Old Bricks

On my visits back home, I spend precious time with my mother at my childhood home. The times I get to spend with her are special. It often seems like no time before we are back on the road going back to my home in Newnan. Sometimes, I am able to get out and drive around the town and county and pass by old places that I remember from my childhood.
On a recent trip, I was able to take the time to drive down by my grandmother’s old house in what is now called East Jackson. It may show as East Jackson on some maps, but it will always live in my memory as Pepperton or to the familiar, just “Pep”.JB and Bon Bon 4175
Pepperton had begun as a mill village centered on the textile mill by the same name. The mill was built around the end of the 19th century. As was common in that era, houses for the workers were built around the mill. The houses were mostly all the same and there were stores, shops and businesses built within the mill village. The mill provided jobs for hundreds in the community. The little village would take on its own personality and become a true community. Mill life and the mill village would be an important staple in the community for nearly 100 years. It would be an economic engine for the community along with other mills in the county. This common model would be a standard for so many towns and counties and would define a way of life.JB and Bon Bon 5176
My maternal grandparents were a part of this lifestyle. They lived and worked in Pepperton. They earned a living and made a life for their family in that mill village. After their shift in the mill ended, they would earn a few extra dollars by cutting hair in a barber shop next to the mill. These few dollars made would be put away for my grandfather’s dream of buying some land out of town someday where he could farm and hunt and fish.JB and Bon Bon 3174
The people of Pepperton were a close knit community and were proud to be a part of the mill village. The village would also have a baseball team made up from workers in the mill and residents of the village. My grandfather, his brother and a number of friends were part of the team and they played other mill teams in a league. They had a reputation as one of the best teams around, those young men of Pepperton.JB Baseball I hear my grandfather was a pretty good baseball player. I have asked my mom what position he played and the best she could remember was “behind the pitcher”. I think he was a short-stop or 2nd baseman. I think my Uncle Donnie received the athletic genes from my grandfather; he would later become a star half-back for the Jackson Red Devil’s in the 1950’s. I was never much of an athlete in school, but I am sure those athletic genes from my grandfather helped me to master the obstacle courses and physical demands of Infantry training at Fort Benning as a young officer. My grandfather had also served his country. He was just shy of being old enough for World War I, but he would be a soldier with the Jackson Rifles, a National Guard unit in Butts County. He also served as the company bugler. The Caston family would not go untouched by the war. My grandfather’s older brother, Jesse Caston, would be killed in action in the trenches of the battlefields in France. His name now etched on the Jackson Veteran’s Memorial for all eternity.
My grandparents would raise a family there in the village. My mother Edna was the oldest, and she would be joined by two younger brothers, Billy and Donnie and a sister, Angelyn. They would all grow up in the mill village during the Depression years, during years of World War II and during the 50’s. My Uncle Donnie was the last to leave the mill village in the late 50’s.
Located close to the mill was a pond where people of the village would catch fish. There was also a community hog pen where members of the community could keep their personal livestock. I remember one of my older brothers talking about going to play at the “Pep Hog Pen”. By the time I came along as a child, I would not get to play in the “Pep Hog Pen”, but I would catch my first fish in “Pep Pond”. I would spend a lot of time in “Pep” as a child. I would get on my bicycle and ride down the street until I came to the service road that ran in front of the mill. I would hear the activity in the mill from some open windows as I bicycled past the cars of the people who were working inside. By this time, my grandmother no longer worked at the mill. I would turn my bike onto Mill Street and pedal to my grandmother’s front porch. I would walk in and say, “Hey Bon Bon!” We all called her Bon Bon, but her name was Bonnie. One of my older cousins started calling her that name when he was a toddler and the name stuck. She would then ask me if I wanted a “Cocola”. I would always answer yes. She would always keep the small Coca-Cola bottles in her refrigerator. They were always a special treat. They were ice cold and I always enjoyed “popping” the top off with the bottle opener she had mounted on her kitchen wall. She had been a widow now for over 20 years. I never met my grandfather. He died in 1947. He passed away from a heart attack just shy of his 45th birthday. He had realized his dream of buying some farm land and that is what he was doing when he fell ill. He was working in his field, tilling the soil. My mother told me he had always been industrious and was always on the go. Whether working in the mill, the barber shop or farming or hunting, he had a zest for life. He loved to bird hunt and many a quail would be fried up by my grandmother and served on their kitchen table. My grandfather’s younger brother, Wilson “Toots” Caston, was then the only surviving Caston son. He would go on to build the best pulled pork barbeque stand in the state of Georgia, “Fresh Air BBQ”. He would be a respected businessman and community leader for the remainder of his life.JB and Bon Bon 7178
After my grandfather died, my grandmother was faced with making a living on her own. She still had two children at home to support. The land that my grandfather had purchased through his many years of hard work at the mill and cutting hair would now have to be sold so my grandmother could continue to survive on her own. She was able to remain in her home in Pepperton, but the land and farm had to be sold. She continued working in the mill for a while; she would also cut hair for people in the village. She also cut my hair, along with my brother’s, for quite some time. I can still feel the itch of freshly cut hair on the back of my neck and the smell of her talcum powder that she would sprinkle on her brush before she stroked it across my brow.
After the last of her children had left her home in the mill village, she continued to cut hair on the side, but she also worked at the local Tastee-Freez restaurant in town across the railroad tracks in Jackson. She would also later work as a waitress for Tomlin’s Restaurant across the bridge over the Ocmulgee River. They served some fine fried catfish. Some weekend nights, she would let me and my little brother count her tips. We would spend the night with her some weekend nights watching TV, playing games and sipping “Cocola” from those little ice cold bottles. In her later years, as she put on her housecoat and got comfortable for the evening, she would indulge in a portion of “Brutton” or “Tube Rose” snuffs.
Many times when I visited my grandmother, I would reach out for the memory of my grandfather I never knew by reading the books he liked to read. My grandmother had kept many of the books that my grandfather enjoyed in her spare bedroom, where she also had a chair with a stand-up hair dryer attached to the top. A chair she used in her beautician duties. I would sit in the beauticians chair and read the works of James Whitcomb Riley or the volumes of “R.E. Lee and his Generals”. I inherited his love of reading and I am thankful for that. My brothers and all of my cousins would also make memories in that little mill house. Visiting “Bon Bon” and forming those precious bonds, between a grandmother and grandchild, would echo in our hearts for a lifetime.
My grandmother would continue to live in that little mill house until her death in 1989. I remember getting the call from my mother. Fortunately, I was stationed nearby at Fort Benning, Georgia. After hanging up with my mother, memories rushed into my mind of ice-cold Coca-Colas in a bottle and my red bicycle leaning up against her front porch. I wept. I was honored to be a pall-bearer at such a great woman’s funeral.JB and Bon Bon 6177
My mother and aunts and uncles would sell the little mill house that had been my grandmother’s home for over 60 years. Sometimes when I go home, I will drive by that little house and relive many memories and think of a time when I was a little boy. I recently drove by and saw two little girls playing in the yard where I once played. They were making new memories as the little mill house stood witness.
Sometime later, my mother told me over the phone one day that they were going to tear down the old mill. The mill had stood as a landmark in the community for nearly 100 years. On my next trip home, I was compelled to drive down to see what was left of the old mill. As I turned down the service road where my bicycle tires had logged over a hundred miles, I could see where the mill was no more. The absence of her brick walls left a void on the landscape. My progress was impeded by the presence of a makeshift construction fence. I stopped my car and got out and surveyed what lay before me.
Piles of rubble and stacks of bricks were all that was left of a way of life. There are still many mill houses across the railroad tracks that separated the mill from her community, but the heart of the village was now nothing more than piled up bricks and mortar. I stood there and continued to survey the site before me. I daydreamed of a sunny summer day riding my bike along the service road with my fishing pole in hand saying “Hello” to someone coming out of the mill. I would soon turn left and go across the railroad tracks and disappear down the street headed to my grandmother’s.
I walked up to the fence to get as close as I could to reclaim my memories. Right inside the fence were neatly stacked sets of bricks from the mill. I guessed that some of the bricks would be collected and re-purposed for other construction activities elsewhere. At that moment, without hesitation, I reached across the fence and I took two bricks from one of the stacks. Reaching for a memory, I took one for my grandfather and one for my grandmother. I took them back to my car and placed them in the floor board. I hoped that two small bricks missing from the stack would not be missed or even given a second thought by the workers who would come back on Monday, because at that moment, those two bricks meant the world to me.
I stood at the door of my car and peered over the mill site one last time. The next time I see the site, it will probably look like a barren landscape. As of this writing, I don’t know what may be built there again.
When I got back to my mother’s house, I took the bricks and put them on the picnic table outside. I went inside to retrieve a couple of old plastic grocery bags from my mother’s pantry. I walked outside to place the bricks in the bags so I could carry them home. My daughter followed me back outside and asked, “Daddy, what are you doing with those old bricks?” I paused, and then I turned around looking back at her with a big grin on my face. Borrowing in part a line from the last scene from the movie, The Maltese Falcon, I said, “They are not just old bricks, they are the stuff that dreams and memories are made of.”
Memories of my grandparents, of Pepperton and the mill will continue to live in me for as long as I live. Two “old bricks” sitting on my bookcase will never let me forget.
In memory of my grandparents J.B. and Bonnie Caston
JB and Bon Bon 129

The Cuckoo Clock, A Christmas Story

It was late December; the aura of Christmas time was in full repose. My mother, father, little brother and myself had just returned from a visit to my Grandmother’s home in Griffin. It had been a long day and the revelry of the holiday had us all a bit tired. We stumbled into the house with all of our trappings and collectively collapsed into each of our own little worlds.
Our family living room was replete with modest Christmas décor and an artificial silver tinsel tree. Our living room was small and cozy. My mother loved to display pictures of family and there were a number of them on the walls. Included with these on the back wall above the television was a Cuckoo clock. The clock had been a gift to my mother from my brother Timmy who had served in the Air Force. He had purchased the clock while he was traveling through Germany.
The clock had not worked for quite some time, but my mother kept it on the wall to display. I think that year she felt an attachment to the broken clock because it was a gift from my brother Timmy, who had been killed in a traffic accident earlier in the year. It had been over eight months since my brother’s accident, but the memory was still vivid in the minds of our family. It was especially vivid in the mind of my mother. The loss of a child is unfathomable to most, but my mother knew all too well.
My brother Timmy was only 23 when he was killed. He was stationed in California, reveling in the freedom and the sunny west coast. For not long ago, he had been in the thick of the war in Vietnam. He was stationed in Thailand, but he had gone into harm’s way on over 20 combat missions as an air crew member of the 606th Special Operations Squadron. He had survived his tour of duty and was happy to be back in the U.S.A.
Of the myriad of childhood memories that come and go, one I will always remember was when my mother and father received the news of Timmy’s death. Having had the sense of relief that he had survived a tour in Vietnam and was safely back at home, we all had to deal with the cruel realization that he was now gone. I had felt no greater sadness for my mother and our family.
It was getting much later that Christmas Eve night and mother and father were ready to put our gifts out so they could get to sleep. They had told me and my little brother to get off to bed, but we were rested a bit from our trip and we lay awake poised to hear the rattle of “Santa” putting out our gifts.
It was approaching midnight and you could hear a pin drop in the house. I was barely awake, eyes half closed. Mother and father must have taken a brief break. They would later tell me that they had been sitting at the dining room table. Then it happened.
At midnight, the calm silence was broken by the loud bellow of the Cuckoo clock on the wall. Unmistakable in its sound, although we had not heard it in months, the familiar rhythmic cadence echoed throughout the house exactly twelve times then fell silent once again. I had crawled closer to my bedroom door, fully awakened by its call.
There was a pause and mother and father had sat staring at each other, puzzled by the event that just took place. Then my mother’s face transformed from bewilderment to enlightenment. In a steady voice that I could hear from my bedroom, mama said, “Timmy just wished us a Merry Christmas”.
The awe of what happened and what I just heard, transformed my thoughts of ‘Santa” and gifts to thoughts of something much deeper. I eventually drifted off to sleep. The next morning, my little brother and I began to open the gifts that “Santa” had brought that night. We also listened to mama as she related the story of the Cuckoo clock to us. It was a wonderful Christmas Day. Our hearts and souls were happy and at peace.
“Santa Claus” had come that night, but the greatest gift that Christmas was an Angel from God, an Angel who heralded his presence through the sound of a Cuckoo clock.
Cuckoo Clock

I Believe

“We know truth, not only by reason, but also by heart.” Blaise Pascal

Some of my earliest memories are waking up at my grandparent’s house in Griffin, Georgia and looking over and seeing my grandmother reading her bible. I would then wipe the sleep away from my eyes and punch my little brother to wake him up. My grandmother would then close her bible and intervene and say, “You boys get up now and grandma will make you some breakfast.” Our grandfather would nod with a wry grin as he tended to his pipe and watched us climb out of the sofa bed and gather ourselves for breakfast. The holidays were always special at my grandparent’s houses, both sets. Thanksgiving would always start the season off and I remember my Grandma Daniel saying grace right before we ate, giving thanks to God for the blessings of life. Years later, when I was around 12 years old, I would re-live those memories of waking up and seeing my grandmother reading her bible, except this time it would be in our home in Jackson. After my grandfather had passed away, my grandmother’s health had begun to fail and she came to live with us at our home. Walking into the living room and seeing her morning devotional was a daily experience until she too went to be with God.
It was around this time of my life that I also affirmed my faith publicly. I was a member of the Royal Ambassadors of my church. The Royal Ambassadors, or RA’s, as we called ourselves, is a mission’s discipleship organization for boys in 1st thru 6th grade. I think it was the summer of my eleventh year that I attended RA camp down around Brunswick, Georgia. A busload of young boys from our church spent a week in a wilderness camp, living in huts with bunk beds and communing with nature and learning about our faith. We also would have great fun playing games, taking hikes in the woods and enjoying some watersports. We would also worship in the wilderness church located on the grounds of the camp. After one of these services, I was drawn to talk to one of the pastors who were working with the camp, and we talked about God and our faith and he asked me if I wanted to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. So, on a beautiful summer day under the shade of a towering Live Oak tree, sitting down with a preacher, I asked God to come into my heart. I don’t remember the preachers name, I wish I did, but I still see his face and the bible he held in his hands. I still feel the soothing breeze under the shade of the oak trees and the warmth that filled my heart and soul at that moment. I would later be baptized at my church and I remember coming up out of the water and peering over the pews and finding the smile on my grandmother’s face. I enjoyed a period of grace and peacefulness that remains cemented in my memory.
Young boys eventually begin to turn into young men. With those eventual changes, the influences of life and the expansion of experiences, the young man’s spiritual self can change from its original form into something else if it is not tended and fostered regularly. This would be my course. I began a slow walk away from God. I never left him completely and I prayed infrequently, but I did not have that endearing spirit that I had as a child. As I began a career in a job of my childhood dreams, I found both personal and professional success. My life was blessed in many ways, but I kept walking away from God. There were many times where the subtle hand of the Divine would try to intervene on my course, but I was not to be moved. I would reach a point in my life where I felt a complete spiritual emptiness. Even at this point, there was something inside that said, “It’s there, and you have to find it again.”
It was during the holidays around Thanksgiving one year, I was driving in my truck and I was listening to a CD of Christmas music by Elvis Presley. I had always been a fan of Elvis since my youth, but I couldn’t ever remember him singing the song, “I Believe.” The song began to play and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. As Elvis continued to bellow out the tune, I not only heard the words, but I began to feel the words. I bring it out during Christmas time every year and play it along with the other Christmas carols we listen to during the season. The words go like this;

I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come to show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above the storm the smallest prayer will still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere hears every word
Every time I hear a newborn baby cry, or touch a leaf, or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe.

“I Believe” is a song that was written in 1953. It was commissioned and introduced by Jane Froman, who had a popular television show in the 50’s. It was the first song ever introduced on television. Miss Froman was troubled by the onset of the Korean War and asked some writers to compose a song that would offer hope and faith to the populace. Frankie Laine, of “Rawhide” fame recorded the big hit version of the song and it is also my favorite version of the song. It has become both a popular and religious standard.
I don’t know why this particular song struck a chord with me that day. They say the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Personally, I think we are all hard-wired to believe there is something out there greater than we are. I have an acquaintance who is an atheist, yet, every year during the Christmas season, he revels in the festive spirit of the holiday. I think too, that it is the hand of the Almighty which stirs him this time of year.
Today, in our society, in some circles, it is in vogue to spurn and ridicule the belief in a higher power. I have lamented seeing some of the disparaging commentary in our media on this topic. However, I am reminded as I write this story, that faith in the Almighty, has stood the test of time. Faith has survived for millennia and it shall survive for many more. That is my faith. The founding of our nation was born out of the pursuit of religious freedom. From that first day the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, that freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, has been a cornerstone of our nation.
During this time of year, we, as adults often recall our childhood memories of parents and grandparents and those in our family who are no longer with us. This day I am reminded of having my grandmother Bon Bon’s Christmas soup at her mill house in Pepperton. I am also reminded of my grandmother Daniel reading her Bible. If I could speak to them again, I would tell them I love them and I Believe.

Mama…..at 90

Calvin Coolidge was our nation’s president. Indoor plumbing was a luxury and electric lights were not widely used yet in the small Georgia town where she was born. A real Southern Belle, my mother has witnessed an incredible slice of the history of mankind in the 90 years she has been living on planet earth.Mama and Billy146
When I look into her beautiful brown eyes, I sometimes imagine what those eyes have seen over a 90 year lifetime. I also see the love, compassion and humility of a good and spiritual woman. The kitchen table where she served so many delicious and heartwarming meals served as the inspiration for my blog. I came to realize that it was my mother who stirred in me the passion to write and share a story. I wrote a story for her a few years ago to honor her birthday. I will share it again below.
I realize that my family and I have been blessed to have our mother as long as we have. I have many friends whose mothers and fathers have gone on to heaven. It is my hope that this story and celebration of my mother will help my readers re-live some of those cherished memories of their mother’s and father’s. The human creature is a divine creation. We cleave to a sense of family and belonging to those we love. My mother taught me this and showed me by example. Witnessing my mother over a lifetime, I came to think of an analogy that I think illustrates her character.
I have sometimes imagined my mother as a proud Eagle standing watch over her nest of hatchlings. Paying meticulous care over her brood, she nurtures and watches over them with fierce loyalty and love. I have counted myself as fortunate to be a part of her nest. When the good Lord sees fit to take her home, her nest will be empty, but her example and her memory will continue to soar with all of the other Eagles she has touched in her lifetime.
Here is my tribute to my hero, my mama.

Happy Birthday Mama,
Thank You

My Mother’s birthday is coming up on September 28th and I would like to honor her in a special way this year. I want to share her life story and what she has meant to me.
She has been called by many names. She has been called Mary, Edna, Mrs. Kelly, Mrs. Daniel, “Miss Edna” and “Teetnin”. It has been my good fortune to call her Mama.
She grew up in “Pepperton”, a small mill village east of Jackson during the Depression. Their bank accounts were not large, but their hearts and souls were full of love. She saw the advent of the indoor bathroom and can remember drinking a “3 cent’er” soft drink. She used to enjoy going to her Grandmother’s home and playing in the country and savoring the offerings from the fruit trees. She enjoyed playing with dolls as a little girl and swimming at the pool at Indian Springs. When she was a young teenager, she and three of her friends pooled their money and bought an old convertible “Model A” or “Model T”, I cannot remember exactly which one. Mama had the distinct privilege of being the driver because she was the only one who knew how at the time.Mama on the town149
Very soon, she would catch the eye of a handsome young man, Carl Kelly. In the course of their courtship, they fell in love and married. They began a new life together. He, as a soldier and she, an Army wife.
Life on army posts in those days could be challenging. I can remember mama telling me of having to go out in the snow and chopping wood for their stove and drawing water from a well pump.
Mama would soon be stricken with rheumatic fever. She would be restricted to bed rest. It was at that time that she came home to Jackson so my grandmother “Bon Bon” could help care for her. Their young sons would stay at Ft. Lewis with their father where he was helped out with the boys by some army wives. Then fate would strike again. The Korean War started up and Carl was to be called overseas.
He brought the boys back to Jackson. He then bid a tearful farewell to mama and boarded a train back to Ft. Lewis. This would be the last time that she would ever see him. Carl was killed in Korea and regaled as a war hero, as was so eloquently detailed in an article in this paper some time ago. Highway 16 running east out of Jackson was named in his honor.
A new phase of life would begin for mama and her three boys. Thru the pain and the grieving, she found an inner strength and courage to forge on with life. She had come full circle, having left Jackson as a young teenage girl, living the life of a soldier’s wife at different points on the compass, and now returning to Jackson as a young woman, a mother and a widow.
She and her boys took up residence in the Deraney apartments. She also worked for her Uncle Ralph, who had a store there in town. She also forged some lifelong friendships while living in the apartments, friendships still strong to this day. This was a period of transition. Mama would begin dating again and would meet a man from Griffin, Ed Daniel, my father. They would be married in the National Guard armory in Jackson. Right across the street would be their new home, etched out of a field where an old farm once stood. Mama had bore three sons and would soon give life to another two, me and my little brother Joe.

Mama is one of the wisest people I have known. As a young child, she taught me about manners and courtesy. I still have memorized the little phrase she repeated over and over, “Yes m’am, No m’am, Thank you m’am, Please.” It is these little memories that make mama, that make all of our mothers, so special.
I was in the second grade when tragedy would once again visit my mother. My older brother Timmy was killed in a traffic accident in California. This was my first real life lesson about grief and loss. Many years later, my brother Pat was also killed in a traffic accident. Yet, my mother displayed profound courage in working thru her grief and anguish. By watching her example, I came to understand that one could rebound and engage life again with a positive attitude and a strong relationship with God. As I continued to grow, I would learn other lessons on life from mama’s example about dignity, character, compassion, courage, courtesy, respect and a reverence of God and love.

One of the most enjoyable benefits of living under Miss Edna’s roof was her cooking. Whether having a wholesome breakfast of eggs, bacon and biscuits for breakfast before school, or having mama’s oven BBQ chicken with mashed potatoes on a cool fall evening, it was all good. But it was also comforting, both physiologically and emotionally. A good meal shared by family imparts a sense of home and belonging. Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting down to the dinner table enjoying one of mama’s meals.
When I’m feeling low or down about something, I look to my mother’s example to boost my morale and pick myself up. She is my hero and she will be forever. My soul is enriched every time I speak to her and hear her voice. Many times I wish I lived in Jackson once again so I could see her every day.
Those of us of faith no doubt wonder what it will be like when we are finally called to heaven. For me, in my own dreams, I do not see pearly gates and lands of milk and honey. My vision of heaven is that of a little boy of about 10, clad in blue jeans and T-shirt running across a field of grass in the bright sunshine. I’m running towards my house. Standing on the back porch is my mama. I reach my mama and fall into her arms with an embrace. When I realize that dream, I will know that I have made it to heaven.
I thank God daily for blessing me and my brothers with our mother.
Thank You and Happy Birthday Mama.
I Love You,
Chip
Mama and Me163

Daddy, Lewis and Me

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.

Mama and Daddy053
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.
Daddy WWII