There is no political commentary here, nor is there any point to be made. This post is merely a reminiscence in honor of my father on his birthday. But since this blog also serves as my place to express myself, I've chosen to write about a man that was a nobody to the rest of the world - and was everything to me.
I don’t know much about his childhood. But these things I do know. He was born in the woods outside Alma Georgia in 1916. His family was exceedingly poor. His father never owed a house or piece of land. By studying US census records I can see that his family was never in the same place for very long. It is said that for a period of time they lived in a house with a dirt floor.
My father was the eighth of nine children (that lived), and he was but five years old when his mother died in childbirth. Much of his childrearing came from his oldest sister who was 15 years his senior. The defining characteristics of the household were meanness and ignorance. None of the children went to school, but instead worked in the fields to help support the family.
My grandfather’s preeminent trait was meanness. Though I never knew him (he died in 1942), I’ve talked to many who remember him as a hard and bitter man who was completely lacking in compassion or empathy for anyone. The story is told how he whipped one of his sons with a horse whip even as he lay unconscious in the road. Only the interference of an uncle brought the beating to a stop, and even then the boy nearly died from loss of blood. Another story I’ve heard from several sources is how the old man would run the children away from the house, and then kill and fry a chicken and eat the entire meal alone.
However, I never heard a single uncomplimentary remark from my father about his dad. Instead he spoke of the pain of receiving the news of how the old man dropped dead while banking potatoes. It took six months for word to reach my Dad where he was serving with the Navy CB’s in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska in the early part of WWII. The delay it seems wasn’t merely the slowness of wartime mail; it was the ambivalence of the family and the utter lack of concern over the matter. My father was bitter over that delay throughout his life.
Daddy went on to serve at Saipan where he witnessed firsthand the mass suicides of Japanese civilians who leapt from the cliffs rather than surrender to the Marines. He spoke of seeing piles of bodies of women and children, and though he despised the Japanese, I could tell that what he had seen had been deeply disturbing.
Once while on a work crew my father’s unit was attacked by a squad of Japs. There was a short but fairly fierce exchange of fire before it was over. Then the sailors went forward to inspect the bodies and one of the Jap soldiers had been nearly cut in half by the bullets from Daddy’s BAR.
After Saipan, my father went to Okinawa and was aboard ship there in the Spring of ’45 when wave after wave of Kamikazi attacks were launched against the invasion fleet. His ship was not struck, but he told of helping to rescue scores of burned and wounded men from the water around his ship.
I have a book of poetry that my Dad bought in San Francisco, and inside the flyleaf of that book he had made tic marks for the dozens of air raids he endured while on Okinawa. He told a story once of how he dove into a bunker during an air raid, and inside was some sort of huge hairy bug that he said was common on the island. He said there were bullets flying and bombs falling all over the place, “but I let that bug have that bunker!”
After the war my father came back to the states and almost immediately met and married my mother. By this time he was already 30 years old. She already had a four year-old son from a previous marriage, and my father’s older sisters (being a gaggle of hateful and sanctimonious old biddies) did everything in their power to express their displeasure at the union. Though things settled down later, my mother was never welcoming of any of my father’s kinfolk – and I can hardly blame her.
For the remainder of his life my father supported his family as a housepainter and light carpenter. He was by nature an ornery and cantankerous sort, and after the Navy and a sort stint in civil service, he never again worked for anyone but himself; he wasn’t real good at taking orders from anyone.
The old man eventually learned to read, albeit slow and haltingly, and somewhere along the way (at my mother’s insistence I’m sure) he quit drinking and never again touched a drop of alcohol. He smoked as a younger man, but one day he came home and told Mama that the price of cigarettes had gone up, and he wasn’t going to pay that ridiculous price. He quit right then and never smoked another one – apparently with no difficulty whatsoever.
Daddy had his faults. He could be hateful and narrow-minded. He was an unabashed bigot and believed wholeheartedly in segregating the races. He didn’t believe in treating a black man unfairly, he just didn’t want any association with blacks whatsoever. His entire life he used the word “nigger” and thought nothing of it. He embarrassed me in public many times.
Once early in the war, while on liberty in San Francisco he boarded a crowded bus where he saw two old ladies standing in the aisle alongside two black men who were seated. Daddy demanded that the men get up and let the old ladies sit down. One of the men cursed Daddy and that’s all it took – the fight was on. Daddy knocked one man sprawling and then jumped on the second one. Meanwhile the first man produced a knife and stabbed Daddy in the neck. Then both of the black men jumped off the bus and ran. Once the fight was over and the ladies were able to sit down, someone said “hey buddy… you’re bleeding!” Daddy yelled to the driver to stop the bus and he jumped off and gave chase, but they were long gone by that point.
However there was a time many years later when Daddy was an old man and he was coming out of the bank after cashing his check. He was approached in the parking lot by a black man who told a convincing story of needing to get home to his sick wife to deliver medicine, and how he desperately needed a ride. Daddy told the man to “Come on, I’ll take you wherever you need to go.” Once in Daddy’s truck, the man produced a pistol and robbed my father at gun point.
My folks bought a house in Jacksonville Florida in 1947, about a year after they were married, and they lived there the rest of their lives. I sold that property about two years after Mama died. It was a painful decision, but there was no way I could keep it, and the neighborhood was changing for the worse. It would have broken their hearts to see how things had gone down there.
Daddy had a colorful way of speaking that was of course rooted in his backwoods illiterate upbringing. I have long intended to list a few of his most common sayings and I suppose this as good a time as any to do so:
If he was about to get angry he might say “Don’t steam me Boy”, or “Boy, I’m gonna knock a cornfield on your head”. If I had already made him mad he usually would yell “you Wretch!” or “you Hellion!”
He never said “Listen TO me”, it was always “Listen AT me”. And that was often followed by the admonition “Let me learn you sump em”.
My father almost NEVER called me by my name. To him my name was simply “Boy”.
Every malady or illness, no matter the cause or symptom, was instantly diagnosed as “meanness…pure meanness”. And closely related to that was one of my personal favorite Daddy-isms reserved for use ONLY with me: “You got the pure devil in you Boy.” (How I long to hear that just one more time)
One of the disadvantages of being a self-employed painter was a lack of insurance coverage, so my folks were pretty slow to go to the doctor. And Daddy had a tendency to go to quack doctors that promised miracle cures. In the Fall of 1987 Daddy took a fall and sustained some severely bruised ribs, and he sought treatment from a doctor that I later discovered was nothing more than a pill dispenser. In February of ’88 Daddy called me and said “Boy I need you to take me to the hospital, my heart’s racing too fast and feels like it’s going to jump plumb out of my chest”. So of course I took him and it was then we discovered that Daddy’s problem was not bruised ribs, but advanced Congestive Heart Failure. There was nothing they could do, and the doctor told me in private that it was only a matter of time.
One afternoon as I sat with Daddy in the hospital room, he was laying there with his eyes closed and obviously didn’t feel like talking. So I sat there quietly with him. The nurse came into the room all chipper and chatty and bustled about doing the things that nurses do. She noticed that Daddy hadn’t touched a glass of milk that she had left by his bedside, and commented that she would throw it out and get him some fresh milk. Now… Daddy came from the depression era, and to him the absolute cardinal sin over all other things was to waste food for any reason. He sat up in that bed like he was springloaded and snatched that glass of milk out of her hand.
“Don’t you throw that milk away woman!” he almost yelled at her.
He chugged that glass down completely in one draught and handed it back to her before rolling over and getting still and quiet again. She looked stunned, and I sat there with a knowing smile on my face thinking how much that was like my Dad.
A few days after that, Daddy had a heart attack and he was moved into ICU. I was with him there one evening, sitting by his bed and talking with him. Daddy was 45 when I was born, and I was his only child. Being an only child, and the child of his old age, Daddy was positively foolish about me. He came across to most people as a gruff and crusty old codger full of meanness and bile, but with me he was altogether different. As I sat there beside his bed, still harboring foolish notions that he would somehow get better, he put his weathered and calloused hands on my face and told me how much he loved me. I can still feel those hands even now as I write this missive through tear-dimmed eyes. I can still see the pure love for me that filled his eyes.
I had a bad habit in those days of calling him Old Man, even though I knew he didn’t like it. And so I said “Daddy, you come home with me and I promise I’ll never call you Old Man again”.
The following morning, he went home with Jesus instead.
Today is CT’s birthday. He would have been 95. Oh Lord, words can not express how much I miss that Old Man.
My son Joe with his grandpa, a few months before he died.