Greg Lippert and Robert Haydon Jones

Greg Lippert
“You Don’t Know What Sad Is”

Nelson at Spithead
By Robert Haydon Jones
Inspiration piece

Little, 5-year-old, Jimmy O’Hara was about to be murdered and there was nothing 
he could do about it.

His grandfather had Jimmy by the ankles and was spinning him faster and faster 
around and around over his head. His grandmother was on her knees screaming, 
pleading with the big man to stop.

“Please, please”, she screamed. “Please don’t kill him. I’m begging you. Please stop.”

Jimmy was frightened. He knew he was about to die. He was spinning faster and faster. His grandfather was about to hurl him against a wall and dash his brains in. Just like the SS Storm Troopers were doing to kids in Russia.

Jimmy cried out, “Please!” It was a pitiful squeak. So, he just screamed with all his might.

His grandmother kept screaming. “Stop! Please don’t kill him! I’ll do anything you want.”

His grandfather grunted. Then he suddenly slowed the spin and gathered Jimmy in. He set him down next to his grandmother, turned on his heel and walked away.

“Oh, thank God,” his grandmother said. “Thank, God.” She was trembling.

“Darling boy, are you okay? Your grandfather gets crazy some times. I should 
never have left you alone with him.”

She kissed and kissed Jimmy’s cheeks and hugged him. He could taste her tears. Her gold bracelets jingled.

“You must never tell anyone about this. We don’t want your parents to worry. You will always be safe with me.”

Jimmy kept the secret. He never told anyone. He never learned what it was he had 
done that had set his grandfather off. Jimmy thought about it hard over the years, 
but he could never figure it out.

In the days and weeks and months and years to come, when he stayed with them, after breakfast, Jimmy would accompany his grandfather to a nearby park where he 
met with friends. Jimmy would dig around in the brush in a ravine below the benches. 
When he found something interesting, he would put it in a little basket, shake the basket 
and his grandfather would haul it on up. It was fun.

Jimmy’s grandfather’s grandfather had served five years in the Welsh Fusiliers and sailed 
for America with his wife a week after they were wed. In 1849, he trekked to California 
and struck it rich. He returned to Ohio in 1850 with $43,000 in cash and six big nuggets.

By 1853, he was flat broke and back in the mines. His problem was, “…He crooked his little finger too much.” In 1861, he lied about his age (51) and enlisted in the Union army. He was 
badly wounded in the stomach but recovered after a year and reenlisted for the duration. He was captured at Cold Harbor. In September 1864, he died of scurvy and dysentery at 
the Confederate Prison in Andersonville, Georgia.

Jimmy’s grandfather’s father was also a Civil War soldier, who after the War, went on 
with the Cavalry to fight in the Indian Wars.

Jimmy’s grandfather was born in 1870. He grew up in a coal-mining town in Ohio. 
As a child, he showed he had prodigious ability as an artist. When he was 14, a collection 
was taken up from the miners and he was sent to the Cleveland Art Institute.

He did well there. He had unique ability as a sketch artist. He worked as a part time janitor and extended his stay at the Institute for two years. Then, he decided to go to New York City and seek employment as a sketch artist with a newspaper.

He failed at that. He was lucky to get a job as a deckhand on a cargo ship that made two round trips a month from New York to New Orleans. After nearly two years, he was 
off duty when he happened on a fire at a well-known hotel in Manhattan. Firemen quickly extinguished the blaze, but his grandfather was able to make a fast sketch of the action.

He brought the sketch to the Editor of the New York Herald, who bought it for $10 and added him to his staff.

Over the years, his grandfather would tell Jimmy the standard Cowboy & Indian stories 
and sprinkle in some stories of his life on the job. Sitting Bull had become enraged when his grandfather did a sketch of him and his grandfather had to flee to avoid being knifed. 
Pat Garret, the sheriff who had killed Billy the Kid, liked to play poker.

During the Spanish American War, his grandfather had been captured in the bush in Cuba 
along with a Hearst reporter. They were taken to El Morro, and sentenced to death as spies.

At dawn, two days later, he was blindfolded and transported to a ship. As he stood there in 
his blindfold, several drums rattled. He was sure he was about to be hung. Then his blindfold 
was removed. Rather than a gallows, the first thing his grandfather saw was our flag. He was 
on an American ship. He and the reporter had been exchanged for several Spanish officers.

That was his last war. But not his last adventure. He was a tall, powerful, handsome man – 
well over six feet like his grandfather before him. For decades, he was a famous sketch artist 
for big newspapers across the country. He was a good artist and quick. He was referred to as 
The Human Camera in the promotions the papers ran about him.

Of course, Jimmy never could trust his grandfather. They never discussed the horrific spinning incident. But Jimmy knew he had come very, very close to being murdered. His grandmother and his grandfather knew it too.

Over time, Jimmy learned that his grandfather had a weakness for alcohol. He was just one in a long line of his ancestors… “Who crooked his little finger too much.” Jimmy’s mother and father also had their problems with alcohol. A lot of people did.

His parents traveled a lot and they were having more babies, so Jimmy spent a big chunk of time with his father’s parents, who lived nearby. Then his grandfather did an 
oil painting of Jimmy – and it was so bad, his grandfather went to see an eye doctor.

It turned out his grandfather had real bad cataracts in each eye.

He had surgery on both eyes. In those days, you had to wait two weeks before you 
could remove the bandages. Jimmy kept his grandfather company while he waited. His grandfather was very disturbed. It was as if he had suddenly gone blind. He couldn’t sketch. He couldn’t meet with his friends at the park. He couldn’t see his own sketches 
and paintings, except in his mind’s eye.

So, he told Jimmy a lot of stories. Once he had been drinking with some men on a train bound for California and they ran out of whiskey. One of the men offered to share some 
moonshine he had purchased at a town down the line where they had stopped earlier for coal.

His grandfather declined and went to his sleeping berth. In the morning, he learned 
that two of his drinking companions had died and one was blind.

His grandfather’s father had gone on with the Seventh Cavalry to fight the Indians. His grandfather had a letter his father had written just after his brigade had used their 
new repeating rifles for the first time against the Plains Indians. “We fired a volley at them and they came on us directly, expecting to be on us before we could reload. We let them 
come for a bit and then fired volley after volley at them. We had ourselves a regular Turkey Shoot!”

Finally, the two weeks passed. The Doctor and his assistant came to remove the bandages. They made sure the blinds were drawn. They removed the bandages very carefully. Then they meticulously cleaned off the eyelids. His grandfather opened his eyes slowly.

He could see wonderfully well.

Decades back on their extended honeymoon in Europe, his grandfather had done a watercolor portrait of his grandmother sitting under a grape arbor. He had done the trellis – but had not put in the grapes – meaning to finish the painting later. After the bandages came off, he thanked the Doctor and barked at Jimmy to fetch the watercolor 
of his grandmother. The Doctor was still taking his leave while Jimmy’s grandfather 
furiously added the long lost grapes. His grandfather had obsessed on them for 14 days.

Occasionally, Jimmy was with them on weekends. On Saturday night, at 7:30, they would gather by the radio and listen to The Lone Ranger. Jimmy liked The Lone Ranger all right, but he was very surprised his grandfather was such a fan.

Jimmy’s family moved away from the city to a small Connecticut town by the sea. On VJ day, his grandparents came and they had a wonderful party. Everyone got a little tipsy. The next day Jimmy and his father took the grandfather fishing in a small motorboat. They were just out of the harbor only a small way when Jimmy’s grandfather got very 
seasick from the mild chop.

His father was very solicitous about the old man but he was very sick until they all got to shore and got out of the boat.

He was very sick and very embarrassed. “Just like Nelson at Spithead”, he said two or three times. There was a family fable they were descended from Nelson on the bar sinister, but his grandfather never believed it. It was a sad experience for all concerned.

A few years later, Jimmy was just home for the summer from Prep School, when his father took him to visit his grandfather at an Old Age Home a few miles away.

His grandfather was in bed. He smoked his cigarettes in a rubber tube to minimize 
the risk of fire. Jimmy sat by the bed while his father and grandfather talked. After a time, 
his grandfather said, “I’m very, very sorry I wasn’t a better father for you, son.”

His father replied, “You were a good father, pop.”

“No, I wasn’t,” his grandfather said.

“No, I wasn’t. I am so sorry.”

On the drive home, Jimmy told his father it was sad about his grandfather.

“Sad,” his father replied. “You have no idea what sad is.”


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  1. Posted March 7, 2019 at 6:40 am | #

    You have a wonderful partnership. I love the stories about Jimmy – which always have a twist that grabs me. And this leering old sad portrait surrounded by a…halo?…boozy aura?…both or neither?… is perfect.
    Thank you for a good read and a good look.

  2. Posted March 7, 2019 at 10:50 am | #

    This tore me up. Who hasn’t had a mom or dad question whether they had been good parents, and faced the need to lie?

  3. Posted March 7, 2019 at 11:57 am | #

    Families are wonderful and mysterious, and Bob feels it to his core and lets it out beautifully through his pen.

  4. Posted March 19, 2019 at 9:32 am | #

    Ooof, punch to the gut. After all the generations of men at war, Jimmy begins to learn it’s not those historical events that bind fathers and sons. Great art piece.