26 May 2013

The Dad He Didn't Have to Be

My dad was born 26 May 1921, probably at home, in the middle-of-nowhere in Itawamba County, Mississippi, third oldest in a family that would eventually be eight.  He may have had a third grade education.  I never saw him read anything but a newspaper.  He could write well enough to get by; sign his name, keep his ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) logbooks back when they were books, multi-part carbons with line graphs and drivers could lie on them to cover up the fact they drove all night from Memphis, TN to Waco, TX.  As far as I know, the only fun things he did that didn’t always involve me was grow peppers & tomatoes, and watch a baseball game.  I don’t know his favorite team, but it was the South before cable got big, so it was probably the Cardinals or the Braves.

When Dad was 16, his father died of pneumonia.  At the time, it was deadly; nowadays, you go to the doctor, get pills and go home.  His older brothers was already out of the house, so it fell to my dad to provide for the family.  In depression-era rural Miss’ippi, that meant farming.  No, not farming, just picking.  The only farmland he ever owned was a thirty-by-fifty plot in our back yard.  So he enlisted in the Army, making corporal before being discharged with a low-percentage disability due to a training accident.  To my shame, that’s about all I know about his early life.  But he was a veteran, at a time when being in the army ran the risk of the bone-numbing cold of Bastogne, or the mosquito-infested tropics of the southeast Pacific.  He came home, got a job, married my mom; and bought a house, a car, and a Chihuahua.

At age 44, he and Mom adopted a roughly-six-month-old named Steven.  I don’t know what my original middle name was, but he gave me his; Arnold.  I hated that name.  I grew up in the mid-seventies, with Green Acres on TV.  When I graduated high school, I refused to let them say my middle name, calling me “Steven A.”  He was there, in the audience (Mom was too sick that day to go).  He never said anything, but I sometimes wonder if that hurt him.

They brought me home (I was already in the family, a grand-nephew or some such) and the Chihuahua was pissed!  He’d been the baby until I came along.  Mom said he used to snuggle up against me and growl.  Mom had babysat kids before, but they always left and I was staying.  I’m sure he thought: “I don’t know who this thing belongs to, but they need to come get it.”

Dad worked at Schering-Plough for 13 years, running the machine that made Di-Gel tablets.  In the days before OSHA, the room he worked in was a fog of chemicals, scarring his lungs and plaguing him with breathing problems for the rest of his life.  I saw him gasping for breath many times as a kid.  He had a nebulizer before they were cool.  After he left Plough, he drove an OTR truck hauling metal cabinets for SanduskyMetal Cabinets.

I never played catch with my dad.  He didn’t know how to be a kid.  He never got to be one himself.  Not to say he ignored me.  We fished, we camped, we watched rasslin’.  And he never had a problem telling me he loved me, and I knew he did.  In my early 20s, when I finally hit teenaged angst, we had plenty of arguments.  He actually kicked me in the butt, once.  In hindsight, I wish I would have tried harder to understand why he fought with me, maybe we wouldn’t have argued so much (not that it was a lot, but for all practical purposes “Spencer” = stubborn).

So why do I write a Memorial Day message about someone whose death had nothing to do with his service to our country?  Because his death had nothing to do with his service to our country.  Because he came home.  Everything I just wrote about us was possible because he came home.  How many stories like this never happened because someone didn’t come home?  Mine did.  In part, because theirs didn’t.

Happy  Memorial Day. And happy birthday to my dad, who would be 92 today.


Suzanne Shumaker said...

What a great homage to your dad, Steve. Thanks for guest blogging for me today.

Adrienne said...

Great story about your father

Sheri Conaway said...

Great story and an even greater reminder of what we all really have to be grateful for!

Nicola said...

Great story about your Dad, and a timely reminder that parents aren't around for ever. I love the poignancy of the 'Arnold' reference.
Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

The end of your post is thought-provoking: the fact that your father returned, while others do not, reminds us that there are soldiers who go on long after wars end. Enjoyed reading the post.