death that he'd patented a number of innovations and had won all sorts of awards for his work to improve the operations of the NASA clean room.
I'm sure there's much else about Carl that was unknown to most of his friends and family. He was a private person who generally went his own way in life. Family members shared stories about how he'd avoid doing drudge-work on the farm by reading. Some folks would get upset, but the elders knew best: "Just leave him alone," they'd say. They knew Carl's potential, and he knew what he was doing.
Along with savings to help his mother in her later years, Carl left behind a number of photo albums, mostly black and white shots of him in the service, boating with friends, and growing older. Toward the end of his life, a slow but cruelly determined disease wasted away at his mobility. Loved ones told him to pursue traditional medical remedies, but Carl insisted on managing his body just as he managed his life, on his own terms and in his own way.
His family worried for him, but the Mattsons have always been a live-and-let-live lot. They'll offer advice and help when you need it (I know this personally, and have benefited from their kindness on many occasions). But in the end, they let people go their own way. That's why so many conversations in Jenny's grandmother's house tend to drift off to comfortable silence.
I won't attempt the trite poetry of saying that Carl drifted off with similar ease. I wasn't there, and I can't know. His final years were undoubtedly tough and sometimes lonely. But he departed in a hospital bed surrounded by loved ones: those physically present and those, we can hope, waiting to take him to places where he can keep his head forever in the the clouds.