It was cold; much colder than I expected. The wind was whistling down the Steadman Ridge. I turned the collar up on my lightweight jacket and slid my hands deep into the pockets. This place had a hold on me. I shivered in the late afternoon chill. But I did not move back toward the truck. This was not my first December visit. I had actually seen it colder.
I wasn’t even coming here when I started on my journey nine hours earlier. And I was 75 miles off my intended path. I was headed to see Mother. I was standing before my Father. The Middle Tennessee weather can be relentless in December. I was oblivious to it when Daddy smiled.
He had no formal education, did you know that? He went to work when he was 12 years old. He completed the third grade before Granddaddy Jim needed him more at the farm than they did down at the Mt. Zion Elementary School. It was not an unusual occurrence in the rural south of the mid 1920s. Granddaddy was more interested in the immediate family’s well-being than he was in my father’s future opportunities. I pondered on that for a few minutes on this chilly afternoon and it made my blood boil. In essence, Dad was handicapped in life before he even started. ’Course, it must’a not bothered Dad. I never heard him mention it one time. He did see that me, Leon and David Mark didn’t drop out. And the fact that all three of us got college degrees is more of a testimony to his demanding it than our love of academia. That I can guarantee!
I stared at the American flag someone had left. He spent World War II island-hopping across the Pacific with MacArthur. I thought about his lack of formal education. That must have put him at a disadvantage in the service. And then again, it might not have – courage, discipline and a quick trigger finger probably trumped reading and writing fundamentals in that particular chapter of Dad’s life. ’Course, either way, we’ll never know. He didn’t say much about the war either.
And let’s not confuse education with intelligence. I’ve known lots of folks who had the former but not the latter. And vice versa.
I squinted off toward the darkening sky and tried to remember the first time I saw him. I could not. He was just always there. I remember him bringing those oranges and walnuts home for Christmas. He counted them as presents. I remember meeting him with a ball and a glove as he stepped down from that old International. I remember his great strength. I remember him lingering at the supper table, with his coffee and Camel cigarettes.
I remembered the whippings. He’d jerk that wide belt out of the loops, double it quickly and administer justice in a heartbeat. And it was justice! He whipped us for talking back, disobeying, mistreating someone, not being respectful to Mom or “getting too big for our britches.” I chuckled to myself. He didn’t say “this is going to hurt me more than it does you” or “you have done wrong, son, and I must do my duty” or “this will make a better person out of you.” He didn’t say nothing. He whipped your butt! And then both of us got on with our lives.
I remember mostly that he went to work every day. He was a truck driver by choice. He loved the road. He was good at it and it put bread on the table. Daddy didn’t philosophize on it. He didn’t bemoan the long trips and the time away from home. He didn’t feel sorry for himself or “trapped” in life. He simply provided for his family like a man should. It wasn’t optional for my father. He got up and did the best he could each day. The United States of America is built on such men.
The day I left for college he came into my bedroom. “Son,” I could tell by his hesitation that Mom had sent him to give me some going off advice, “be good,” he paused as he wrestled for the words, “and do right.” He turned and headed back to the kitchen. I thought for a second I saw a tear.
A passing car horn interrupted. I raised my hand instinctively and returned the greeting. It was the way things are still done in this part of Lawrence County. Plus, there was a good chance it was a cousin or an in-law.
The lights from the little church glimmered across the small cemetery. “Dad,” I let my chest swell just a tad, “Josh has a doctorate degree in physical ttherapy, Jesse has his master’s and is working on his PhD.” I had never told anyone this before. It sounds too much like bragging. That would have gotten me a whipping in the old days. But it was important for Daddy to know that what he started in us was still ongoing.
He smiled and didn’t unlimber his belt.
“Be good and do right.” Plato, Socrates and Aristotle in their heyday couldn’t match that counsel. I pondered on the depth of it again as I said goodbye and started back to the truck. It was only seven miles from Mt. Zion Elementary School to the church at Bethel. But what a journey for my father!
And what a long shadow it cast...