My grandfather died Sunday. His name was Gaines Curtis Flippo. If I’ve ever had mixed emotions about anyone on the planet, I had mixed emotions about Gaines Curtis Flippo, Paw-Paw.
First of all let me explain a little bit about him. For most of his life he was 6’2’’ 210 lbs. and looked like John Wayne. Actually, he sort of acted like John Wayne too. When I was 2, they had a floor furnace in their hallway that got extremely hot during the winter. The metal grates would be red hot and you had to step around them. One day I stepped on them barefooted and had to be rushed to the hospital screaming. When we got to the hospital my grandma and grandpa rushed me to the front desk and the doctor stuck his head out and told us they were full and we would have to wait our turn. Paw-Paw pulled out a .357 Magnum and busted through the double door and cocked the gun in the doctors face. I shall not repeat what he said but needless to say I was receiving extraordinary medical attention shortly thereafter.
This is the same man that found out one of my uncles was getting ribbed by his high school coach for not performing well in a particular sport. He jumped in his car and went directly to the high school where football practice was underway and then proceeded to beat the living tar out of the coach in front of his entire football team. The players were frozen with fear and did nothing. My uncle received straight A’s in that class thereafter.
He was just a mean dude. To say my grandpa and his brothers and cousins were notorious and some had even killed at times would be an understatement.
He was the greatest honkytonk piano player ever born in the opinion of many world renowned musicians. He played with Elvis and turned down the piano playing job in a group he thought would go nowhere, the group Alabama.
He was a coal miner.
The stories could go on and on.
In 1976 my grandmother was tired of the abuse and the alcoholism and the finagling that she lived with for already 20 years. So, she left him. She really left him. Moved from Birmingham to Mobile and got a job and started a new life. Well, apparently this destroyed my grandfather and he had no one to turn to. This is when he gave in to the things he had put of for so long and committed His life to Christ. My grandmother was so jaded my the Machiavellian behavior that she had endured for so long that she believed it was a ploy when she heard about it. It wasn’t. She moved back to Birmingham and recommitted her life to God and Chapter 2 of their life began.
Until 1976 he was abusive to my mom and her brothers and my grandmother. Staggering in drunk in the middle of the night starting fights and making insane scenarios reality for a bunch of kids. The things they endured I’ve never even seen in movies. I was 4 when he got saved. I always knew him as the type of person that literally owned any room he walked into. He had thousands of jokes memorized and was the loudest man ever born…impossible to ignore. Always talking, always being loud, always talking.
It wasn’t until I was older that I learned of the things he had done to my family while they were growing up. Helpless to change the past, I became angry. Even though he became a minister for the rest of his life and touched over a hundred thousand inmates in his prison ministry, I still had a hard time accepting these things. I forgave him many years ago for the hurt he caused my family, but I don’t think I ever really gave him a fresh start. I didn’t.
When I heard of his passing I wasn’t shocked. He had struggled with his health for the last few years. I had such conflicted emotions as my thoughts drifted to my mother and my grandma and my Uncle Michael, all of whom I dearly love. My mother had a powerful moment of reconciliation with him about 6 months ago where he admitted many things he had done and he wept and asked for forgiveness. But I wondered about everyone else. What about those that didn’t hear “I’m sorry”, or “I love you”? In a way I idolized him. I remembered countless stories of his friendship with Bear Bryant and his nearly unbelievable witnessing stories of people coming to Christ. I was actually sad. But in a way I wasn’t.
I flew to Alabama to attend the funeral. Mostly to be there for my family. My Dad was performing the funeral. Mom, Dad, and my Uncle Michael came to pick me up at the airport. Within 15 minutes of doing so my Dad threw out his back and had to be taken to the emergency room. The funeral was the next day. It was soon realized that Dad would not even be able to attend, much less perform the service, so my mom and uncle asked me if I would do it. I said I would. I wasn’t sure what I would say. Would I admit my feelings or just immortalize this man that so many loved? Over a thousand people attended his viewing. People drove from all over the US. Despite his quirky ways, many loved him.
I spent the rest of the day talking with my family and listening to stories and laughing a lot. When it came time for the service, I felt like the Lord had given me what needed to be said. My mom and uncle sung a beautiful song “There Will Be Peace”, then I stood up to perform my own grandfathers funeral. As I began to speak, my voice began to quiver as I talked about a man named Saul that was a pretty mean dude. I talked about some of the things he did and some of the things he was going to do when God knocked him off his horse and got his attention. Suddenly my Dad’s story began to replay in my mind…the moment in jail where he completely gave his life to God. My own life didn’t seem too different from the man who laid lifeless a few feet behind me. I transitioned to the story of the two thieves on the cross and how both of them wanted to be saved. One demanded to be saved, and the other recognized not only the error of his ways, but the source of his salvation as being Jesus. Now I was crying. The man I had chosen to forgive just a little for most of my life had called on the same Jesus I had called on and been forgiven completely by Him. As I gave an invitational, several of my relatives and strangers committed their lives to God. Then I sat down. I cried as I watched my mother, her brothers and my grandma say goodbye. I also realized that it was time for me to let my grandfather go. Not just emotionally, but I needed to let go of any unforgiveness because I was no different than he was. I finally understood that even after Christ he wasn’t perfect. But neither am I. I needed to let that go. I did.
My grandmother, Nana, was walking away from his open coffin for the last time and she pulled me to the side. She said, “Jeffrey, you know they made him look so good and I was just looking at him, missing him, just lovin’ on him and I realized that something didn’t look right about his mouth”. I was horrified because he actually did look pretty good and thought she was going to point out some detail I’d rather her not worry about. “And as I began to stare, she continued, I figured out what it was”. “What was it Nana”? She flatly replied, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it closed”. I laughed so hard and so loud I know Paw-Paw would have been proud. A truer statement has never been made. Gaines Curtis Flippo turned out to be a good old guy after all. I look forward to seeing him again someday.