My Grandpa’s Coffee: Remembering Walter Emerson Matye

By Scott Keith

My father died when I was two years old. At the time, we were living in Mountain View, California. My mother had grown up in Palmdale, California, which is where her parents still lived. So, it seemed natural to her to move back to Palmdale for my grandpa and grandma to help raise my brother and me.

I don’t remember any of this clearly. But I do recall images of the men who stepped in to help my mom. I have a picture of my Uncle Rick driving the U-Haul truck down from Mountain View. I think that I was sitting in the passenger seat with him at one point. The funny thing is that because of that image, for years I thought Uncle Rick was a truck driver. Uncle Rick was always there, taking us to Sunday School, coming to our ball games and birthdays, and just sort of being “Uncle Rick.” Later, my Uncle Bob served much the same role.

But grandpa was always there too. Yet, his “thereness” was always more in the background. Grandpa wasn’t a big talker, at least not to me. Grandpa was a fixer. He was an aircraft mechanic and an all-around capable man. Refrigerators, washing machines, cars, and lawnmowers all seemed to be within his ability to get working again once they had conked out. With some carpentry and metalworking skills, to me, he was a regular Mr. Fix It.

After we had moved back to Palmdale, we lived just a few blocks from grandma and grandpa. It was easy for me to ride my bike to their house whenever the mood struck me. In turn, it seems it was always easy for them to come over to our place as well, while not usually at the same time. Grandpa would show up in the middle of the day, with seemingly no warning, sit at the head of our table, drink his coffee, and smoke a cigarette (or two) while talking with my mom for what seemed to me like hours. My grandpa always appeared to have a cigarette and a cup of coffee. These two things, as well as a few beers at night, seemed to be part of the rhythm of his life.

To this day, I don’t know a whole lot about my grandpa’s life when he was younger. My Great-Uncle Al, one of his younger brothers with whom I spent quite a bit of time when we lived in Carson City, filled me in on some of the details, but not too many. I know that he was in World War II on the Western Front and that he saw quite a bit of combat. I know he killed. I know he was in the trenches. I know that it wreaked a certain amount of havoc on him. And I know that Uncle Al said he was not the same, fun-seeking Walt when he got home several years after the war was over.

I am not by trade a historian, but I love history. Mainly, I find myself fascinated by the History of World War I and II. Books, documentaries, movies, you name it; if it has to do with the “Great Wars,” I’ve probably read it or watched it. Every time I read about or watch a scene wherein the main characters, soldiers, after a long day of trudging through the mud, snow, or ice while fighting off attacks from the enemy finally make it to safety and enjoy a simple drag from a cigarette and a sip of hot coffee. I think of my Grandpa sitting at the end of our table doing the same thing. Again, these were part of the rhythm of his life, a rhythm that I imagine began while he was himself becoming a man fighting on the battlefields of Europe.

I imagine that coffee made on a battlefield was not, by today’s Starbucks cold-pressed standards, “good coffee.” In fact, I never actually saw him prefer percolated over drip over whatever else––but I do recall him occasionally saying that McDonald’s made good coffee. McDonald’s does make a pretty darn good cup o’ joe.

Nonetheless, the coffee was always there. As he’d sit and watch TV, there’d be a cup in his hand. As he’d work in his garage, I could always smell the potent blend of motor oil and coffee. And as we’d sit together in his VW Bus near the Lockheed landing strip in Palmdale, we’d watch the airplanes take off and land, and the air was filled with the aroma of coffee from his thermos and smoke from his cigarette.

He never said much in those days, and looking back, he didn’t really need to. It was enough, and perhaps all he could do, to remember that I loved airplanes because he worked on airplanes and take me out to be a small part of his world enjoying the rhythm of his life right there along with him.

Last week, I taught a session of Being Dad: Father as a Picture of God’s Grace to a group of men at Sherman Oaks Lutheran Church here in California. Toward the end, I focused my talk on the necessity for the older men in the room to take on the younger men, encourage them, and physically be there for them. Men need that! Boys need that!

I suggested that the older men take the younger men to get a cup of coffee once a month and to be there for them. One of the men in the audience, quite astutely and honestly asked: What is it that we can say to them to help? My answer was vague. I responded that they should ask them how they are and what they’re up to. And when they answer, tell them you’re proud of them for the things that they have going on in their lives. But really, you could just take them to watch the airplanes, smoke a cigarette, and drink coffee from a thermos while sitting next to one another. In other words, make them a part of the rhythm of your everyday life, if even for a few hours a month. Young men are desperate to be part of the rhythm of the lives of older men. They’re desperate for it!

This week, I will make no attempt to paste Jesus onto my blog. No Bible verse or tangential connection will be made here between my grandpa’s coffee and your faith. My hope is to encourage you older men to spend time with younger men and you younger men to find older ones whose rhythm you can share, if even for a moment.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me, my friend Dad Rod is coming over, and I need to get ready to sit and listen as he sits at the end of my table, smokes a cigarette, and drinks a cup of coffee. Being a part of the rhythm of his life is important to me, and I don’t want to miss a moment.