Well, this Sunday is Father’s Day here in the States. My dad died seven and a half years ago, twelve years after my mother, and I still miss him — I miss them both. He was always a rock I could depend on and he helped me more than I deserved because that’s the type of man he was. He’d never leave anyone in the lurch (when he got older, he might grumble about it, but he’d be there for you). Only five-foot-five, he was a hell of a golfer and a career Air Force NCO, and a born storyteller. People loved to talk to him. I wish I’d written down a lot of the stories he told.
We were never big on doing holidays like Father’s and Mother’s Day in my family. Don’t ask me why. A card, maybe some perfume for my mom or take her out for dinner. My dad would maybe get socks. He wasn’t one to celebrate or have anyone make a fuss about him, and was just as happy to go out golfing. But this Father’s Day, I thought I’d put a few words down about him.
Huckleberry Finn reborn
Born in Blue Ridge country in Virginia, my dad was a character, though a likeable fellow. As a kid, people knew him for being a free spirit with a mischievous nature and a good heart who loved his four sisters and would do anything for them. He’d play hooky from school, hunt for squirrels, disappear for a few days and get into bb gun fights with his friends. When he was seven, he wanted some of his sister’s pickle juice, so he went to the icebox and drank so much it was noticeably lower. How did he try to cover up his theft? He peed in the bottle to raise the level thinking his crime wouldn’t be discovered (it was).
Back in those days, corporal punishment was still the way to go and the disciplinarian of the family, my grandmother, sent him out to cut a switch for his punishment many a time.
He started smoking at 13. My Nanny Layton caught him and his friend smoking and to teach them a lesson she took a carton of cigarettes and made them smoke it with her, trying to make them sick, but she’s the only one who got ill. I’m not sure why that was her plan, but hey, I wasn’t there. Unfortunately, my dad smoked to right up before he died. I pestered him since age 6 and soaked his cigarettes in vinegar once when I was 11, but to no avail. It was his one flaw. My mom used to make him smoke outside, and out of respect for her, he still did after she died. He’d stand out in the 115ºF (46ºC) heat, puffing away.
A lot of fight for his size
Dad was always a little guy, never topping 5’5″ (1.65m) — he blamed it on having his mastoid process removed from his head when he was little and said it stunted his growth (his sister, Nita, had the same procedure and was only 4’11” (1.49m). But he didn’t let people bully him because of his short stature and slight build.
Once, he told me about this bigger kid named George that started picking on him every time he saw him. Apparently, the size difference was not inconsiderable and my dad avoided the other kid when he could. Then he stopped to think about it. My dad had a cousin called Wildcat Deaner who was the same size as the bully and who’d fought him to a draw. So my dad thought, hell, he’d held his own when scrapping with Wildcat, so he went looking for the other kid and attacked him out front of his house and put a whuppin’ on him. George’s dad had to come out and drag my dad off his son. The other kid was so embarrassed and mad he plotted revenge. Later that day, my dad ran into his friend, Flea, who told him not to take the low road home because George had a shotgun and was waiting along it looking for him, so my father went home a different way. Luckily, nothing ever came of it.
While my dad grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, even as a kid, people knew him as someone who would give you the shirt off his back. In fact, my Aunt Nita told me that one Christmas morning, Buddy, as the Virginians called him (to my mom, he was always Don), gave some of his toys to a dirt poor family up the street because they couldn’t afford to buy their kids presents.
Marching to his own beat
For someone from a small country town in the Blue Ridge Mountains who dropped out of high school, my father was a remarkably accepting man. I wouldn’t call him enlightened, but my dad judged people on their quality as a human being, not their skin color. He grew up in Virginia, a segregated state proud of its role in the Civil War. My dad used to tell me they didn’t learn history in school, they learned Southern history. Even in the 1970s, I remember riding through town when I was about five and my Pawpaw pointing out Colored Town, which was the area that black folks lived. But my dad never let the color of a person’s skin affect how he’d treat them. He didn’t give a shit how society wanted him to think. He told me he used to shag fly balls for the local black baseball teams for 25 cents, not exactly what you’d expect a white kid to be doing in the pre-Civil Rights era in the South.
I’ll relate a story he once told me. At about 13 or 14, he wanted to see a movie with his friend, a black kid whose name escapes me. But they couldn’t go to the theater together because of segregation. My dad told me he was so ignorant that he thought only his town was segregated, so he convinced his friend that they should walk several hours to the next town to go to the movies. So they did. When they got there, of course, the theater manager wouldn’t let his friend in. Mad as a hornet, my dad cussed the man out and the two boys walked all the way back home.
As I said, he would not have considered himself enlightened. He never protested for civil rights, but he raised us to respect people, and I think that’s pretty important too. We lived around black people off base in Washington D.C. and my best friend at age four was a black kid named Carlton who lived next door. I never thought anything of it.
My dad was quick to anger if he spotted injustice or unfairness. Manipulating the rules for one’s own gain drove him crazy. He wasn’t anti-capitalist, but he did not like what the super rich were doing to the country. He would be disgusted with what’s going on today.
Time to see the world
Tired of small-town life, my dad decided to join the Navy with four friends. He ran into one of his sisters in town and borrowed some money to get to Roanoke (I think) to go to the recruiting station (she didn’t believe him, but loaned him the money anyway). They never managed to enlist in the Navy as an enterprising recruiter for the relatively new Air Force intercepted the teens and enlisted them. My dad went to New York for basic training and then he was off to see the world.
It was when stationed at R.A.F. Sealand in Wales that he met my mom when he went to Birkenhead for a night out. At the pub, someone stole my mom’s purse and my dad gallantly volunteered to buy her a bus ticket home and accompany her. She thanked him for the ticket but said she didn’t need him to ride with her — but he did anyway (luckily for me and the Land Manatee audience) and that was the start of their romance. (It’s possible she didn’t want to show up with a Yank in tow. My Grandad Davoren did not like Americans back then.)
Do unto others…
After my mom died, my dad was lost for a while. The day of her death was the only time I ever recall him crying and it shook me to see him so vulnerable and bereft.
He had a huge hole in his life to fill. When he wasn’t golfing, he spent time hanging out at a gas station down the road. A Lebanese guy ran a sandwich shop out of it and my dad liked to talk to him. He’d also talk to the young Palestinian clerk who manned the register at the gas station. They called my dad Mr. Homer (Homer and Home Brew were a couple of his nicknames).
One day, my dad told me he was loaning my mom’s car to the young Palestinian man because his car had broken down and his family was in a bind. I immediately jumped on my dad about what a terrible idea it was. The thought of him giving some stranger my mom’s car alarmed me. He didn’t really know this guy and I was afraid my dad was being too trusting. I’d seen people taken advantage of before; one guy I used to hang out with loaned his car to an acquaintance and she stole it. I wouldn’t let up and my dad started getting angry with me. Finally, he told me the Palestinian kid needed the car and even if he didn’t return it, what did it matter? It was only a car and my mom didn’t need it anymore and this guy did. Ashamed of my selfishness, I dropped my complaint and learned another lesson in being a decent human being.
The guy borrowed the car for a couple of weeks and returned it when the shop repaired his vehicle. And he never forgot the favor. At the end of my dad’s life, when he was too frail from his cancer treatments to drive, I’d go down to the gas station to pick up his coffee and newspaper every morning. The Palestinian guy, now the manager, would ask about my father. Not only that, he told his staff never to charge me for Mr. Homer’s coffee. And every time the Lebanese guy saw me, he would talk about how the world would be a better place if there were more honorable, big-hearted men like my father.
An unexpected dimension
Despite everything I knew about my dad’s character, I still questioned how he’d react to my younger brother being gay. While my dad tended to live and let live, he was still somewhat socially conservative, he just wasn’t an asshole about it (he was not a fan of today’s GOP). I dreaded the thought of having the conversation with him (my brother couldn’t bring himself to do it). My dad was a hillbilly who’d spent 28 years in the military. There was no way he’d accept my brother.
Yet he did.
It took a while, but finally, I screwed up my courage one day and said “Dad, Kevin’s gay.”
He looked at me and growled, “I know he’s gay, goddamnit. Do you think I’m stupid?” Then he confessed he didn’t know what to think of “this gay thing.” But he said my brother was still his son and he loved him.
Kevin had a lot of problems at the time but my dad’s attitude made all the difference. And whatever my dad felt in his heart about gay people, he accepted my brother. He never judged him or his friends and would show up for dinners and BBQs when invited. He simply worried about him as a father does for a child.
So, my dad wasn’t an intellectual or a successful businessman, but a giant in a short man’s body. He served his country for 28 years and he was fair and honest and hated bullies. I’ve never met a more honorable guy. And I’m proud to have called him my father.
My mom always told us we had a father in a million, and she was right. Anyway, I love and miss you, Dad.
In memory of Donis McKee Layton (Don, Buddy, Sarge, Homer, Home Brew) born February 25, 1936, died January 6, 2012.