Pat Graybeal of Hilton Head Island starts his new memoir with this:
“I think of myself as one of the luckiest men alive.”
That seems odd from an 84-year-old man whose “hands” are two metallic clamp hooks, daily reminders for 44 years of that he was wronged by an ex-con who tried to kill him with a homemade bomb.
Graybeal’s life was defined that night, near midnight, in the quiet town of Christiansburg, Va.
He was the Montgomery County prosecutor and he’d pushed 20 cases through court that day — Dec. 4, 1973. He stayed late at the office preparing seven more cases for the next day. Then he stopped by a victory party for a new state senator.
When he pulled into his driveway, he noticed that someone had left a can of potato chips on the roof of his wife’s car. He leaned over the side of the car to pick it up and take it inside.
It was a bomb. The explosion shattered windows in the house, where his wife, Jill, and their two little girls, ages 11 and 9, were sleeping.
It blew away both his hands.
“My hands felt like they were frozen, extremely cold,” he writes. “I swung back around to put my elbows on the fender of the car and started leaning my hands together trying to touch them, and I couldn’t feel a thing.”
It left him temporarily blind and deaf.
They had to put more blood in him that night than a body holds.
Jill said: “The rescue squad man told me he was within 1 minute of not making it.”
Yet his memoir is called “Justice and Luck.”
Luck, you might say, that the man in the rescue squad lived down the street and was there in a minute.
Luck that Graybeal was leaning against the car, so it screened the explosion from his shoulders down.
Luck that a prisoner in the county jail could instantly tell police who did it. It was a man who’d talked in jail about killing Graybeal, who prosecuted the case five years earlier when he was convicted of beating and strangling to death his wife. A week after he was paroled, the bomb went off.
Luck, as Graybeal sees it, that specialists could pick from his eyes most of the metal shards of that can, and he regained his sight.
Luck that, with the help of hearing aids, he can hear.
Lucky that the towns of Christiansburg and Blacksburg, hugging the beautiful mountains of southwest Virginia, pulled together to support the Graybeals like their beloved Virginia Tech Hokies.
Neighbors took the girls to their home, and a friend took the new puppy, Freddie, as Jill went off to the hospital. Jill, a school teacher, was joined there by the superintendent, who waited up all night with her.
In this life full of luck, Graybeal was back at work four months later, driving himself with strings rigged to the steering wheel. He even had his sense of humor. Freddie the puppy ended up staying a while in a veterinarian’s home. Graybeal called him “Freddie the freeloader.”
Graybeal worked as an elected prosecutor for 25 years and then was appointed a district judge. He became chief judge, then a visiting judge after retiring to Hilton Head 20 years ago.
He never felt sorry for himself. People in the book say he and Jill showed a whole village, especially the little friends of their girls, how one responds to setbacks in life.
And that’s the crux of his book, and his life.
“I couldn’t see what being mad, or bitter, or upset, or vengeful would accomplish for me,” he said.
“I had two daughters.
“Jill was still with me.
“The best thing I could do was to get on with what I needed to do.”
I got to know the Graybeals through a story. It was when a small package arrived in the mail at their Sea Pines home in early December 2004. They recognized the address. It was where they used to live in Christiansburg, and where they’d stopped in a couple years earlier to take pictures of the rhododendrons in bloom.
In the package was Pat’s wedding ring.
The man who lived there, a pastor, was out raking leaves by the carport when he saw a flash of gold under a holly shrub. The inscription survived the bombing: “JEL to JPG, 7-18-53.”
Pat couldn’t wear the ring, of course, so Jill suggested he put it on a chain around his neck. He laughed. She got Adrianne Lively to frame it at Camellia Art, and it was a true Christmas surprise that year.
After 31 years, the ring “came full circle,” Jill said.
Graybeal describes a lot of luck in his memoir, edited and pulled together by Alex Cruden in a 92-page paperback that isn’t for sale. The Graybeals have ordered two batches of 50 books to give to friends and acquaintances.
It was lucky when he was offered a college scholarship to play tuba at Morehead State University, across the mountain from home in Radford, Va. It was lucky when he transferred to the University of Richmond and on the first day saw young Jill Lobach, his future bride. It was lucky that he got into the Navy after officer candidate school because he almost flunked the physical exam. He tells the story in the book:
“We can’t take this man,” the doctor told an officer. “He’s had too much dental work.”
The officer snapped back: “Take him. We want him to shoot the enemy, not bite ’em.”
He was lucky to be reared in a family of faith, with a heavy emphasis on education. His father was a physics professor at Emory & Henry College, where his four older brothers went to school. Of the six children in that family, one got a doctorate in divinity from Yale University, one became a doctor, two became lawyers and two were educators.
“Our parents had high expectations of us,” Graybeal said.
He remembers well an odd saying from his mother. Whenever one of them needed to buck it up, she’d say, “Remember, you’re a McGrill.”
Nobody knew any McGrills. But they knew what she meant.
The Graybeals were forced to buck it up when their daughter, Sally, died of breast cancer in 2007 at age 46.
And, of course, after the bombing.
Why no bitterness?
The way Graybeal figures it, the assailant wanted to kill him, and he had taken from him all he was going to get. He was not going to get his heart, or joy, or peace of mind.
Or, I guess, his luck.