The house was small, cheap linoleum floors and a woodstove for heat. Grandpa’s cricket box was always on the porch in summers, ready for him and his brother-in-law, Uncle Buck, to take off fishing at a moment’s notice. There was sugar cane and vegetables growing out back, chickens all around, roosters to wake you at daybreak, metal swinging chairs outside to sit and talk. Grandpa’s hooch often came in non-taxed Mason jars, and the whole house would shake when he got out his harmonica, stomping in time to the music.
My father was among those who took part in what has become one of this nation’s enduring epochs, that of uneducated Southerners joining the military. The story is he lied about his age and somehow got in, got found out at 16, and was kicked out up north near Boston. He moved to Maine, worked cutting trees for a while before showing back up at the recruiter’s office at 18.
And then he saw the world, which was just what he signed up for. Over the next 24 years he was in Europe, China, Japan, the Philippines, San Diego and Seattle, and up and down the East Coast from Newport to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He was a radar man and later an instructor, and so managed to avoid direct combat in Korea and Vietnam. I remember the strange way he held cigarettes between his middle and ring finger, a habit he never kicked and one he acquired so he could smoke while working the dials of the radar.
There was talk of a bar brawl in Seattle where someone ended up dead, and Dad almost being discharged. I was never able to get the story straight. Along the way he found his bride while in New Bern, and me and my brothers started coming into the picture.
Dad played baseball until he retired from the Navy in his early 40s, a pitcher who could throw all kinds of “junk” as he called it. In his later years he mastered the knuckleball, prolonging the fun he had with the game and my memories of ball fields, sitting on the hoods of cars in scorching summer weather watching him play against guys 20 years younger.
Retirement was a larger disruptor than he bargained for. He and mom settled back in the South but soon divorced, separating him from his three sons. I was 11 at the time, and so spent part of the next seven years first with my single mom and then with a violent stepfather who was a Vietnam vet. I’m thankful my brothers and I helped convince mom to get out of the marriage before I left for college.
Dad suffered too after the divorce. I remember him moving between rundown apartments and trailers, holding down different jobs and dealing with losing his family and his wife during middle age. But he tried to be there for us, and he and my mom remained amicable. He would often take my brother and me to one of the enlisted men’s clubs on Ft. Bragg, where we would eat hamburgers and he would have a couple beers with his buddies while feeding us quarters to play pinball or pool.
Dad ended up in a second marriage that was long and happy. He kept working, always working, though he never found a second career. He doted on his grandkids and it shocked me how sentimental he got as he aged. Even when he couldn’t walk he loved riding my son around on his motorized wheelchair, and I can still see the smile on both their faces.
I understand now that he was what was referred to then as a “man’s man,” devoted to his wife and kids, always ready for a game, comfortable with a golf club, a hammer or a beer in his hand.
Dad loved that I was a good student, and he would mail me money while I was in college, always wanted to know what my grades were, and wrote letters almost every month during my first couple of years of college.
He tried his own hand at business a few times but never made it, and he was proud when I started The Smoky Mountain News. Those Sunday morning breakfasts were replaced by Sunday morning phone calls as I got older, and we both looked forward to those moments.
One of his second wife’s daughters was a fantastic athlete who played in college and just happened to be gay. Dad loved attending her games, and the old guy from the South accepted her sexuality with unquestioning love. I was amazed at how he adapted to newer views about race and sexuality, other social issues, changing as he aged in ways some people today still can’t. That, to me, is the definition of wisdom.
It was ALS that took him down, or rather respiratory failure after a multi-year bout with that slow, tormenting killer of a disease. He died on Christmas Day, shrunken, almost unrecognizable compared to the guy who would do triple flips from a low dive at the Chief’s Club pool, then spend all day swimming around with three boys draped on his shoulders trying to dunk him, and finally take us home and cook supper for the wife and kids, and then stay up late with friends playing cards, listening to Johnny Cash and Boots Randolph records, drinking and smoking, then up at the crack of dawn to go to work.
It’s amazing how far he came from that tiny mill town. Dad wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing a lapel flag pin, but he was one of the most patriotic men I knew. He abided by a quiet, polite, self-effacing, unwavering internal code that seemed to easily discern right from wrong.
Happy Father’s Day, dad.