What I Learned From A Man Who Lost His Hands:
A Veterans Day Tribute to My Grandfather
Philip Robert Bray
July 9,1920 – Feb 15, 1998
My grandfather was one of my best friends growing up. To me, my “Pa” was a funny, loving man who made me feel important and taught me so much. But, long before I came into his life, he had endured a life-altering experience.
When he was 19, he became a Captain in the U.S. Air Force, where he managed the servicing of P-38s airplanes during World War II.
He was stationed in England, France, Belgium and, finally, Germany, where he ultimately sustained injuries that took both of his hands and the sight in one of his eyes.
After losing both of his hands, my grandfather’s life changed dramatically and he had to learn to use his new hands, which he called his “hooks.” These prosthetics had skin-colored cuffs that slipped over the stumps of his arms where his hands would have been. The ends had two metal, hook-like, appendages with a little third bump that could help him balance the things he carried. There was a cable that went up from each of the hooks, up the cuffs, and attached to a sling that was worn on the opposite shoulder. By moving this sling via his shoulder and arm, my grandfather could open and close his hooks.
After a long recovery with help from my wonderful grandmother, my grandfather learned to use his new hands, retiring as a Major who later worked at the U.S. Veteran’s Administration where he helped other injured veterans after returning from overseas.
My grandfather was a hero who paid an incredible price for our freedoms; a price which he wore with him everyday. Yet, because hooked hands were uncommon, many people were curious when they saw him and stared. I remember him making comments about this under his breath… comments about a being a “cripple.” But, as a young girl, I had no idea what a “cripple” was because I only saw an incredible teacher.
Pa could have stopped doing everything. Instead, he had special tools made so he could do carpentry and yard work. Together, with my incredible grandmother (my Nana), they made an impressive Japanese style yard, complete with Tori gate, pond, tea room, and waterfall.
I watched him work with his custom tools, crafting benches, shelves, bunk beds, book cases and even a two-story playhouse for me.
He worked with me in the garage, quizzing me on tool names and teaching me the power of work.
And, in between chores, he also taught me about balance and the power of play.
Which also often included throwing ice from our drinks at each other from across the table and putting underwear on our heads.
So, yes, my Pa could have quit and chosen not to work with his new hands nor his specialized tools. And I’m sure there were times he did quit or felt like quitting (I know I would have). But, to me, I never saw a quitter or someone who was “disabled.” I only saw a man who, despite all odds, continued forward. This alone was one of the most valuable lessons that I learned from my Pa and I use this notion as fuel to propel me forward through my own tough, uncomfortable, times.
I’m so very grateful for my Pa and am blessed that I got to have such an incredible teacher as a relative and best friend. I’m doubly grateful for my incredible Nana who worked tirelessly to help her husband, my grandfather, live such a fulfilling life.
Here’s to my Pa, all of the veterans, and all of the veterans’ spouses who have worked so hard for our freedoms. Happy Veterans Day!
(And a big thank you to my dad, mom and Nana who helped run around to provide me images and information!!! I love you guys!)