Happy 6th Decade, Daddy!

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Daddy as a toddler.

As hard as it is for me to believe it, Daddy turns 60 years old today. I’m betting it’s as much a surprise to him as it is to me since I’ve heard him say on more than one occasion that if he’d known he was going to live this long, he’d have taken better care of himself! It’s a mite too late for that now, Daddy.

Country Music Hall of Fame member Waylon Jennings could very well have had Daddy in mind when Waylon sang the words to one of his most famous songs, “Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do sometimes don’t know how to take him. He ain’t wrong; he’s just different but his pride won’t let him do things to make you think he’s right.” A better summary of my father’s general attitude towards life doesn’t exist.

Daddy was born on Labor Day in 1950. Granny had lost my Aunt Judy to death in the hospital two years earlier without ever getting to bring her home. Since Daddy was so healthy and easily delivered, he quickly became the apple of Granny Wham’s eye and he maintained that position for 58 years until she passed away. Daddy was Granny Wham’s heart and pretty much the center of her world. That may seem a wonderful thing, but in many ways, being the center of anyone’s universe is a heavy burden to bear. Granny was so happy to have her bouncing baby boy that early on, she started smothering him with love and attention. It may seem ironic, but a person can be “loved to death” in some senses. That’s a story for another time, though.

Daddy was the typical All-American Baby Boomer boy. He played Termite League baseball for Fountain Inn, roughhoused with the abundance of cousins on Papa Wham’s side of the family, and generally seemed to have a bucolic and idyllic childhood. He and Papa Wham went rabbit hunting together on the few occasions Papa was able to tear himself away from the service station he ran on Main Street and slowly but surely, Daddy grew into a teenager.

Daddy at 18.

When Daddy was 15 and Mama was 13, they met at a local hangout called Curry’s Lake. I don’t know about love at first sight or any tripe like that . . . especially considering what came later . . . but they managed to hit it off well enough to start dating.

Now, as a teen, Daddy had a problem I would later inherit from him — he was a trouble magnet. Some people can fall into a vat of Limburger cheese on a hot July day and still emerge smelling like a sweet spring breeze. Daddy, and later I, had the opposite ability. We could fall into a vat of Chanel #5 and come out smelling like the north end of a south bound skunk. My daddy wasn’t a mean person. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. If he had any fault it was an undying loyalty to his handful of true friends. Loyalty like that, paired with our atrocious luck, can get a body into mischief. It did Daddy.

Something happened when Daddy was 17. The details depend entirely on whom one asks and I’ve asked enough to reach the point of saying “to Hell with it,” because no two stories match, but the outcome remains the same and if you get a hole in your foot, it doesn’t much matter if a nail or a knife caused it. You just know it hurts. To clear things up, Daddy enlisted in the US Army on his 18th birthday. Enlisting in the Army in 1969 meant one thing and one thing only — an all expenses paid “vacation” to the cesspool called Vietnam.

Before Daddy shipped out, however, he or Mama or both had decided that Daddy might get killed and they’d never see each other again, so someone came up with the bright idea for them, 18 and 16 years old respectively, to get married. Looking back, that turned out not such a good idea, but, as I’ve learned over the last many years, you can’t unbreak eggs. Daddy left his young bride and his family on the tarmac at Greenville Airport on Easter Sunday. I’ve been told that Papa Wham, a veteran of three years of awfully bloody fighting in WWII, told Daddy with tears streaming down his checks that  if Daddy said the word, Papa would put him on a plane to Canada and Daddy would be safe from what Papa seemed to sense coming. That’s another one of those unanswerables life tends to throw us now and again.

Daddy didn’t go to Canada. He went to Vietnam and spent 13 muddy, bloody months in the Central Highlands of the I-Corp region of that godforsaken hell hole driving an M48A3 Patton main battle tank or one of the M113 APC variations up and down the rutted pig-trails that passed for roads in Vietnam’s fourth world backwaters. He did his duty and he did it well. He also had to see a lot that 18-19 year old boys weren’t meant to see. Things no one this side of Hell is meant to see. He lost a lot of good friends. I know some of their names, but not many. Daddy seldom speaks of those 13 months. When I was smaller and starry-eyed with the “glory of battle” and tanks and airplanes, I’d ask Daddy questions. His face would get cloudy. I finally gained enough sense to stop asking by the time I was an early teen. Once he thought I was old enough, he told me some things that occurred. Then I knew why he’d never talked about it before.

Daddy returned from Vietnam a drastically changed man. He was home just long enough to see me born January 6, 1971 before he shipped out to West Germany to finish his enlistment. In its own way, Germany in the ’60s had just as much to offer in the way of pitfalls as Vietnam did, but the enemy was even subtler than the VC. In any event, Daddy came home for good in 1972. He and Mama bought a single-wide trailer and set it up on Granny Wham’s home place.

Daddy went to work at Laurens Glass Works. Back then, drinks, pickles, and anything else worth packaging came in GLASS bottles. Daddy made those bottles. To this day, if I see an old Coke or Pepsi bottle, I’ll snatch it up and turn it bottoms up looking for the “L” in the glass that signified that bottle had its birth down in Laurens. Daddy was blue-collar and dependable to perfection. He always paid his bills on time and kept a nice roof over my head. If he had a bit of money left, he’d buy a six-pack of Miller High Life for himself. If money was short, he didn’t. I was small, but the message I got from Daddy was always unsaid but crystal clear — a man takes care of his responsibilities before his pleasures. That’s how he lived his life.

Of course, somewhere along the way, things went south for Mama and Daddy. I could go into details, but this isn’t the time nor the place and in the grand scheme of things, what difference does it really make? Some of it was the ghosts of Vietnam some of it was other things. The long and the short of it is, it was a damn mess. I really think Daddy and Mama both tried to keep me in the dark so I wouldn’t worry, but that’s one of the disadvantages to being precocious. Anyhow, Mama and Daddy parted ways for good in the late 1970s. The divorce was final a little later on. I’ve always hated it happened, but in the end, it’s another one of those unanswerable questions of life.

Daddy started his next stage of life by marrying my stepmom, Teresa. He and she worked together at the glass plant and they seemed to have a lot in common. I didn’t see Daddy as much in those days. It was complicated. Still, I would spend some weekends with them and we always went to Santee-Cooper for a fishing vacation in the summer. I’d spend Christmas Eve with Mama and Daddy would pick me up on Christmas morning to go to Granny and Papa Wham’s house.

I grew up. Daddy and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things as I got older and since we are so much alike in more than just looks, neither one of us was going to give the other one the satisfaction of backing down. Things would have been a lot easier if I’d cared more about having a good relationship with my father and less about being right, but that’s one of those broken eggs it’s a waste of time to cry over. We aren’t as close as it would have been nice to be, but, especially since I married Budge, we don’t fuss much anymore — not that we’ve forgotten how, mind you — but things have changed. Lot of water. Lot of lost opportunities. Lot of missed communication. It’s still a bit of a mess, but it is what it is.

Daddy at 60.

When the Glass Plant shut down, it was a tremendous blow to Daddy. He’d put more than 20 years of his life into that place and now, at nearly 50, he had to start over again. He went to technical college. I helped him a little with some courses and he started a new career as a HVAC tech and then as a maintenance man. It wasn’t the same though and he never was as satisfied so he worked out an early retirement deal and got away from the stress those jobs put on him. I think it added ten or fifteen years to his life.

These days, Daddy takes it a little easier. He has to. Fortunately, after all these years of being haunted by the specters that came home with him from Vietnam, he’s gotten some help from some professionals. I know he hated every minute of it because saying Daddy is a VERY independent man is about like saying the Great Wall of China has a few bricks. It just doesn’t get the point across. He doesn’t travel far from home. He’s pretty well got a route worked out that he rides most days and sees to what he wants to see to. In his spare time, he raises goats.

Today, though, Daddy is 60. He’s carved out his own path in life and he’s managed to secure a pretty safe future for himself and Teresa as the get older. He got me grown, gone, and married and now he’s done the same for my little brother, Nick. Everyone might not care for the way he’s lived his life or the way he’s done things, but if you call him on it, he’ll happily tell you to go to hell. Trust me, I know this.

Of course, as either of us will gladly tell you, Nick nor I matter very much anymore. That’s because Mason Benjamin came along nearly a year ago. Daddy is now Papa and though he isn’t very comfortable around babies, we all know that in a couple of years, when Mason is old enough to toddle around after Papa, Teresa and Mrs. Miller will have a hard time on their hands getting hold of the little one for any great length of time. I know what the little fellow is in for. Daddy’s got a lot of lessons to teach him. He taught them to me and then to Nick.

My daddy is a very special man. He’s not huggy, touchy feely by any means, but he is honest, hardworking, and loyal to those who have proven their loyalty to him. I wouldn’t say he is easy either to get to know or to understand. He likes it that way. It keeps people guessing. I once told Teresa I didn’t think Daddy liked me very much. She said, “Your daddy loves you dearly; he just isn’t great at showing it.” Again, it is what it is.

I’m glad I have Daddy as my father. If you ever meet him, call him Frankie. Never make the mistake of referring to him as “Mr. Wham.” He’ll tell you the same thing I or Nick would and that’s Mr. Wham is buried next to the only Mrs. Wham near the front of Beulah Baptist Church Cemetery. He ain’t wrong . . . he’s just different. Seeing as how I took so much of that from him myself. It’s a little easier now to appreciate.

If you read this, I love you, Daddy, and hope you have a great birthday!

And I hope the rest of you have a great day as well.

Love y’all, and don’t forget to wash your feet.

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