That picture to the right is of my father, David L. Henderson. We lost him in 1987, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was fifty when he died, about six months before his fifty-first birthday.
I turned fifty earlier this year, and the significance of that is not lost on me.
He was born on November 20, 1936 to my grandparents Charlie (“Paw-Paw”) and Sue (“Meme”) (Drummond) Henderson. By the time he came along, he was the youngest of four (it would have been five if their brother Harold hadn’t died before Daddy was born, which would have made him fifth), and there were four more after him, for a total of eight who lived to adulthood.
They all lived in Eutaw, Alabama, which, at the time, had a population a bit larger than it has, now. Eutaw is a very small town. Probably no more than 2500 people at any given time, if I had to guess. I was raised there, as well.
I’ve heard many, many stories about my father as a young man, and hear more every time there’s a family gathering. Some of those include a memorable story of him and his next-oldest brother, Jesse James, destroying a not insignificant part of a neighboring farmer’s corn field, and being whipped with a razor strop when their father found out. Of him getting hit so hard while playing football in high school that he blacked out and didn’t remember playing the rest of the game, then nearly punched his father later that evening when he was awakened, because he still thought he was on the field. Of him and Jesse fighting pretty much continuously, only the way brothers separated by a year or so can. Of how he lost the hearing in his left ear completely thanks to an ear infection when he was about twelve years old.
But, as I said, those are stories of young David. He would turn 29 the year I was born, although he was only 28 on that particular, momentous day.
I am told that my mother went into labor the morning of April 9, 1965, and called my father to tell him. Daddy had several sisters (not to mention sisters-in-law, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and extended family) and a mother who had given birth during his lifetime to that point. He knew it wasn’t a quick thing. So (again, I’m told) he wasn’t in a particular hurry to come home from whatever building site he was working that day. So it was that my mother walked by herself to the hospital (it was across the road, not five miles uphill through snow) and had me after about an hour of labor. Did my mother ever, ever let him forget this? I’ll let you imagine the answer.
Speaking of my birth, leading up to that occasion, there was some discussion of what my name should be. The very first thing that got vetoed was me being a Jr. or II. Daddy’s full name was David Lamb Henderson. “Lamb” was a family name. He didn’t want to saddle me with a name guaranteed to make me the target of every bully, ever. So my middle name is David, and I got ‘Gary’ as a first name because my mother (a teacher at the time) had never had a student named Gary. (Yes, really.)
The earliest memories I have are all from around the time I was three or four, and we lived in a small, three-bedroom house on the busiest street in Eutaw. Other memories I have are probably because people have told me about them, because I was far too young to remember events this clearly.
I vaguely recall doing something colossally stupid — leaving the house unsupervised to go visit a friend who had a new swingset — and getting three spankings: one from the housekeeper/nanny who was looking after me, one from my mother, and then one from Daddy when he got home.
Yes, I was spanked. With a belt, when he did it. And I pretty much deserved it every time it was done. We didn’t call it “child abuse” back then. We called it “teaching us not to ever do that again.” It worked.
When I was about four years old, we moved from that busy street to a very quiet neighborhood with a huge yard. I remember visiting the site while Daddy and his crew built that house. My name is carved somewhere on a concrete slab in that house. Maybe the carport, maybe the basement. But it’s there.
Daddy was a carpenter for as long as I knew him. He worked at Henderson Construction Company until I was a teenager. His boss until then was his uncle Wilson Henderson. Daddy had a small crew and they did it all: foundation, slab, frame, roof, finishing. He contracted out the plumbing and the electrical stuff, but the rest of it was all him and his crew. They worked insanely long days, and I seldom saw him when he wasn’t wearing khakis, usually dripping sweat. He and Uncle Wilson had a . . . disagreement when I was in my early teens and Daddy quit and formed his own company, David Henderson Construction Company. With the same crew, doing the same thing. But without Wilson as a boss.
He wasn’t schooled as a carpenter, however. His college degree was in accounting. My mother has told me that soon after he graduated, he had a job offer from an accountant firm in Arkansas, in what amounted to a big city, as well as an offer from an architectural firm somewhere else, but for that, he would have to learn to fly. He turned them both down and went back home to Eutaw to start his family.
Why? Family was very important to Daddy. He was one of eight children. His parents were each one of at least that many. He grew up with dozens of cousins, second cousins, and third cousins. Uncles and aunts abounded. Most of them lived in Eutaw or in the area of the neighboring “big city” of Tuscaloosa. He wanted his future children to grow up in that. To know and appreciate that closeness.
I was supposed to be the first of three children, but apparently was also the reason they stopped at one. :) As far as I can calculate, I am the single only child in something like four or five generations of the Henderson / Drummond family.
So his decision not to raise me in a big city, out of touch with my extended family, completely changed his life, my mother’s, and mine. Instead of going to public school in a city with hundreds of other kids I didn’t know, I went to a private school in a small town with a couple of dozen other kids whom I got to know intimately over time.
He was well-liked in the city. I know he worked on many, many houses in Eutaw and the surrounding communities. He either built them from the ground up or repaired them or expanded them. Or, occasionally, moved them from one location to another. Everyone knew him. I wasn’t “Gary” to anyone over the age of 30. I was “David’s son.” (Or “Charlie and Sue’s grandson by David.”)
Daddy was awesome at math. I remember going to him in high school for help with some math homework, and he showed me a shortcut to solve it. I did my homework and took it to school the next day. The math teacher asked me after class how I got the answers, because my “show your work” was, like, one line instead of a page for each problem. I showed her the shortcut Daddy had shown me, and she looked at for a long time, and then said, “Do me a favor and keep this to yourself.” I think maybe she wanted the class to learn to do it the right way, and not via shortcut. Or maybe she just didn’t know how she would teach it to the whole class.
I saw him eyeball angles and saw wood for picture frames, and the pieces would fit perfectly. He calculated heights using shadows and the angle of the sun, demonstrating to me the practical uses of trigonometry. Whatever math ability I might have is entirely from his genes. (Just ask my mother.)
He liked music and could whistle and sing very well, although not many people knew it. When we went to church, you had to be standing right next to him to hear his voice, which was always on key. When we were in the car, he’d sometimes whistle, and he did it flawlessly. Not really surprising considering how musical his entire family is.
One of his off-time passions was golf. Greene County (of which Eutaw is the county seat) has a golf course. It was a pretty simple course with no sand traps, and only one real hazard: a lake you had to cross for the 8th and 9th holes (it only had 9 holes; if you wanted to play 18 holes, you went around twice). He would play at every possible opportunity. And when he wasn’t playing golf, he was watching it on television.
My mother and I tried to share in his passion for the game. We went with him and attempted to enjoy it. I had special clubs for someone my age. My mother had clubs her size, as well. But neither of us really had our hearts in the game. Eventually, he just went by himself to play with his golf buddies and we stayed home to pursue our own passions.
I recall an incident that happened on the course’s driving range. All three of us were there, and my mother and I were practicing our swings while Daddy “supervised.” Some other people were also on the driving range, practicing. I heard one of them hit the ball and then heard a sharp SLAP sound just to my left. I turned, and Daddy had stuck out his hand and caught that other person’s golf ball just before it slammed into the side of my head. That would have hurt. I’m glad he had the reflexes of a mongoose on that day.
Another of his passions was gardening. Behind my grandmother’s house in Eutaw was probably an acre (I’m bad at estimating area, so it could be a lot more or a lot less) of garden, which he kept tended beautifully. If he wasn’t working one someone’s house or golfing, he was probably over at his mother’s house tending the garden. Tomatoes, potatoes, okra, peas, beans, squash, cucumbers, strawberries, corn, watermelons . . . if you can eat it, he probably grew it at one time or another. Many was the time he’d come home from the garden with a truckload (this is not an exaggeration, but a statement of fact) of fresh vegetables, which he would then leave scattered all over the kitchen counters . . . and then go play golf and leave my mother to deal with. But that’s a whole different story for another day. :) (It also contains bad words, the way my mother tells it.)
He also used to watch “pro wrestling,” knowing it was fake, but enjoying it nevertheless. He enjoyed football and boxing. I don’t remember him getting all that excited about baseball or basketball. But he also deferred to my mother when she wanted to watch something other than sports. I got my own little twelve-inch color TV for my room because he was tired of having to compete against cartoons and sitcoms and Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street to just watch a round of golf.
Daddy also joined a group of local men who got together weekly to play dominoes. I think it was mostly an excuse for the men to go somewhere without their wives and kids and gossip. Oh, um . . . not “gossip,” because men would never call it do that. They’d probably say “shoot the breeze.” Yes, that’s it. Shoot the breeze. Anyway, I went with him a time or two, but it was just way too loud and smokey in there for me to enjoy. I never knew quite what he got out of it, but it was something he enjoyed doing. I’m sure there was absolutely no gambling involved, either. Nope. None. At. All. Poker is gambling. Dominoes is just, you know . . . a game. Of skill. With little bits of ceramic with pips on them, totally unlike cards or dice in every possible way. :)
He was an honest businessman who took pride in his work, and tried to give his clients the best. I was with him one day when he was tallying up the bill for a client, and after he added up the time for all the crew and the materials, it came out to an even amount. Something like $4000.00. I saw him write down $4000.07 on the invoice. I asked him why he added the extra seven cents. “Because if they see an even dollar amount, it looks like I just estimated and put down a figure, and they’ll argue. But if it comes out a little above or below, they know it’s an exact amount and that I didn’t pull it out of thin air.” Just little stuff like that.
One of my mother’s favorite stories about Daddy is when an elderly lady who lived across from the park in an old house with a white picket fence called him to do some work. He had done things for her since he was just a boy. He went and did whatever it was she needed. It took most of a Saturday morning. She paid him with a coconut cake. He didn’t argue with her; he just took the cake home.
He cleaned up scrupulously all during the day during jobs. I know because I worked (very briefly) for him one (1) summer and discovered that I was not cut out to be a carpenter. I was the designated cleaner upper. I’d no sooner finish sweeping up all the sawdust than they’d crank up the table saw again. As I said, I didn’t last long. Whether this disappointed him, I don’t know. I do know he didn’t pressure me into going into his business, whether that be accounting or carpentry. Maybe because he knew I wasn’t cut out for it, or maybe because he just wanted me to find my own way.
I did, of course, play at being a carpenter when I was young. He would give me wood and nails and a hammer and let me just nail them all over. He let me saw scrap lumber. But he never let me near the table saw or anything dangerous. And he used our uncle Buck (Morris Roebuck) as an example of why: Buck was missing part of one finger, and I was told it was because of a table saw. That may or may not be true; I’ve never verified it.
When the customer was himself — or more appropriately, my mother — he was even more attentive to little details. I remember leaving one morning to go to school. My mother would drop me off at school in Eutaw, then drive to a neighboring county to where she worked. After school, I’d either stay with one of my classmates, whose mother kept an eye on several of us whose parents both worked, or my maternal grandparents, and she’d pick me up there and we’d both go home. When we got home, the entire downstairs had been utterly transformed. Daddy had taken down and moved a fireplace — brick by brick — across the room, putting it where a set of windows used to be. The wall between the dining and living rooms had come down, there were now doors where another set of windows had been, a window where those doors had been, and the whole thing had been carpeted. He didn’t mess around. Remember, this was in the space of one day.
Another time, I was in college, and my mother and I had taken a summer vacation to go to Florida (I don’t remember why he didn’t go), and when we called Daddy one night, we found that there had been a bad storm and a huge oak tree had fallen down during the night and hit the house. By the time my mother and I got home a couple of days later, the roof had been repaired, the fallen tree removed, and there was literally no sign that anything untoward had happened other than the giant stump in the back yard where the tree had been, and some sawdust here and there outside.
Daddy pretended that he didn’t care much for animals. My mother and I had always had pets. My mother would hug a hippo if it were homeless, and she’d find a way to feed it and keep it warm in the winter. Even if it meant sleeping in the bed with her and Daddy. We had a parade of feral and half-feral cats and several dogs. One such dog was Troubles, a little half-Chihuahua mutt that ruled our house with an iron paw. Well, my mother, anyway. Daddy claimed to be basically put out by her. Until one day when my mother and I were about to come downstairs to head to work and school and we saw him talking to Troubles, who was limping. “Oh, what’s wrong with your ‘itta foot, girl?” he said, softly. He then bent down and took her injured paw in one hand and gently manipulated it. His cover was so blown. As far as I know, we never let him know we’d seen it. Why shatter the image?
When I was about sixteen or so, he came home from the golf course one day and told my mother about an old hound dog mother who had nine puppies, and she was living at the golf course, scrounging scraps from people. My mother got a bag of Puppy Chow, blended it up with some water, and drove out to the golf course, and made sure that old mother and those puppies had something to eat. She fed them for several days, and then one of the puppies was killed by someone in a golf cart. My mother made her intentions clear: she was going to go get the remaining eight, who were old enough to be weaned.
Daddy threatened to leave home if she did it. We all knew it was an empty threat. We had eight puppies for a while, until we were able to find homes for six of them (the males) and ended up keeping the two females.
When Daddy was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986, we had a cat named Sinbad. He was kind of a cantankerous thing, but he loved my mother and didn’t have much to do with anyone else. By this time, I was living at the dorms at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But after Daddy had to start staying home all the time because the radiation therapy made him weak, Sinbad took up with him and they became fast buddies. Daddy would sit on the couch, his breathing labored, and Sinbad would curl up in his lap and make Daddy pet him for hours on end. He pretended not to love that cat, but he did.
Sinbad loved Daddy, as well. When Daddy died in May of 1987, Sinbad mourned like the rest of us did, and he never did quite warm up to my mother or me again.
Daddy didn’t like to leave Eutaw. Home and family were, as I said earlier, very important. He’d no more leave Eutaw than he’d start missing it and want to go home. We did, nevertheless, leave Eutaw. Many times. We visited my mother’s extended family in Arkansas several times; Gulf Shores, Alabama every summer for some fun at the beach; Fort Walton Beach, Florida when I was a teenager (along with another family who had two kids still in elementary school); California (we drove there and back, stopping many times along the way); West Virginia (to visit my maternal grandparents); Columbus, Mississippi (to visit my maternal grandparents); all over Florida when I was four; Monroeville, Alabama (to visit my maternal grandparents) . . . but coming home was always the part he enjoyed most, I believe. Eutaw was where his roots were, and it’s where he felt most comfortable.
He had a weird superpower that I’ve only seen manifest in a couple of other people. No matter where we went, we would run into people that he knew. One memorable time, we had driven to West Virginia and were spending the day at Busch Gardens in Ohio, and we actually ran into someone not only from Eutaw, but with whom Daddy went to high school in the 50s. Bizarre.
Another anecdote I never experienced, but which I’ve heard told, is that when he was a boy, living at home with his family, they were all avid church-goers. The way I heard it phrased was, “Every time the doors opened, we had to be there.” It’s not that he didn’t believe the same things his family did, he just didn’t think going to church all those times a week and getting dolled up in go-to-meetin’ clothes were for him. And he didn’t want to subject me to that because it rankled him so much when it was him. So although we went almost every Sunday morning (but not on Sunday night or Wednesdays), after a certain age, I was not forced to do so. When it was clear that I was not interested in the least, I was allowed to quietly stop going.
He was a good cook, as well. His father — Paw-Paw — had a recipe that he probably inherited from his father, and so on. It was Brunswick stew. After Paw-Paw died in 1971, his children inherited the recipe, and each came up with his or her own version. Daddy’s was so good. He’d cook it all day in a huge pot on the stove, adding stuff, stirring, tasting it, adding more stuff, until it was just right. We’d eat on it for several days. He also made wonderful cornbread, steaks, and apple sauce. Those sound odd when put together like that, but those are what I remember him doing really well. I’m sure there were other things, but mostly my mother cooked unless it was the grill or the stew.
He taught me how to clean a fish, although I never had (or wanted) to actually do it. We went fishing a lot when I was little, although not so much as I got older (fishing is boring). It used to frustrate him to no end when I’d goof around, scaring away any fish brave enough to approach our boat, clearly not caring whether I caught anything, and fish would (literally, in one case) jump out of the water to try to catch my lure. My mother caught a nice eight-pound bass that he had mounted. It hung in a place of honor in the house until after his death.
When I was growing up, no one cursed around me. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but everyone pretty much kept their language clean around me. I was probably twelve before I heard anyone say anything worse than ‘damn.’ But I do clearly remember one night when I witnessed Daddy lose his temper big-time. Now, understand that Daddy was a gentle man with an even temper. He lost his temper a few times in my presence, and it was usually over something I did, and hindsight being 20/20, I deserved the anger. :) But this was something above and beyond that. I went to a private school, as I said earlier. Very small, about 150 kids from Kindergarten through twelfth grade. To keep financially solvent, the teachers weren’t paid all that well, and the school sponsored a lot of things like bake sales. One particular summer, they had a barbecue sale. But rather than offer BBQ pork butts for sale, the school chose instead to send out mail to all the parents that said, essentially, “We’re cooking two butts for you. You will pay us for them, and you will pick them up on July 4th.”
Daddy. Was. Pissed. And the more he thought about it, the worse he got. But my mother said, “David, just leave it.” And as far as she knew, he did.
Later that night, after they had gone to bed, I was in the living room watching TV when Daddy marched through the room in his underwear, thin-lipped. He went into his office and closed the door. This was probably 10:30 pm. Being a teenager, I eavesdropped outside the door to his office and heard him calling the parent who had organized the BBQ, and whose name was on the memo that went out.
I had never heard some of those words, before, and I was probably thirteen or fourteen. I certainly had never heard Daddy use them. Needless to say, Mr. Pork Butt knew that not everyone was just thrilled to death about being told we had to pay for something we didn’t order.
Daddy came out of his office (by this time I was back on the couch), marched back upstairs, and went to bed. We paid for the butts, and as far as I know, my mother never knew about that phone call until years later when I told her about it.
Sometimes, he saved her from herself, as well. Although my mother was employed in a different county by the public school system, I attended a private school with a high tuition. The idea was that I would get a better education. I don’t know if I did or not, but she certainly caught flack for the decision. Toward the end of my time in school, it just wore on her to have to pay the tuition each month. I remember her writing out the last check, and taking great glee in writing . . . let’s just say, “some unkind things” on the check. In the “For” field. In the “To” field. All over the face of the check. She put it in the envelope and sealed it.
What she didn’t know — again, until years later, when I told her — was that Daddy had seen her do it, and waited until she left, then calmly destroyed the check and wrote his own check for the full amount, minus the snarky commentary. Daddy did the finances, so she likely never noticed that the check didn’t cash.
All of my father’s surviving siblings (there are four) have told me that of all of them, he was the most gentle. Some of them are stern, boisterous, charming, outgoing, and maybe more than a little crazy (but absolutely in a good way). Daddy was even-tempered, quiet, respectful, probably a little introverted, and dependable. When Meme (his mother) had problems at her house, he’d fix them at no charge to her. When she needed, say, a new lawn mower because her old one was no longer fixable, he’d let the rest of the siblings know that it would cost whatever amount, and then he’d pay whatever wasn’t covered by their donations. (I’m not saying this to be a jerk; people have their own financial situations to deal with and he was well aware of that. He was also golf buddies with the guy who owned the store that sold the mowers and repaired them.)
When my mother or I wanted something, he’d move Heaven and Earth to get it, if it was possible.
I certainly didn’t want for anything growing up. Looking back on it, I was probably one of the luckiest kids in my class. I got tons of books, toys, a go-kart, my own TV at age six, comic books, a horse (briefly), etc. When I wanted a tree house, he didn’t build me a tree house, because the trees weren’t suitable (and it was dangerous). Instead, he put up four creosote poles in the back yard, built a very stable, sturdy platform up there (ten to twelve feet high), and constructed a small play house atop that platform. My friends and I called it The Pole House. The only reason it didn’t have running water and lights is that we weren’t zoned for it.
Both of my parents had new cars every few years, and once I started driving, I had my own car, too. Always my mother’s cast-off, but still, it was my own car. He paid for my gas and kept them maintained and in good working condition. Usually on Saturday mornings while I was sound asleep. He always rose at the crack of dawn. I always rose at the crack of noon.
Daddy taught me to drive one afternoon when I was 15. I didn’t even know what we were doing. He just said, “Let’s go for a drive,” and off we went. We drove a couple of miles over to a quiet street behind Meme’s house, where he parked the car, got out, and said, “Okay, your turn.” I don’t remember the process, but apparently, it took. :)
I broke my arm pretty much the first week of second grade. It may even have been the first day. I fell off the monkey bars and landed on my left wrist. I felt the radius snap. I started screaming, and the principal called my parents. Since my mother was in another county and couldn’t get there in time to do any good, he located my father (I probably told him whose house he was working on that day). Meanwhile, he asked me which doctor I went to (there were only two in Eutaw). I picked the doctor who wasn’t my actual doctor, because I didn’t much like Dr. Bethany at the time. So I said, “Dr. Staggers!” By the time Dr. Staggers saw me, Daddy had arrived, and for some reason I still don’t quite understand, instead of taking me to the hospital literally a hundred yards from Dr. Staggers’ office, we were sent to the emergency room in Tuscaloosa, 35 miles away. Daddy drove me. I was in the back seat, lying with my arm on a pillow, sobbing in pain. “Go faster!” I’d shout. But when he did, the car would hit those rhythmic bumps and each bump hurt, so I’d shout “Slow down!”
That I wasn’t turned out on the side of Highway 11 between Eutaw and Tuscaloosa is evidence for how patient he was.
Speaking of patience . . . you know how they say patience is a virtue? I’m thinking that with Daddy, it was almost an art form. He broke his toe when I was very little. Like four. I believe it broke when someone drove a pickup truck over his foot, but I could be misremembering that. Anyway, there’s not a lot you can do for a broken toe other than just keep off it and keep it elevated. So he would sit on the couch with his foot propped up on the coffee table, and I, being me, would grab his big toe in one hand and the neighboring toe in the other . . . and spread them apart.
That I wasn’t driven out into the country and left standing on the side of a dark, country road is more evidence for how patient he was.
When I was a little older, he and I spent a lot of time together because my mother was attending school at night to earn her second Master’s degree. Daddy drove us up, dropped her off, and then he and I found things to do in Tuscaloosa while she was in class, then picked her up afterwards and went home. I probably slept on the way home. We ate at various places (including at least one place I’m fairly sure was a dive bar, but they had TV and served me Shirley Temples while he had a beer) and went, eventually, to every store in the entire city. At which I, more often than not, I’m sure, wheedled him into buying me a toy.
Growing up, my father was fairly athletic. He played high school sports and all that kind of thing. Yet I never felt pressured even a little into any of that. I had no interest in sports — still don’t, for that matter — and would rather watch TV or read than do all that stuff. I know some of the other parents said snide things, because I overheard them once. But if it bothered him, he never let on. I know it’s a big deal with a lot of fathers that their sons follow in their footsteps, and play sports and learn from them how to throw a football or hit a curve ball or hit the perfect drive . . . But as I said elsewhere, he let me be me and pursue my own interests and never pushed me to get interested in the things he was. I never expressed how grateful I was for that, because it never occurred to me until just now.
Literally the only time I ever cut class in my (pre-college) life was at the very end of sixth grade. I forget what the occasion was, but there was a big gathering of my classmates for some event, and I either hadn’t been invited or didn’t want to go, so . . . I took the day off and spent it with Daddy at his office. He was working a block or so away on some building in downtown Eutaw. I had opened the office door for some reason — probably to get some fresh air; everyone smoked back then, inside, and the building smelled perpetually of stale smoke — and dropped some fragile toy in the open doorway. The door was on a spring, and as it started to swing shut, without thinking, I put out my right hand to stop the door from closing.
I hit one of the window panes squarely with my open right palm. And the door continued to close. The glass shattered and gouged out a shallow cut very close to the vein in my wrist. I saw the blood well up and clamped my left hand over the wound and high-tailed it out of the office over to Daddy’s work site. As soon as I saw him, I started crying. He looked down and saw blood out from between my fingers. He probably thought I’d cut my arm half off from the theatrics. Again, he had to rush me to a doctor and leave his crew alone. (I think I got a couple of stitches. It looked worse than it was.)
Our little dog Troubles, whom I mentioned above, was horribly spoiled. And not entirely right in the head. She would get out of our house and go on an adventure, looking for Daddy. Many times, Daddy would get a call from random people around town who knew us and knew Troubles. “David, your little black and white dog is running right up the middle of Highway 11, nose to the yellow line. She was at so-and-so’s house headed toward town a few minutes ago.” Again, he would have to leave his crew and go find Troubles. Troubles wanted nothing in life so much as a ride in The Car. The Car was her favorite thing. So when Daddy would pull up, she would readily leap in, and he’d take her home.
One day, he told me, he just got a feeling that he should go home for lunch instead of eating with his crew. When he drove up at our house, this is what he saw: Troubles, standing in a pool of blood, leaned up against the carport door, barely alive. She had gotten out of the house and apparently picked a fight with the wrong dog. The much larger dog had picked her up in its jaws and shaken her. She managed to crawl home, and was propped up against the door with both lungs punctured.
Daddy wrapped her in Saran wrap both to bandage the wounds and to keep the air from escaping from her lungs through her wounds. He drove her to the vet and left her there.
A few days later, the vet called us and said, “Come get your dog. You can watch her die at home as well as I can here. There’s nothing I can do for her.”
We brought her home and put her on the couch, wrapped in bandages. There she lay for several weeks, looking pitiful as only a wounded dog can. We had to feed her by hand, and she got hot fried chicken breast from a local place. We fed her milk and water from a spoon. We would pick her up gingerly and take her outside so she could go to the bathroom. She got to sleep in the bed between my parents. When my mother was at work and I was at school, Daddy had to leave whatever site he was working and come home to do all this at least once or twice every day. And at night, she’d get between him and my mother with her feet against his back, and just shoooooooooove as hard as she could.
She got better. And was spoiled rotten from that day forth. How many men would have just written her off as a lost cause and let her die? Not Daddy. Even though it inconvenienced him for weeks. He knew my mother and I would be devastated, so he did it without complaint. (Or maybe there was complaint, but not that my mother has ever told me.)
Another time, there was a dog who chased our cat Sinbad up a tree. Sinbad could easily have gone up ten or twelve feet and gotten away, but . . . Sinbad wasn’t the brightest cat. He went all the way up the pine tree. Fifty or sixty feet up the pine tree. A very tall, very straight, very thin pine tree. And hugged the trunk.
My mother was distraught. “David, you have got to get him out of the tree!” He answered, “Dammit, Carlene, if he wants down, he’ll come down.”
He was up there for at least a couple of days, yowling piteously. But no way was Daddy going up that tree for a damned cat. He put his foot down.
And then a friend called and told us that there was a bad storm on the way. My mother begged Daddy once more to just get the cat out of the tree before the storm came. After what I’m sure weren’t just a few expletives, he called Asplundh and got them to come out and lift him up to the top of that pine tree using their cherry picker. The idea was that the cat would know him, whereas if a stranger came up, he might panic and hurt himself or something.
Daddy grabbed the cat and brought him back down. And from that day forward, Sinbad and Daddy were best friends. Sinbad followed him around wherever he went, demanding to be petted.
In August, 1986, he went to the doctor complaining of pains in his chest, teeth, and neck, and they discovered he had an inoperable tumor in his lung that was quite large, and pressing on his nerves, causing pain in different places. He had radiation therapy, and it seemed to work for a while, but then the tumor came back with a vengeance. I was to graduate from the University of Alabama in May of the next year. I distinctly remember studying for exams while staying with him in his hospital room. He intended to attend my graduation, but . . . it just wasn’t possible. He was too weak. A family friend helped me get ready and my uncle Jesse came with me to the ceremony, and filmed me marching across the stage, grabbing my college diploma, and walking off the stage. I have no memories at all of the entire ordeal. The stress was just too high.
We went back to the hospital room and hooked the camera up to the TV in the room and made sure he saw it. It was very important to him, so it was important to us. I wouldn’t even have gone to graduation had it been up to me.
Five days after my graduation, on May 21, 1987, he died quietly in his sleep, drugged on morphine because of the pain. The last thing he said to me, personally, before they administered the drugs was, “I want you to know that I’m proud of you, and that I love you.” He then told all of us, “See you later.”
I’m very sorry I never got to know Daddy man to man. I had just turned 22 when he died, and was certainly not an “adult” or anything that could be called “a man.” Not that I still consider myself either of those things, but at age 50, it seems kind of weird to insist I’m not.
If he were still here, he would be 78 years old. Probably retired (although not retired from golf), but I wouldn’t count on that being complete. He’d still be supervising. It was in his blood. My house would be in perfect repair, because he would see to it.
He would have a large garden, and it would be full of every vegetable able to grow in Eutaw. I’m certain my parents would still be living in the house he built in 1969. They’d probably travel some. To visit me in Atlanta, certainly, but to enjoy their retirement, as well. My mother’s brother is in Arizona; his brother Jesse James is in Texas. A sister is in Tennessee. Another in the Birmingham area.
One of Daddy’s dreams was to play golf at some of the courses where they did those tournaments he loved so much to watch. I have a feeling that coming to visit me in Georgia would be at least in small part an excuse to drag his clubs out to the links and get in 18 holes. Probably with someone he went to high school with in the 50s. :)
But I’m 100% sure that he would still be in Eutaw. I don’t think he would ever willingly leave it for any length of time.
He’s buried there.
- You may notice that I, a 50-year-old man, refer to my father as “Daddy.” Not only is this Very Southern™, it’s because of what I say above: I never really knew him as a grown son knows his father. He never morphed from “Daddy” to “Dad.” (Of course, my mother never morphed from “Mama” to “Mom,” either, so it’s entirely possible I would still call him Daddy, and that’s OK, too.)
- Went by “Jimmy” or “JJ” back then. Didn’t know his legal name was Jesse James until he was quite a bit older than you’d imagine.
- He was a carpenter.
- Highway 11, also known as “Boligee Street.” We lived on the downhill side of a hill on a curve, so people came flying over that hill and curve going far faster than the posted speed limit.
- It’s also under one of the walls of the first grade classroom where I eventually attended school (Warrior Academy), because he built it. :)
- Come to think of it, I’m not 100% sure where the carpentry skills came from. He had uncles who did carpentry, and Paw-Paw had a lot of carpentry equipment in his workshop. It’s probably something he learned growing up, surrounded by it on all sides. There was probably no formal “apprenticeship,” but I could be wrong.
- Where my mother and her extended family are from.
- Crossett, Arkansas. You have to understand that a town of 5,000 people in 1960 was more than twice the size of Eutaw. Crossett is now about 10,000 people.
- My mother would fill your head with many tales of how horrible a baby I was, and how it ended their plans of ever, ever making that particular mistake again. But don’t listen to her. I was perfect then and am perfect now. ;)
- Why in the hell do I remember this? It was a series of problems where you had to take fractions and come up with an equivalent fraction for which the sum of the numerator and the denominator was a specific number. Example: Find a fraction n/d equivalent to 11/24ths where n + d = 4095. (1287/2808) There were dozens of these. Most of the class solved it by just repeatedly adding the fractions together until they found the correct answer (without Excel!), but Daddy showed me a shortcut.
- By the same token, whatever writing, English, or story-telling skills came from her.
- When my extended family get together, spontaneous bell-choirs occasionally break out. No, I’m not kidding. They can sing Christmas carols in four-part harmony with a few minutes of preparation. It’s both awesome and kind of weird at the same time. :)
- A slightly more accurate term for this would probably be “pestering him while he tried to work.”
- Troubles was, without the slightest doubt, the most well-named pet I have ever had. Keep reading.
- About 35 miles northeast of Eutaw on I-59N.
- Southern Baptist. The Eutaw Baptist Church, to be specific.
- I promise that at some point, I will post the recipe for this.
- I strongly suspect it was my mother’s idea, but . . . it may also have had a lot to do with the way children tend to repeat everything they hear, and saying certain words around certain people in my family (Meme, Paw-Paw) would not have gone over well.
- People were also not allowed to speak to me in baby talk. I know this was my mother’s doing, and I’m grateful for her for that to this day.
- For the day. You’d laugh uproariously at how cheap it would sound now.
- This is fact. He stated it to me once it was built. He even checked about the zoning thing. I should also note that the shed is still in use. The local vet received it as a donation from my mother to get it out of the yard, and to our knowledge, it is still there. Daddy built to last.
- Get this: it was a 7-11. Not joking. Best chicken — save one place (The Cotton Patch) — that I have ever eaten.
- And my maternal grandparents, Nanny and Granddaddy, also fed her chicken and milk a time or two a day. Did I mention Troubles was aptly named and very spoiled? Because she was.