My earliest memories of my father (who would have been 84 today) are when I was four. We had moved in with his parents after his father, Charlie L. suffered a stroke. Mom went to work at a shirt factory in nearby Clinton County, Kentucky while Dad stayed home to ‘run the house’ for his parents.
In my first memory, I am sitting in the grass while Dad hoed in the small garden at the foot of the hill. All of the sudden, Dad said, “Don’t move.” He then proceeded to kill a copperhead snake slithering in the grass near me. I remember Dad showing off his kill to his sister, Anna, who lived a mile or so away and there was even talk of getting a photograph with the local newspaper. Oddly, enough, I do not remember seeing the snake — so I have no idea if it was photo worthy.
The second memory of my father is not as flattering.
It occurred around the same time and took place inside his mother’s kitchen. In this memory, my father is pouring each of his three children (my youngest sister had not been born yet) a shot of alcohol. Since I was four, my older brother and sister were 8 and 6, respectively.
I remember the incident well because of his mother’s reaction — her anger and irritation as she told her son not to give us the drink.
“Ah, it won’t hurt ’em,” Dad said.
Alcohol was a big part of my father’s life then, but it did not start out that way. In his early 20s, Dad volunteered to serve in the Korean War. When he left home, he was a well-respected, likeable young man who had never drank alcohol. Something he experienced during his war service dramatically changed him and when he returned home a few years later, he — by his own admission — drank too much.
And by the time I took that drink as a four-year-old boy, my father had been arrested for public intoxication, driving under the influence, been questioned about receiving stolen property — and had spent more than one night in the Cumberland County jail. In the years leading up to my birth his drinking escalated to the point that it almost destroyed his marriage.
But within a year of my first drink, my father had quit drinking altogether. It took the death of a co-worker and the near-death of a drinking buddy to change Dad’s life view. Of course, I was too young to understand the implications of his decision, but it changed the direction of my life — being the son of a former heavy drinker is vastly different than being the son of a heavy drinker.
It was the greatest gift he ever gave me.