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THOMPSON: Celebrating my extraordinary, ordinary dad

February 11, 2019 - 12:03 PM

 


OPINION


Tomorrow is my father’s birthday…he was born Feb. 12, 1914. He passed away 20 years ago…a victim of lung cancer. I celebrate the day he was born rather than the day he died…something I hope my loved ones might do for me.

My dad was an ordinary man in many ways…but extraordinary in some important ways. He - like all of us - played the hand that was dealt him. And he did so with grace, charm and wisdom. He was born and grew up in South Georgia…a hard-scrabble childhood that prepared him for life.

His father - my grandfather - died after World War I from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. More Americans died from flu - 675,000 - than the war…and the virus hit those in their 20s, 30s and 40s especially hard. So, Dad - just four years old at the time - never really knew his father. Dad once showed me the only photo he had of his father…in an open coffin.

Dad’s childhood and teen years saw more bad times than good. It was - after all - the beginning of the Great Depression. He worked as an adult pretty much from the time he was eight years old. Education wasn’t a luxury the family could afford, so he learned what he could on the family farm instead of in grade school.

Before dad died in 1999, I spent time with him in Ocala, FL…often sitting and talking on the front porch of the home he built and I grew up in. We talked a lot…about things big and small. I regretted waiting so late in my life and his to question him…find out more about his life…his hopes and dreams.

I remember during one of our conversations being shocked to hear that the best Christmas gift he ever had as a child was an orange…a piece of fruit. His admission was benign…almost wistful…and without even a tinge of regret or disappointment. As I recall, he even smiled…saying he was “damned lucky” to have that orange.

The author's dad is pictured in this undated photo.
The author's dad is pictured in this undated photo.
Image Credit: Don Thompson

I made the most of the time we spent talking on that porch…day after day…over weeks and months. He knew that lung cancer would eventually claim him…but his manner and conversation belied that inevitable ending. It would be my sister, Ruth, who lived day in and day out with dad’s declining health…slowly wasting away and incapable of caring for his simplest wants or needs. If there’s a heaven, Ruth will one day…but I hope none too soon…rest in peace there.

One of our front-porch conversations centred on why dad never let me or my older brother, Clark, have a motorcycle…something most boys during the 60s had on their wish lists. But in the Thompson home…owning a motorcycle wasn’t even a discussion…much less a debate. Dad simply said, “No, you can’t have one,” and he gave us that look of finality that all dad’s learn.

He proceeded to tell me that when he was 19 he scraped together a few dollars and bought a motorcycle in much need of work. After cannibalizing parts from other junk cycles and weeks of mechanical trials and errors, he said he kickstarted the thing just before sunset one hot summer night and rode a rough dirt road up one of two hills near his house.

The first hill went fine, he said, but as he reached the bottom he hit a rut and fell off. He was scraped up a bit and twisted an ankle. He raised an eyebrow…a hint of what was to come. It seems the cycle continued on without him up the other hill for a good hundred feet before turning around - almost demon-like - and hurtled toward him as he was sprawled in the red Georgia-clay road.

The cycle - now going about 20 mph - ran squarely over him leaving tire marks up one leg and over one shoulder. He was dazed for a couple minutes, then gathered himself and began walking with a considerable limp back to the house. He passed the cycle in the ditch…still running. It would be the last time he got on it…and he promised himself if he ever had kids…they would never get on one of the devil machines. As he finished his tale, I could see the resolve in his face…as if he had been run over the day before…and knew he was telling as he would say, “the God’s honest truth.”

Honesty was no little thing to dad. I never knew him to speak anything but the truth…and he would rather lose on a deal than cheat to gain advantage over someone. When he shook your hand, it meant something. Indeed, I don’t think he ever fully understood why anyone would have to sign a contract.

Dad was a contractor…and much of his life between 1947 and 1977…he built thoroughbred race horse farms in the Ocala area. The area was famous for breeding horses that went on to win top races, like the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes…even the legendary Triple Crown. Also, he bought a pool room near downtown one year when he was recovering from surgery and it was there where I learned from him that he saw no shades of honesty.

Dad’s pool room was a popular place for local men during the early 60s…it had 12 tables and looked pretty much like the halls in the Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman movie, “The Hustler”…smoke-filled, dark, except for the bright light over each table…with a row of wooden chairs on each side wall for spectators.

Wives or girlfriends during that era would often call the pool room looking for husbands or boyfriends. Dad told every patron clearly every day and night, “If someone calls and you’re here…I’m not lying for you. You better be outside my pool hall if your old lady calls.”

I used to love to hang out with dad at the pool hall…especially on a Saturday when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old. One Saturday about dinner time when every table was being contested, the phone rang. Nearly two dozen grown men of varying shapes and sizes scrambled - pool cues in hand - out the front door as dad answered the phone. I only heard his side of the conversation… “He’s not here, but if I see him, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”

Dad hung up the phone as the nearly two dozen grown men walked back in from the sidewalk more slowly than as they had left. Dad announced to the offending husband or boyfriend in front of all, “Your wife is looking for you, Bill…and she didn’t sound happy.” The others would invariably laugh…but that nervous laugh meaning, “Glad it wasn’t me.”

So, I pay tribute to my dad on his birthday…born 105 years ago. He was a great father, husband, an incredible hunter and fisherman, as even-tempered a man as I ever knew. He was honest, hard working, and had a laugh that could have been on a old sitcom laugh track. He knew what it meant to sacrifice…but I never - ever - heard him complain.

He wanted a better life for us kids…and he delivered. We all miss him every day…and I’m guessing that many of you reading this feel the same way about your dads. At least I hope so.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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