Today would have been my Papa Wham’s 90th birthday. Unfortunately, the Wham men have two tendencies: one, we marry beautiful women and two, we die of heart attacks between 71 and 77 years of age. Papa made it to 76 and might have broken the mold, but Granny Wham had a stroke two days before he died and I truly don’t think Papa believed she’d ever come back home and after 50 years of marriage, he just couldn’t bear the thought of living without her and his dear sweet heart gave out on him. He died in Daddy’s arms just as they reached the emergency room. The first call I ever got on a cell phone was from Mama telling me to go to the hospital. I figured Granny had passed and was already upset about that, but when Daddy put his hands on either of my shoulders and told me Papa was gone . . . well, the world slowed down to about half speed. It would stop completely eleven years later when Papa John went on to glory, but that is more than enough story for another time.
Papa Wham was the embodiment of the “Greatest Generation” to me. He quit school in the ninth grade to take Uncle William’s job at the local cotton mill after the latter lost his right arm in an ice truck accident, which is, again, a story for another time. Between the mill and Granny Mattie’s farm, Papa and his nine live-born siblings made it through the Great Depression. Papa was a Southern “Yellow Dog” Democrat until the day he died. He and Granny, like many people of their era placed F.D.R. just a tiny bit below the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Then, in the spring of 1942, Pearl Harbor caught up with Papa and three of his four brothers. Papa finished basic training at Fort Jackson down in Columbia, SC and shipped out for England in September of that year aboard the R.M.S. Queen Mary, converted for wartime troop transport. Papa’s view of New York harbor was the last he would see of America for three years. Reading Papa’s DD-214 got me interested in World War II and the more I learned about the War, the more I held Papa in awe. This small, precious man had served in the First Infantry Division, “The Big Red One.” He was part of the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and, of course, Normandy. Papa NEVER moved much faster than a walk. A slow trot was his ABSOLUTE top speed and the house pretty much had to be on fire to get that out of him. Whenever Granny or anyone else complained about his slowness, he liked to say, “I ran from North Africa all the way to the Rhine River and that was enough for a lifetime.” Papa never bragged about his military service, but I have his DD-214 and the one medal that made it home with him. When I asked him about the rest, he told me they were in a sea bag somewhere in New York Harbor and he really didn’t care where. Daddy told me Papa’d accidentally dropped his sea bag on his way across the gangplank when he got home, but Papa was so glad to be on American soil again, he never bothered trying to get it back.
After the war, Papa married Granny and together, they raised a family. Aunt Judy died only four hours after her birth, but Daddy and Aunt Cathy made it here just fine. In 1953, Papa put $8,000 cash down on a three bedroom brick home in Fountain Inn and paid it off ten years later. Aunt Cathy still lives there and about 75% of the best memories I have growing up took place inside those four walls.
I could go on and on about him. He was my hero and I miss him just as much today as I did the day I sat on the pew at Beulah Baptist Church and listened to his funeral being preached. I had a huge grin on my face and couldn’t help it. Aunt Cathy was mortified and wanted to know what I found so funny. I’ll end this post with that story . . .
Papa was a deacon, one of twelve, at the church. It came time for new carpet and pew covers and Papa and the other three “older” men on the deacon board voted for a conservative “sea foam” green color scheme. Unfortunately, the rest of the board, composed of “the younger generation”, won a majority and the church was redone in a crimson and scarlet color of fabric and carpet that Papa said looked like belonged in a Parisian whorehouse. I was a teenager at the time and couldn’t help but ask Papa just exactly how he knew what the inside of a Parisian whorehouse looked liked, He cut his eyes at me, but couldn’t help smiling and said, “You’d best be glad your granny didn’t hear you say that or we’d both be in a world of trouble.”
Anyway, when Granny asked Papa at supper that night what the church would look like, Papa said, “Mama, just know that when you see it, I voted SOLIDLY against it.” Those were the words that were running through my mind in my beloved Papa Wham’s soft voice as I sat between Granny Wham and Aunt Cathy that hot July day in the church and saw, reflected in Papa’s brushed steel, flag drapped casket, a scarlet that “belonged in a Parisian whorehouse.”
They don’t come like my Papa Wham anymore. I don’t have the same faith in an afterlife I once did, but what faith I do have, I cling to in large part because of my hope of seeing Papa Wham again one day beyond the clouds. I don’t know of much of anything else in this world or the next that would make me happier.
Happy Birthday, Papa. I love you.
And I love y’all as well. Wash your feet, now, and if you think about it, say a prayer for me and my beloved Papa.