This story first appeared my first book, Halfway Home from Kinderlou. After reminiscing about my daddy last week, I decided to again share him with you.
The word father describes a man who has begotten a child. Depending on the physical factors between a man and a woman, she can become pregnant between heartbeats. A man’s work in that process is done. Before either is one year older, they have new names – mother and father. Too often, too many men depart without knowing, or caring, what happened nine months ago. For some, the word daddy is synonymous with father. For me, there is a difference. Some children are abandoned by their fathers. A daddy never leaves.
At approximately two years of age another man came into my life. His name was Osbie Head. Folks called him Buddy. I called him daddy. Daddy was the man who cuddled me and coaxed me to take home remedies when I had the whooping cough. Daddy sat and fanned me to ease the fever and sores on my body when I had chicken pox. Even though he always let me win when we wrestled, I knew for sure that he was bigger and tougher than anything or anybody who might threaten me. Daddy made sure I had food, clothing and shelter. He was the man who loved me. He was my daddy.
Little Osbie left school after completing only the 1st and 2nd grades and joined the adults who labored in the cotton and tobacco fields. Their workday began before sunrise and ended after sunset. They labeled such shifts “can’t-to-can’t” — can’t see daylight on your way to work, and you can’t see daylight on your way home. Shortly thereafter a stroke ended his daddy’s working years, and Osbie, being the oldest son, and with at least two younger siblings at home, suddenly became the family’s primary male bread winner, at age 11. Even though he was not yet a father, he had developed the mind-set of a daddy.
When Buddy Head married my mother, he also became daddy to my brother Curtis and sister Odessa. Shortly after his arrival Curtis addressed him as “Mister Buddy.” Daddy corrected him. “Son don’t call me Mr. Buddy anymore; I’m your daddy.” He now had two sons. Furthermore, even if he had wanted to, he couldn’t yet spell or write stepson.
As I was maneuvering my way through 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades it was my habit to rush from school and immediately read my textbooks. One day I invited Daddy to read with me. He knelt beside me and gently confessed, “Boy, I can’t read, but I ‘speck’ I could do so if you teach me.” I began to laugh, for it was a clue that Daddy was preparing to teach me a new game. Even before he could tell me the rules, I had figured the objective:
[I would select words in the books, and Daddy would pretend he couldn’t read and give each word a different funny name].
I was anxious to get started. When I stopped giggling , I suddenly understood that my daddy, this man whose muscles seemingly danced over his entire body, whose walk and manner exuded dignity and self-confidence, who could single handedly hoist a railroad cross-tie over his shoulder, was asking a child to teach him the building blocks of literacy. His eyes said — please. It was his facial expression during that moment of truth that warms my memory of my daddy, for it was a declaration of sincerity and hope. His pride was the prospect of learning, not the pretense of protecting the ego of an illiterate.
At the outset we decided to keep secret our arrangement, no need to waste time explaining our business to others. We began our sessions just as Odessa had instructed me. On the first day I asked Daddy to learn the alphabet – forward and backward. He was a good student and, even at age 5, I could sense that both of us were thirsty for more information. One day, I joined him in doing some handy-man chores for my cousin, Mrs. Lily Rogers, who also was the high school home economics teacher. As we moved about the house I would point to an object and ask Daddy to spell it. Despite our limited vocabulary and spelling proficiency we found enough simple words to practice, limiting ourselves to things in the kitchen – door, ice, water, kettle, pan, table, glass, cup, fork, spoon, food. Cousin Lilly, a trained teacher, observed us and made an offer. She promised to take over the teaching duties, if Daddy and I would paint the exterior of her house. We accepted the deal in a most peculiar way – he and I grabbed and hugged each other. Our new teacher simply said, “I guess that means yes.”
Daddy was a man of predictable habits. Monday through Friday he toiled hard and heavy. Each Friday night he gave my mother Catherine all but less than 50 cents of his weekly paycheck, and he then ran an errand for himself. His destination was always the same, but occasionally he expressed his purpose, “Going for a spell to go dance with a lady – sweet Lucy.” That was his metaphor for visiting any number of neighborhood homes and having a few drinks of moonshine – sweet Lucy. And, just as Catherine knew his Friday night pattern, he also expected her criticism when he returned. Daddy and I often sat and played Chinese checkers and simply ignored her. We became proficient at both, and he always won the games. On Saturday morning we shopped. Regardless of how much he danced with the lady on Friday night, and occasionally on Saturday, Daddy was on time to usher the Sunday morning congregation at St. Timothy A.M.E. Church.
Every boy in the neighborhood knew that I made the best slingshot in town. A James Edward slingshot was made of two choice strips of rubber from abandoned automobile or bicycle inner tubes, secured to a strong “Y” staff. Every boy in the neighborhood also knew I was the worst slingshot shooter in the entire world. At no time in my life did I ever shoot a bird with a slingshot, but on more than one occasion I did shoot myself, and I still bear the physical scars of that ineptness.
One day as Daddy saw me tormenting birds (even the birds sensed that I wasn’t a threat), he decided to share with me another secret. He instructed me to go to his room, to open only the bottom dresser drawer, and to bring him one of three slingshots. Bring him what! With eyes that seemed wider than the lid of a Mason fruit jar, I raced to his stash and found three perfectly made slingshots. Instead of rushing back outside, I delayed and just caressed and fondled those magnificent instruments. He borrowed a marble from me, loaded the gadget, took careful aim at a target approximately 30 yards away, and released. Almost simultaneously I heard the pop of rubber and saw a flurry of feathers. Then, he told me to retrieve the bird and prepare it for cooking, reminding me that I shouldn’t kill a bird, animal, or catch a fish unless I intend to eat it.
Daddy attributed his skill with a slingshot to practice during his lunch breaks when he was engaged in his most arduous occupation. He was a “Gandy Dancer” – a member of the railroad work gangs whose primary qualification for employment was brute strength and physical coordination to lift and arrange heavy objects. They used work songs and chants to synchronize their body motions to lay cross ties, new rails, and straighten old tracks. The harmonious blend of grunts, grinds, and song gave the appearance of choreographed dance. Special tools for such work were manufactured by the Gandy Tool Company of Chicago, thus the name, “Gandy Dancer.”
Osbie Head also understood that, because of his inability to read and write, he had to be an alert observer and a careful listener. One day he heard a co-worker announce that Valdosta Milling Company needed workers. That employer needed men with strong bodies, who would be punctual upon arrival and be willing to work long hours. They needed Buddy Head. All of Daddy’s jobs demanded great strength and prolonged exertion. That also urged him to eat a hearty breakfast. Still, by lunchtime he needed more fuel for the afternoon shift. At approximately 11 O’clock, during the months of school vacation, Catherine would simply remind me to, “Get ready to roll in 10 minutes.” That was just enough time for me to wash my feet and legs and put on clean clothes. In a few minutes I would be walking to the mill with Daddy’s lunch. My mother had prepared such staples as black eye peas, sweet potatoes, corn, okra, pork chops, and corn bread. She carefully separated portions into small metal cups and arranged them inside a metal bucket that was once upon a time filled with cane syrup. In the other hand I balanced a quart of lemonade in a Mason jar. Most often my route to the mill was along the Atlantic Coast Line railroad track. Between 11:45 and 11:50, Daddy would poke his head out of a boxcar that he was unloading and looked in my direction. We depended on each other. I would stop, momentarily to rest the bucket on a crosstie, return his wave, then resume the path closer to my daddy. He thanked me for bringing his lunch, and we sat together as he ate, all but the last portion. He always saved that for me.
My daddy was a good man.
You have my permission to share these stories with your friends. To read a past Story of the Month go to www.jeatrilogy.com
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
Other books by James Edward Alexander
Halfway Home from Kinderlou
Forks in the Road
I Wish You Had Been There
If I Should Die Before I Wake … What Happened to My Stuff?
James Edward Alexander
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