“Would you trade me in for another Daddy?”
He asked me that question regularly -- usually after one of his intense breakfast lectures.
I remember thinking to myself, “Is that an option?”
And I wondered why he would ask such a question.
I didn’t truly understand what he meant until I became a father myself.
When you hold that precious child, your child, for the first time and you feel the awesome sense of responsibility for their future – you want to do everything in your power to see that child achieve its potential.
When we sat down for those breakfasts, he would say, “You’re going to get a college education. There are no two ways about. I don’t care what…no if’s, and’s or but’s. I didn’t have that opportunity, but I’m going to make sure you do.”
And he did.
He had an IPhone. Even in his 80s, he thirsted for knowledge and was willing to try new things. Things that were scary and required him to change. He learned how to text. He loved to use the camera and send picture messages. Sometimes it was a blurry picture of his toe, but who cared? He wasn’t afraid to try new things! He used the Find Friends app on his iPhone to track me by GPS and took great pride in being able to ask me the next morning, “What were you doing here or there?” He learned Facebook so he could keep up with his family. And he was just learning to use Facetime so we could see each other’s faces when we talked. Sometimes he would forget he needed to hold the phone away so I could see his face. Instead, he would instinctively put it up to his ear. I got some really close up shots of the inside of his ear. I’d say, “Dad, it’s Facetime, not Eartime” and we’d have a big laugh. I thought I was teaching him, but instead he was teaching me to conquer my fears, embrace change, and always thirst for knowledge.
And I will.
When I worked for him at the service station, there was never down time. If there wasn’t a customer on the front, it was time to clean the restrooms (which by the way were immaculate), pick up the cigarette butts, take out the trash, hose down the front. You may remember the tubes you would drive over as you approached a gas pump which caused a bell to go off inside. That was my call to action. I still get nervous to this day when a bell goes off. He would say, “When a car pulls up to the pump, greet the customer. Ask them to check under the hood. Be sure to ask about tires, batteries, and accessories. Clean the windshield. Be sure to count their change to prove it’s correct. Treat your customers fairly, son, and they’ll be loyal.”
And they were.
When dad moved his business from Wilcox & Sevier to Lynn Garden, I was amazed at how many people would drive from Fairacres or Riverview or Green Acres to Lynn Garden just to trade with my Dad.
During World War II, he was among the youngest of the Greatest Generation. In fact, he lied about his age so he could enlist. I asked him why he would do that. He’d laugh and say, “I figured World War had to be easier than living on the farm in Clintwood.” I think my grandmother made General Patton look like a pushover. I still have some of the V-mail letters he sent to her new home in Kingsport at 1601 Gate City Highway (which we now know as 1601 Lynn Garden Drive). Her residence is now owned by this very church and used for the Higher Ground Baptist Church Care Ministry……he saw planes take off daily on bombing runs over Europe. And every day a portion of them would never return. He believed that our way of life was worthy of risking his.
And he did.
He believed it was important to remember where you came from and almost every year we would make the trek back to his homeplace in Southwest Virginia to visit Clintwood, Jersey Branch, and the Flemingtown Cemetery . I heard Huckleberry Finn-like tales of adventure with his brothers and sister. A one room schoolhouse. Home remedies. Stories of my grandfather’s time as sheriff. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. He wanted me to know what it meant to be a Fleming. It was my responsibility to bring honor to that name. From a very early age, he wanted me to know exactly who my people are.
And I do.
When asked for relationship advice, he said “Don’t worry about material things. Love can overcome anything. Sure, there will be good days and there will be bad days, but you’re in this for the long run. You don’t give up when the going gets tough. You’re partners. Quitting isn’t an option.”
And I haven’t.
Even as a small business owner who often spent 80 hours a week working, he found time to give back to the community. It was a priority for him and I didn’t realize until later how much it influenced me as well. That makes an impression on a young person – it builds a culture of giving back.
And I do.
Dad had a way with people. He was genuinely interested in their personal lives and situations. He cared. And they responded by showing him a loyalty that can’t be earned by money. I tried to pass those teachings on to my children.
I received a Christmas letter from my son, a former football player and now a coach at Carson-Newman who wrote, “I learned that leadership is not always conducted from the front of the line by the most equipped people. All it takes is enthusiasm and passion for what you’re doing. Rarely was I ever the best player on the field. Rarely was I considered athletic enough to compete for a job on the field. Rarely was I big enough to go against the guys I faced. Rarely was I smart enough to figure out the complex schemes. All I could do was prepare the people around me to be the best they could be. That didn’t mean I was the best player it just meant I had to be willing to be on the best team at all cost. Whatever sacrifices I had to make to make the team better, I had to make them. Whether that meant less playing time, spending time with guys I didn’t get along with, etc. I had to do it for the sake of the team. The same holds true in life. It isn’t about me. It’s about us. Thanks for teaching me what a team looks like.”
I was just passing along the lessons I learned from my Dad. And so, the circle of life continues.
I was so happy that my children knew their grandfather well. We sat together on a pew in the back of this very sanctuary. We prayed, sang, and worshipped together. And that’s where I captured that priceless photo you may have seen in the Times-News entitled, “What love looks like.” I glanced over and saw my mom and dad holding hands across their open Bible. And I thought about their decision to elope. And how critics said it would never work. And how glad I was that they ignored those critics and followed their hearts because 65 years later their bond was just as evident as I’m sure it was in 1948.
During the past year or so, he asked if I would join him for breakfast on Saturdays. I quickly answered ‘yes’. It wasn’t always convenient. Sometimes I had other things I needed to do, but they could wait. I told my wife I would gladly go whenever he wanted because you never know how much time you have. My uncle Jim and cousin Donnie would join us. We shared old photos. I heard stories of what he was like before he was my Dad. We took group photos with visiting relatives would join in as they passed through town. It was so simple, but so incredible to have that time together.
I can’t think of a better example of a husband, father, grandfather, son, uncle, brother, friend.
And it’s one I try to emulate every day.
So, to answer your question….no, Dad, I wouldn’t have traded you for anything in this world.
We grieve, but not as those that have no hope.
What better reminder of that hope than Easter weekend. What better way to go than quietly, at home, in your favorite chair – just drifting off to sleep.
I love you, buddy. Sleep well. Save me a place. I’ll see you soon.
April 17, 2014
April 17, 2014