Dad cooking barbecue in a pit in about 1959.
My father died in the spring of 1960, just short of his 50th birthday and two months shy of my 14th. He was a physical mess. The last time I saw him, he was in an iron lung, which was breathing for him, and he weighed less than 100 pounds. He was pale and wan, his eyes dark and deep-set, his smile forced. His teeth were gone.
Dad, an alcoholic who had periods of sobriety through my life, had relapsed, left home briefly and fallen in with some people who drank bad moonshine in Johnson City, Tenn. The moonshine was poison and it eviscerated Dad inside, rendering most of his organs inoperative. His death came after a months-long struggle and quite a bit of family upheaval.
Dad was a lost soul from the time he was kicked out of the Army during or just after World War II (I can’t establish exactly when). He wanted to make the Army a career as an officer. Instead, he got a year in Leavenworth Federal Prison for going AWOL. He left without leave because he was told he would not be able to re-enlist; he had diabetes and he would be medically discharged. He broke the Army’s rules by leaving before he had permission.
This was the tall blond athlete and scholar who had been the leader of his class at Virginia Tech (athlete and Captain of the corps), who had been a picture-perfect Army officer, who was bright, outgoing and smart. Now he was a failure, a man with a dishonorable discharge and a troubled soul. At this time in America a less than honorable discharge from military service resulted in a life sentence of disgrace.
Mom and Dad near the time of his death.
Dad couldn’t get a job where he was qualified: business administration. He settled for cooking in corner grills, small restaurants and soda fountains. He ran a couple of pretty good sized restaurants eventually, but the role was limited, as was the pay. Supporting a wife and gaggle of kids was difficult, nearly impossible. Then he died, leaving nothing.
Dad worked so much and so hard that he had little left for us kids. He was up at 5 a.m., ordering food for the restaurant in that deep, sonorous voice that he tried to keep low, with not much success. I remember a few instances when he and I interacted, but not many. He once hit me fly balls in the back yard until I missed one and the baseball bounced off my head, knocking me out. We never did that again.
Mom rarely let him cook in her kitchen because he was messy, so I didn’t get much of a chance to see how good he was. Mom said he was great, but she didn’t want to clean up after him. There was the big barbecue we went to where Dad was the star, staying up all night with the pig, basting and turning it. He made the Brunswick stew, too. It was so good I could have cried–but didn’t.
A big weekend was a drive from our home near the Savannah River, across into Augusta, Ga., to Julian Smith Park for a fried chicken picnic and a stop by Dairy Queen and an frozen custard cone for each of us. The cones of soft ice cream cost a nickle. Gas for the trip was about 15 cents (30 cents a gallon). We stretched the budget.
Dad died with a lot of questions unanswered, some of whose answers, I suspect, would not please me, but they would tell me where I came from. I think we all want to know that. And sometimes we just can’t.