Here are some of the things my dad could do better than anyone else, he told me: jump; box; draw; sculpt; plow; hoe; fix transmissions, clutches, and brakes; replace headlights; tune up a car, including changing spark plugs, points, and distributor cap; run; sing; swim; lift weights; shoot a rifle; rake; do push-ups; run a country; build a fire; cut wood, both with an ax and a cross-cut saw.
He never said he could be the best father or husband. At the same time, however, it seemed that anyone who had complaints about his performance in those roles was “just silly.”
Daddy was apparently not the best at the following professions: farming, selling insurance, selling cheap unbreakable dishes out of the back of his car, selling Ford cars, selling Studebaker cars, delivering farm equipment for a local Allis-Chalmers dealership, being a mechanic, being a carpenter, being either an assistant manager or manager of Jackson’s Minit-Market (a forerunner of 7-11s) in either Madison or Monticello, or being a free-lance handy man. He was either fired from or in some other way failed at all these undertakings.
He knew no one smarter than him. He said, “I have senser’n anybody.” He claimed to have horse-sense, infinitely more valuable than book sense. He solved the daily puzzle called "Horse Sense, gloating at his success with it. In fact, he loved horses and fantasized about once again owning one, perhaps a Morgan horse. It’s also true that, when I was 15, he carved a perfect horse head and neck out of a bar of soap.
He had no education past the eighth grade.
He says that in the eighth grade, back in Douglas, Georgia, he and his younger brother Gaines were called down to the principal’s office. Somehow the principal got too ugly or pushy with Gaines, and Daddy jumped up, grabbed the principal’s arm and twisted it behind his back. End result: He gets kicked out of school for his overzealous loyalty, and never returned.
When I was about 8, Setzer’s (one of Madison’s two grocery stores) started a promo where they gave away record albums after a certain number of purchases, and Daddy would come home with compilations of classical pieces.
Martha and I listened along (my mom would have no part of it, because they gave her a headache) while he explained the stories behind the music. We learned about the Valkyries in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, were introduced to Grieg’s Peer Gynt, to Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aida, “Tales of the Vienna Woods," the 1812 Overture, “Flight of the Bumblebees.” He closed his eyes when he listened, gracefully waved an imaginary baton.
Where the heck did this backwoods Georgia hick learn about classical music? He never told me and I never asked.
He spanked us all a few times, mainly when he was so damn frustrated he couldn’t think of anything else to do. I remember one I got when I must have been about 9. Since Daddy couldn’t afford to buy dog food for our beloved Smokey (hey, forget about trips to the vet!), the sweet mutt got only table scraps. One morning Martha and I missed the school bus, and he was about to be late for work, so I raced to the porch to give Smokey the milk left over from my Cheerios. The milk sloshed over the bowl onto the ugly unpainted wooden floor of the “dog run” on the old Florida house, and that infuriated him. With a couple of shouts, he grabbed my arm and beat my rear end for a while.
Temper or not, he was never what is conventionally considered abusive. I don’t know that he ever hit Mama Joyce. Even when he blew up on Martha and me, he left no bruises. I’m not talking about a villain here.
He was 5’9” (which he assured us was “average, maybe a little above”) and carried between 150 and 160 pounds on a small frame. Mama Joyce told me Daddy apparently was not much heavier than I until his mid-20s. He was pretty well built during his 30s, as pictures will attest – of course, he always flexed for the camera, because he was very proud of his physique.
He had apparently done quite well as an intramural boxer in the Army Air Force. Before arthritis got him down, he could do push-ups and sit-ups until we got bored with watching or counting them. Ditto chin-ups and pull-ups. No one could match him, and no matter how well I did, or Martha, or any male cousin or uncle, we could expect only a scoff from him. Those guys were was so damn puny compared to him, he said.
He had wavy dark brown hair, with a widow’s peak and an annoying male-pattern baldness, almost monkish on the top of his head. One eye was green, the other, ruined by an exploding shotgun shell when he was a kid, was blue and permanently bloodshot. That. along with some bad front teeth (some discoloring, an ugly cap), kept him from perfection and probably from being a very busy lady’s man.
Some of the shapelier Pinetteans had crushes on him anyway. He thought we didn’t notice he leered at women. He thought he was only gazing appreciatively, but brother, his mouth was watering and he couldn’t hide it.
He was brought up by a completely sexless, steely-eyed, puritanical, coldhearted, soul-withering, primitive Baptist who seemed committed to a lifelong campaign to eradicate the human body and all its desires and functions. When my cousin Judi and I were no more than 4, and possibly younger, she beat the pure living hell out of us when she caught us urinating within sight of one another.
But I’m really baffled by the prospect of his mother getting impregnated with him, his brothers Gaines and “Fate,” and his sisters Lora and Wilma. I refuse to think about it!
Here are some things my dad hated: the Kennedys, basketball, major league baseball players, book learning, teachers, communists, FDR, all rock music, almost all black people and all Yankees.
He was very frustrated by our nation’s refusal to drop an atomic bomb (pronounced “bum”) on North Vietnam. This was an echo from his frustration over our refusal to “mop up the commies” at the end of WWII.
He cried a couple of times that I know of, and I’ll tell you about the last time first: On the night before I went off to Jacksonville to be inducted into the Air Force, and from there to head to Lackland AFB and basic training, my wife and I gave the family one last visit, driving over from Lake City.
My dad ran his mouth nonstop telling army story after army story, almost all of the stories involving his staring down some drill sergeant or roughing up some Yankee who kept saying “Jesus Christ” or him outdoing any big lug who dared to fight him.
Man, he was manic that night!
After I had been in basic training for a couple of weeks, I got a letter from Martha and she said, “I think you ought to know this: On the night you left to go into the Air Force, Daddy couldn’t get to sleep. He tossed and turn, got up and walked around, then went back to bed. Finally, he got up and started crying and pretty much sat on the foot of the bed and cried all night. That’s how bad he hated to see you go.”
This tells me one of two things: Either Daddy did love me, and knew what I’d be going through, and felt for me, and would miss me; or Martha, God love her, always the occasional liar and fantasist, made up the story to make me feel better.
It makes no difference to me which of those is true.
That other time he cried was pretty disturbing, and it ties in with Martha’s feelings about him. After being sick an awful lot for a couple of years, she was diagnosed with diabetes when she was 8. We must not have had any insurance, because every time she was hospitalized – which was often -- we felt a financial pinch or at least heard about one.
One night, I think it was after supper, I was sitting at the table while Daddy and Mama Joyce were sorting through bills. I didn’t know what they were looking or hoping for, but the piles of envelopes seemed as never ending as Bartholomew Cubbins’ 500 hats.
I wasn’t paying much attention, really, until suddenly Daddy put his head down on his forearm. I guessed he was just tired, but then he began to move his head back and forth, rubbing his eyes into his hairy arms, and I noticed his arms became wet, and then I knew that grown men could cry, but I really didn’t know what for.
Martha seemed to have overheard, believed she overheard, Daddy complaining about the money she was costing us, how we were never going to catch up as long as she kept getting sick and she did keep getting sick and we did get deeper and deeper in debt.
Martha knew he said “not again” with every diabetic assault and knew we’d be better off without her, at least from Daddy’s point of view. This went on for years.
By the time she was in her late teens, she seemed to care nothing for him at all. She was bitter toward him throughout her adult life, before and after he died
I don’t seem to be saying much about how I feel about him, but it’s probably seeping out of the paper from between the lines.
Daddy liked to sing around the house, chiefly hymns, show tunes (!) and old folk-country tunes. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “16 Tons,” “No One Knows the Trouble I See,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Oklahoma,” and many more.
When driving, he’d belt out a full-throated melody and invariably look toward Mama Joyce with a smirk on his face, but she didn’t tend to return his gaze. I think he wanted her to say, “That was nice. Way to hit that one note.” I don’t have much of an ear, but I think he really could sing.
No one I know ever heard him utter a single cuss word. When I was seven, he and I were admiring a fire he just made in the fireplace, and perhaps a piece of oak popped or there was a sudden flare up, and I responded with “Golly!” “Don’t say golly,” he hissed at me. “Golly” was profanity, he explained, as were gosh, heck, dadgum, dang, and durn, not to mention those more colorful terms. His profanity consisted of “shoot” and “for land’s sake.”
Still, he liked to tell the story of the time he had to take a dump in the downstairs (basement?) of the Madison County courthouse: “Somebody had written on the stall, ‘Judge Davis is a basturd,’ and right next to it, somebody else wrote in bigger letters, ‘Learn to spell you illitrit bastard!’ ” He laughed uncontrollably at that story, reducing himself to high-pitched sob-giggles.
I could not get him interested in my one passion, basketball. He went to hardly any of my games, and he had this bizarre notion that my getting to all the games was a kind of weakness. No, really. He often said, during every basketball season, “It’s not gonna kill you to miss one game out of the whole bunch.” He didn’t mean a game that I’d watch. He meant the games I played in.
Since I was generally dependent on him to take me to the Pinetta Gym, he could usually make that annual absence happen and frequently make me late. On game nights, I was so excited I could hardly breathe.
I’d have my jersey, etc., in my Pinetta Indian satchel an hour after I got off the school bus at four o’clock. As game time approached, and Daddy still not home, I’d walk out to the dirt road, satchel in hand, and stare in the direction from which he’d be coming. I’d walk around, I’d pace, then I’d stare again. Not many cars traveled that road, so if I saw headlights, it was probably him. Some nights those lights showed up too late.
Goddang it, why did he do that?
Here was a restless soul, a man out of joint with his time and place. He was frustrated and unsatisfied and disappointed. Nothing he experienced could measure up to what he hoped for and believed he was entitled to. Everything let him down, including his wife and kids. The world conspired to keep him from the things he loved, like farming, for instance. (His failure here could very well be responsible for the troubled man I knew. He was apparently a good farmer, crushed first by a major flood in ’48, then a barn fire a year or so later.)
I almost never got around to becoming close with him. Nothing in common in 1968: He was a strong George Wallace supporter, while I liked first McCarthy, then RFK, then McCarthy again, then fell into despair.
No better in ’69, what with me enjoying college (or “wasting my time,” as he would put it). In early 1970, when I got my draft notification, he kept me from believing the lies of a Marine recruiter who claimed being a “jar heads” was easy as pie!
He didn’t get too worked up about my marriage. A few weeks in, he began to hold a grudging respect for my wife for being able to fix things like he could, and being more like him than I was, but also distrusting and mocking her for her forward-thinking feminism.
He wrote me a couple of times during the six weeks I was in basic training or boot camp or living hell or whatever you want to call it. When I got transferred from basic (San Antonio) to tech school (San Angelo), he drove Mama Joyce’s old black Chevy out the 1300 miles to San Angelo, stayed overnight, then took a bus back to Madison so we would have a car.
I walked around downtown San Angelo with him, and once I saw our reflections together in a storefront window. We were close to the same size, and I was wearing the uniform of the United States Air Force, a uniform much like the one he’d worn in the Army Air Force, a uniform he would’ve been much happier in than I. I honestly thought these words seeing our images gliding down a San Angelo sidewalk: “I have lived this long, to be as big as my father, to . . . ” but I can’t remember the rest of it, and I’m sure it was very poetic.
Years later when I finally got back from Japan, he was more interested in me, although not happy about the red beard I proudly began growing the day I left Fort Meade, Maryland, November 27, 1973.
It was good back home to see him holding my son Roy and taking an interest in him and reading to him. I think he really loved Roy. I think he would’ve always loved Roy. Roy would’ve been his ideal son. It is without bitterness that sometimes when I look at Roy or listen to him, I think to myself, “I hope you’re happy now, Daddy.”
But some of the saddest dreams I’ve ever had were ones in which I saw Daddy again and I started trying to catch him up and I’d remember telling him about my daughter Jessie, and I’d say, “But you never met Jessie.” I woke up weeping after that one.
While I was on leave between Japan and my final assignment in Maryland, he and I were alone in the house one day, and the phone rang. It was someone from the godforsaken Air Force explaining to me that due to blah, blah, blah, I could either accept a 6-month-early discharge or re-enlist.
The euphoria I felt upon this sinking in was among the most powerful of my life. Gravity couldn’t hold me down, and I hung up the phone and leapt and leapt back into the room where my dad sat reading something and where I immediately became self-conscious behaving like this in front of him, and I tried to calm down, and, God love him, he advised against it: “No, no,” he said. “Enjoy it.” He understood this kind of ecstasy, and knew how rare it was. He genuinely wanted me to embrace it and experience it fully. So I did. I kept jumping up and touching the ceiling.
Anyway, he had this free-lance handyman thing going then, and so the earlier he got started, the more money he could make. But he just could not get out of the house before about 10 a.m. There was the newspaper to read, all of it, for one thing. And then one thing and another and suddenly, very angry at himself, he’d say, “Shoot! I sat here and wasted half the morning,” and stomp out the door.
On some occasions, maybe just to help, maybe because I still didn’t have a job, maybe to keep him company, maybe because Mama Joyce shamed me into it, I’d go with him to his job site, and do what little someone as ignorant as I could do. They were pretty comfortable times. I didn’t dread those trips. He talked a lot, told a lot of stories. I listened without irony.
One place I went with him was an old black woman’s house where he was building a shed or a small barn. He introduced me to her as a college student, and I could tell he was a little embarrassed by the beard. Still, I heard pride in his voice.
It was a noticeable change in my life, this getting to be sort of on the same level with my dad, at least the same level of communication, at least the same frequency of communication so that we were each hearing each other, me and my dad. But of course I didn’t spend a lot of time mulling over it, because it wasn’t like he was deathly ill or would be going anywhere anytime soon.
Weeks later my cousin James Gibson’s wife dropped by to tell me of his accident, that Daddy and the old woman heard a rattlesnake rattling close by, so she went to get her shotgun but he never used one to kill a snake, it was easier to chop off its head with a hoe, but she insisted and he didn’t want to argue about it so he used it, not knowing the barrel was stopped up by a dirt-dauber’s nest, and the shot exploded back into his forehead, and he collapsed and looked at her, and said his last words, an astonished look on his face: “What happened?”
Rest at last for the tortured man from Georgia, he whose dreams were shattered, he who could pop other people’s dreams like soap bubbles, he who still invades my sleeping dreams, tramping like a heavy unseen shadow uninvited through my house at inconvenient times, annoying me by his return, and I awake relieved by his absence.
Even so, Daddy, come back. I love you still.