Sunday, June 18, 2006

Three Fathers

My Uncle Bruce, Daddy's younger brother, is dying today. Cancer. Everywhere. Nothing can be done. It's been a long, heroic fight, and it's almost over. He is comatose. As per his wishes, no extraordinary measures are being taken. Mama and Daddy's youngest brother, Reid, went to South Carolina this weekend to say their goodbyes. I could not go. I am on-call.

Bruce is a refined and thinner, more acerbic, more Republican version of my Father (if such a thing is possible). He lost his wife not too long ago - after a long illness. He has two sons . . . big strapping boys . . . one of whom is an independent-contractor (a fireman) in Kuwait.

While Dad had kept in touch with Bruce over the years, my contact with him was sporadic - limited to family reunions - until Daddy died. One of my "best" memories from Pop's memorial service (if one can categorize anything related to a funeral service as a "good" memory), is sitting with my Uncle Reid in the dimly-lit FBC sanctuary before the service. We were alone . . . and had just finished arranging some of Dad's railroad memorabilia in front of the pulpit. Daddy was cremated, and I was holding a large green velvet box containing the urn in my lap. Bruce and his wife bounded in from the rear of the church - having just arrived from South Carolina. He admired the display, and then (predictably) made a crack about the military flag positioned underneath my Dad's photograph: "Eighteen Days. Eighteen days. Tom was in the Army eighteen days. You get a flag for that?" (Daddy received a medical/honorable discharge during basic training secondary to complications of Rheumatic Fever. And/so, the answer is, yes.). Bruce leaned over the pew, peered at the box in my lap and queried, "What's that?". I smiled and sweetly relied, "Daddy". He jumped back as if he had been bitten by a rattlesnake. It was hilarious.

The moral? Don't mess with Tom Johnson's daughter.

Bruce and I reconnected afterwards . . . shared some e-mails . . . visited once or twice. It was a great comfort. I could see Daddy in him . . . little mannerisms, small quirks of character and dress. Bruce came to my brother's wedding (very shortly after my Aunt died). When I went out for some air during the reception, he followed to sneak a smoke (so much for my air). We had a great long talk. He admired my website (particularly its David v. Goliath quality) - and my spunk. And he assured me that Daddy was very proud.

I was always planning to send Bruce a picture of Daddy's hat under an Irish rainbow. When I took Dad's place on a trip with Mom to the UK last year, I took his railroad hat with us - and every picture I took had the hat in it. The rainbow picture was a lucky fluke, and the photo looks like I took the picture right over the top of Dad's head. I told Bruce about the picture and he wanted to see it. I never got around to sending it - something always got in the way. I'm pretty mad with myself over that now.

I will miss Bruce.

The rainbow photo brings to mind another set of photos . . . of two Fathers and one truck. After Daddy died, I searched and searched for a picture of him with his beloved Ford F-150, "Big Red". I finally found one. It's a great shot that inclues all the anti-Clinton bumper stickers, the ever-present railroad hat, the red suspenders, and his dungaree jacket hanging in the cab. "Red" is parked in front of a train to boot. Last Father's Day, I took that photo and had it enlarged. I took another favorite photo . . . of Mama's Daddy standing beside the same truck (Dad bought the truck when GrandDaddy Cecil died) . . . and had it enlarged as well. I had the photos framed, and gave them to Mama.

Two Fathers. One truck. They hang now over Pop's desk.

The memories of these wonderful Fathers are flooding back now and it is time to stop. Save for one thing. I have wanted to post this for a while . . . the original draft of my Father's eulogy (small portions were edited for time at the service). It seems very appropriate now.

I plan to leave this up, and not post for a short while. These Fathers deserve their time:

"My life had been graced and shaped by great male characters. From my grandfathers, otherwise known as “the classics”, Cecil Jackson Waters and Floyd Bascombe Johnson . . . to my uncles Reid and Jack and Johnny and Bruce . . . to our family’s characters in the making, my brother Tommie, all of the Jones & Waters & Johnson boys (including a young man we loved & lost named Bill) . . . to the characters that influenced my education and career choices . . . to a big-hearted character named Tim that I seem to have fallen in love with . . . I have known and gravitated to strong characters. But the single most important character in my life will always be my Dad . . . my Pops . . . Tom Johnson.

The first thing that stuck most people about my Dad was his physical presence. He was a very big man . . . and when he was in the room you knew it. He was a man with opinions and he had no problem sharing them . . . from the anti-Clinton bumper stickers on the back of Big Red, to the lively discussions at the Sunday dinner table with his daughter’s DEEPLY politically misguided boyfriend, Dad told you exactly what he thought and pretty much expected you to say, “Yes Sir”. Dad’s choice of everyday attire was also an attention-getter . . . blue jeans, blue shirt, red suspenders, boots, an overall jacket if it was cold . . . and a tattered railroad hat covered with pins. The outfit changed for church or weather, or (rarely) some social occasions, or the time in New Orleans when he bought and donned a dapper black cape, but the red suspenders were almost always there . . . and if he could get away with the hat, he did.

Dad had one vice . . . a bone of contention over the years with all of us . . . but a vice, that as vices go, was not all that bad. My Daddy loved trains. He loved big ones and small ones, steam engines and diesels, trolleys, models and motorcars. Some of my earliest memories are of chasing some train whilst on a trip down East to Grandma Ercie’s house – Dad would drive ahead of the train and park at a crossing or intersection to watch the train go by. He told me stories of bumming rides on the iron horses, and spoke wistfully of days gone by on the railroad. He named Tommie’s German Shepard, Hobo. He displayed a nameplate on this desk that proudly proclaimed his passion as a “ferroequinologist”. If it had not been for Mama’s carefully-planned vacation itineraries, the only parts of Memphis & New Orleans (or anywhere else for that matter) that Daddy would have seen would have been the ones accessible by trolley, train or steamboat. He joined and played in various train organizations over the years, historical societies and little railroads all over this state. While playing train, he fought epic battles – legal and otherwise – and he even looked for lost Confederate gold. After he retired, I used to joke to Mama that the trains kept him off the streets.

Dad could fix anything, rig anything . . . all things mechanical fascinated him. He tinkered all the time. He was a locksmith by trade. After a bad ice storm last year, I bought a generator. I travel a lot and was worried someone might steal it while I was gone, so Dad came over and literally bolted the thing to the concrete of my garage floor – attaching it with a huge chain and padlock that he had keyed himself. He also wired a plug for the generator – and left detailed, laminated instructions on the switchbox. It was very important, he said, wagging his finger at me, to plug the plugs and throw the switches exactly in sequence or I might electrocute the poor sap up the road trying to fix the power lines. There was always incentive to pay close attention when Dad fixed your stuff. We’re gonna have to be very careful at Mama’s house for a while.

From the North Carolina State Wolfpack to the Boston Red Sox, Daddy had a keen appreciation for underdogs. He knew that victories were sweeter if they did not come easy. Pops also knew that if people never got mad at you, you probably weren’t doing your job right. He could not carry a tune, but he loved good music . . . from Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops to the Dukes of Dixieland to Gospel quartets. Daddy agreed with Ronald Reagan that peanut butter was a vegetable – and he ate it by the spoonful. Likewise, my secret stash of chocolate was never safe when Pops came by to feed the cat. Reese’s cups were truffles to Tom Johnson.

Pops was a born salesman. He could talk your ears off . . . especially on the phone. On trips and vacations, he had a knack for talking his way into engine rooms and roundhouses. A few years ago, I took Mom and Dad on an excursion to Ocrakoke. To get to Ocrakoke, one must take the ferry from Swan Quarter. Mom and I settled in on one of the decks for the over two-hour trip, and Dad absentmindedly wandered off. After a while, I started looking for him. I looked all over that boat and could not find him anywhere. Paths to the bridge were blocked off with yellow tape – and signs were clearly posted saying, “No admittance”. I thought Pops had fallen off the ferry. I finally found a crew member and asked if they had seen my Dad – and began to describe him. The crew member smiled and informed me, “Your father and the captain have struck up a fast friendship and are down in the engine room.” When Dad finally came upstairs and I began to chastise him for breaking the rules (yet again), he just smiled like a cat that had eaten a canary (my Father’s facial expressions, at his most contented, resembled Garfield the cat - this was one of those times). I could’ve sworn I saw Daddy burp a feather as I went to reassure Mama that her husband was not swimming with the fishes.

On that trip, before the ferry ride, I found myself alone on a car trip with Dad – from little Washington to Belhaven. Until the last years of his life, the safest place to be with Dad was in a car. Again, some of my earliest memories are of looking up from my spot in the back seat of his beloved Mercedes to see Daddy bathed in the greenish glow of the driver’s seat – and settling back down to continue my nap. I was safe with Daddy at the wheel. But in recent years, one had to sit up front and stay awake because Dad clearly needed a copilot. All along this trip – through the old stomping ground of Cecil Waters, Daddy was unusually pensive and preoccupied – taking great pains to point out landmarks – old homesteads and businesses – and share stories of people long gone. He showed me where my Mama was born, and spoke of it as if it were a sacred place. His knowledge of Eastern North Carolina was expansive. And he seemed very, very sad that so much had changed. He also seemed to know that soon he might not remember.

The Johnson men tend to gravitate towards strong women. My Mom and my Dad were married for forty-six years. It was a union of epic proportions, as the spirits of Ercie Waters and Floyd Johnson sometimes seemed to inhabit their bodies . . . and mixing Floyd & Ercie was like pouring oil on water. I will never know the joy or the pain of living with a partner for nearly fifty years, but I do know great love when I see it. Tom Johnson knew one thing if he did not know anything else. The day that Irene Waters agreed to marry him was the luckiest day of his life. And I honor my parents here today for their commitment to each other, to the institution of marriage, to their children, and to God.

My Daddy was my hero. As most of you know, for years (the seventh anniversary of which was the day he died), I have been fighting a battle over the deplorable way that I, as a Pediatrician, was treated by our local hospital. I believe that this situation demonstrates much of what is wrong with medicine these days . . . and that it should be righted . . . and that it is the season to speak up & take a stand. Dad was one of my biggest supporters – his adventures with train societies had made him no stranger to the rules governing “not-for-profits”, he knew “Robert’s Rules of Order” by heart, and he often offered legal and practical advice. This past April, I mustered my courage and read a prepared statement to the Asheboro City Council. Mama had already written a letter to the Randolph Guide (we Johnsons like our letters). After I finished, my Dad stood up and gave an impromptu speech to the Council. That act of love and solidarity is forever emblazoned on my memory (and the thing that I am most grateful for now is that I told him so on the last Father’s Day of his life). My Daddy knew truth and he spoke it. He knew what justice was and he fought for it. He did not raise his children to be afraid or run from a fight. And nobody but nobody messed with his little girl.

The only regret I have is that Daddy never had a chance to be a grandfather, for he would have been a fantastic memory for some little Johnson (or hyphenated Johnson) to carry around. But Dad knew that his wanderlust had been passed down to both his daughter and his son – that we had things to do and places to go - and he was very proud of us both. I know he marveled at the fact that his son flew jet planes, and he rarely missed an opportunity to drop my name during his visits to Baptist Hospital. The pastor jokingly told us a few days ago that there was nothing in the Bible about trains. But actually the word “train” can be found in a concordance. And it speaks to the responsibility of parenthood . . . something I know Pops took very seriously. Proverbs 22:6 says, “TRAIN up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” My brother and I can both speak to the truth of this verse. So there, trains ARE in the Bible.

Daddy’s truck, "Big Red", was my GrandDaddy Cecil’s truck and Daddy’s favorite toy. A classic Ford, it had nearly a half-a-million miles on it. In the accident three weeks ago, Big Red literally wrapped around Dad, shielding him, like the cup of God’s hand, from the full force of the impact. Afterwards, it was clear Big Red would ride no more and it affected Pops deeply. It affected us all – it was very disconcerting the first few times I pulled in my parent’s driveway and did not see the truck. We all thought Daddy had dodged a very big bullet that day. And we were steeling ourselves for what might happen with his impending surgery . . . and after. I believe that the last three weeks were a gift from a merciful God – who spared us all what we had anticipated might be a long goodbye – but gave us time, and a nudge, to appreciate the fragility of life and the gift of one another – to pull closer and say what needed to be said.

In the first frantic calls that were made and received the morning Daddy died, I spoke to one of my dear friends in the “Ya-Ya” daughterhood, Lavonda Housand. She lost her father not too long ago, and assured me that Roy Culpepper and Tom Johnson were having a good-ole time whooping it up in heaven. I joked, “Yeah, if they let Dad past the gate”. But of course they did. My father was a man of deep faith and the greatest gift he & Mama gave to both Tommie and I (no matter how much we have struggled with it) was to pass on that faith. If the love I feel now for my Daddy is anything like the love Our Heavenly Father feels for us all, then our futures are safe and secure.

Johnny Cash and Miss Patsy Cline covered unique versions of the same song that pretty much sums up the life of “Railroad Tom” Johnson. “Life is like a mountain railroad, with an engineer that’s brave. We must make the run successful, from the cradle to the grave. Watch the curves, the hills and tunnels, never falter, never fail. Keep you hand upon the throttle, and your eyes upon the rail.” On Wednesday morning, my Daddy watched the Devil’s “long black train” pass right on by – and punched his ticket for the Paradise Express.

There is victory in the Lord, I say. Daddy finally found his gold."

Mary Johnson, M.D

First Baptist Church, Asheboro
February 5, 2005

6/19/06 Addendum: Uncle Bruce died late on the afternoon of Father's Day. If anyone sees unexplained lights dancing up and down the railroad crossings around South Elm in Greensboro, do not be alarmed. It's just the souls of two local boys revisiting old stomping grounds before they go home.


Cara Michele said...

Thank you for this amazing, beautiful post. What a blessing it is. What a precious family you have! God bless you as you deal with your loss.


Dr. Mary Johnson said...

Thank you, Cara Michelle. I am sorry I did not respond sooner to your kind thoughts - but it's been a hectic week . . . trading old car for new, new kitten (named Tom) and Uncle Bruce's funeral in S.C. today.

It was a lovely service. His boys did him proud (as they always did). And it's always good to reconnect with my family . . . as you say, a precious well of love and support.