I took Intro to Philosophy with Grady Spires during my freshman year at Gordon College in the early ’80s. Grady was jazzed by the subject, of course, which sort of got me jazzed, too, though it was clear that philosophy wasn’t going to be my dance partner. In class he would often play a bluesy version of “Rock of Ages.”
And Grady led 20 students (among them Dorothy Boorse and me) on a European Seminar trip through Western Europe in the summer of ’86. He got a nose bleed in the middle of the night in Nuremberg or Augsburg, and had to go to the hospital, where he lay around for a couple days while they tried to figure out the cause–and we soldiered on without him.
But my great Grady memory, the one I tell several times every year, concerns our arrival in Normandy.
We got to our camp site at Omaha Beach late in the day, and the weather wasn’t great, and we were all tired. I suppose because of the conditions, Grady decided we should find a local cafe for dinner. We quickly struck out: there weren’t many cafes around, or they were closed. We pulled forlornly up to a farmhouse with a sign promising food. An old-timer sauntered out to tell us that they, too, were closed. He tried a little French with Grady: no-go. Grady tried a little English: same. Then, Grady shifted into German. And the French fellow answered in German. And they suddenly began to converse IN GERMAN. The man tilted his head toward all of us stale, Keds-wearing students in the back seats and said, “Americans?” Yes, we answered.
Then he was booming something that meant, “Get out right this minute, you’re coming with me.”
“He’s making us dinner, let’s go,” Grady said. We all fell out of the vans and followed the man around to tables in his back yard, and his wife came out. They were going to fix us a huge meal of pasta and salad, and it was going to be free, and it didn’t matter that the cafe was closed–because we were Americans, and he would always welcome Americans, was viscerally grateful to our kin who had hit the beaches a mile away and liberated his village and his country. This he spoke to us in German, with Grady interpreting, as we sat to our meal, under-dressed and dumbstruck, with hands too small to handle what was being served up.
And he brought out a bottle of vodka, and poured himself and Grady a confident amount, and I briefly wondered, “Is Grady going to drink vodka with all of us watching?” And then they toasted and, thank God, Grady did knock back that glass, and did a patented Grady arm-shimmy and whoop, and our man poured them both a second, and Grady did his honorable best with that one, too.
Everything about Grady was equal to that moment. There he decided: Sometimes you grind grain on the Sabbath, or eat meat with publicans, or drink strong drink in the presence of your allies. Speaking German, by Omaha Beach, that’s what you do when you’re Grady Spires.