Saturday, November 9, 2013

AquaMan Runs into the Night and Remembers His Dad

Although he was very old, his passing was as big a shock to me as the bombing of the World Trade Center and the collapse of the Berlin Wall all rolled into one. How could he die? How could he? He was too tough, too stubborn, too busy.
My younger sister, Carol, called me just as I was departing my Comp II class at MDCC’s Greenwood Center. In fact, a couple of my students had asked about him shortly before, and we spent a few minutes chatting about Roger Hodge. When I answered my phone, I heard my sister, hysterical and unintelligible, trying to say something. After several attempts to speak, someone else talked over her phone: “Come to your mom’s house right now!”
I was frightened and confused. Why was she there and not at the hospital? Mom must have died and they called the house. When I got to Harding Street, I saw an ambulance in front of Mom's and my confusion deepened. I walked, ran through the front door and someone I didn’t know pointed towards the den. “He’s back there.”
I remember the paramedics working on him, and I’m not sure how I feel about that, about seeing it. He lay on the floor while strangers did chest compressions. It was not a pleasant sight, and I am thankful to God my mother did not witness that. I was in a bit of a shock while my sister wept hysterically in another room. I dropped to my knees beginning to pray but was interrupted by someone asking for help, for another entrance or exit from the house. They put him on a spine board and carried him out to a gurney.
I remember the doctor at the hospital coming into the room where my sister and I and Mom and Dad’s next door neighbors sat in anxiety. We were joined at some point by Bro. Brad Hodges but I don’t remember when. Neither do I remember what the doctor said, but whatever the words may have been, his meaning was unmistakable. Dad was gone. In a moment, without warning, the man who took life by the throat, turned it upside down, and shook it until the pennies fell out of its pockets was dead.
I had to notify our siblings, an older sister, Helen, and a younger brother, Quinton. Words were hard to come by and get out and for my brother, difficult to process. “What do you mean he didn’t make it?” he asked in confusion or disbelief. “He’s gone, Quinton.” “What do you mean he’s gone? I just talked to him.” My silence and soft sobbing finally cleared his confusion.
I had to tell Mom, who lay ill in a hospital room upstairs, unaware that her husband of sixty-one years had departed for the other side ahead of her. I had to comfort my sister, or try to. I had to tell a nurse downstairs what funeral home to take the body. I had to call some of Dad’s friends, some of whom I didn’t want to hear this news from a second or third hand source. I had to find a way to wrap my head around his passing.
Later that evening, I went to work, to teach my night class because I thought I would manage better there, busy, not just sitting at home being sad. I also thought it was what my dad would have wanted. He was kind of big on work. Back when Mom was so sick and my sister and I spent a few months in hospitals, he told us both that he appreciated everything we had done, but we needed to go to work. “Work is important,” he said. Those weren’t hollow words, but actions he had modeled for us our entire lives. He modeled a lot of things for me, for us, and he left a legacy I will always cherish, a legacy of health, activity, and work that I hope in some way to emulate.  
People didn’t run in those days. Not many people, but Dad did. By “those days,” I haven’t even done the math, but I’m fifty-seven and when I was eight years old Dad got me up every morning and we ran. He would spot me to the stop sign at Harding and Taylor Drive, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. He always caught me, passed me, but finished only a little before me. He had it worked out that way. Someone may have called the police one time after becoming alarmed at a little boy running from a grown man early in the morning. Like I said, people didn’t run in those days. Not around Greenwood, Mississippi anyway.
I thought about that when I got off work from my night class, changed into my running shoes, booted my Garmin watch and headed out the door after first hugging my forlorn wife. I crossed over to Cherokee Street, ran up Cleveland, then over to Taylor Drive. Taylor ends in a cul-de-sac so the traffic is always light there and in the dark I was free to be taken captive by my thoughts. The anonymity the darkness provided made me feel free to tear up, wipe my face, sob if need be.

He was always fit and when people did run, when the running boom hit in the 80s, he was ready. We, my brother, my dad, and I, ran road races all over the northern and central part of the state. Dad dominated his age division for about a decade and a half. When he was fifty-five years old, he ran a 38:55 10K, a time I have never approached. He was just tough, fit, and unafraid to leave it all on the road.
He also skipped rope, but not the store bought kind with handles on it but the sort you tie something up with. I remember him carrying that rope sometimes when we ran at night. We usually ran in the morning, but for some reason when we ran at night he had the rope.
He played tennis for years and years and years. I used to tease him that he and his buddies would be out on the tennis court one day with their rackets duct taped to their walkers. That almost came to pass. His group played at least twice per week until they weren’t a group anymore, until death took them one by one, until they were all gone. Dad was the last one alive, and through this process of dealing with my emotions after his passing, I came to realize that deep down I believed he would never die, that he would live forever.
He hunted quail, “birds” around here, always having well-trained dogs, and he killed around 250 to 300 a year for decades until the declining bird population and the affects of age gradually took their toll. But he kept going. He just kept going. Somewhere along the way, I quit asking him how many he killed. The question became first, “How many did you see?” and then, “Did you see one?” Eventually, his yearly harvest of birds came down to single digits, to being countable on one hand. But he kept loading his dog in his truck and going. He just kept going. He hunted so often and walked so much that he wore the toes out of RedWing boots and his dogs looked like starving strays, their tails bloody from wagging through the bush.

He bought land in Carroll County when I was just a little boy and built a cabin. Before that we camped, but with the cabin we spent the night under a roof and then got up early to squirrel hunt before cutting firewood after the hunt and listening to Jack Cristil call the Mississippi State games over the radio. He never lost his passion for State, and I really thought that if he ever did die it would happen while watching one of those games. I’ve never seen anyone get so wound up over football. The passing of years following his graduation from State in 1950 and season after season of losing did little, nothing, to quell his passion for his school.
I shuffled my way down and back on Taylor Drive and then to Grand Blvd. I turned left on “the boulevard,” as we call it here, and headed north. Usually I can’t think very well when I run. This night was different and my mind never idled but kept pace with my feet as I ran the road’s median.
He planted gardens, way more than needed to supplement his family’s food. He was the last of a generation of people who farmed with mules and picked cotton by hand and lived the old way. That never left him and the acreage in Carroll County provided him the opportunity to extend his youth and expose his children to the rigors of his boyhood. I hated the hoeing and picking and shelling, but he seemed to revel in it. As he got older, he kept doing that too, planting way more than needed and then calling his family in to help him put up corn “to get ready for winter.” Last year, he bought another freezer to have more room to put up more corn and peas that he and Mom could never eat. There was plenty of corn already in the freezer, but he had to “get ready for winter.” He just kept doing it.
At the north end of the boulevard, I turned east and then zigged and zagged through the dark streets of North Greenwood. I heard a few crickets chirping and occasionally a dog barked, but mostly I heard voices, or a voice, my father’s.
He loved to fish but when I was a little, a fishing trip was always preceded by a trip to the place to “check on the garden.” Only after a good dose of hand blisters, sunburn, and dehydration did he feel free to have some fun. Then we would go to a hill pond and fly fish or bass fish for the rest of the day. Although those trips were grand fun and made great memories, I always wondered why we couldn’t just fish. Maybe he was trying to teach me the valuable lesson of 'duty before pleasure,’ but in that regard I am poorly learned.
When I grew up and left home, fishing became trips to Louisiana where he eventually kept a little camper and fished the surf and marshes and blessed his family and friends with the harvest of his hobby, with speckled trout. He kept a record of every fish he ever caught except for the rare occasion when someone caught more than he. Once, I got lucky and beat him at Grand Isle, and he never could remember how many fish we took that day. He was competitive like that. He got old, but he just kept going. He kept making trips to Louisiana well into his 80s. I think it was just two years ago that he decided that was no longer a part of his life. I remember thinking how mature and sensible that was of him.
Still the shadow of his legacy began to cast its shade over me long before he left us. Like him, I am no good with moderation: too much is not enough. When it comes to athletics, unlike him, I am a poor performer, but like him I am driven to try and try and try. I can’t seem to slow down even when it is in my best interest to do so. I battled Achilles tendon problems for a little over four years, but like him I kept heading out the door, I just kept doing it.
I inherited not only his desire for life but also his insatiable appetite for food. Unlike him, however, my metabolism eventually slowed enough that I could no longer eat whatever whenever and not suffer the consequences. If he ever slowed in that regard, I failed to notice. He just kept doing it. He was a snacker always munching on something: peanuts, chips, cheese and crackers, smoked sardines, something. But if he ever failed to eat a big meal after snacking, I didn’t notice. Once he had an ulcer and the doctors scoped his digestive tract. They were shocked to find the largest stomach they had ever examined housed within that small-statured, aging man. Didn’t surprise me at all.
Not only did he work hard, play hard, eat hard, but he cooked hard as well. Like many men, he loved to grill, to cook outdoors. Fish, steaks, ribs, and chicken were his specialties, but I think chicken was his best. No fancy grill for him, though. He laid out a little rectangle of 8 X 8 X 16 inch concrete blocks, draped a piece of dog wire over it and cooked on the ground using a #2 wash tub as a covering. No joke, I not only have the memories, but photographic evidence exists that this is actually true.
He did everything in huge measure and squeezed every day for all the experience he could ring from it. He hunted and gardened and fished and cooked and ate. He also loved. I think that part of him gets overlooked, overshadowed by his tremendous temper which was never turned towards people but only towards inanimate objects and situations. Like his mother, he was not affectionate, but he loved. He loved to cook for his family. He loved to have us around. He loved to help us anyway he could. He just loved.

And then he died. I really didn’t believe it would ever happen, but I guess as someone said, “God is right nine times out of ten.” The Bible says, “It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment.” To my surprise, I see now that applies even to Roger Hodge.
I made my way back across the boulevard to West Monroe Street and slowed to a walk when I got within a quarter of a mile from the house. It was quiet out, besides the chirping crickets and barking dogs, but I’m not sure I could have heard much else anyway. My heart rate and respiration steadily dropped as I slowly strolled towards home. My run was over, but my thoughts were not. I realized my memories and meditation on his life, on life, were not over but just beginning. That, I think, is a good thing.