Monday, August 21, 2006

Bob Guilford Memorial

"In the sky my soul is found, And my body in the ground. By and by my body'll rise To my spirit in the skies, Soaring up to Heaven's gate." Ambrose Bierce

We finally had the memorial service for my brother-in-law this weekend. We've been forced to wait over a month since Bob's fatal plane crash on July 16 at a Hillsboro, OR air show.

The memorial was held outside LA at the Van Nuys Airport where Bob and Judy kept their planes. Hundreds and hundreds of people showed up. Family, friends, law partners, colleagues, clients, fellow pilots, ground crews.

My sister Judy was determined to follow sentiments Bob had expressed many times at memorials for fellow pilots. No maudlin weeping and wailing over his death. Instead, a communal sharing of stories, experiences and memories in celebration of his life.

Near the beginning we all went outside to watch the traditional fly-by: a group of planes swooping overhead in the "missing man" formation to honor a fallen pilot. You can see it in the picture above, along with the last picture of Bob, snapped just before his final take-off at Hillsboro.

After the fly-by we came inside and one by one, people stood up to tell stories about Bob. All were sincere tributes, and all brought more laughter than tears. Bob had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved to laugh at a great story, especially at his own expense. So we gave him the kind of send-off he surely would have wanted.

I had my own story to tell, about the very first time Bob and I met. It happened, in ironic coincidence, just after he and Judy had survived another plane crash together in 1989.

Here's my story about Bob, as delivered at the memorial:
Obviously today will include a lot of talk about flying. I have a slightly more grounded story to tell.

Because the first time I met Bob Guilford, he wasn't in the air -- his legs were.

I want to tell you about that meeting, and his first words to me. I've been telling the story for years, but I've never had an audience who'd appreciate it more.

It's not a typical meet-your-sister's-husband story. And just like Bob, the words were unique.

Actually, Bob and Judy weren't married yet when I met Bob. But it's not a typical meet-your-sister's-fiancé story either. And what Bob said to me wasn't even close to the first words a future sister-in-law expects to hear.

But it was right on the money.

We'd already heard a lot about Bob, including endless stories about flying. And Bob's planes. And Judy taking flying lessons. And Bob's planes. And Judy mad at Bob for giving her back-seat flying lessons. And Judy finally becoming a pilot.

At that point we knew it was a serious relationship.

I was looking forward to meeting the lawyer-pilot-renaissance man who'd taken my sister into the sky and captured her heart.

But I couldn't possibly have guessed the circumstances of our first meeting. And considering why we're here today, the memory is more than a little bitter-sweet.

It was Labor Day weekend, 1989. If you've known Bob and Judy a long time, you know where I'm going with this. But here's my personal piece of that story.

My family was at the Jersey shore that weekend when Gary called to say Bob and Judy's plane had crashed. He'd seen it happen. They were both in the hospital in bad shape.

I headed to LA the next day. Judy was a mess. Broken ribs, collapsed lungs, cuts and bruises everywhere. But if you know Judy, you also know she was gamely hanging in there. And almost the first thing she said to me was, "Have you seen Bob? Is he okay?"

Bob was in the next room. Karen took me in to meet him. Remember, I'd never laid eyes on the man.

My first view of Bob was, as I mentioned, unique. Facing me as I walked in the door were two feet, incased in huge casts, suspended from the top of the bed. I peeked around the feet and there was Bob, sitting in the bed, looking dazed and, well, the best word is 'sheepish.'

Karen said, "Bob, this is my Aunt Sally, Mom's sister."

I expected at most a weak "Hi, nice to meet you" or maybe only a strained hello. It was an awkward situation, to say the least. Or … it should have been. Except Bob was Bob. A down to earth, get-to-the-point kind of guy.

Which I found out with his immortal first words to me.

Sitting in that hospital bed, immobilized and in a lot of pain, Bob looked me square in the eye and said, "I am so sorry I almost killed your sister."

That did it. I don't remember the rest of our conversation. But of course I forgave him. And I do remember thinking, we've got a winner.

Nothing over the years has changed my mind. Along with his many sterling qualities, Bob Guilford was the kind of man who truly personified do-the-right-thing. Which, it appears, was also his final act.

I write a column on the web, a blog. I wrote about Bob there and I want to close here with the same words, from the heart:

Bob Guilford -- husband, father, brother, lawyer, pilot, friend -- deserves a hero's welcome into the clouds he loved. More than rest in peace, Bob ... Fly in peace.
One final note: Bob was a great collector of all things aviation-related. At the memorial we set up a table covered with items from his collection: pins and patches from air shows, model planes, tapes and DVD's about flying, mugs, pens and hundreds of photographs.

On that table we put signs: Please Take A Memory.

The memory I took didn't come from that table. Instead I carried home--and will keep forever--the look of pride and peace on my sister's face as she listened to the loving and heartfelt tributes to her special husband, Bob Guilford.

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