My Father – Floyd Grant Hack
Everyone has a father story, which only infrequently is shared because the primary person interested in the story is the storyteller. Be that as it may, today I begin to note the thoughts and images I can remember about my father. It came to me this morning while I was walking that perhaps I should do this now and not wait. I am 72 years old and it’s been almost 53 years since my father died. The thought has crossed my mind that in time I may lose my memories of dad, and that even today, the memories I have may not be all that accurate.
Because my parents were older and already white haired when I was born, they appeared more like grandparents than parents. Of course, as a very young boy, those thoughts didn’t occur, and it wasn’t until I started to compare the activities of other parents that I thought of my dad as old. He didn’t wrestle, run foot races, or horse around like the younger dads in our neighborhood. I don’t know that this comparing contained a consciously negative view of my father, but I do know that I preferred to go to other kids’ homes rather than invite them to mine.
Our home was small. Downstairs contained a living room, dining room, kitchen, bath and one small bedroom. There was a loft like upstairs with sloping roof that allowed you to stand upright in the middle of the room. Otherwise, as I grew, I needed to stoop over to get in my bed. My sisters and I had bed space in that upstairs. There was an unfinished basement with a washing machine and a little bit of space that wasn’t filled with boxes and things. In retrospect, compared with my standard of living today, we were poor.
It is not my intent here to focus on our poorness, for I never felt poor. Money was never discussed in our house, at least not in front of me, so I had no real idea of how much money we might have at any given time. I do know that my parents always worked. My father worked at Rath packing, a meat processor. He worked in maintenance, which to my ears was a more important job than being a janitor. But he also sold Raleigh products, which was a door to door kind of sales, similar to Watkins. When he would come home from Rath, he would take the old panel truck loaded with lotions, vitamins, and other goods and head for the north end.
In our town in the 50’s, segregation was not an issue, it just was reality. I don’t ever remember the word being used in any discussion. The “coloreds,” as my mother called the Afro-Americans, lived in the north end of town, went to school there, went to church there. And this was the area where my father sold his Raleigh products. There and in the “poor white” neighborhoods on the edge of town. I didn’t give it much thought as a little boy, but there were no discount stores, and few super markets. Many consumable products were purchased in neighborhood markets at a premium price. It was probably much easier to buy an occasional bottle of vanilla, or some salve or ointment from a traveling salesman who would come to your door once every couple of weeks.
My father had a lot of regular customers. Occasionally I would get, have, to go with him. Normally I would stay in the truck and wait impatiently for him to return, looking forward to being home and playing with friends. There were times in some neighborhoods when he wouldn’t let me stay in the truck, but I would have to go inside and be still while he conducted business. I understood then why these visits would take so long. My father was a talker, and once he entered a house, the Raleigh business was only a small piece of his visit. He would talk with anyone about anything. And it seemed to my young mind that he would talk endlessly. And as far as the business went, I could understand why it was a marginal enterprise, as he was likely to discount, give away, or delay payment for any given customer. It was no wonder that his customers welcomed him into their homes.
I don’t think I consciously appreciated it at the time, but his sales business just demonstrated how kind he was. He liked people. He appreciated who they were and was happy they liked to spend time with him. Wealth and position was not important to him. He was just a kind man to everyone.
He was especially kind to me. He and my mother had five girls before I was born. Except for the first and second, they were all five years apart. Talk about planned parenthood. I always joked that the plan was as the girls got older, there would always be a babysitter handy. And since I was born when my father was 45, I also joked that I was a last-ditch effort on his part to have a son. And maybe that was why he was kind to me. I was the baby of the family and the only boy, so I got spoiled completely.
If my father didn’t rough house with me, he made up for it with more “adult” pursuits. When he would work in the garage, I would work beside him. I remember especially liking that I was in charge of straightening nails. We had coffee cans of used, rusty, bent nails. Of course, my father never threw anything away, so old nails got put into coffee cans, to be straightened and reused. That was my job, and I loved it. I remember spending hours straightening nails.
And then there was the tent that was set up in the side yard where we “camped.” I still have a picture somewhere of the two of us lying on our bellies looking happily out of the entrance of the tent. I figured the old, canvas tent must have been my father’s from when he was a boy. It might not have been, but it was old, and it didn’t keep rain out, but it was a joy, none the less.
And as soon as I was old enough, cub scouts became my activity of choice. My father became a leader of the pack, and that ensured my continuing activity in scouting. When I became old enough for boy scouts, he also became a leader of the troop and participated in all the troop activities with me. I have very fond memories of winter weekends at boy scout camp, bunking in the cabins, having chili suppers, and pancake breakfasts with leftover chili on them.
I never excelled at scouting. First class was the highest rank I received. I just didn’t have the drive to earn all the merit badges that it took to be an Eagle Scout. In hind sight, I know my father would have been so proud of me had I pushed harder. And yet, he never went the opposite direction to berate me for not pushing myself to be perfect. I always felt accepted. I think my goal became more to not disappoint than to please him. He seemed to like me no matter what.
The one time I remember being disciplined by him was because of my behavior in church. I’m not sure now exactly what I did, but it was “bad” enough for my father to march me out of the church in front of everyone, escort me silently to our house (a block away), spank me, then escort me back into the church in front of everyone into our seat. All this occurred in my memory without a word. Needless to say, once was enough and whatever I did was not repeated. I felt somehow, even as a little boy, that I had in some terrible way disappointed my father by my behavior. That remained a guide for me for a very long time, not that I never did anything wrong, but just that I always considered how upset my father might be with me.
I suppose I should include some thoughts about money because I think of my father as my role model for my financial (or lack thereof) acuity. As I said earlier, money was never a topic of discussion in our household, so my understanding of monetary value was experiential. I remember seeing my mother at the dining table surrounded by ledgers, slips of paper and an old crank calculator. I suppose that made her the bookkeeper. I knew that employed as a clerk at Black’s, she handled money all the time. I had watched her count her drawer and accompanied her to the office where she turned in her cash and receipts. There weren’t credit cards in those days, so everything was handled on a cash basis. It only made sense that these skills would carry over to our home.
My father would sometimes sit with my mother while she counted, but more often, he would be in a comfortable chair reading, either books from the library or maps of the world. My father was an armchair traveler. I think my love of maps and geography came from that. He read about places to visit and mentally took trips to those places, no matter where in the world they were. But in reality, we actually did take trips around the United States. Every year. Being the youngest, of course, I got to go on all the trips. Either my sisters chose not to go, or as they got older, their interests were at home, not driving for hours and days to see sights, monuments or relatives.
There was always a trip for a week or two in the summer. My father spent a great deal of time planning the trip and getting a TripTik from AAA. I don’t know if he borrowed money for the journey and paid it back all year, or if he saved the money all year for the trip. In any case, to my father, the money spent on this annual event was not a luxury, but a necessity. We weren’t extravagant travelers, staying in tiny motels or cabins, eating cold meat sandwiches out of the cooler on the tailgate of the station wagon, maybe eating in a diner once a day, if the diner had trucks parked in front (truckers knew where the good food at a good price could be had).
I never had a regular allowance as a kid. We seemed to operate more on a request basis. If I wanted some money, to go roller skating, for example, I would ask, and if there was money available, I would get to go. When I needed (wanted) a new trombone, we went shopping, and although there were several lower priced instruments that would more than adequately meet my needs, because I liked a more beautiful higher priced one, that was the once we took home.
Of course, that didn’t always work out. There were still plenty of things “all” the other kids had that I didn’t have, but that just made me be resourceful in other ways. I’d go to the nearby parks and dig through garbage cans for pop bottles. I’d help my neighbor with his paper route, knowing that he’d be generous on Saturday morning after he had collected and paid his bill. Or I’d visit my sister at Davidson’s on Saturday morning and “borrow” a quarter so I could go to the movie at the YMCA and buy a treat. She was always generous to me.
The point is, for me money was simply a means to an end. I was definitely goal oriented. I would want something and figure out a way to get it, perhaps similar to my father.
I suppose I should address health as I believe I have lived a blessed life. I don’t ever remember being very sick. I missed very little school and saw the doctor mostly for school physicals, and that amounted to listening to heart and lungs, looking down my throat and into my ears, and coughing while the doctor stuck his finger up behind my testicles.
Once I was hit by a car on my way home from church. I was little, the doctor was called, came to the house, looked me over, and pronounced me healthy with no broken bones, just bruises. When neighbor kids were ill like with the mumps, I would be sent to play with them so I’d get the mumps. It was the standard immunization policy of the time. I never broke a bone and wasn’t in the hospital until I had a heart attack at the age of 55. Two stents, no big deal.
Both my grandmothers had cancer, and my mother and father made room for them in our home, first one and then the other, so they could be cared for in their final days after they couldn’t care for themselves. I was in grade school and junior high at the time, so my main memory of their care was they were sick in bed in the front bedroom, and my parents were displaced to the basement in the winter and the front porch in the summer. People who were ill were to be taken care of. I remember my father visiting sick people, part of his church duty, I think, but also just who he was. He took care of other people.
When I think back, I don’t remember my father being ill and missing work. It’s possible I just wasn’t very observant, but I don’t think so. It was more like he just believed he didn’t have time to be sick. And then he retired and had more time, went to the hospital for tests and died. Enlarged heart, they said. I was only 19 at the time and not tuned into illnesses, so the official words I don’t recall, perhaps never really hearing them.
I have very hazy memories about my father’s death. The last two years of his life were the first two years of my college experience. The first year I lived in the dorm, so I wasn’t around my father much, saw him infrequently. The second year I lived at my sister’s house while my parents commuted back and forth from Randalia and the house my father inherited from my grandmother when she died. I saw them occasionally, for short periods of time. This is probably why I don’t have clear memories of his health before he died. He was probably sicker than I knew, but I was too self-centered to be aware.
I don’t really have regrets about my father and the lack of time we were together. It wasn’t until I reached his age at death that I really thought about what we hadn’t shared. As I’ve grown older and had wonderful contact with my kids and grandkids, I realize my dad missed as much of my life as I missed of his, and that’s always the way it is as we get older and move on. I think I would have liked to compare notes with him. When I go on walks now, sometimes I imagine walking with him and embracing the beauty of the surrounding mountains. He would have loved this place, and I would have loved to share it with him. But then, I think he loved wherever he was.
I never heard him complain about life, circumstances, or the cards he had been dealt. While some who have a hard life seem to dwell in self-pity, my father was not one of them. He had his share of struggles, growing up during World War 1, getting married, living, working during the depression, raising six kids. It seemed his was a marginal existence, and yet he didn’t grumble, or feel unfairly treated by life. He was a happy person, always with a smile and a kind word. And that’s probably his legacy for me. He was a gentle man. If I could emulate one thing about my father during my life, it would be that – being gentle. May I always walk amongst the mountains with a gentle step and a smile.