Father’s Day Coming, Remembering Dad
Father’s Day is Sunday, so I’ll flashback to the 1970s for one of those poignant father-son car trips where highly significant matters were discussed.
Shortly after Dad and I had figured out whether the price of an egg was worth the wear and tear on a chicken’s hind parts, he told me about the biggest liar in Thomasville, the South Georgia town where he was reared.
According to Dad, this guy had told everyone his father’s transport ship was torpedoed in New York Harbor before shipping out for World War I. Not to worry, the guy’s father was so gung-ho to get a piece of the Kaiser, he swam all the way to Germany.
Funny stuff, but not near as comical as encountering this Great Bender of Truth at the gas station once we arrived in Thomasville.
“Norman, they had a banquet the other night,” he told Dad. “Coach Garner said you were the best football player he ever had.”
Even at a young age, I understood the concept of considering the source. Dad had to smile at the irony.
Prep sports were different
Dad never promoted himself to his family as Coach E.O. Garner’s finest, but I knew he’d been a good small-town high school athlete. Good enough to play freshman football at Georgia Tech, so I don’t think I was as surprised as he was about his election to the newly formed Thomasville Sports Hall of Fame. He had played for a state champion football team, was district shot put champion the first time he ever touched the shot. And he played basketball and football.
Sports were quite different in those days.
“Bull” Garner coached Thomasville High from the bench while smoking a big cigar. Imagine Nick Saban on the Alabama sidelines doing that. Nobody specialized in one sport; you played what was in season. Football players didn’t have face masks. Basketball players didn’t have jump shots — nobody knew how to shoot one. And the gym ceiling was too low to put any arch on a shot. Due to the times, they had two bats on the baseball team; one had been repaired with nails. I think they ate turnip greens every meal. Hardships aside, it always sounded like an idealistic time when games were kept in proper perspective.
Induction ceremonies for Dad’s induction were on a Tuesday, so the family loaded up and made the five-hour trek to Thomasville. We were at our first rest stop when Dad realized he forgot the banquet tickets. Later he’d find them packed in his suitcase, but we didn’t know it at the time, so we drove around Thomasville looking to find more tickets.
Over the years, such excursions provided my snapshots of Dad’s youth. Like where the baseball field had been.
After winning games, the manager of Thomasville’s Class D League team would line the kids up on the foul line then hit a ball to the outfield for the fastest kid’s keeping. Dad never grabbed one. Those “speedy” genes were passed on to his middle son. Me.
The football field sat adjacent to a bakery, where the team could smell fresh bread as it practiced in the late afternoon. The trainers would buy small loaves, hollow them out and fill them with pork and beans. “Then, they’d eat ’em in front of us,” Dad told me.
At one point during our drive, Dad told me “Lovers Lane is just ahead here.” In the meantime, we passed a Lovers Lane street sign. “Figures, you didn’t even have a clue where Lovers Lane was,” I teased.
“Hogwash,” he replied.
Moving closer toward his old school he told me: “This was once the center of my universe.”
And at that moment, I felt privileged to have spent time with him gathering information that allowed me to understand that universe. Over the years, I’d put names with faces. I’d met some of them and knew stories about others.
Among the 25 initial inductees to the Hall — who had to be at least 40 years old to qualify — were Charlie Ward Sr., that’s right Junior’s dad. He and wife Willard wore purple and gold, the old Douglas High colors. Douglas had been the all-black high school in the days before integration.
Gus Watt and Sam Mitchell, classmates of Dad’s, also were inducted. Dad had told me many times about a storied touchdown run by Watt in the state championship game against Cedartown: “Old Gus was holding the ball like a loaf of bread.” Mitchell was the tight end and captain of that 1945 state championship team.
And there was Dad, who beamed upon receiving his plaque. It was nice to see him afforded the opportunity to relive the past, for he never had fallen prey to living there in the present.
I couldn’t have been more proud, even if Dad swam to Germany.