Editor’s note: This George Smith column was originally published June 17, 2012.
* * *
IT IS IN the gloaming somewhere in Louisiana, autumn of 1940, and the father of three, including a brand new baby girl, is at the wheel of a dark-green ’39 Ford.
In a time of no interstates or McDonald’s, the father pulls off the road and down a slight incline into a clearing on the banks of a silent-running creek.
The family piles out, Mom spreads a red-checked tablecloth on the hood of the ’39 Ford. I head for the creek.
Shortly, there is a call from the father: “Let’s eat.”
On the hood of the ’39 Ford are open cans of sardines packed in mustard, a box of soda crackers, and several bottles of warm Cokes.
To this day, it’s the best meal I have ever put in my mouth.
* * *
IT IS A cold, bitter day in early March. My dad and I are putting in the floor system on a bedroom addition at my house. I look at my father, look at his skinned hands, know the carpentry profession that had fed his family of seven had been a long, hard life.
I wondered why, despite other jobs he’d held, he always came back to the hammer and the saw. I asked if he liked what he did.
“I sure do, son. When I was a boy and we came in from the fields, I’d get Dad’s hammer and saw out and build something. That was fun for me.”
Somehow, after that, I felt a lot better about my dad’s life.
* * *
MY DAD WAS not exactly the silent type, but when he had a message for his oldest son, it was brief and to the point. My rules for living under his hand were just two:
“Boy, if I catch you lying or stealing I’ll kill you.”
Best I remember, that came somewhere in my pre-teen years. And while I knew he wouldn’t really kill me, I knew he’d make me wish I were dead. The discipline of my formative years was hard ... and expected.
* * *
TO SAY MY dad used colorful language is an understatement, to say he liked the bottle on weekends is a fair statement. But not once in my entire life did my dad ever raise his voice or touch one of us when he was “on a toot.”
* * *
IT IS A Sunday morning and Dad and his brother, my “Uncle Tony,” had fished the previous day away. Liberal doses of white whiskey had been consumed.
Out in the yard, I walk past Dad’s ’36 Ford panel truck and notice that the choke (on the dash) has been pulled out and bent down at a 90-degree angle.
“Aw, it was your Uncle Tony. He was driving too fast so I just pulled the choke out and bent it. That stopped him.”
Later in the day, I mentioned the bent choke to Uncle Tony.
“Your daddy was driving too fast and I couldn’t get him to slow down so I jerked the choke out. That stopped him.”
To this day, I have no idea who was driving and who was doing the “choking.” It’s a good bet neither of them remembered, either.
* * *
MY DAD was not one to tarry at anything, even in his going away.
On a Sunday morning, he suffered the last of several strokes. This one was major.
On a Monday afternoon, May 8, 1990, I am standing by his bed in intensive care at RMC. He has not spoken or opened his eyes since the stroke.
I am holding his hand. I say, “Dad, I love you. If you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
He squeezed my hand ... twice. A few minutes later, he was gone.
He was five days shy of his 80th birthday. He had always said he wanted to live to be 80. In the obituary, I listed his age as 80.
It was the last thing I could do for him ... except to hold close the memories of the parts of him I know are in me.
Thank you for listening ...