The Last Kiss

One of the first Mother’s Days I remember is one where we were having a family get together. My grandmother was wearing a Sunday dress which was adorned with a beautiful rose corsage. It’s funny the things you remember when you are 7 years old.
The excitement in her voice and the smile on her face revealed the pride and joy of the celebration of being a mother and a grandmother. At the time, the meaning of the day didn’t make much difference to me. I was just glad to be visiting my grandmother and grandfather and playing in their yard and barn. It was a fun day for a little boy. I got to see my cousins and play with them too. We all ate great southern food prepared by our moms and aunts and grandmother. I think I managed to keep my Sunday clothes intact, but I’m sure the knees of my britches were faintly stained from sliding on my grandparents St. Augustine grass. My little brother and I were tired little troopers riding back home on Highway 16. It had been a great day for my mother, my aunts and my grandmother. It had been a great day for everybody.
That would be one of the last big gatherings at my grandparent’s home in Griffin. My grandfather passed away soon after and my grandmother’s health began to fail and she would come to live with us. Those few years she lived with us were a blessing for our family. My grandmother Daniel was a deeply religious woman. I remember her sitting in a high back chair in the living room and reading her Bible. She would also teach me a great deal about the Bible and its teachings. She would patiently read from her Bible and then she would try to translate the meaning to the little ears of her grandson. I would sit and kneel next to her chair and wait for the next passage to pass through her lips. Sometimes, my other grandmother, “Bon-Bon”, would drive over from her home in “Pep” and sit and visit. I would watch both of my grandmothers chatting together and remembering old times when they were younger ladies.
My mother would be cooking supper and she would occasionally chime in on the conversation. My father would walk in the door soon from his days work and we would all sit down to supper. From my best memories, I don’t recall seeing my father very emotional with my grandmother. He would speak to her in a matter of fact manner and I don’t remember him hugging her or sharing any physical affection. It was just the way he was I thought.
I remember the last time I saw my grandmother Daniel alive. She was on a gurney leaving our home and being placed in an ambulance. She passed away soon after.
On the day of her funeral, my father was solemn and cordial with all of the family and friends who came for my grandmother’s service. As the family gathered around right before they closed the casket, my father walked up and bent over and kissed my grandmother on the cheek. He remained bent over and he was speaking to her. I couldn’t hear what he said. He stepped away and they closed the casket. I remember looking up and seeing the tears in his eyes. Until then, I guess I didn’t understand fully the love he had for his mother. The love that starts from the moment your mother cradles you in her arms.
As the years went by and I grew older, my father would talk more about his mother and the memories he had of her. As he began to mellow as he grew older, the love he had for her would flow tenderly over his lips.
I don’t know how many more Mother’s Day’s that I will be able to share with my mother. I count each one special and I am reminded of the love that my father had for his mother. A love that was revealed to me as I watched the last kiss from a son to a mother.

Red Rose Corsage

Cedar Rock, Dirt Roads and Brotherhood

One of the joys of growing up in a small southern town was the proximity of dirt roads. You didn’t have to drive very far to get to one. I’m not sure what it is about dirt roads, but they seem to beckon the hearts of young southern boys. At least it was that way in our rural county. If you had an older brother, he would usually be the first one to introduce you to the serenity of riding on the back roads of the country with the windows down.
One of those experiences stays fresh in my mind after all these years and illustrates how the bonds of brotherhood are built and what strengthens them in our memories. I don’t remember what the occasion was or if we really needed one, but my older brother Pat took me and my little brother Joey for an excursion to Cedar Rock. If my memory serves me, it was right before Easter one year. It was a beautiful spring day in Georgia. Cedar Rock was a destination out in the far reaches of the county away from town. You would get there by traveling a few paved county roads and then turn down some old dirt roads. Cedar Rock was nothing like Stone Mountain, the large outcropping of Georgia granite that has been a tourist attraction for decades, but it was a little piece of exposed granite in the rural reaches of Butts County.
Cedar Rock had become a congregation area for the youth in the county to park their cars, build campfires and bonfires, drink a few beers, tell tales and to just get away from town. On our particular visit that day, we took some Crisco, some potatoes for frying and one of my mom’s black iron skillets. We also took along a single shot .22 rifle and a box of cartridges. My little brother and I were excited to be riding in our brother’s truck with the windows down and the wind and sun hitting our faces. We set out on our journey and stopped by “Saint Cawthon’s “bait shop to pick up some cokes. Pat spoke to “Saint” as we were checking out and asked about his son Phillip. My brother and Phillip had been friends in school but they also shared another bond. Pat and Phillip had been young soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division serving in Vietnam. Pat told me that he and Phillip had found each other and shared some time together during a break from their combat action. I’m sure seeing a familiar face in a war zone thousands of miles from home gave both of them a comforting feeling in their hearts.
As we continued on our journey, we began our first turns onto the dirt roads that would get us to our destination. Driving along and weaving our way thru the trees that lined our path, we came across what can only be described as a dumping area. Some ways off the road was an area where people would illegally dump old furniture, tires, trash and other oddities. It was an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful area. Perched on a limb and a good distance from the dirt road was a turkey vulture, or what we affectionately call a “buzzard”. No doubt the buzzard was waiting to find a morsel of goodness from the trash heaps. My brother Pat stopped the truck and set his eyes on the buzzard. He reached down and took the .22 rifle and loaded a round into the chamber. He looked over to me and my little brother and said, “Watch this!” He carefully took aim at the buzzard on his perch. I said, “You ain’t gonna hit that buzzard, it’s too far!” As soon as I uttered the last syllable, the crisp shot of the .22 rang out. We thought the bird had heard the crack of the rifle and began to fly away, but Pat had found his mark and the buzzard glided down to the floor of the dump. Being good southern boys, we had to go examine our kill and see where we got him. Pat’s aim was true and upon examination, we found the buzzard with a hole in his neck. Joey and I both shouted, “Wow! Pat! That was a good shot!” He replied back, “You gotta make them count.” Pat was quiet and solemn as we walked back to the truck. This was uncharacteristic of his usual boisterous and jovial self. Years later, I would understand. I think when Pat pulled the trigger on that buzzard, he also pulled the trigger on some memories of combat.
After a few more turns, we finally made it to our destination. We arrived at Cedar Rock. This was the first time Joey and I had ever been to this place, but from Pat’s knowing glance, we knew this was not his first time here. We unloaded the truck and Pat led us straight to an area of rocks which looked like it was the perfect place to build a small fire and rest a frying pan. We all began to gather some firewood and soon we had a good fire going. We then settled the old black iron skillet in place. Digging into our Crisco can, we filled up the pan and watched as the white concoction began to melt into clear liquid oil. Our next task was to prepare our French fries. We cut them up and put them into a small cooler. As soon as the fire had heated the oil to Pat’s liking, he started to lay the potatoes in the pan. My little brother and I could immediately begin to smell the distinct aroma of potatoes being fried in oil. We enjoyed being in the beautiful outdoors and taking in the sights and sounds and smells. Our mouths began to water as we pondered the delicious taste of a fried potato. Pat soon began to plate them on some paper plates we had and he told me and Joey to salt them right away while they were hot.
As soon as we had a big pile, we opened up our bottle of ketchup and popped the tops off our cokes. We sat down around our fire at Cedar Rock and began to enjoy our campfire French fries. We laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company.
As soon as our bellies were full of French fries, we turned our attention to shooting the .22 rifle. Pat used some of the leftover paper plates to use as targets. He nailed them to some trees and then he began his clinic on firing a rifle and hitting the bull’s eye of the target. While honing our marksmanship skills under Pat’s watchful eye, we went through a box of cartridges.
Soon after the last trigger was pulled, we began to clean up and load up the truck. We began our trek back home leaving the dirt roads and finding the highway. As the wind came thru the windows and blew on our faces, I licked the corner of my mouth and tasted the remnants of ketchup and salt. We stopped by a filling station so Pat could fill up the truck with gas. Joey and I bartered with Pat for some change to get a candy bar. One of Pat’s old friends saw me and Joey and asked Pat, “Is that your half-brother’s Chip and Joey?” Pat responded quickly and firmly, “We are brothers, ain’t nothing half about us!” Joey and I looked up at Pat with shy grins of pride; Pat looked down and smiled back. The bonds of brotherhood are not only borne of blood, they are also forged with love and camaraderie. My brother taught me this long ago.
Over ten years later, I would be enduring the sweltering summer heat on a firing range at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Trying to qualify on my M-16 rifle, I was in a firing position when those memories of Cedar Rock and that day came rushing back in my head. With the sting of sweat burning my eyes, I gave up a brief grin thinking of that day as I tried to lay a bead on my target. I would qualify expert that day, aided no doubt by the patient instruction of my brother those many years ago.
It was one day in a lifetime, but that day at Cedar Rock has given me a lifelong memory. Every Easter weekend, I recall the brotherhood we shared that day.

Red Clay at 30,000 Feet

While on a recent flight home from a week of business travel, my usual routine was broken by an observation made on the flight ramp. My heart was called upon to visit the memories of my youth and of my home in Jackson, Georgia. I began to daydream of the hot summers. The summer was a time for play and adventure for the little boys of our neighborhood. My younger brother and I would start the day well fed from a home cooked breakfast our mother had prepared. Fully fueled and ready to go, we would dash out the door and greet the hot and muggy morning and feel the first rays of sunshine on our faces. Our standard attire for the days of summer was simple. We were both clad in blue jean cut-off shorts, usually cut from our oldest pair of blue jeans we had worn the knees out of the previous school year. That was all, no more, no less. That’s all we needed. Our days were filled with outdoor activities, baseball, bike riding, and swimming at a neighbor’s pool, jumping on a trampoline at another neighbor’s house and playing on the track field and in the woods.

Red Clay Track
We were small town kids. From where we lived, we were walking distance to the county high school. Across the street from the high school were the football field and baseball field. Behind the football field was the county school bus shop and the high school gymnasium. The gymnasium was a classic. It was a wooden structure painted white and the floors would make a sweet sound when a basketball was bounced on them. Behind and to the left of the baseball field was the track field.
Most track fields you see today are paved with some sort of asphalt or some high tech rubberized composite surface, but our track field back then was dirt. It was hard packed good old Georgia red clay. We would go there and run and play on the track and the grass infield. Particularly fun in those days would be racing around the track on our bicycles. Some days, after a good summer thundershower, we would go to the track field and engage in the finest of mud sports. After some of those rains, there would be beautiful rust colored mud puddles around certain areas of the track field. Little boys can have loads of fun with a little mud and bicycles. We would also race around the track on our bikes and see who could make the highest “rooster tail” of mud from our back tires. The boys who didn’t have a rear fender guard would usually win that prize. They would also be the ones who got the most mud splattered on their backs. But it didn’t matter, by the end of our playing session; we would all be covered from head to toe in red mud.
After we were all played out, we would come home and go into the back yard and turn on the “hose pipe”, our affectionate name for the garden hose. We would start by cleaning off our bikes. The spray of the hose would begin to peel away the red mud and deposit it on the lush green St. Augustine grass of our back yard. After we finished our bikes, we started on ourselves. We did pretty good getting ourselves clean, besides the cool water from the hose felt good on our sun tanned frames. We would get pretty clean, but there was always a tinge of the rust colored clay around our fingers and toes. Our Aunt Carolyn would always say that I and my little brother looked like a couple of little blonde haired Indians. The summer sun would lighten our hair and give us a tan that was sometimes accented by the faint hint of red clay.

Red Mud Puddle
As a business traveler and frequent flyer, I usually have an aisle seat on the airplane. I ask for an aisle seat to have a little more elbow room for my larger frame and I can extend one of my legs into the aisle. But on this trip, the late scheduling of the flight forced me to take a window seat. As I settled into my seat, I was hoping that the person who sat next to me would be of small frame to give me a little more elbow room. Luckily for me, my wish came true and a lady sat down next to me. I then began to get my gear ready and settle into my flying routine which consists of listening to music on my MP3 player and doing crossword puzzles or reading a magazine or a book. The lady next to me pulled out her Kindle and had it standing by. I don’t have a Kindle or a Nook, I kind of still prefer to read a real book and feel the paper as I turn the next page. I looked forward to going home. I had had enough of the cold and snow in the windy city of Chicago.
As a frequent flyer, I was one of the first people to board the aircraft. My seat was 18E. On an MD-90 jet, seat 18E has a perfect vantage point of the conveyor system that is used to load one of the cargo areas of the plane. I looked out at the conveyor and saw the luggage and other cargo that were slowly inching their way up to the cargo hold and disappearing below my feet. I would be taken aback by the next item loaded on the conveyor. It was a rectangular box of wood and cardboard. I pondered only a moment on what was in the box, when I saw the orange label that indicated human remains. My heart fell as I realized that the earthly remains of one of God’s children were going home. The box sat on the conveyor for some time as the ramp workers were diligently preparing to receive it into the cargo hold. As I continued to look down, only a few feet away, I could read the name of the deceased. For propriety and anonymity, I will call her Jane Doe. Jane was travelling from a city in Wisconsin to a small town in Alabama. I was compelled to write her name down on a page from my crossword puzzle book. I kept looking out the window down at Jane until she disappeared below my feet into the cargo hold. I then closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for her and her family. From that moment on, my trip had gone from routine to reverent. I was having a communion with God and I experienced a solemn peace.  I would not look at a book, I would not do a crossword puzzle and my MP3 player would remain silent for the entire flight. My trip would be filled with thoughts of Jane Doe and her family and her life and I would ponder my own as I peered out the window at the landscape of the earth.

IMG-Airplane Wing
As we left the cold snow covered cities of the upper mid-west, my thoughts drew me to the hot summer days and visions of my home in Jackson. I was thinking of home, perhaps because Ms. Jane Doe was on her final trip home. It was a pretty clear day; I could see the landscape below throughout my flight. Sometimes the cloud cover prevents you from seeing the earth below. As we flew farther south, the snow cover began to disappear. The fields and farms of the lower mid-west were colored with hues of light brown and flat greens, as if waiting for spring planting and rebirth. As I continued to daydream looking out the window, I could see the vistas on the horizon change before my eyes. The flat areas of the mid-west gave way to the low rolling hills covered with green and brown forests. Rivers of blue and brown snaked across the landscape offering a beautiful view of our waterways. But the most beautiful sight was yet to come. As a veteran of so many flights now, my internal radar could feel what the next view would be. From 30,000 feet, I could see the red clay and southern pines of the Piedmont region of Georgia. I was almost home. And soon, Ms. Jane Doe would also be home. As we made our approach into Atlanta, the red hues of dirt roads, baseball fields and exposed tracts of earth stood out as beacons calling me home. They also called the memories of my youth. On our final approach, we were coming in for a landing from east to west. Looking out behind me, I could see the majesty of Stone Mountain. To my right, I could see the skyline of Atlanta and looking out to the northwest, I could see Kennesaw Mountain.

Stone Mountain
When we finally touched down, I said one last prayer for Jane Doe and her family. When I got home from my trip, I hugged my wife and daughter a little closer this night. I was glad to be home.
A few days later, I would Google Jane Doe and her little town in Alabama. I would learn that she was 72 years old and had succumbed to cancer. She was surrounded by her family at her bedside when she died. She had loved going to flea markets and spending time with her grandchildren. I felt like I knew her. Her body is resting now beneath the earth in her childhood home, but for a brief time, I felt her spirit with me as I soared through the sky at 30,000 feet and gazed down at the red clay of home.

Red Clay Road

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

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