The Final Flight

Dear Ellie — It’s been a tumultuous fall. Aside from the November presidential election, your great-grandfather died that same month. He was your mother’s father’s father and his name was William Fendall Pennebaker. He would have been 99 on December 3.

Bill on one of his crazy rafting trips down the Rio Grande River.

Bill on one of his crazy rafting trips down the Rio Grande River.

Your great-grandfather had a very odd sense of style. Unfortunately, this was inherited by all three of his children.

Your great-grandfather had a very odd sense of style. Unfortunately, this was inherited by all three of his children.

Everyone called him Bill, even his own grandchildren. He was the fourth of seven children and a child of the Great Depression. Like his co-horts, he continued to be frugal and concerned about money for the rest of his life, even after he became affluent.

FAMILY STORY: In the 1970s, a neighbor kid forgot to put on a parking brake and the Pennebakers’ family car — an ancient Buick — plummeted into a nearby lake. At Bill’s insistence, the car was hauled out of the lake, cleaned out, and returned to use. The windshield wipers turned on with the left-turn indicator and the vehicle stank like a swamp — but, hey, why waste a perfectly good car?

World War II photo of Bill.

World War II photo of Bill.

Bill was a hero in World War II, flying 44 missions from England to Continental Europe. He became a lawyer in private practice, a community leader in Midland, Texas, and a husband, then father of three. He had a childlike, irrepressible curiosity about intellectual matters and how things work. He was also very much of his generation: a man who appeared unemotional and distant.

His service was at the Midland Community Theatre, which he helped found. It took place in the theater itself, which was still decorated with a living room set. His three children — your grandfather, Great Uncle Ward, and Great Aunt Mary sat on the couch like aging kids in a staged family photo. They talked, a family friend emceed, and old friends, business acquaintances, and other family members got up to talk about Bill’s dedication to the community, his professionalism, his offbeat humor.

FAMILY STORY: When his kids were young, Bill used to aid and abet their misadventures. For a long time (too long, let’s be honest), they got together to fill plastic bags full of natural gas from the kitchen stove. They then lit a cigarette fuse that ignited when the balloon was several hundred feet in the air — producing a big, loud burst of flame. Once, they almost sent 5-year-old Great Aunt Mary up in one of those airborne conflagrations. It was, your grandfather says now, owing to a slight mathematical calculation.

A memorial service gathers people who stand around, drink, and tell stories. In so many ways, it’s a lovely time of closeness and shared memories. It makes you reflect on your own life, too — about the person you are and want to be.

I wasn’t close to Bill, but I did admire him in many ways. His death marked the final passage of Opa’s and my four parents. It was, I kept thinking, the end of an era. I thought, too, about the family home, which had once been the site of rollicking parties, loud piano music, martinis, cigarettes, and Noel Coward-like banter; these days, it’s quiet and subdued, a little shabby with age. Everything changes — we have to learn that in life, and re-learn it over and over.


Again, your great-grandfather was successful, accomplished, and an exemplary citizen and good guy. But, watching his service, I realized he and your great-grandmother had raised three of the best human beings I know — good-hearted, productive, kind, smart, and funny.

It was the most important thing he did in his long life, and it’s the most important thing any of us will ever do. That’s what these times are for: To remind you of the really important things in life that are too easy to forget.

Love you, my darling girl, Coco

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Jean rather · December 5, 2016

    Ruth this is a lovely memory of a well-lived life. I know Jamie must appreciate your wonderful ability to capture a family’s hero!

  2. Laura · December 5, 2016

    What a wonderful account of Jamie’s father for your granddaughter!

  3. Ward · December 5, 2016

    Ruth, as usual, your eloquent and heartfelt post is remarkable in its ability to encapsulate a complicated person’s wonderful life. Thank you, thank you!