Daddy was a kind and gentle man. He loved me. I never doubted it. When I was a boy, he enjoyed spending time with me: seeing Hopalong Cassidy and Lone Ranger movies at the Saturday matinee of the Liberty Theater, pitching a baseball in our front yard, taking long walks around our neighborhood on lazy summer afternoons, and splashing in the cold water of Radium Springs where he taught me how to swim when I was four years old. I was his only son and he was my only father. I stuck by him all the days of his life, whether he was drunk or sober.
Because he could not control his alcoholism, Daddy behaved over the years more and more like a reckless child. In his fifties when his business associates at the International Mineral and Chemical Corporation finally stopped covering for him, he was fired from his job as District Manager for Southwest Georgia. From that time until he died in his early seventies, he bounced between Albany and St. Simons Island as a used car salesman and a real estate agent when he was sober—and at times when he wasn’t. His drinking was never social. He gulped straight bourbon whiskey to oblivion for as long as he could get his hands on it, his drunken episodes lasting not for days or weeks but for months at a time.
Mother was a powerful, complex, and wildly creative woman who raised three children, paid the bills, and lived with shame and chaos. She was a college graduate who had once taught high school Latin, and she was relentless in encouraging her children to do well in school and in all things. There was a boldness and a yearning in her way of surviving. In her various moods, she could be fierce, tender, playful, or intimidating. Never knowing whether her husband would be drunk or sober, Mother exhausted herself trying to maintain the appearance of social respectability and uprightness. She never could bring herself to follow through with a permanent separation or divorce.
Because I was witness to Daddy’s disease from a very early age, I became a man before it was my time. My two older sisters escaped the home early, leaving me with the family turmoil for all of my junior high and high school years. Looking back now, it seems that I became the father of my father. Over the years of my adulthood, I have thrown off that burden and taken the freedom to roam, to play, to seek, and to aspire.
Daddy’s downtown office was on the top floor of Albany’s six-story brick skyscraper near the muddy, red, meandering Flint River that divided the town into the haves and the have nots. Homes of black folks were spread out near the river in the floodplain on both sides.
When Daddy had catch-up work on the weekends, he would often invite me to go along with him to the office. He operated the elevator himself as I raced up the stairs, giving me a long running start to be sure I would beat him to the top.
In his office I made paper airplanes, threw them one at a time out the window, and watched them oscillate, float, and finally land on the sidewalk below. I could launch about six of them before Daddy would say, “That’s enough now, Johnny Boy. You come on in here and sit in my office until I finish dictating a few more letters. I’ll give you some paper to draw on.”
I sat across from his big mahogany desk and listened to him talk in short bursts into his dictaphone: “As per your request…of October 11, 1947…we have determined that…we can make shipment to you…by November 14…and…we will make every effort…to meet this deadline…period…We see prosperity ahead for farms like yours, and we are glad to be in partnership with you…period…signed yours truly, Carl Huie…comma…District Manager.”
Sometimes Daddy would invite me to ride with him on his business trips across the humid and fertile flatlands of South Georgia to small towns with names like Plains, Americus, Acree, Vidalia, Cordele, Sylvester, and Ty-Ty. To break the monotony of fields of tobacco, peanuts, and cotton, we’d pull into a country store at least once each trip to drink a Coke or RC Cola, eat a moon pie, and buy a bag of boiled peanuts. As Daddy paid at the register, the storekeeper would say, “Carl, that boy of yours sure is growing up. I know you must be proud of him—he looks just like you. Y’all come on back to see us next time you’re over this way, you hear?”
To pass the time on these trips, Daddy would let me ask me any question that came into my head.
“Daddy, what is glass made out of?” I asked while rolling the window up and down.
“Well, glass is made from sand mixed with soda ash, limestone, and certain chemicals mixed together. And then they put it under intense heat and pour it into thin flat molds made out of tin and when it cools they cut it into the sizes needed for windows and other things. But you have to have sand to start with.”
My father was smart. He had an important job. People respected him. I was proud to be his son. And I knew he was proud of me.
I heard his car roll into the driveway and I ran out the front door shouting, “Let’s go to Radium Springs, Daddy. Supper’s not ready yet. We can get in a cool dip and make it back in time!” I knew he would most likely say yes. That was one of our summer afternoon rituals when I was a young boy.
“Okay, sonny boy, I’ll go get my suit on, grab a towel, and meet you in the car before you can say Jack Sprat!”
We made the seven-mile drive in our brand new 1950 two-door Chevrolet in record time, plunged ourselves into the cold, blue waters of the spring, swam across the deep hole that bubbled up 60,000 gallons a minute, and found our footing on the waist-deep rocks at the edge of the other side. He liked to stand there splashing water up on his chest and then suddenly duck under. He would jump back up sputtering and let out an involuntary gasp—“Whew, that’s cold, cold water!” And then I would duck under and come right back up gasping the same way he did—“Whew, that’s cold, cold water!” We’d laugh and splash each other and then swim back across, hustled to the car for the drive home, arriving just in time for supper.
When I visited Daddy in the small garage apartment on St. Simons Island in late spring 1956, he had been sober for several months and was working every day at the real estate office. He and Mother were much better off living apart, that was clear to me.
We jumped the waves, walked the beach, cooked our meals together, and listened to prizefights on the radio. We enjoyed an easy camaraderie.
“I’m heading home to Albany tomorrow, Daddy. This is my senior year, you know, and there’s lots going on for me. You call me any time you want, and I’ll be calling you, too. I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, too, son. You be careful on those roads now. I’ll be fine. I’ve got plenty of leads to follow up on, and I’ll get some listings pretty quick. You take care of yourself and good luck in the state meet. I’m just fine. I’ll miss you when I’m listening to the prize fights on the radio at night.”
I made the five-hour drive home thinking about the senior prom, my next track meet, and getting up to Davidson for my college interview. I felt hopeful for my father.
After about one week, however, he stopped answering the telephone when I called at night. I got a call one evening from the minister of the First Presbyterian Church on the Island. I had asked him to keep an eye on Daddy and drop in to see him occasionally.
“John, your father is not doing well.”
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“My wife and I drove out to pay a call on him late this afternoon. His car was parked in a strange way, sticking out into the road. I knocked on the door and got no answer. I went in and your father was passed out on the floor. I helped him get to his bed, said a prayer with him, and came back here to the manse. My wife and I will look in on him each day to see if we can help, but I think you better come on over here as soon as you can.”
My 1940 Studebaker was not dependable enough for the 200-mile trip over to St. Simons on the Georgia coast. I called Bob Nix, owner of the tree nursery where I worked on weekends, explained the situation, asked for time off. Bob said he would lend me one of his trucks for a couple of days to make the trip. He wished me well.
Daddy’s pants were down below his hips, and he was lying on his side right in the middle of the bathroom door of the apartment on 8th Street, East Beach, St. Simons Island. His spectacles lay nearby. Urine-soaked, he reeked of whiskey and tobacco. Empty bottles of Jim Beam and Johnny Walker were scattered about, broken glass all over the kitchen floor, Camel cigarette butts overflowing in cracked white cups by the bed. I rolled him onto his back, pulled off his socks and pants, leaned over his unshaven face, and with forefinger and thumb opened one eyelid then the other. Blotto—but breathing. Pulse okay. He’ll live. I manhandled him onto the dirty bed sheets and took a warm washcloth to his head, face, and torso.
“Daddy, can you hear me? This is your son, John. I’ve come to take you home. We’re going back to Albany.”
He groaned, coughed, threw an arm over his head. I wrestled clean underwear and dry pants onto his body, pulled socks over his curled yellow toenails, forced dirty wingtip shoes onto his dry cracked feet, wrestled him into a shirt. We were almost ready to go.
He groaned and mumbled, “Wazzamatter? Wazzgoinon?”
I emptied the drawers on the bed, threw all his clothes in a pile, tied everything up in a sheet, and delivered it to the truck. After hastily cleaning up the rotten fruit and moldy bread on the kitchen counter, I scraped everything out of the refrigerator into a plastic bag. I scoured the greasy frying pan and washed the dirty dishes.
I took a wet rag and cleaned Daddy’s face again, propped him up.
“Pop, we’re hitting the road now. I want you to walk with me to the truck outside. We’re going to take a little drive.”
I dragged him to the truck, plopped him inside.
“What’s going on? Where we going?”
“We’re going back to Albany, Daddy. This hasn’t gone so well for you here. You’ve got to come on back home now. We’ll find you a place to live, get you sobered up, rent an apartment, find you a real estate job in Albany.”
“Well, I’ll go for a ride with you, but I’m not going back to Albany right now. You’ll have to bring me back here.”
“Okay, let’s go for a ride.”
Inhaling the breeze tainted by the putrid odor of the pulp mills, we passed over the marshlands and drove to the other side of Brunswick. When I turned onto the two-lane highway toward Waycross, Daddy said, “Where in the hell are you taking me? Turn this truck around right now. I’m not leaving St. Simons. I’m going to work tomorrow at the real estate office.”
“Tell you what, let’s stop and get a few beers,” I responded.
I ran into a 7-Eleven, came out with three Schlitz beers, and opened one for him. He was soon ready for another. After the third one he slumped over. We sped on down the lonely two-lane toward Waycross. We were driving along the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp where the roadbed had been dredged up from the brackish waters on each side and where alligators, cottonmouth moccasins, and canebrake rattlesnakes roamed. We cruised along in silence at seventy-five miles per hour in the midnight darkness.
After awhile, Daddy raised his head and moaned, “Need to piss. Stop this goddamn truck. Gotta piss.”
I pulled the truck over, left the lights on with engine running, ran around to haul Daddy out. I was fully aware of the perils in this operation, but my choices were limited. I got him turned around facing down the steep bank and the swampy water below, mosquitoes mustering for an unexpected feast on our bare skin.
Standing behind Daddy in the dim moonlight, I held his belt with one hand and unzipped his pants with the other, and then I did what was required to influence the trajectory of the flow. And it flowed and flowed and flowed as we wobbled there on the edge of disaster.
“Ahhh” he sighed after an eternity.
I started the zip-up maneuver by releasing my grip on his belt and reaching both hands around his hips, one to hold, one to zip. He suddenly slumped over as if to throw up, and we went tumbling down the hill toward the slimy waters like two floppy rag dolls thrown off a railroad car. We stopped sliding just short of the water. As far as I could tell, neither of us had broken anything.
“My Gawd, son, my Gawd…”
When I raised my head to look up through the darkness, I could barely see Bob Nix Nursery in white lettering on the side of the green mud-spattered truck. The mosquitoes and bugs were visible in the headlights. No traffic on the road.
Okay, John, this is not the time to reflect on the meaning of the universe. This is the time to prove you are the Olympic athlete of your fantasies. But how do you move up this hill with a man who weighs more than you do and cannot get on his knees to crawl, much less stand up on the side of a steep slope? You drag him—one inch at time. Then you push him, move his arms and legs, shove him from behind. Then you drag him again. And you do this over and over until you get there. You just do it!
It took about half an hour to reach the truck, both of us soaked with sweat, totally exhausted, and filthy as mud rats. I hauled Daddy back into the passenger seat like a sack of potatoes, strapped him in. Grateful for mosquito bites instead of snakebites, we zoomed off into the midnight darkness.
“My Gawd, son, you’re goin’ to kill both of us. My Gawd, just take me back to St. Simons.”
“Just take it easy, Daddy, and I’ll get you a few more beers when we get to Waycross.”
Daddy and I watched whatever we wanted on the television that fall of1963 after I came home from my Army years as an artillery officer in France and Germany—Gunsmoke, Gomer Pyle, Bonanza, The Andy Griffith Show, Mr.Novak, Dragnet, and our favorite, Candid Camera with Allen Funt. We never missed the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and the occasional commentary by Eric Sevareid. The news was often dominated by Martin Luther King’s civil rights marches and speeches which aroused intense irrational hatred in Albany where King had marched and been arrested along with thousands of young people in 1961 and 1962.
Daddy was in his late sixties, a settled and defeated man, sober for longer periods of time now. I was twenty-six, waiting to start graduate school at Emory University in January, itching to leave home for good, hungry for experience outside of this cauldron of love, confusion, alcoholism, and emotional chaos. He and I signed up for a community college course in business law that fall of 1963 and enjoyed drilling each other on the nuances of contracts, anticipating test questions and discussing issues. When we learned we both passed the course with an A, we celebrated with a cookout in the backyard—fried fish, coleslaw, and hushpuppies—just as we had often done in earlier years. Mother made a peach pie and joined in with us.
As Daddy and I passed most evenings in front of the TV through September, October, and November, Mother would frequently stomp through the room for no apparent reason, somehow threatened by the intimacy she was not part of. The fire burned low, the chunks of coal glowed in the dim light on one side of the room, and the TV screen flickered on the other side. Every now and then the radiators knocked and hissed. Smoke from Daddy’s Camel cigarettes settled on the ceiling, the TV voices babbled on. One day in November when we were watching our favorite soap opera, As the World Turns, the sound went off abruptly and a graphic slide appeared on the screen:
CBS NEWS BULLETIN. Then Walter Cronkite’s face appeared as the camera moved up close. In his clear and modulated voice, he announced: “From Dallas, Texas. President Kennedy died at one o’clock p.m. Central Standard Time, two o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago.” Speechless for a few seconds, he removed his glasses, choked back tears before giving the sketchy details of the shooting of the president in Dealey Plaza.
For days Daddy and I sat in the den together, eating our meals, watching the television as an amazing sequence of events unfolded. Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in with Lady Bird and Jackie in her blood-stained dress at his side on Air Force One. We were stunned when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, right in front of our eyes. Days later we mourned with the whole nation as the casket drawn by four horses passed along Pennsylvania Avenue where three-year-old John-John, standing at attention next to his mother, saluted his father as the casket passed by.
Daddy and I said little through all this. We were awed, perplexed, moved—and close. Mother clomped through the room more often each day while we were listening to the eulogies and watching interviews with eyewitnesses, politicians, and FBI spokesmen. Late one afternoon she stopped in front of us just as Walter Cronkite was coming on with the evening news. She blocked our view and then abruptly pivoted toward the television set and turned it off.
“That’s enough of that. Y’all been watching it now all week. Get out of this room. Get over it. He’s dead. Jackie is free now. He hated our way of life and somebody was bound to shoot him sooner or later. Good riddance!” She marched out.
Daddy reached over and took me by the hand and held it tight. When our eyes met, he grimaced, nodded his head slightly, and blinked both eyes. I nodded back. With an understanding that needed no words, we were quiet and alone together for a very long time. I can’t remember everything, but I can remember how soft and gentle his hand felt and how much I loved him at that moment, as we lingered in front of the den fireplace in our home on Rawson Circle, embers burning low and time passing.