My Father’s Story

Grit

The Life of Bobby Jean Bernhardt

Born October 1929

 

I. A Hundred Years

When I was young, I made a promise to myself that I’d live beyond a hundred, and I’m not about to make a liar of Bobby Bernhardt. I’ve always felt that if you believe in something and stick with it, you can do it. Holding something in your mind’s eye like that gives a man the tenacity that less mindful men lack. I think that vow is why, today, I can look forward to many more years of living life to the fullest. And I think that vow is why, today, I can look back on the last 82 years of my life with a pride and gratitude that humbles me—the pride and gratitude of a man that has been blessed time and time again.

When we think about the concept of a hundred-year life, folks tend to focus on the sheer breadth of it. They tend to think about that hundredth year. Me, I think mostly about the days my life changed—the day I met an angel named Irene, and the day I made her my wife. But what about that first year, or even the first day of that first year, when it all began? It was a crisp autumn day in 1929 when Fern Morgart Bernhardt gave birth to me in a hospital in Marion, Kansas. The Great Depression was just starting to take hold of America, but I was born ready. While you might say that my wife Irene was born with grace, I was born with grit.

II. The Lessons Learned Early

I was the oldest of ten children. I had six brothers and three sisters. During my childhood we lived on farms outside Marion, Tampa, Ramona and Lost Springs, in Kansas. We always had a big garden and our own milk and meat, but we had few conveniences; truth be told, I don’t know how my parents got by. My father, John Balzer Bernhardt, was thin, quite short, but with a grit all his own. Raised in a family of all boys, he made us work, and we grew up as stronger, more determined people because of it. He was a good father. I learned respect, discipline, the value of hard work, and the love of family from my parents.

You could say that my father was a handyman of sorts. When the first Model T car had come out when he was young, he learned how to be a mechanic. Then, as the years passed, he diversified his skills more and more. I remember a time when folks would hire him to saw firewood with a portable saw he had made with a motor from a car frame. When the Works Progress Administration was launched in 1935 under the New Deal, he volunteered for one of its projects, though that only lasted a week or two. “I just can’t do it; I don’t want to be away from the family,” he said.

I can still remember a classic father-son moment when Dad and I took apart a Model A car’s differential. He told me to put it back together. When I did, I became frustrated because the rear wheels would spin in different directions when I turned either of the rear wheels. I didn’t know what I had done wrong, but when Dad saw it, he laughed and told me that it was the right way to do it, and that everything was working the way it was supposed to work.

My father was always the strict one, with my mother responsible for carrying out his orders. Discipline was different in those days, and I’ll never forget the eighteen inch strap that hung on the cabinet. It had a foot-long board handle attached to a leather switch, and when one of us boys misbehaved, my mother would use the leather end. When it was Dad who was disciplining us, however, he used the board, and one time was all you needed to know you’d never do it again!

Yes, my father was generally in charge, but when it came to suppertime, my mother took the reins. She would always see to it that we ate what was on our plates. She was born with a slight deformity in her hip, which left one leg six inches shorter than the other and gave her a limp. When she was young, she had started school, but the experience put too much strain on her hip, so she dropped out to be home-schooled. She did graduate with her class, though, demonstrating that she had a fire to her. That fire came out from time to time, like the day she and I were walking to the Post Office and I greeted a passerby by his first name. She scolded me, “You don’t call older people by their first name! He’s Mister to you.” She was a small woman, but the reprimand was correct, and to this day it is easier for me to remember the last names of people I meet, rather than their first names.

Though they put us to work, my parents made childhood good for us kids. I can still remember one of my first Christmases as a little boy—I couldn’t have been more than eight at the time. There were six of us then, four boys and two girls. That Christmas morning, we woke up to find two wagons waiting for us, one painted red and the other painted green. I don’t know where my father found those wagons, but we loved them.

Religion was sown into my skin before I was born, and though our farm was too far away from the church to permit frequent attendance, we went every Christmas and Easter, and our beliefs were an important cornerstone in our daily lives at home. I remember being taller than the other children at church, and having the feeling that I was too big. This early boyhood self-consciousness surfaces even today, at 82, when I still find myself occasionally anxious with the sense of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s funny, the things we carry with us.

Growing up in Central Kansas, softball was a big thing for community. When I was a boy, all the kids living nearby would come to our place in the summertime to play it. There was an assortment of city teams that competed viciously with one another—all in good fun, of course. I was always one of the better players, known for my curve balls and fastballs. But my key pitch was the riser, catching the batters off guard when I’d throw the ball in such a way that it would rise on the way to the plate. It was an expert move that would serve me well for many years to come.

Even in those early years, it was clear I was meant to be working with my hands. While I excelled in sports, I was mediocre in the classroom, especially struggling in sixth grade when World War II was just breaking out and Pearl Harbor was bombed. While I have forgotten most of my teachers, I’ll never forget that day. It was sunny and bright, and I was in school when we got the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. It was a somber moment but I can remember feeling at peace about it, having a sense that everything would turn out okay. It’s interesting that I remember that historical event so vividly, and the only teacher imprinted on my memory was Mrs. Hammond, an elderly lady who taught me history in high school. I remember sitting in the one-armed student desk chairs, learning from her in her big horn-rimmed glasses.

I loved high school because I had the opportunity to work with my hands in shop class and because I played sports. I stuck to a strict regimen of softball, basketball, and the mile-long race in track. My classmates and I were quite agile and athletic, but with only five of us in the class during my senior year, we didn’t have enough players for a football team.

That year, for our senior trip, the Lost Springs High School principal and his wife splurged and took us to Colorado, and they paid for most of the trip. We were thankful for the experience, and though it was a bit cramped with all of us crowded into their two-seater vehicle for the drive to Denver, we enjoyed visiting the museums before school ended and life would take us down our various paths.

III. The One I Chose

I was eighteen when I left home to venture out on my own in 1947. With five brothers and two sisters at the time, the house was crowded, and it seemed like my place as the oldest to stretch my wings and move on. Our neighbor, Alvin Reimann, offered me a job on his farm in exchange for room and board, so I tried that out for a while before moving to Nebraska the following year to work for Alvin’s brother, Henry. We had heard you could farm quite a bit of land there, so we loaded up a truck with furniture and set out in 1948 for a new state and a new life.

I thought that new life started when I first set foot on the property that was to be my home, but I was wrong. It didn’t start until a little later in 1949, when I attended a church group called Luther League and met a girl—the girl. The Luther League held social gatherings once a month, and that’s when I started to notice that this slender, dark-haired young lady with sky blue eyes had a sweetness about her that I couldn’t forget. She was seven years younger than I, and when she graduated from high school, I fell in love.

The thing that most drew me to Irene Elizabeth Anne Wittig was her demeanor. She was kind-hearted and compassionate, and she was playful without being flighty. She worked in a hospital in Rushville, and it was clear that she cared about people in the most sincere and selfless way. Sure, I had dated other girls, but for silly reasons—that’s what young people do. But as I got a little older, values became more important, and Irene had a grace about her that is rare in this world. I could see that, and I knew I would love her forever for it.

Irene and I shared a sweet courtship until the Korean War intervened. The threat of the draft loomed before us, menacing and certain. “Irene, I said, “if I make it through the service, I’d like to marry you. And if I do, you’ll never have to work outside the home as long as we have young children. I wouldn’t allow it.”

It was hard for us to separate, but I finally made it to Kansas City for my pre-draft examination and volunteered my name in Marion, Kansas to be drafted at the next picking. Sure enough, they chose me. It was 1953, and I had worked for Henry for four years by the time I left.

I completed my medical basic training at Camp Pickett, Virginia—a relatively straightforward experience, save for the fact that our lives were systematized and disciplined 24 hours a day, seven day a week. After basic training ended, our time was freed up a little, but work in the classroom became harder as we broached more advanced topics. I was stationed at the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Fort Riley, and once a month, we’d set up an evacuation hospital for about a week for training purposes, feigning the “front line.” As a medic who was 5 feet, 6 inches in height, the front line is where I would have been, had we been called overseas. All of us on the medic team were short, as taller people in front would surely draw more fire. It was a strange reversal of roles, considering my memories of being the tallest kid at church.

Though we were blessed to not be called overseas, we were ready. We worked hard, but we played hard too. The hospital administrator loved sports, especially softball, and in that sense, our passions intersected. I still had decent skills as a pitcher and was confident in my pitching ability, and we played all the time while I was in the Army, winning championships at Fort Riley two years in a row because I was the main pitcher. I was even hired to play for a team in Abilene, Kansas.

During that time, Irene went off to Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, to study administrative nursing. I’d drive up to see her whenever I could get away, whisking her into the town of Omaha on Saturday nights and treating her to our favorite delicacy, shrimp. In a sense, I hated the service, but I made the best of the circumstances, and visiting her lent its own special brightness through those years.

When I was released from the service and returned to Nebraska in 1955, I took up work on Henry’s farm again and remained there for another three years. He treated me like a son, and I looked up to him like a father. He offered to let me live on some of his land with the understanding that, if his landlord passed away, both of us would have to move. As a veteran, that’s how I was able to borrow money to start my own farm and begin living on my own for the first time.

Life has a sad way of changing suddenly, and a time later, Henry was killed in a tractor accident. But I still remember the opportunity he gave me at that crucial time in life, when I was really just a young man trying to start something great, and I’m still thankful to this day.

And though the Lord takes away, the Lord gives. I’ll never forget the day, several months after returning home, when I took Irene out and told her all about the new fishing bait I had just gotten, and how it was sure to catch me something phenomenal. I drove her to Walgren Lake, parked the car, got out, and instead of opening up my tackle box, knelt on my knee and pulled the bait out of my pocket—a ring. Sometimes it still gives me a shiver to remember that her answer was Yes.

True to my word, Irene would not have to work outside the home after our wedding. She dropped out of nursing school to focus entirely on the new journey we were about to embark on. People told her she was making a mistake, but she and I both knew better. “I got a better offer,” she would tell them with a playful smile.

IV. With Our Own Hands

The church was spacious, rural, Lutheran, and filled with guests on June 1, 1956. Words cannot describe the way it feels to watch the love of your life walking toward you, the aisle lined with goodwill, the air sweet with promise, the wood of the walls sacred and threaded with years of prayer, and our prayers weaving into them too—prayers that this new life, to be lived side by side, would be a good one. She made her dress with her own hands, and we would make our future the same way—with our own hands.

After we read our vows and were pronounced husband and wife, the gravity of that moment and all the happiness it meant for my life became real, and as I looked at Irene while we walked back down the aisle, I cried. To this day, I know that our marriage was God-ordained. I don’t know anyone who would have been more proper for me. Marrying her was the day my life truly began.

In that new life, Irene and I started off on a small farm near Hay Springs. It was a simple farm life, and even now, so many years later, that’s all I can really relate to. We continued our standard policy of attending church every Sunday, and I was a very active member of the community. I taught Sunday School classes in a nearby church and was active in the National Farmers Organization, to name a few.

Even in the beginning, I was looking toward the future, and I wanted to grow the farm. I told the landlords nearby that, if they ever wanted to change their renters, I’d like the chance to farm their land. In that way, I transformed the Bernhardt farm from a modest size to a farm of fifteen quarters, which was almost four sections of land, including my pasture. There was a time I had four landlords at once, and farming was a full-time job that relied on the efforts of each member of our family for success.

I think my landlords saw me as someone who worked hard and was honest and responsible. In fact, if I ever borrowed a piece of equipment or a tool, I would return it in better shape than when I had received it. My children would comment on this later and reminded me that I would return a truck with a full tank of gas or would clean and sharpen a shovel that I borrowed.

The Bernhardt farm raised wheat and cattle, and in our heyday, we had 500 acres of wheat and around 120 cows. For a single crop, we worked the ground for one year before planting and harvesting in the second year, and I put up my own hay as well. On top of all that, I raised hogs for many years, and I had almost 1,400 pigs each season. I put that practice to an end, however, when I read a book—The Curse Causeless Shall Not Come by Nord W. Davis, Jr.—about cancer and pork. Growing up, I had noticed that the one thing my father didn’t excel at was eating well, and it caught up to him when he passed away from a heart attack at age 56. My mother, however, didn’t pass away until 2002. It must have been that fire about her. I have that fire too, and I stoke it with a finely-tuned, health-conscious diet.

As our farm grew, our family grew too. Though Irene wanted me with her, I couldn’t handle being present for the births of our five children, and I didn’t take her to the hospital myself. It was a different time back then, and my excuse was that someone had to be home taking care of the farm and the livestock and the chores. After she began to have birthing pains I would take her to an intersection near the farm, where she was picked up and taken to the hospital. I fully admit that I was chicken about the process—I would go meet her at the hospital after it was all said and done. You’d think that, with all my medic training, I would have been tougher in that situation, but no. Perhaps it was because I loved her, and seeing someone you love in pain is something you can’t really train for.

Our first child, Donell, was born two years after we were married. So small, so trusting. When she was just starting to stand up, I could hold her up and balance her on my hands like a little gymnast. What is it you hold in your hands when you hold a baby? Time itself? A future, pre-planned or otherwise?. She would grow up to be active, popular, athletic. She had grit. She made sports records in school that were not broken until recently. She even played football, and when she would get the ball, everyone knew not to even try to stand in her way. Because of her, the town ended up deciding football was a bit too rough for girls, and it hasn’t been played since. I think you could say she had that fire about her—the same one her grandmother had.

Our second child, Gordon, came almost two years after Donell, and where his older sister gravitated toward physical activity, I could tell he always had his sights set on learning. He would become a successful business owner—generous, hardworking, and goal-oriented, with a love of helping people and an unshakable commitment to running his wealth management business with integrity and high ethical standards.

I’ll never forget a day he was in fourth grade when Donell, Gordon and Devonne were loading straw bales one autumn Saturday. I met them later in the day to drive the trailer of bales back home. Gordon was riding on the trailer with the bales, and I completely forgot that the trailer would shake when we crossed the cattle guard. The stack of bales began to collapse, and a few bales fell off onto the cattle guard—along with my son! The wheel of the trailer ran over his leg while he was in the cattle guard and gave him a compound fracture of his right femur.

When I got home, I realized he wasn’t on the trailer. Donell had been following in the pickup truck and saw him in the cattle guard. She pulled him out and rushed to the house to meet me. We called an ambulance to take him to the hospital in Rushville, where the nurses spoiled him.

Devonne was born just fourteen months after Gordon. She grew up to be hardworking, determined, and focused—a phenomenal mother and grandmother who earned her college degree in 2012.

Gloria was the next to enter the family, and though all of the children worked on the farm, she was a harder worker than most. Those currents of dedication would garner great success later in life as a leader and manager. She was shy but lovely, attracting a lot of attention from the young boys around town; kind and thoughtful, she would grow into the type of woman who would give the last dollar she had to someone in need. She has her mother’s grace.

Six years after Gloria, Barbara was born, the last addition to the family. I’ll never forget the afternoon Irene was cutting green beans she had picked from her garden, while I was loading grain in a truck. Suddenly, she came running to me carrying our little girl, not more than two years old and blue as all get-out. As luck would have it, I had learned just a week earlier how to dislodge something from the throat, and when Irene handed Barbara to me, I turned her over my arm and gave her a slap on the back. Thank God the bean popped right out; otherwise, I think she would have died.

Barbara would grow up to be much like her mother as well, warm and friendly to everyone she met. She would later become a great mother herself who inspires her children to give, getting her family involved with organizations like Meals on Wheels and 4-H. All the girls grew up to be wonderful mothers, and I’ve no doubt it is due in part to the wonderful mother they, themselves, had.

The children’s future success was mirrored even in the beginning by their pure spirits, strong morals, and burgeoning work ethic. They were all excellent tractor drivers and worked whole fields, even when I left them alone unsupervised. I could always trust that they were going to get the job done right.

Those long days of hard work in the hay fields were well rewarded when Irene brought dinner out for us, as she always did. We’d sit in the shade and have dinner together as often as we could—we were a strong, close family, and I treasure those times very much.

V. Softball, Strong Will (The Lessons Learned Later)

Softball was a constant theme throughout my life—so constant that the thousands of games run together in my memory, though certain moments stand out particularly strongly in my mind. For instance, I remember proving myself. When I first moved to Hay Springs there were several softball teams in the area. Irene and I went to nearby Gordon, Nebraska to watch some games one evening. One team was a team from Gordon composed of local farmers. They were beaten badly that night primarily due to poor pitching, so I approached them and asked if I could play with them.

“What do you do?” they asked me.

“I pitch a little softball,” I replied nonchalantly.

They wanted to see what I could do, so the catcher came over and I pitched to him. As the rest of the team watched, they all began to smile knowing that they were going to be much better if I pitched for them.

From that day forward, my reputation as a good softball pitcher continued to permeate Hay Springs—especially my commitment to have more than twice as many strikeouts as walks. Having a good pitcher on a team is key—it’s the spark that sets the team apart, and that’s what I defined myself as. The bonus for me was having Irene as my own cheerleader. What more could a man want?

There is nothing like the crack that rips the air when leather meets wood in that perfect intersection of muscle and might and skill. There is nothing like the byproducts of that intersection—the arc of the ball, the throng of the crowd amplified, the chain of events set into motion in accordance with the laws of the game. Softball, strongwill. These are moments I’ll never forget.

I’ll never forget the day I pitched at Fort Riley, and the other team’s batter sent the ball soaring backward over the catcher, over the whole stand. It landed behind the small bleachers and someone eventually threw the ball to the third base umpire, but just barely.

Just barely was all I needed. The home plate umpire threw me a new ball before the original ball was thrown in, but I wasn’t about to use it, so I waited until the original ball was returned. Our team was winning our own company division at Fort Riley, and was now in the midst of a game against the main post team. Softball and life are not only a matter of rules, or of aptitude, but also of self-definition—a matter of will. I saw my chance to define the game, and I was taking it.

I refused to use the new ball. The other team argued, saying I had to do what the umpire said, but my resolve was steel; the original ball was now in the field of play, so I had the right to use it. I waited them out and then the umpire agreed with me, and it broke their spirit. We played out the remaining innings, but the game had been won right there, in that moment. In the end, we beat them by a landslide.

Seared in our memories just as sharply as victories are moments of defeat. I remember, more than any other game, one in which I pitched fourteen innings. We were tied going into the fourteenth, but the other team got a run, and we couldn’t pull up. We lost two to one. I guess that measures the breadth of a man’s character—the moments we soar the highest, and the moments we sink the lowest. Pressing those boundaries can be hard, but it makes for a range of capability we wouldn’t give back for the world.

VI. The Giving and Taking

We worked hard on the farm, and I played hard on the softball field, but we managed to find time for some fun, too. Eventually, we bought a television set, and on Saturday nights, Irene and I would watch Gunsmoke and Grand Ole Opry. What we loved most, though, was playing cards. Many winters, a group of about ten families would meet at someone’s house every Saturday to play pinochle.

What I remember the most about our family was our insurmountable work ethic, and our insurmountable love. The Bible instructs us to never let the sun go down on an argument, but even that phrase was hardly necessary for Irene and me. I don’t recall ever having a single argument with her. She was always supportive, always loving, and I hope our kids remember me loving their mother all the time.

Yes, we were blessed. So much was given to us for so many years. But the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. It still surprises me how, in an instant, so much can be taken away.

Irene had just flown home after a week-long health lecture in Georgia, and Donell and her fiancé, Maurice Turnbull, went to pick her up from the airport in a neighboring town. Donell was driving, Irene was in the passenger seat, and Maurice was sitting in the back, when suddenly, their car collided with another.

“Oh, no,” Donell exclaimed—her last words before turning the steering wheel as the two cars careened into one another. Her neck was broken immediately, and she died upon impact. Maurice suffered severe injuries and had to spend the next several months in the hospital. Irene, as well, was rushed to the hospital, but she only had a cut on her forehead and another across the top of her hand. The true wound—the loss of her daughter—was one the doctors could never mend.

The shock, the sadness, the heaviness of that time—it was among the greatest hurdles of my life. Donell was to be married in only a few weeks’ time—the invitations had all been sent out.

I remember that the funeral was among the largest in the area. What is it you hold in your hands when you bid farewell to the daughter you once held in your hands? A tiny gymnast from long ago, a young woman who will stay a young woman, thin air. You hold a new future—reinvented and evolving, as it does every moment, defined as much by what is lost as it is by what is left. Irene and I were devastated, but we knew we each had a role to play in maintaining the integrity of our family. What love we had lost, we channeled around our other children, and we took pains to set the sadness within a structure that promised we would come out on the other side a family still.

VII. With His Protection

And we did make it to the other side. With such a strong belief in God and His protection, we couldn’t let even something so tragic as Donell’s loss break the strength of our family. We persevered.

When the kids had grown up and Irene and I had some time to ourselves again, we vowed to take a trip somewhere in the U.S. every year, and we did. We’d mainly fly to visit my sisters and brothers, and we made a point to spend time with my mother as well. Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Nevada, California, Minnesota. We flew to D.C. to visit Gordon, and we drove to Canada and saw the Great Lakes. I hated flying over large bodies of water, fearful that the motor might deteriorate and we’d be done for, but generally speaking, I loved flying. I loved it so much, in fact, that I even learned how to fly a plane myself when I was middle-aged. I’m adventurous, I suppose.

The sky wasn’t the only foreign domain I ventured into later in life. I had always told Irene that the shop was my kingdom, and the kitchen was hers, but when I started suffering from serious chest discomfort at age 39, I decided to change my diet, venturing into the one territory of the house that remained uncharted as far as I was concerned. I’ve been extremely health-conscious ever since and today I eat mostly fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. I’m in such good health that, when I asked my doctor at my last exam what I could do better, he was at a loss with any further advice. Irene almost never had a sick day in her life, either.

We had a lovely 50th Golden Wedding Anniversary in June of 2006, a perfect celebration of the love, family, and friendship that has always made our lives full. Several days later, however, Irene had a stroke, which required an operation. She wasn’t as health-conscious as I was, and to be honest, I regret not talking to her about a minor stroke earlier as I was told of an incident at a Garden Club meeting. After the surgery, we began taking walks together again, but she could only go about fifty yards before feeling so exhausted that she’d want to turn around. I resolved to carry a chair for her so she’d be able to sit down for a short break when she needed it, and before long, we had worked up to a hundred yards, and then to a quarter-of-a-mile, and finally a half-mile.

On one of those walks, I had gone several paces ahead of Irene before realizing that she had stopped along the road. The weather was sweet and spring-like, with a light breeze, and the leaves of the cottonwood tree nearby were rustling—talking. She was staring up at the tree, and several minutes passed. I asked her what she heard, but it was as if she were in a trance I couldn’t break. Even later, when I asked her if she remembered, or if she saw something, she wouldn’t say one word about it. Shortly after that, she had a major stroke and never regained consciousness.

Did she hear something that day? See something? I don’t know the answer. All I know is that, through it all and even now, she is in God’s protection and presence. Losing Irene was the other tremendous hurdle of my life, but my faith brings peace again. She was loved by many.

Irene’s mother, Margaret, was still alive when Irene passed. She was living in a nursing home nearby, and had been bedridden for several months. She would always pull me down to hug her—she was my mom-away-from-home. She passed away a couple months after her daughter, and I take comfort in the fact that three generations of Bernhardt/Wittig women are together now in Heaven.

VIII. Vital Signs

I am 82 now, but I’m still self-sufficient, learning, and strong. I still live in the country in Northwestern Nebraska, six miles north of Hay Springs, and it seems like if the world fell apart, I’d have everything I need here on my own farm to survive. If the electricity goes, I’ve got candles. I burn wood if I need to keep warm. I’ve got an electric pump and a windmill nearby that pumps water into the supply tank, all naturally. I’ve lived on the land and with the land my whole life. I don’t need anything else, and some people who stop by here say it’s Heaven. My wife was an angel, so that would make sense.

I usually get up around 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and go to sleep anywhere up to 11:30, which means I get between six and eight hours of sleep every night. Oftentimes, though, I wake up within four or five hours, and the only way I can get back to sleep is to pray. I pray for my children, for my friends, for wisdom, for understanding. I’m asleep again before I’m ever finished.

Usually I wear blue jeans, a good shirt, and a string tie that signifies Western culture. I like to wear a baseball cap and have several to choose from. I think I should be respectful and dress accordingly. In church, I dress up with a suit and tie—to me, it’s mandatory.

Now, I weigh about 140 pounds. I know I’d feel incredible if I’d lose a few pounds, but I feel great as I am. Sure, I’m concerned about my eyesight and prostate, as all men my age should be, but everything else functions fairly well. When my brothers and sisters see me, they can’t believe how trim I look and how active I am. I walk several miles each week.

Yes, I espouse the importance of health any chance I get. It’s my passion, and I’ve studied it thoroughly, both in the classroom and beyond it. In fact, I’m too busy reading about health or law to watch sports on TV. I loosely follow how the Colorado Rockies and the Nebraska Cornhuskers are doing, but that’s about it. I don’t have a favorite team, and I don’t watch baseball much. I’d rather watch a good softball game, or learn more about health.

I don’t care at all for newspapers, save for the local paper, where I write an article about health every now and then. I read all the health books I can get my hands on and have one of the best health libraries in the area, complete with books, DVDs, and CDs. I would say it’s worth between $3,000 and $4,000, as some of the books were written in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The books I most cherish are the ones written by some of the oldest doctors, which add unparalleled dimension and breadth to the library I’ve built over the years. I also have a list of about five medical websites that I check regularly, and I do a lot of online research and reading about health. I also have a list of about a hundred people I correspond with regularly via email regarding health and law. Even at 82, one might call me an avid student.

Considering the fact that I’d been a medic in the Army, a doctor once asked me if I had ever wanted to become a doctor myself. The thought had never crossed my mind, but to this day, I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think I could practice medicine and recommend the many drugs that are prescribed today. I do hope that someday there’ll be more natural hygienist doctors.

I also like to read good, clean jokes online, and I’ll send them out to my friends and family on occasion. I try not to send out any junk, although I might send a dirty joke every once in a while to a specific person if I think they’ll really get a laugh about it. Down the road, I may get an iPad, but I’m not sure. I only have a cell phone because the kids insisted on it. I live in too low a region and can’t use my cell at home, but the kids wanted a way to contact me when I go places. The minute I get out of here, I have my cell with me. I text a little as well, but not a great deal. I don’t like to, because the keyboard is too little. I do send out pictures, though.

What I really love is woodworking. I made two beautiful wooden caskets for my closest friends, who were like brothers to me. When people saw those caskets the night before the burial, they couldn’t believe they were homemade here in town.

IX. Whispering Pines

My other hobby is raising bees. Most people think it’s dangerous. When my eyesight was getting a little worse, I quit raising my own queens. At one time, though, I had about 300 hives. Since Irene passed away, I said, to heck with it—I’ll have around twenty to fifty hives and let it go at that. I call it the Whispering Pines Apiary. I order queens in from Texas and split them up, placing a new queen in each hive that needs one. I like to place my hives amongst dandelions and wildflowers, so each spring you’ll find me hoping the weather will be warm enough to coax a lot of blossoms to bloom.

I know two doctors with research experience in honey, and they say they’ve never tasted any honey better than mine. Whenever there are farmers’ markets, I go to the store to get store-bought brands, as well as those little-bitty taster spoons. I let my customers taste the difference between the store-bought honey and my own, and it’s never been a competition. I’d put my honey up against anybody’s. It’s straight from the hive to the jars, and for health, you will never find any better honey.

Besides the farmers’ markets, I sell the honey locally to whoever calls. There are signs on my pickup truck that say Honey for Sale. Call This Number… Whenever folks see that sign on my vehicle, I’ve got honey with me.

People love it. They’ll stop me and say, “Are you a beekeeper?”

“Yep,” I say. “Can I get some honey for you? I have some with me right now.”

They buy a quart or a gallon. There was once a gal who stopped me and said she’d like to buy some. She was on her way to California to see her mother. She took the honey, and on her way back through town later, she said that her mother had never tasted any better honey and wanted more. The gal had me deliver seven gallons to her in a town nearby and has been a customer ever since.

X. Now

Now, a good softball game is hard to find around here. This whole area doesn’t play it like they used to. They’ve moved into the slow-pitch game—the ball has to be a certain height off the ground before it’s legal. Frankly, it kills the whole game. Sure, everybody can play, but the best ones don’t stick around very long.

Now, I’m still a student of health and of law. I volunteer at two nursing homes and play ten-point pitch with the residents. I try to make their days better.

It’s in my nature to try to do good like that. Irene and I always taught our children the paramount importance of the ten percent rule, which means giving ten percent of what you earn to charity. Anytime you give liberally of your talents, knowledge, or money, you’ll benefit fifty times over—that’s just God’s way.

Beyond the ten percent rule, I’ve always been very conservative about money and taught my children the importance of saving it. As a result, none of them spend lavishly, and they’re all very generous to me now in my old age, which I appreciate. An important lesson about money came one day many years ago when Gordon and I were coming home from working in the hayfields, and a Native American Indian in a pickup truck stopped us in the road. He was in need of money to replace a damaged chain saw and asked if I would advance him some in exchange for a good deal on cedar posts for the farm. He didn’t have the posts with him, but I took him at his word and agreed. I never heard from him again, and there was no way to track him down, so I learned the lesson right then and there that if you’re going to buy something, make sure there’s a way to enforce the agreement.

Still, I didn’t let that sully my views of humanity, and of the importance of giving. I still give money every now and then, as we do in church, trusting that one should give even without a return, because the very act of giving renders that money blessed.

When the Lord takes me home, I pray it will be fast. I’m not going to have a disease—of that, I am confident. I’m trying to do what’s right, and I don’t worry about aging because I made that vow—to live past a hundred years. It’s a strange thing, getting older. My mind and my thinking aren’t getting any older at all, or so it feels, but when I look at my body, it’s a different story. Still, it’s a strong body, and I’m very active, walking at least three times a week. Sometimes I walk six miles into town. If it’s snowing, I use a treadmill, though I’ll still trudge the quarter-mile to the mailbox, which makes for excellent exercise in the snow.

Things are different now, but I’m happy. I’m thankful for my mind, for my strength, for the happy life I’ve lived and continue to live. And most of all I’m thankful for my greatest happiness—my family. They are my life’s greatest joy. Every one of my children has become an excellent adult, and I consider my biggest accomplishment to be that I instilled good values in them. They all have an incredible work ethic, so much so that one might say that if you have Bernhardt in your blood, you’re sure to be a workaholic.

It wasn’t all me, though. So much of their cultivation was Irene, and so much of the strong characters they have now comes from their own good sense and spirit. With children, you just have to let them find their own life. You can talk to them and say what you want, but it’s up to them to implement it. It’s up to them how they want to live their lives, and mine have each made the most of what they were given, and continue to give of themselves.

And now, they’ve given me thirteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They’re my pride and joy; in fact, if I had it all to do over again, I’d have my grandchildren first!

The secret to my success is my work ethic, doing what’s right, staying healthy, being honest, and having faith that there’s a God in this universe. I have a few years left till I’m a hundred and I’m free to meet Him, but I know—the blessings in my life have been too marvelous and too many for it to be otherwise.

Addendum: Bobby Bernhardt’s Guide to Living to be 100

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.  — Genesis 1:29

One of the fundamental steps to a long, healthy life is converting your diet into one that is centered around natural, raw fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts.

I fear, however, that all the pesticides and sprays are going to hurt us over the long haul. I eat organically as much as possible. The majority of the food I eat is raw, and as I strive to be a vegan, I eat meat only a few times a month.

Don’t smoke. After the age of 40, if you smoke, I believe you’ll start to lose a few teeth every ten years.

Along with smoking, I think of alcohol as the other worst “junk food” a person can partake in. It’s one of the greatest detriments to the brain there is. I believe Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can be cured, but it will take the introduction of more natural fatty acids into our systems to do it. The only two I’ve found are coconut oil and virgin olive oil. If, like me, you have at least one tablespoon on your salad each day, I believe you’ll dramatically decrease your chances of getting those terrible illnesses.

Six of my close friends got cancer, and their doctors all instructed them to go the chemotherapy route. Today, they’re all six feet under. I think if you have chemo, you may live a little longer, but your chances of a complete recovery are slim. The natural hygiene route, however, has a soaring success rate if you adopt it early enough. You can extend your life twenty to forty years if you change your eating habits. Your body has the ability to correct anything; it’s wonderfully made.

© 2012 Gordon J. Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.

Acknowledgement: Thank you to my father, Bob Bernhardt, and my three sisters–Barbara Wood, Gloria Bernhardt, and Devonne West for contributing their thoughts and memories to Dad’s story. And thank you to Emily Burns for taking those thoughts, organizing them, and crafting this story.

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