Doug Smith: Eulogy for my father

16 Jan

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(Columnist, Doug Smith’s father, Bill Smith, recently completed his journey on earth)


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Doug Smith is an opinion columnist, historian and Associate editor for Free State Patriot

January 15, 2019


 

Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of Zorba the Greek, once said “When a man dies, that particular vision of life that is his, and his alone, dies along with him. Therefore it behooves a man, while he is living to write down his story.” Dad never did that, so I think it fitting that those of us who remain and mourn his passing recall a few tales from his life story as we knew it while we say farewell.

In part it is here: there came a day when I looked in the mirror and saw the old man staring back at me. I quickly grew this beard. People used to come into his shop and wonder which of us was the older brother. Now, I, for one, never colored MY hair. But for 63 years, Dad was that guy who looked more like me the older he got. Well, maybe I got a little greyer too.

But part of the story came to me by taking time in recent years to drink coffee and ask questions about who we are, and where we came from, (County Sligo, Ireland) knowing that the time was coming when I would have asked him the last question, and he would have given me the last answer. Like all good stories, it is some parts fact, memory, and legend, all forming the picture I have of my Dad. If you will indulge me, I’d like to share a little bit of the tale of the man whose face I wear.

Back in the 1920 s my grandfather, Carl, looked at the least flattering view of a Kentucky mule, and moved to Huntington, WV. He rented out crystal radios in matchboxes at a quarter a week, repaired busses, traded in scrap Iron and Metal, and, during the Depression, grew vegetables near the river, ran a trot line to a boat and sold fish and crops to local grocery stores, whatever would fight the wolf back from his door. Meanwhile, his wife Nellie, started on 8 children of whom seven would live to grow up. So Carl had his work cut out for him, and work he did. That was a legacy he passed to his children: work is what we do.

There’s a photo that I love of my Dad, with his big brothers, Pete, Dan, and Hobart; no shirts, dirty torn pants, no shoes, hair cut short, 4 little ragamuffins. Everybody worked, and did what they could to help put a poor man’s feast of beans, greens, bologna, onions, and Ohio River fish on the table. The boys worked at Smith Iron and Metal to help feed the family. Dad managed to graduate from High School, a first for the family. He married my mom, and began a lifetime, like Carl, turning his hand to whatever he could to buy the beans and bologna. He worked at Hot Dog stands, dry-cleaners, and, of course, junk yards. Again, work was just what you did.

When I started first grade, Dad started at Marshall, and soon became a Methodist preacher. During that year, I can remember the excitement caused one morning when Dad and my Uncle Dan had been out fishing and left their catch in our bathtub. When my Grandma, Biddie Mason, went in to get ready for work, she was greeted by 3 large Catfish, hissing in protest. Grandma let out a scream, and nobody was running late for school that day! By the way, we had fish for dinner.

There came a time when I was old enough to help Dad cut the grass. My job was to pick up anything in the way of the lawnmower. I picked up an old iron skillet to toss it in a drainage ditch, and instantly discovered another thing we had in common. There was a blacksnake coiled under the skillet, and when I picked it up, the old snake started to move, I dropped the skillet on him and ran for the house. I don’t think I actually touched the grass on the way. When I got in the kitchen, all I could get out was Sna Sna, Sna. When I finally had some blood back to my brain, I realized that Dad had been scorching across the lawn right behind me and was standing next to me, looking a little pale about the gills himself. I think we looked like those cartoons where the feet are moving but all you do is kick up dust. Dad used to tell the girls about how he would grab a snake with his bare hands, strangle a bear with it, then kill the snake. They were pretty gullible, so they probably bought it until, oh, about last year. Permit me to set the record straight. Bill Smith despised snakes. I despise snakes. All snakes. When he was tearing down tipples a number of years ago, they wore snake chaps, heavy boots, and had 2 guys with shotguns blasting away at the copperheads and timber rattlers they found in those old abandoned, grown over, tipples. Caught snakes with his bare hands? Sorry to ruin your illusions, girls. But not a chance.

Dad went to seminary while he preached at 2 little country churches in Ohio. I went with him for a week, and stayed in his dorm room. I sat in an Old Testament class with him, which was enough to keep me from ever going to seminary, and we visited the observatory. I got to peer through the big telescope. Another time, Dad and I stood in front of Smith Iron with a little telescope and watched a Lunar Eclipse together. I guess those memories stuck, because I still have a telescope.

Dad and his brother Hobe ran Stewart’s Hot Dog later. Different name now, but it’s still in Chesapeake by the Symmes Creek Bridge. My first job was as a short order cook. I learned some lessons there from Dad, without realizing: do it right the first time, keep it clean, count your change, you only get one first chance to impress a customer. But most of all, again, work: it’s what we do. I still tend to introduce myself as what I do, rather than who I am. For both of us, I think, that line was blurred. Dad never said, we are Smiths, and therefore, we work, but the unspoken message was always there. All his long life, Dad worked at many things to buy the beans ; scrap metal chief among them, but he was not too good to pick fruit, tear down tipples, and make Hot Dogs (ours is such a unique family: Scrap Metal and Hot Dog Stands have been the family businesses.) Most of my memories of Dad have something to do with work.

But not all; Dad and Mom had 3 children, and we lost a little sister and brother in infancy. That loss was part of him, as well as, of course, as was the inestimable joy of having me. You’re welcome. I also remember learning the pleasures of stirring up your ice cream till it was like soup before you ate it while watching Walter Cronkite.

Well, in time, Dad married again, and I ended up with a Step Mom and eventually 4 sisters. FOUR. Really, Dad? Really, Connie? FOUR?! You guys couldn’t manage even ONE boy to even things up for me?

I remember him telling me how his brothers taught him to swim: by pushing an old truck inner tube out into the Ohio and dumping him: swim or drown, Bill! I never told Dad this, but my cousin Sam continued the family tradition with me in a pool in California. Obviously, it worked.

Swim or Drown might well be the Smith Clan motto, for while Dad sometimes found himself in deep waters in his life, he always struggled back to the surface. When I was 18 I failed to see the irony in that image when I told him I was joining the Navy and would sail on Submarines. He never expressed anything but support for my decision, but I always wondered if he had a “moment” when he saw me get in that Navy Gray van and leave for boot camp.

All of you knew Dad in different ways, but for me, this was always the guy who wore my face. I loved him and he was important to me, and much that I knew or was came from him. Still, there comes a sobering moment when you realize your Dad is, after all, just a man, both foolish and wise, yet frail and noble, a complex man; good, yet fallen and flawed all at the same time. Not a superman after all, just a man. But still: Dad.

Just like when he tested the Turkey stuffing; and he always said it was perfect, but after a moment, that it always needed more sage. I think Dad would agree that since sage also means wise, we both had our areas of perfection, but both of us could have used more sage.

As sons and Fathers will, we had some difficulties and clashes, things not said, or settled for many years. But, I took some wise counsel several years ago: Don’t leave things unsaid until the last words had passed between us. So, we spent a couple of evenings together, with lots of coffee, of course, and when Dad died, we had nothing left unsaid between us.

Some of the hardest places in Dad s life took him away from the church, and from God, for a time. I will always remember that the love and caring from folks at Jefferson Ave Church of God after the loss of his Mom was the lamp that lit his way home. I know that later, the baby steps of this church where I stand now, and these people, and Pastor Terry and Vickie, were an important part of his life. He would not have missed being a part of this church.

Dad was a man of great contrasts, of strong opinions, and emotions, and passions. Erika told me the other day about Dad saying he could hold on to a ticked off feeling for a long time. He worked hard to build and accomplish what he could in his life and his businesses, and, was, I discovered over the years, generous and open handed to many people. I suspect the full scope of his giving to people will never be known. But that was a part of him. He loved deeply, grumbled often, fumed and raged loudly, but turned to a big teddy bear for a child, or a baby, or that little fuzzy animal that he insisted is a dog. He had a sharp, questioning mind, with a love for learning and reading, which he passed, thankfully, on to me.

I missed my Dad when he was not around to talk to about solving the problems of the world, or books. Neither Dad nor I ever saw the need to use 2 words when 20 would suffice, so I’m not sure how we ever finished a conversation. I enjoyed learning things from my Dad; how to make hot dogs, or cut up a side of beef, or identify metals, or count in German, even when I was just satisfying my idle curiosity. I guess I carry on that tradition as a wellspring of (sometimes) useless knowledge, because I love to read and I remember much of what I read. I remember Robin Hood, and the King Arthur stories, Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island; the Arabian Nights and Swiss Family Robinson: because they all were books that Dad gave me. He was a big fan of books, and learning, and as a kid, I was pretty much a book with legs and glasses. I loved our talks over coffee about books. And I will miss them.

In my last visit with Dad, before the end was obviously at hand, Connie got a much needed chance to walk around and breathe in some cool air, and Dad was with me for a while, and really present. We talked about my kids and grandkids, how he confused mine and Josh’s names since the boy was born, about an icy cold mountain stream in the Grand Tetons we drank from one July morning, and oceans, and the many places we both had lived, which, between the 2 of us, constitutes most of the US. I just held his hand, and we talked. He was glad to see me, and I was glad he was there. And then, as evening came, he wasn’t there. The Alzheimer’s ended that time and left him confused and afraid. But, I will be forever grateful we had that time, although I didn’t realize at the time that we were saying good bye. I’m sorry he is gone, and I will miss him, But I am glad he is free of the cage that Alzheimer’s made of his mind.

In 1879, Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson made a long trek from Scotland to San Francisco, to see Fanny Vandergrift, the women he loved. The journey nearly killed him. Thinking himself near death, he wrote a poem called simply: Requiem. Later, seeking warmer climates to ease his Tuberculosis, Stevenson moved to the Island of Upolu, in Samoa. There, in the shadow of the 1500 foot Mt Vaea, Stevenson built his family estate. In 1894, when Robert Louis Stevenson died, 60 Samoan men, took turns standing guard over his body through the night while some of them cleared a path to the top of Mt Vaea, and carried his coffin on their shoulders and buried him. 20 years later, the ashes of his beloved wife Fanny were brought by their daughter to be buried beside him. At his request, these words, his “Requiem “, are carved on his tombstone.

Under the wide and starry sky,

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

 This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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