My Dad died around 3:30 am on the morning of April 16. My sister, Cathy, and my brother, Joe, had just gotten in at around Noon on Wednesday from their respective Chicago and Maui homes. My five sisters and two brothers were at his bedside when he died.
Andrew Johnson “Drew” Ward
The funeral was lovely, especially the graveside service, which included a wonderful Air Force Honor Guard from Moody AFB in Valdosta, a nine-gun salute (you have to be a really big wig in the military to get a 21-gun salute, apparently) and a bugler playing Taps.
My dad was a 90s dad in the 60s. He so loved his kids. He wasn’t one of those fathers who came home expecting his wife to be in a June Cleaver dress and apron with a cocktail in hand. (Believe me, my Mom had June Cleaver dresses, but she wouldn’t have known how to make a cocktail to save her life.) What he expected was a blizzard of kids to greet him at the door, and that’s the way it was.
We were never well off. In fact, growing up, we were pretty dang poor, and if we hadn’t had health care, free rent and cheap commissary food because of the Air Force, we might not have made it. In fact, for most of my memory, my father worked two jobs. I don’t remember this, but my Mom says he worked the docks at Maas Brothers, a department store in Tampa, loading furniture, to buy us all the bicycles we wanted one Christmas. Mom says that is what messed up his back for years to come.
We didn’t have much, but we never knew we were poor. My dad gave his children two things that money can’t buy — a love of all critters and a love of the night sky. Because of my dad, our family rescued countless birds that had fallen from their nests, been caught up in oil spills and red tide in Tampa Bay, or been otherwise damaged — mockingbirds, sparrows, seagulls and pelicans. I remember us all driving to church one day on the base when we came upon a pelican sitting in the middle of the road. My dad pulled over, gathered the bird into the car and took him home to nurse him back to health (he had a broken wing).
When he died, he had two pets — Missy, a dog who stubbornly refused to answer to anyone, and Cat, a feral feline who would come to no one but Daddy. He found Missy on the dirt road leading to their house. Someone had dropped her off when she was a puppy, leaving her atop a bag of dog food. Daddy passed her countless times on the dirt road, always trying to talk Mom into bringing her home. He prevailed, and, at some point stopped the car and opened the door. Missy jumped in. It was the last time I know that she jumped into a car. To my knowledge, she has never done it since her rescue.
Now she lives a happy life, annoying possums and snakes and making my Mom generally crazy. We read something one time in a Smithsonian Magazine about a weird breed called “Carolina Dogs,” and we all decided that’s what she is. Missy stayed at my Dad’s feet when he was still sitting in his chair in the den before he no longer could sit there. Over the 10 or so years that we had her, she never, ever went to the back of the house where the bedroom was. But in the days before he died, she went into the bedroom, where he was lying, two or three times. At one point, I picked her up so she could see him. Do I think she knew what was happening? Hard to say, but I have to believe she did.
Cat still comes in the house at the urging of my Mom, but she has no interest in making friends with anyone now that my Dad is gone.
My Dad was also a jokester. Once, we were in Baltimore at a reservoir, and we saw ducks. Trying to show off my knowledge of birds, I proclaimed, “Those are mallards.” He said, “No. It’s pronounced mal-LARDS.” (He had always liked that stupid joke about Mr. Buz-ZARD is out in the yard. I don’t remember the joke but it ends with a bunny telling someone, “Well, tell him Mr. Rab-BIT is here with the s–t.”) It was some years later when I learned that he was kidding, and that mallards were pronounced mallards and not mal-LARDS.
When we returned from Okinawa, where we were stationed after Japan (this being in the late ’50s), our ship dropped us off in San Francisco. We had no idea where we were to be stationed, but we knew we were driving home to Fernandina. So my dad bought an old car and we started out. Mom and Dad and four kids, with mom eight months pregnant with my brother, Bill, no air conditioning (in June), and a box of Cheerios for sustenance. We stopped once in Flagstaff, Arizona, where my dad hauled us all out into the front of the cheap motel we were staying at to show us the most amazing night sky I had ever seen.
At some point on the trip, the car’s generator went bad, so he would drive at night by the full moon with the lights off, turning them on whenever he saw an approaching car. No child seats, no seat belts. It’s a miracle we survived. At some point during the trip, we came across an elderly couple whose car had a flat tire.
Dad got out and fixed it, and the lady, taking pity on my parents who had a car full of children, came over and gave us all cookies she had baked to take to her grandchildren. I remember that, though I don’t know why. I also remember that when she came over to our car, she stood smack in the middle of an ant hill.
He loved to take us outside and try to impart his limited knowledge of the night sky. He knew the Big Dipper, of course, and he knew that the Pleiades (the seven sisters, which, in later years, he said were me and my sisters, along with our Mom) were being chased by Taurus the Bull, who was being tracked by Orion the Hunter who was being trailed by his faithful dog, Canis Major. When we were in Tampa, living on MacDill AFB, he bought a cheap telescope because he knew that men would be walking on the moon. Then he, once again, hauled us all out of bed to show us the moon when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on it. Other kids watched it on television, but he thought it was important that we look through the telescope. We were all disappointed that we couldn’t actually see them, but we believed him when he said they were there.
I am sure that it is because of him that my sisters and I are still crazy over the night sky. We will basically drop what we are doing to head to Fernandina, where the night sky is still dark, for a decent comet sighting or meteor shower. Some of us now have cool star-finders and telescopes and two of us have invested in green lasers, which can shoot beams up to the sky if you are trying to identify or point out a certain star or planet. But you have to be careful, because you could put your eye out. Or cause a plane to crash. Whether that is true or not, I do not know and am not willing to find out.
When we were little, he would come home from work, and my Mom would have dinner on the table at 5:15 pm. We would eat, clean up the dishes and hop in the car. While my Mom finished up laundry or one of the many chores that having a zillion kids entails, my dad would take us in the station wagon “nerping,” which was his word for driving aimlessly. We might end up at Beach Park, where he would talk to us about the horseshoe crabs, which were relics of ancient times, or to the Mole Hole, where we could jump in and swim (he once leapt into the water shoes, wallet and all) when my sister, Vicky, got out too far; or to Jules Verne Park where we would count the boards on the pier. He often stopped on the way back at a tropical fish store called Minnehaha where we would marvel at the piranha in a tank. His dad had kept tropical fish — and grew cacti — on his land that we called the “Farm,” land that has now been sold to developers and abuts my family’s land. My dad’s two brothers and sister have now sold all their land, and our beautiful marsh remains all that is left on the hundred-plus acres that my grandparents once owned.
On these trips, occasionally, he would take us to a convenience store where we would all buy penny candy. And when he had money left over at the end of the month (a rarity) he would take us to McDonalds, where we would buy four hamburgers, four orders of fries and four milkshakes and split them all among seven kids; this was before my youngest brother and sister were born.
We would take the burgers and fries to picnic tables beneath Gandy Bridge and eat them, before we all waded into the bay. We still have a photo that appeared in the St. Pete Times of my sister, Dot, who must have been three at the time, and Alice and Bill, my sister and brother, wading into the bay.
When we were done nerping, we would come home and take our baths. Our two bedrooms (girls in one, boys in the other) opened onto a hall, where he would sit on the floor and sing songs and read poetry (Poe, mostly) until we fell asleep.
He has been ill for many years, getting progressively worse. But even toward the end, he liked to hear about the prospects for the Bulldogs and the Braves. When I was looking through old photo albums to put together a collage, I came across a scrap of paper that he had written on. It just said, “Only Hall of Famer to make the last out in two no-hitters. Hank Aaron.” I know it was a trivia question he was determined to remember. My husband, Jack, would always make sure that he had the latest Georgia Football media guide or a program from the Georgia-Florida game or whatever bowl Georgia was in. Every single one of them was still in the bookcase next to the chair he always sat in toward the end of his life — before he was limited to the bed that he eventually died in. The last time I was home when he was still aware enough to notice, I was wearing a Georgia Tech t shirt. He told me to “take that damn thing off,” and I did.
One of his biggest thrills was when Jack and I took him to the All Star game (1993) at Camden Yards. Oh, he felt like such a star, having drinks with the sportswriters, eating crabs at the harbor and wandering around Baltimore.
Toward the end of his life, my father and I had many arguments. We disagreed over many important things — from religion to politics. But it was me who changed, not him. I remain the black sheep of the family — the liberal, not-so-religious one.
I do not make apologies, nor would he. But I still believe that he was the most wonderful father a girl could have had. And that will be how I remember him — singing songs and rescuing birds. And I am happy with that.