In late May 2014, I received a phone call from Jean Becker, my father’s longtime chief of staff. She got straight to the point.
“Your dad wants to make a parachute jump on his ninetieth birthday. What do you think?”
About eighteen months earlier, Jean had called to review the funeral arrangements for my father. He had spent nearly a month in the hospital with pneumonia, and many feared that this good man was headed toward eternity. He could not walk, and he tired easily. In my phone calls to Dad, he never complained. Self-pity is not in George Bush’s DNA. Now he was hoping to complete another parachute jump—the eighth of his life, counting the one he made after his torpedo bomber was struck by Japanese anti-aircraft fire over the Pacific in 1944.
“Are you sure this is what he wants?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she said. “What do the doctors say?” “Some say yes, some say no.”
“What about Mother?” “She is concerned. She knows that he wants to do it. But she’s worried that the jump will tire him out and he won’t be able to enjoy the birthday party that she’s planning for that night.”
After some thought, I said, “I think he ought to do it.” “Why?” “Because it will make him feel younger.” The truth is that my opinion didn’t matter much. After a parachute jump on his eighty-fifth birthday, my father had announced that he would make another jump on his ninetieth birthday. And George H.W. Bush is a man of his word.
A few weeks later, Laura and I arrived for the birthday celebration in Kennebunkport, Maine. The jump logistics were complete, the party was planned, and Mother was now on board. The afternoon before the jump, I sat next to Dad on the porch of his beloved home at Walker’s Point, perched on a rocky outcropping over the Atlantic. I had been painting an ocean scene and was wearing cargo pants stained with oil paint. For a few peaceful minutes, we stared quietly at the sea.
“What are you thinking about, Dad?” I asked.
“It’s just beautiful,” he said, still looking out at the ocean. It seemed that he had said all that he wanted to say.
We sat quietly for a few more minutes. Was he reflecting on the jump? His life? God’s grace? I did not want to interrupt.
Then he spoke. “Do those pants come in clean?”
I laughed, something I have been doing with my father all my life. His quip was typical. He was not nervous about his jump or his life. He was at peace. And he was sharing his joy with others.
The morning of Dad’s birthday, June 12, dawned chilly and gray. There was a modest breeze, about fifteen miles per hour. At first, we feared that the clouds might force a change in plans. Fortunately, the veteran paratroopers coordinating the jump, known as the All Veteran Group, determined that the visibility was sufficient. The mission was a go.
The crew fired up the Bell 429 helicopter that was parked on the lush green lawn outside the two-story wooden cabin that served as Dad’s office at Walker’s Point. Dad was clad in a custom-fitted black flight suit with a patch that read “41@90.” His preflight routine included a final weather clearance, a har- ness check, and an interview with my daughter Jenna, a cor- respondent for the TODAY show. Even with his jump looming, he was willing to share his time to help his granddaughter.
“What’s your birthday wish on your ninetieth birthday?” Jenna asked.
“For happiness for my grandkids,” he replied. “I hope they have the same kind of life I have for ninety years—full of joy.” He did have one more wish: “Make sure the parachute opens.” Family and friends gathered at the landing zone: the lawn of my parents’ church, St. Ann’s, the same place where Dad had landed five years earlier and where his parents had been mar- ried ninety-three years earlier. (As Mother put it, if the jump did not succeed, at least we wouldn’t have to travel far for the burial.) At about ten forty-five a.m., one of the members of the jump team approached me.
“Mr. President,” he said, “your father is airborne.”
A few minutes later, we spotted a small speck in the sky—the chopper at 6,500 feet. After the helicopter made a circle around the church, we saw several chutes pop open. Two belonged to the video jumpers tasked with chronicling the leap. The other was a large red, white, and blue chute carrying Dad and master jumper Mike Elliott, who was making his third jump with Dad and his 10,227th jump overall. The crowd cheered as the tandem headed our way.
“They sure are coming in hot,” my brother Marvin said, with a touch of worry.
He was right. The wind had taken the chute off course. Mike corrected with a hard turn in the final descent. Dad slammed into the ground, skidded for a few feet, and then face-planted into the grass.
The crowd went silent. Would he get up? Was he hurt? No one moved until the ground crew lifted him into his wheel- chair. The grandkids struck up a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to camouflage their anxiety.
Finally the sea of uniforms parted. George H.W. Bush had a smile on his face.
I grabbed Mother, and we walked toward Dad. She leaned over and gave him a kiss. I followed with a handshake and a hug.
“How did it feel?” I asked. “Cold,” he said. “I’m sure proud of you, Dad,” I said. “That was an awesome jump.” He pointed to his partner. “Mike did all the work,” he said. The scene captured the character of George Bush. He was daring and courageous, always seeking new adventures and new challenges. He was humble and quick to share credit. He deflected attention from himself and refused to brag about his accomplishments. He trusted others and inspired their loyalty. And above all, he found joy in his family and his faith. Nothing made him happier than being surrounded by his wife, children, and grandchildren in a place where he had so many wonderful memories.
After the jump, Dad returned to Walker’s Point to eat, take a nap, and prepare for the 250 family members, friends, and Bush administration alumni attending the birthday party that night. He rewarded himself with a Bloody Mary over lunch. Then he received a call from his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie star and former Governor of California.
“Happy birthday,” Arnold said, “to the most badass ninety- year-old I know.”
I agreed with Arnold’s assessment. George H.W. Bush set an example for many people in many ways. He is determined to live his life to the fullest—to the very end.
WALKER’S POINT, the site of my father’s ninetieth-birthday parachute jump, is a fitting place to begin the story of George Herbert Walker Bush. The stunning eleven acres consist of a rugged promontory jutting into the Atlantic Ocean off the southeast coast of Maine close to the town of Kennebunkport. The land was purchased around the turn of the twentieth cen- tury by my father’s grandfather and namesake, George Herbert Walker. Known to his family and friends as Bert, G.H. Walker was a fierce competitor in all aspects of life. In his younger years, he played competitive polo and briefly held the title of
Missouri heavyweight boxing champion. Later he was an ac- complished golfer who founded the Walker Cup competition between American and British amateurs.
Bert Walker’s competitive drive extended into the world of business, where he earned a reputation as a hard-charging en- trepreneur. He started his own investment firm in his home- town of St. Louis at age twenty-five. After a few flush years, he moved his operation to a larger stage, New York City. There he joined forces with another savvy investor, William Averell Harriman, and became President of W.A. Harriman & Com- pany. Bert Walker wasn’t afraid to risk money, and he sure wasn’t afraid to spend it. He owned a yacht, Rolls-Royces, and homes up and down the East Coast—including Walker’s Point, the only one that remains in our family.
As a father, Bert Walker doled out tough love to his sons. His youngest son, Lou, once showed up drunk for a mixed doubles championship at the tennis club in Kennebunkport. The whole family was gathered for the match. When Bert Walker, standing courtside clad in a tie, discovered his son’s debauchery, he pulled him off the court. Back at Walker’s Point, Lou was summoned into his father’s office. Bert Walker told him that his drunken performance had stained the family reputation. Then he imposed the sentence: Instead of returning for his next semester at Yale, Lou would spend a year working in the Pennsylvania coal mines. To show up drunk for tennis was rude and disrespectful, and those qualities were not tolerated in Bert Walker’s boys.
In sharp contrast to the way he treated his sons, Bert Walker showered his two daughters with affection. He showed particular warmth toward his younger daughter, Dorothy, who was born in Kennebunkport in 1901. In return, Dorothy Walker adored her father. And somehow she managed to inherit his best qualities while sanding off his rough edges. Eventually she passed those traits on to her son George Herbert Walker Bush.
Like her father, my grandmother had an insatiable competitive streak. My mother once dubbed her “the most competitive living human,” a title she earned in pursuits from tennis (she was a nationally prominent player in the small world of women’s amateur tennis) to tiddlywinks. She once challenged a friend to swim from Walker’s Point to the Kennebunk River Club, over a mile away. Thinking she was joking, the friend quit after a few hundred yards. My grandmother swam the full distance in the frigid Atlantic waters. In her most legendary feat, she played in a family softball game while nine months pregnant, swatted a home run in her final at bat, and then announced that she had started labor as she crossed the plate.
My grandmother tempered her zeal to win with genuine humility, and she demanded that all her children do the same. She expected grace in victory, good sportsmanship in defeat, and a commitment to “do your best” at all times. She instructed her children to downplay personal accomplishments and share credit with others. And her cardinal rule was that one must never brag. In her view, arrogance was unattractive, and a per- son with true self-confidence did not need to gloat. “No one likes a braggadocio,” she liked to say.
When my father was a child in Greenwich, Connecticut, my grandmother asked him how one of his baseball games had gone.
“It was great,” he replied. “I hit a home run.” “That’s nice, George,” she responded. Then she stuck in the dagger. “But how did the team do?”
Another time, Dad explained that he’d lost a tennis match because he’d been off his game. “You don’t have a game,” his mother shot back. “If you work harder, maybe you’ll get one.”
His mother’s early lessons in humility stayed with my father his entire life. During his 1988 presidential campaign, I accompanied him to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. He was there to share his knowledge of world affairs and answer questions from the audience. George Bush knew the policy is- sues cold. His handling of questions on Soviet relations and Central America was a tour de force. As a lighthearted finale, the moderator asked, “Why are you wearing a red tie?”
The question caught him off guard. From my chair next to the podium, I could see him struggling for an answer. I stage- whispered, “Because I spilled gravy on my blue one.”
Dad grabbed the verbal lifeline, and the room erupted in laughter at his self-deprecating quip. Then he ruined the moment by blurting out, “That’s what you have a son for.” That was typical of my father. Proper attribution of the gravy line made no difference to me; I just wanted him to look good. But George Bush was just too humble to fake it.
Dorothy Walker Bush was a woman of strong faith. She read Bible verses to her children over breakfast every morning. One of her favorites passages was Proverbs 27:2: “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth.” Every Sunday, she expected the family to go to church, usually Christ Church in Greenwich or St.
Ann’s in Kennebunkport. While religion played a central role in her life, she never used her beliefs to judge others harshly. Her faith was solid and enduring, and it gave her an enormous capacity to love. When I think of her, the words angelic and saintly come to mind. One of my favorite memories is of visiting her and my grandfather in Greenwich when I was little. She would tickle my back as we knelt down to say prayers before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep.”