For as long as I remember, our family always received the morning paper. I remember my father sitting at the kitchen table drinking his first cup of coffee and reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. My mother would be in the kitchen making her magical concoctions for breakfast. My younger brother and I would make our entrance with sleepy eyes and quiet mouths, wondering what was in store for the school day. We began to perk up as soon as we took in some of our mother’s offerings at the table. Our father would acknowledge our presence with a forceful, “Good Morning!” as he briefly lowered his paper. He would return to reading as we filled our bellies with biscuits, bacon and eggs. This was our morning ritual. When we finished our breakfast, we might read a bit too from the discarded sections that Daddy had already read. Then Daddy would be off to work and we would be off to school.
As I grew older, my father and I would talk about some article, some sports story, or other item of interest in the newspaper as we had breakfast and had a start on our day. Every father and son relationship is different. There are different dynamics and different personalities and structures in every family. My father and I had a tenuous relationship in my youth. My contribution was teenage angst and a sensitive nature and personality and his was a love of the drink and a stoic, reserved disposition. But, I had a father in my life. There were families that did not have the presence of a father in their life.
My father was the child of the Depression, a World War II veteran and a blue-collar lineman who made the telephones work for “Southern Bell.” His father was an orphan who fled the Georgia Baptist orphans home before he reached his teenage years. He found his way to Upson County and began to work for a man there who had known his family. The man took him into his home also and he lived with him until he was a young man. In his early 20’s, my grandfather would meet and marry the grand-daughter of a South Carolina farmer and his Cherokee bride. They would finally settle in Griffin, Georgia, where they farmed the land and worked in the textile mills. They and the class they toiled with would be known as “Cotton Millers.” They would have four children, two boys and two girls, and my father was the “runt” of the litter. Sometimes the “runts” can be the most colorful and get into the most trouble. I would say that was true for my father. He told me once of skipping school and hanging out on top of the local water tower and smoking “rabbit” tobacco. My grandmother found out and that was not all that would be smoking by the end of the day. He found other ways to get into trouble too, my father told me of a story when he was a young boy going to the local cotton gin with my grand-father to sell his crop of cotton. My father was riding alongside my grandfather in their wagon loaded with cotton. When they reached the gin, my father jumped off of the wagon without looking and he punctured his foot with a rusty nail that had been on the ground there at the cotton gin. Having been clad in only a t-shirt and overalls, my father would regret not wearing his shoes that day. My grandfather reached down with his big hands and grabbed my father by the back of his overalls and exclaimed, “Dammit, Tunney!” The profits from the sale of my grandfather’s cotton that day would be used to pay the doctor to treat my father’s foot. There was no insurance card or co-pays; you paid the doctor when service was rendered. I remember my mother once telling me that before my parents had wed, my grandmother told my mom, “Tunney is a good boy, but he will rob Peter to pay Paul.”
His nickname was “Tunney”. My grandfather had given him that moniker when he was a toddler. My grandfather was a fan of boxing and would often listen to the fights on the radio. Around the time of my father’s birthday, Gene Tunney had beaten Jack Dempsey to become the new heavyweight champ. My father would grow up feeding the chickens, milking the cows and tending to other farm chores. In high school, he would also have jobs at Griffin Grocery and the Griffin Hosiery Mill. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, he was a junior in high school. He would see his older brother enlist and become a waist gunner on a B-17 bomber. When he graduated from high school, he would soon be putting on the uniform of an infantryman in the 25th Infantry Division and embark for duty in the Pacific. As a foot soldier, he would see first-hand the grim reality of combat in the Philippine Campaign until the war was over. In order to earn $50 a month more, he volunteered for duty with the 11th Airborne Division serving on Occupation Duty in Japan. He came home late in 1946. He then worked at some odd jobs. He tried the Ford Plant in Hapeville, Georgia, but he was not cut out for the production line. A friend told him about the Sothern Bell Telephone Company. They were hiring additional workers to expand their operations. He began work for them in 1949. He loved his craft and would speak of keeping the phones working in middle Georgia until his dying days. He would also stay connected with the military for some time, serving as a Lieutenant with the National Guard unit in Griffin. He would also fall in love and marry his sweetheart and would soon have four lovely daughters.
The 1950’s in America was a time of prosperity and growth for the country. However, peace would not stay with him and his family. He would soon be divorced and life would change for all of them. Sometime later, my father would meet my mother at a dance at the National Guard Armory in Jackson, Georgia. They would also eventually marry in that same Armory and they would live in a home across the street. This would be the home of my childhood.
We do not always know what thoughts or what demons lie within a man’s heart and soul. Many men of that generation would be tight-lipped and close off their feelings. I know that my father was like this in many ways. I can count on one hand the times I ever saw him weep. The first time was when my grandfather passed away. He died in my father’s arms. We were visiting my grandparents and my father was giving my grandfather a bath. I was a young boy of 7 years old and I had a curious nature. I was peeking in on my father and grandfather in the bathroom. My father was kneeling over the tub and my grandfather’s body became limp. Over 40 years later, I can still hear my father’s voice, “Pop! Pop!” This man, who had once lifted my father with one hand by his overalls, was now being lifted from a tub by this same son who laid him on a bed and attempted to bring his body back to life. Some memories stay vivid forever. I would see my father’s tears for the first time.
My parents were always proud of me and I knew my mother’s heart well, but I could not always read and understand and connect with my father. Such is life. It was said in a movie I saw once, “We are just men, no more, no less.” I think this line resonates with all mankind. We reach for piety, but our nature as humans keeps us in check. This we should not bemoan, but understand it is who we are as a people. I used to want to hold my father to a higher standard when I was young. I wanted the “perfect” father, a being that does not exist. When I did not get the “perfect” father, I would rebel and ridicule. However, time and experience are great teachers. Through the trials and tribulations of my own life, I have come to understand that there is no such thing as a “perfect” father, whatever that means. I know that now from my own life, for as much as I strive for perfection in being a father myself, I fall short of that imagined vision that I made for myself.
As I think back to those teenage years, I remember my dad, myself and the newspaper at breakfast. We would find that common ground to relate to one another through the newspaper. One of our favorite columns was that of the late author, columnist and southern humorist, Lewis Grizzard. Lewis Grizzard’s homespun humor, anecdotes and observations on southern life would find a father and son laughing together at breakfast. His column would serve as a bridge between a father and a son, each trying to get to the other side to reach the heart of the other.
As a believer in God, I think that these times were masterfully tended with God’s guidance. My mama would look over her shoulder and grin as my dad and I laughed out loud over Lewis’ latest quip. We would talk about other items in the paper and engage in conversation, but it was always Lewis who proved to be the catalyst to break the ice and bring us together. I think that is why Lewis Grizzard remains such a profound influence on my own writing these days, because of those mornings at the kitchen table with my father.
Time and medical procedures would mellow my father. In his twilight years, he would grow more solemn and easy going. He would begin to go back to church and one could see in his eyes a softer, calmer soul. He would be plagued with medical problems in his 60’s, probably aggravated by years of smoking and drinking, but it never broke his spirit. He was a fighter, stubborn and determined not to let the problems get him down.
Being born late in life to my parents, and having my child late in my own life, I was not sure if my father would get to see his grand-daughter. The man that I had once cursed and ridiculed as a teenager, I now prayed to God every night that he would be able to lay his eyes on his grand-daughter. My daughter was born when my father was 74 years old. My mom and dad made the drive from Jackson to Newnan the next day. My father, determined that day to see his grand-daughter, maneuvered his walker and summoned the strength to go up the hospital ramp and make his way inside. When our eyes met, we both shed tears of joy as we looked down at the newborn that I held between us. We had both come a long way. Life is indeed a journey. The destination is known for all, but everyone’s journey is unique.
Six weeks after my daughter was born, my wife was taking her to have pictures made. She called me at work to tell me that my daughter made her first smile that morning. I like to think that my daughter’s smile that morning was a sign from God that my father was in heaven. My father was in the hospital from complications with his illness. I received a call later that morning that my father was unresponsive and I needed to come to the hospital. When I reached the hospital, my father was being kept alive with a vent, he was unresponsive. The doctor’s had ordered that his arms be restrained to prevent him from injury the night before. When I looked at him, I knew that this was his last day in this body. He was barely hanging on to life. I knew he would not want to go being restrained. We took the restraints off of his wrists and we held his hands. Minutes later, he breathed his last breath.
As I drove home that day, I began to weep thinking of my father. But during that drive, I also smiled. I smiled and thanked God that he had answered my prayer and my father had seen his grand-daughter before he left this earth.
The last time I saw him and said good-bye, a tear fell from my eyes and landed on the lapel of his suit. A part of me will always be with him, as a part of him will always be with me.
Happy Father’s Day Pop and thank you Lewis.