Before I donned the signature plaid of St. Joseph’s Catholic School, I studied on his lap in a dingy green and cream plaid patterned, wood and fabric rocking number that didn’t recline anymore. The right arm was loosened a little from my weight against it.
As soon as my eyes opened good, we started. He read; I listened or followed along. Before Spot and Dick and Jane, I knew Blondie and Dennis and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown. He read me the front page and the sports page and the vocabulary words from Readers’ Digest. Sometimes we read his Farm Report, though I never knew him to garden, much less farm. You might think that he had been a teacher or a professor, this man who had me reading at three and who taught me math with Chinese Checkers and Canasta and Poker. He was – in his way. He trained hundreds, maybe thousands of men in what they needed to stay alive on the beaches of the Philippines, in the bogs of Guam and in the open sea. He was an enlisted man, a career soldier who spent most of his army years in the field with his men – at war.
I really had no idea what his life was like before me. I imagined that he grew up on a farm, he did tell me that he was from way down in South Georgia. He never said much else about it to me. I knew that he was in the army. There was a pecan wood box on his dresser, it had a little lock suspended from it; the lock was just for show. Inside were bright-colored, grosgrain ribbons attached to heavy medallions. I would sneak and run my fingers through them like a button collection. My Nana ran me out of the box occasionally but my Dada always told her, “That Doll-baby can’t hurt ‘em.” He brought me home surprises, the days he left a little while for work, Wrigley’s gum or the boxes of little Butter Fingers. He brought home pads of paper for us to cipher on when we played cards and good sharp pencils. I can’t remember him in anything but a short sleeve dress shirt, the material kind of thin and smooth, with an undershirt. He wore Dickies pants or the like, always with a belt, and Hush Puppy shoes. I never saw him in anything else. He owned a suit and his closet had lots of tan, pressed uniforms in it, but I never saw him wear those either. He was retired from the army but he worked a few hours a week at the “Navy School” that was a few blocks up the street, as an accountant. When I was a little older, he worked for a food supply company, it had a candy distributorship as well, so my daily take got even sweeter. Sometimes I got to go to his work with him. Everyone on base called him, “Sarge.” At his other job it was, “Chief.” When we went up to Normaltown, all the men would make sure to speak to him, “Morning, Sarge.” I remember wondering, Why does everyone call him that? and Why do they all stand when he walks in?
I can’t think of him without thinking of cigar boxes. When I found something of value: wooden spools, sea shells, or tiny pine cones, I rushed them to my Nana, my eyes wide with delight. “Go get a “Seegar” box,” she’d coach. Dada kept the empty boxes stacked beside his dresser. Beautiful, in manly reds, blues, golds and blacks, with King Edward’s picture, it seemed a strong and safe defense. After he lost a lung, Dada only chewed on the cigars. I kept the boxes, full with treasures: marbles, rocks, my dominos, my knife and tools that Nana let me have. I kept the boxes… long after my treasures within. They still smell of him, of unlit cigars and the faintest hint of Old Spice. My closet at home , in Athens, has them all along the shelves. I haven’t moved them here, I can’t bear to.
There is a book or better to be written in honor of this man, who more than anyone, seemed to know who I was – seemed to know what I needed to become myself. My Dada was the man who secured my world – and my place in it.