Southern People

Walking the fence, Daddy fell on the ant bed
Tim yelled out my name and I came running
We dragged Daddy away and brushed him off
When I picked him up
He put his arms around my neck and clung to me
Like a worn-out child at bedtime

(Photo by Dave Spicer /Wikimedia Commons)

I started thinking about this incident recently while I was at one of my friend Aralee Strange’s “Word of Mouth” poetry nights at an Athens pub.  Hearing different poets read or recite their work, hearing what they had decided is fit subject matter for a poem, what is suitable form, is inspiring and liberating. It makes you see possibilities, makes you consider your own experiences and ideas in new ways. I started trying to compose in my head between poets’ stand-ups.

I still haven’t finished it. I doubt I ever will. Poetry, I have discovered, is hard.  But I am ready to tell this story.

My father, Simpson Wesley Holston Jr., was born in 1917 in Buckatunna, Mississippi, the son of a horse trader. To the best of my knowledge, Simpson Wesley Sr. never did a hard day’s work in his life if he could help it. Daddy, on the other hand, did not have the guile or the glad hand to be a horse trader. The horse-trading gene went to his youngest brother, my Uncle Mallard, who became an automobile dealer and made a fortune.

After Daddy came home from serving in the Pacific in World War II – he was a Marine—he made a good living for a while making and selling cane syrup. When sugar unexpectedly went off post-war rationing, he could barely give away the shiny, one-gallon cans going door to door, practically begging.  He tried his hand at selling life insurance after that, but he wasn’t gabby or pushy enough for that line of work. He eventually settled into a life of hard jobs, the kind where you punched in at daybreak in clean khakis and punched out at dusk looking as though you had been cleaning chimneys. He worked mostly at a foundry in Laurel, Mississippi, the town where I came into the world.

Daddy was one of the strongest men for his size I have ever known.  He was 5’11” and weighed maybe 165 pounds. Thinking of him, the old Tennessee Ernie Ford hit “16 Tons” comes to mind. “Some people say a man is made out of mud/A poor man’s made out of muscle and blood.” And later on: “One fist of iron/The other of steel/If the right one don’t get you/Then the left one will.”

Daddy was like the “strong and silent types” in cowboy movies, those men who wore their strength and toughness quietly and let their actions speak for them. His hands were gnarled and toughened from his work, and so tattooed with streaks of black grime that not even Lava soap could fully cleanse them. They looked like the armored gloves of a medieval knight.

My Uncle Curtis, who also worked at the foundry, told me one time about some men at work bragging about how strong they were. He said one of them challenged my father to do one-armed chin-ups. The guy grabbed the metal bar above the door of a toilet stall in the men’s bath house and proceeded to lift himself three or four times with one arm.

Uncle Curtis said Daddy matched this, and then he invited the man and the onlookers outside. He got a hammer and a handful of 5-inch nails from the toolbox in his pick-up truck and led the entourage to the side of the bathhouse. He stretched his left hand high and with his right hand hammered in one of the big nails. He stuck the hammer in his pocket, gripped the nail with his left hand and pulled his full weight up. He pulled another nail out with his free hand, jammed it into the wooden wall, pulled out the hammer and hit the nail three hard strokes, all the while hanging by his left. He put the hammer in his pocket, gripped the second nail with his right hand and pulled himself up.

He repeated the maneuver — right, left, right, left -– climbing the wall until his brogans were about six feet off the ground. Then he dropped to his feet, brushed himself off and walked away without a word.

I cannot say for sure that this story is not mythology. Uncle Curtis was known to exaggerate at times. But I do know that many a time I saw my father grab a 100-pound burlap sack of oats or cotton-seed meal by the ear and swing it over his right shoulder and then grab a second sack and swing it over his left and walk to the feed house with it like he was carrying a satchel of books home from school.

The feed was for the cows and hogs that we raised on our little farmstead, Daddy’s pride and joy. Having some land, a piece of the earth he could call his own, meant a lot to him. So did making it look well-kept and cared for. He wanted folks out for a Sunday drive to see something beautiful and cultivated, something that would make them nod out of respect.

That’s where the fence comes in. When my folks bought our place in 1950, the pastures were weedy and ragged, and what little fence there was, was collapsing. Daddy worked the place until dark after he came home from the foundry and all day on Saturdays. My younger brother, Tim, and I worked, too, when we were old enough. We helped feed and water the livestock, pulled weeds in the garden, picked beans, pulled turnips.  Many an after school hour was spent by us with hatchets chopping pencil-like points on 7-foot creosote fence poles, which Daddy brought home by the pick-up full.

When we built the fence, straight and true and pulled tight, Daddy would stab a sharpened pole into the ground and place an iron cylinder he had forged at the foundry – it looked like an artillery shell casing – over the top so that it wouldn’t split. Then he would climb into the bed of a heavy wheelbarrow and drive the post firmly into the ground with a 12-pound sledge hammer. My job was to hold the post while he pounded.

If I flinched, he took it like a personal insult. “I do not miss, son,” he would say. “You don’t have to worry.” But I still winced and tensed at the sharp clank of steel on steel, and it aggravated him to no end because it was one more thing about me that wasn’t as manly as he thought a son of his ought to be.

Daddy appreciated that I made A’s in school and sang in church and was a pretty good little baseball player. But what he really would have liked was for me to love farming and cows and hogs like he did, and for me to box or wrestle. He worried most of his paternal life that our mother was going to make sissies of me and my brother. He worried that we would not be strong enough for the world he knew.

Which brings me back to that day when he was walking the fence. It was in July 1965, and it was hot. South Mississippi-summer hot.  I was 17 years old. Tim was 13 ½.  A year and a half earlier, Daddy had begun to have mysterious blackout spells. He would turn ashen, his head would fall back, just kind of loll, and for 10, 15, 20 seconds, it would seem as though his spirit had left his body.  We saw it for the first time on Christmas Day, 1963, while opening presents at my Grandmother Damon’s house in Laurel. He slumped on the sofa, and all color left his face. It was the scariest thing we had ever seen.

Over the next several months, Daddy tried every conventional and unconventional diagnosis and remedy anyone could think of, everything short of getting bled by his barber.  A neurologist in Jackson found nothing and gave him a clean bill of health. He saw a chiropractor and a hypnotist. At one point, a dentist pulled all four of his wisdom teeth at one sitting, hoping to relieve cranial pressure. But it wasn’t until my mother and his older brother Claude took him to New Orleans, to the Touro Infirmary, that doctors finally found the cause of his seizures. They found a brain tumor, by then the size of a lemon, on the right side of his head. They operated the next morning.

Radiation therapy at first seemed to work on Daddy’s cancer. He gradually got better, stronger. The thick salt-and-pepper hair he lost during the radiation all came back. The doctors gave him permission to go back to work at the foundry. And then, quickly, he began to weaken again.

In his last few months, one of his great pleasures was to stroll along the inside of the fence that we had built around our fields and woods. It was cattleman’s wire, a wide mesh, at the bottom. Two strands of barbed wire ran above it. It was still as straight and taut – tight  as a tennis racket – as when we first strung and stretched it.

For his pasture excursions, Daddy would dress in light summer pants and a short-sleeved sport shirt neatly tucked in. He hated seeing a man with his shirt tail out. He’d wear his old Sunday shoes and his straw fedora. Tim and I would take turns escorting him, walking along on his right side, lightly holding his elbow if needed. With his left hand, Daddy would occasionally steady himself on the fence wire. We would walk slowly, and my father would make note of the state of the few cows we had not sold off by then and how the Bahia grass and the red clover were doing. Neighbors driving by would honk their horns and wave, and he would wave back. If he spotted thistle or cedar weed, he would have us make a mental note to come back and dig it out later.

That morning in July 1965, Tim was walking with Daddy about 300 yards from the house, slowly navigating the back fence of a pasture that bordered the Johnson family’s land.  So suddenly that Tim could not grab his arm, Daddy’s knees buckled. He wilted and went down, falling across an ant bed, which promptly erupted. The ants swarmed out off  the crumbly red mound onto Daddy’s arms and clothes. Tim was barely five feet tall, and skinny as a pipe cleaner. He did his best to drag Daddy away from the teeming ant bed, but he couldn’t lift him. He started yelling my name as loud as he could.

“Bubba! Bub-baaaaah!” he screamed. He did not call me by my given name.

I was in the backyard, wrangling with our contrary lawn mower, trying to get it to start. I could hear the panic in Tim’s hoarse yells. I took off running through the gate by the feed house and over the nubby pasture.

When I got to them, out of breath, Daddy was still on the ground. Tim had managed to pull him clear of the ant bed, and he was slapping and picking off the squirming red specks from Daddy’s arms and pants and socks.

“He just sank, Bubba, just went down,” Tim said apologetically as I joined him in picking at the ants.

Daddy was disoriented, baffled by his own helplessness. Without thinking, I scooped him up in my arms and started carrying him back to the house. He put his arms around my neck.

When we got to the big gate by the feed house that opened onto our backyard, Tim opened it and called out to our mother.  She came running in her apron from the kitchen, frantic. “He fell, Mama,” Tim said.  “He just went down.”

We got him inside, got him undressed and put him in the tub and washed off the rest of the ants. Mama put salve on his bites and put him in pajamas, and we got him into the hospital bed that was set up in our living room. He fell asleep apologizing for falling down.

The next day, I asked my mother if Daddy had been embarrassed. She said, “No, son, he told me that when you picked him up, it was the proudest he had ever been of you.”

Walking the fence, Daddy fell on the ant bed

Tim yelled out my name and I came running

When I picked him up

He put his arms around my neck and clung to me

Like a worn-out child at bedtime

I carried him home

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Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.