Daddy

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One of the first memories I can recall, I must have been around 3 or 4 years old, standing on the front porch in some cut-off jeans, a t-shirt, and sandals (I called them my “Jesus shoes”). It was July, I believe, and I remember waiting for my daddy to come home from work, looking at my toes in those sandals. Most people not from southeast Oklahoma don’t believe this, but it is every bit as humid there as it is in Atlanta, Georgia, and I can almost feel the warmth of that hot, summer sun beating down on me even as I think about this. He pulls into the driveway in his truck, a black, old International Harvester pickup (a few months to a year later I would pretend to be Superman, jumping from the cab of that old truck and yelling “Up, up, and away” like George Reeves in the old black and white TV show, only to land awkwardly and split my forehead on the jack in the bed – I still have the scar to this day) and I run to meet him as he swings the door open. He picks me up and I remember the smell that my daddy had to this day, and gross though it sounds, it is a smell I don’t ever think I will forget and a smell that immediately takes me back to those days – sweat from lugging Pepsi in and out of stores all day and cigarettes, which until his health got the better of him just a few years before he died, I never saw him without one in his hand. He threw me up on his shoulder and carried me inside for him to let my momma know he was home, and then he would come back outside with me, take me by the hand, and we would walk around the house, talking and looking at bugs or whatever caught our eyes. He would explain to me about certain plants, bugs, animals or we’d talk about how our respective days went. I wish that I could go back in time and walk around that house one more time with him like that…

Not a morning goes by that I am in a car and see the sunrise coming up that I don’t think back to going to work with my daddy to deliver Pepsi. From the time that I was about 5 up until he left that job when I was 12, almost every day of summer break from school I went to work with him to “help out”. For most of that time he was a route driver and they had these old International Harvester delivery trucks. I remember the whine of the engine, the sun coming up over the horizon stinging my sleepy eyes, and my daddy singing old honky tonk songs as we made our way all over the countryside. We would always stop on the way out of my hometown to get gas for the truck and daddy would get me a chocolate milk and a fried pie. We would make our way down the highway and even though I knew that we had a full day’s work ahead of us (when you went to work with daddy, you WORKED – he instilled a work ethic into us that I carry with me to this day) I was always so happy just to spend the time with him. Just one more trip down that old black-top two lane highway would be so nice…

My daddy was a ham radio operator for most of my childhood. I can still remember his old radio room in our house. We had a three bedroom house and my parents shared one of the smaller bed rooms, and my older brothers (they are twins) and I shared the master bedroom, while my daddy converted the other bedroom into his radio room. He had thousands of dollars of equipment in there, from the radios themselves to an old teletype machine. He had taught himself Morse code, and after dinner each night he would sit in there, talking to people literally all over the world. He kept a world map on the wall with pins marking each place where he had talked to someone, and the operators would send postcards to one another. One entire wall of that room was covered in postcards from every corner of the globe. He talked to Soviet dissidents in Siberia, the Queen Mary cruise ship as it made its way through the waters of the Pacific, and would route radio transmissions through phone lines for US troops stationed in Central and South America to their families, especially on holidays. It’s funny how memory works, I have trouble recalling things from just a few years ago sometimes, but I still remember his call sign – WB5ULI. I would sit in there with him sometimes, and he would show me what each piece of equipment did or tell me about who he was talking to in Morse code. I remember the sounds of that old radio room, the hums of the equipment, the ticking of the clock, the stream of dits and dots coming over the airwaves that I fell asleep to so many nights. I would love to be able to go back to that old radio room one more time and watch him as he tapped away at the Morse pad…

Being an amateur radio operator, he and some of his friends from their radio club set up a Civil Defense network within my hometown. This was in the days before FEMA, and most municipalities had their own civil defense networks that provided preparedness education for wartime and natural disasters and was loosely organized on the local level. While he and his friends had always been very much into preparation for war with the Soviet Union (someday I might write an article on their plans and the preparations they had made down to the smallest detail), the main work of their civil defense network was in storm watching and raising the alarm in case of a tornado. It was the 70s and early 80s and reliable radar tracking of storms in the area did not exist, and even what radar systems they had for this weren’t located all over, but just in a few locations. The most reliable system at the time was putting people on the ground in locations around the town and having them watch for developing severe weather, and then they would call it in on the radio – in cases of rotation in the clouds or tornadoes on the ground, they would call it in and the weather alert system would be activated in the town (which was an old air raid siren). When I was 7 or 8, we had a huge storm system that had hit our town. It had literally been black outside of a couple of days, with heavy rains, high winds, and hail. There was one of those prefabricated buildings outside of the classroom I was in during this storm that was used for a reading lab, and the winds literally ripped it from the ground and tossed it across the playground – this wasn’t from a tornado but just high winds. During this, my brothers were in junior high (I think most places these days call it middle school) and had traveled across Red River into Texas to compete in a track meet. The storm had gotten bad, and my mom picked me up from school early. We went to daddy’s work and he got the call that they needed to go out (his boss would let him off in order to serve the city). He needed extra batteries for the walkie talkie that he used when storm-watching, and he sent my mom to the store to pick them up, while I waited with him. Right after she left, he got the call that there was a tornado on the ground north of town. He took me with him and we found it and tracked it, calling in as we were following it. I still remember what it looked and sounded like – it was over a mile wide and headed for a tiny little town that was near to the lake that was basically just a few houses and a bait shop. We were flying down this old dirt road at probably 60-70mph to stay up with the tornado, traveling parallel to it, and finally hit the highway that would take us to the little town. Daddy had called it in for them to try and warn the town, but in those days of no cell phones and no internet, word didn’t get there in time. As we made our way down that old two lane highway, we had to weave around downed trees and powerline poles, and when we made it to the town, all of the houses were leveled and the old stone bait shop’s roof was gone, with debris everywhere. A friend of daddy’s that lived there was already out of his house and using a car jack to try to lift the houses enough for people to crawl out. Daddy told me to grab the jack from the back of the truck and he ran out and started lifting. We got everyone out of their houses, and luckily no one was seriously injured. Daddy directed the emergency crews and I wandered around the devastation, a little shell shocked. After he got everyone the help they needed, he came over to me where I had probably been standing for around an hour looking at this plastic drinking straw that had been inserted in one of the stones that made up an exterior wall of the old bait shop. He put his arm around me and told me he was proud of me and the way I had jumped in to help get people out and that I was a hero. I will never forget those words…

My parents divorced when I was 11. It was a situation I didn’t fully understand at the time, but it was a bad situation. My daddy had been unfaithful and left my mom for another woman. I really think that the shock of the divorce left my mom scarred in many ways, and she never really got over it. My parents had been divorced for over 20 years and my daddy had raised a whole other family when my mom got so ill that we knew her time was coming. She had Parkinson’s disease and other complications associated with it. I was stationed in California at the time and my brothers had called me and told me that she slipped into a coma and the doctors weren’t expecting her to pull out of it. I didn’t have the money to take the full family back on such short notice, so I flew back to Oklahoma. When we got to the hospital, there was daddy, sitting by her side, holding her hand and talking to her. She pulled out of the coma, but she passed about a month later, never coming out of the hospital. Daddy was by her side the entire time. When she passed, I brought my family back with me. We scattered her ashes in a place where we had camped many times as a family. After, we went back to one of my brothers’ houses and drank and talked about her, laughed about the good times, and cried about the bad times. Now, I don’t drink that much anymore, but back then I did, and when we ran low on alcohol, daddy took me to the store to buy some beer. He hadn’t drank in years, but when I jumped back in the truck to take it back to the house, daddy asked if I wanted to drive down an old dirt road and have a couple of them before we got back over there. We parked on this dirt road that wasn’t far from our old house and through the first beer we pretty much sat in silence. As we cracked the second, daddy told me that he knew that he had made many mistakes in his life, but the one that he regretted the most at that moment was ever leaving my mom. I don’t know if he was apologizing to me, to her memory, or to God, but he poured out his heart and apologized for everything. I don’t know if he ever did the same with my older brothers, but that meant so much to me because after the divorce I was left feeling all alone in the world. You see, my older brothers had him there in their lives up until they were 16-17, so they were pretty much adults. My younger sisters and brother from my daddy’s second marriage had him there with them throughout their whole lives. But from the time I was 11 onward, he was not a consistent part of my life, and I definitely fell into the wrong crowd – heck, I was the wrong crowd. And while I told him, and I still believe this to this day, that if not for the hard times I had faced in life I wouldn’t be the man I  was then – or today – it meant so much to me that he acknowledged the effect it all had on me…

In early 2012, I was headed back to the US after being stationed in Germany for a little over 6 years. We were staying in temporary lodging on base, kind of like a hotel but more like a temporary apartment, and I was talking to one of my brothers over social media. We were moving to San Antonio, not far from home, and it was the first time in years that I would be within driving distance of them. We had been planning on getting together and so on over a couple of days. Then he got in touch with me and told me that daddy had gone into the hospital and the doctors weren’t expecting him to make it out of the hospital. I was to fly from Germany the next day and we began planning how long it would be until I could get up there because he said he thought daddy was hanging on until he saw me and that he had been asking about me coming there. I hit the ground, checked into my new unit and immediately went on leave to go up there. While he was conscious and able to talk, it wasn’t just the doctors that didn’t think he would make it out – he didn’t think he would make it out, either. I don’t know if anyone reading this has ever lost their father, but for those that haven’t, I will tell you that seeing the man that you spent the better part of your life believing was invincible in such a vulnerable position has a profound effect on you. I stayed up with him for the better part of three days – going to my brother’s house to eat, shower, change clothes, maybe grab an hour or two of sleep and then going right back up. I had missed enough time with my daddy in my life, and I wanted to spend every bit of time he had left with him. We stayed up into the night talking, and he told me stories from his life I had never heard before – in a way, I think it was form of confession for him. We talked about the mistakes we had both made in our lives and our hopes for our children. One night, it was my older brothers, my son, and I in the room for most of the night and he told us what he wanted done when he died. I remember we all tried to stop him and told him not to think about that, but he said he knew the odds of him getting out of the hospital, and he wanted to make sure that we knew his wishes. Now, my daddy did get out of the hospital that time, but he would pass two years later on October 3, 2014. He also wanted to be cremated and for his ashes to be scattered in the hills where we would go camping and hunting when I was a kid.

If you are reading this today on Father’s Day, and your daddy is still with you, I want you to spend every possible moment you can with your dad today. Tell him how much he means to you, how much you have learned from him about what it means to be a man. On today, more so than most days, I really miss my daddy. I wish I could go to work with him one more time, go fishing, go hunting, or just sit on the front porch and tell jokes and talk about life. I know he is in a better place now, together with our Heavenly Father – that he is now without pain or worry. But there is so much I didn’t learn from him. So many times now that I wish I could call him up and get advice, or ask him how to do something. I don’t have that opportunity now. So if you still have it, please don’t waste time with your daddy.

 

If you missed the special Thursday Brothers on the Wall broadcast with Pastor Flip Benham speaking on Fatherless America, or the Saturday broadcast with Josh Tolley, click here to listen!

In the Thursday show, Pastor Benham referenced an article: “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men” – you can read it by clicking here.

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