September sneaks up on most folks while they’re distracted by sun, chlorine, fireworks, and mosquitoes. September marks the end of summer, and brings on love bugs, homework, and football season.
September never sneaks up on me. Not anymore. September 11, 2004 fell on Saturday. Our nation was still reeling from the greatest loss of American lives on American soil since Pearl Harbor. There were remembrances, I’m sure. But I don’t remember a single one.
I was sitting at the foot of a rickety hospital bed in a shotgun house in lower Alabama, listening to Eli Gold, and counting respirations. I was trying very, very hard not to panic. I’m not one for panic, really, but sometimes you know just a little too much, and I did.
He’d been a Navy man, lying about his age to enlist. He’d served through two separate enlistments, the first as a “Gunny”, and the second as a timekeeper. He hated fish. When the ships took a hard wave, the fish fell onto the decks, and for days the crew ate little else. At least, that’s the story he always stuck with. I was nearly 30 before I managed to get him anywhere near a beach. He wanted to tour the USS Alabama, and so we loaded up. He led us through the tour, very slowly, not because HE was slow, but because he was savoring the reminiscing. He was meticulous by nature, and had an impressive memory for details and statistics. It was dusk before we made it back down the ramp. We ate at Captain D’s on the way home. But Pa ordered chicken.
He and Meir lived in the tiny house that his Papa originally purchased for $2,400. It was built with beautiful lighter knot pine doors, cast iron knobs, and always had two rockers on the porch. Meir kept the flower beds full of day lilies and amaryllis. He grumbled that she was interfering with his mowing pattern, but he loved to tell others about her gardening skills.
The dining table was hewn from trees back on the old homeplace in Dale County. Pa liked to joke that the table got shorter each time a sister married, so they couldn’t come back home. I never doubted the truth in his story, not one bit.
He was the youngest, and the only son. With so many older sisters, Johnny came awful close to walking on water. Two of those sisters lived within rock throwing distance, or spittin distance, depending on who was telling the story. Aunt Inie’s kitchen window looked directly into Meir and Pa’s kitchen window. If Johnny needed a sip of water at midnight, Aunt Inie’d be at the back door before he got back to bed, to make sure he was alright. Aunt Grace lived across the street. She’d been widowed all my life, so Pa and Uncle Albert kept up the yard and the outside of the house. Couldn’t nary nobody keep that yard like Johnny. His social calendar consisted of church, visitation, and crossing the ditch to Aunt Inie and Uncle Albert’s door every chilly Saturday at halftime. He and Uncle Albert were the best armchair quarterbacks Bama ever could’ve asked for. They each kept a running tally of statistics, and then bantered over whose tabulations were (more) accurate.
After the Navy, he found work in the cotton mill. Cotton mills drove a significant portion of the economy in Alabama for decades. The mills were not ideal places to make a living, but from his “mechanickin” skills learned in service, he was a “fixer” at the mill. He worked the night shift, 2200-0600 until the last ten years before retirement. When he did retire, his friends from the mill threw a surprise party for him in the mill office. They apparently didn’t know how he hated surprises almost as much as fish. To prevent him catching a hint and then stressing over it, Meir told him ahead of time, and he put on a good act for the kind ladies at work. The stress didn’t keep him from eating the cake, though. The real surprise was waiting at home. Uncle Sandy, Mama, and Uncle Doug went in together and bought Pa his first color television. It was the middle of football season. We whipped Tennessee on Ole Rocky Top, in full blazing color. That was the night when he moved the picture of Jesus into the dining room, and Bear Bryant took his place, over the color TV.
He was a mite competitive. He had the best poker face, and instructed me thoroughly in the proper environment in which to deploy it. Y’all know Aunt Inie didn’t allow Johnny to “gamble”. She wasn’t all that thrilled with checkers or darts, either, for that matter. I spent summers in the living room with Pa, Bear, the Braves, and a deck of cards. He’d crack the living room curtains so he could see Aunt Inie’s back door. “Here she comes!” And just like that, the cards were gone, and he was mulling thoughtfully over the checker board before she opened the door.
Once, right after they first married, Pa complained that Meir hadn’t cut the crust off his sandwich. Grandmother grabbed up the butter knife, and hurried about fixing that sandwich as “Johnny likes it”. Meir let her go through with it, let him eat it even. The next day, when it was lunch time, Pa was at his appointed spot, waiting. He kept right on waiting; Meir never made him another sandwich. She told him if he wanted a sandwich, his mama would sure fix it for him. He lived off grits, red eye gravy, cat head biscuits, boiled peanuts, and potted meat for the rest of his days. (Really, it’s not such an exaggeration.)
When the Air Force had us out in West Texas, Meir decided they were going to come visit. Pa wasn’t fond of going off from home, and tried every stonewalling tactic he knew to get her to change her mind. She loaded up a cooler full of grits, Kelley’s sausage, and “grease” (because they don’t sell REAL food in Texas), packed her suitcase, and made it as far as the bottom of the driveway before he gave in and got into the car. It took them three days to drive out, and Meir said he went all three days without speaking to her at all. By the time they got to Abilene, I was a nervous wreck. They’d driven through Dallas/Ft Worth at rush hour on a Friday. Pa confessed that the top speed of a Ford Escort is for sure over eighty miles an hour. He finally loosened up a little, so we traipsed all over the old forts and stockyards. There was a “cowboy” with a handle bar mustache offering photos on his longhorn “bull”. I must’ve voiced my concerns aloud, because next thing I knew, Pa was paying and crawling up on Shiloh. He got his picture. His feet didn’t even reach the stirrups.
The last time he left home, he and Meir showed up at my door in Fort Walton Beach. Just because. He wanted to talk; about everything. He brought his Bible, and explained in detail how he came to be a God fearing, Jesus loving Christian. He recalled stories about Mama, and told me Mama asked him once what my name should be. All he could come up with was “I think Jenny is a good name”. And then he laughed, because he never called any of us by our names. We talked about how many names he was known by, and that he’d been the one to name himself Pa. Names fascinated him. Family names and the honor he associated with those names was not lost on me. The three generations since have all carried some portion of his traditional family names.
As they drove away from me and back home, he had Meir pull in and get gas for the car. The price was $1.34 per gallon. Meir called when they made it home. He got on the line and thanked me for having them. And like he’d always told me, I responded, “Glad to have y’all! Come back when you can stay longer.” He was quiet for a minute. “Alright, Lynnsie. When gas gets below $1.30, I’ll come on back.” It never has. And he never did.
Three hours from now, it will be ten years since he received his reward. When September rolled up this year, I decided to celebrate Pa, and all he’d taught me, instead of crying all month, like I always have. I can’t say I made it. I’ve still cried every day, so far. But I can say I’ve given much more weight to his priceless life lessons, than to my self-indulgent grief.
He was not impressive in stature, but I’ve never known another man with a heart to match his. He taught me tradition, respect, kindness, and dedicated love. He taught me to bait my own hook, eat hot peppers without crying, and the positions and function of every player on the ball field. He taught me to make his coffee sweet and blonde, just like his cookies. He taught me to study the word of God, to ask questions, and to carefully consider the collateral effects of my individual decisions. He taught me to work. He taught me to find comfort in prayer, and to let the Jones’ keep up with their own selves, because we ain’t Jones’. Without even meaning to, he taught me to meet people where they are. And he taught me where I should look for him when I arrive at the meeting point. It’s East. And I can’t wait.
One great man can change the lives of many.
Pa was my one great man.
I am blessed, Y’all.