Too Young

He was outdoorsy. More outdoorsy than me. Don’t get me wrong. I love the outdoors just as much as the next guy. Sometimes, I spend all day watching movies that were filmed entirely outdoors. But he was different.

He smelled like the outdoors. That’s what I remember most about him. It was a leathery smell. Like soot, and foliage, and dirt.

He smelled like this because he worshipped his lawn. The man could waste entire weeks obsessing about one little brown spot in his yard. And he would work in the flower beds more than most peoples’ grandmothers ever did.

He was a blue collar man. It’s impossible for me to tell you much about him without highlighting that. His uniform was denim. He wore it every single day. Except Sundays. He was an ironworker. A union man. I never saw him sit in anything but a Ford.

On weekends, however, he was a certified nutcase.

Once, he had the bright idea to conduct a controlled burn on our land. Thirteen acres of tall, dry grass. His friends told him it was a bad idea, but like I said, he was a nut.

On Saturday morning, he drove the truck around the property; his buddy rode on the tailgate, dumping gasoline onto the grass. They spent half the day saturating the land. Then he parked near the house and lit a match. One match.


Thirteen acres exploded. The fire department was called. The police were called. I think he even made the paper.

It took a full day to put the fire out. And when it was all said and done, my father was covered in black soot, head to toe. He said, “Well, that was a bad idea.”

I remember those words exactly.

Another story I remember. He was driving and he saw this man on the highway whose car broke down on the side of the road. He stopped.

My father hopped out of the truck. He told the man to pop the hood. My father labored for hours. When he finally fixed the car, the man offered to pay him. My father was offended. He held up his hands and said, “I don’t want your money.”

So the man offered him an unfiltered cigarette.

My father didn’t smoke. He had quit smoking a long time ago. But didn’t want to be rude. So he accepted.

He smoked a cigarette with that man and shot the breeze. Then the man said, “How about a few more for the road?” The man gave my father the entire carton of cigarettes.

My father took them. But he never smoked a single one.

He said to me, “Sometimes you just gotta let them give you something, makes’em feel good.”

There was the time he bought my first piano. It was on my birthday. He placed it in the basement and surprised me with it. He refused to buy me lessons. He believed that if I wanted to play piano, I simply would.

So I practiced for hours. And years. And decades. Soon, I was playing in church every Sunday. Much later in my life, I would play in rundown beer joints for extra money. It was not a glamorous life, but I liked it. And it was all thanks to him.

When I was in my twenties, I thought I was good enough to get into college on a piano scholarship. I wasn’t. Not even close. They turned me down because I couldn’t read music.

Sometimes, I wonder how my father would have reacted to the new world. What would he think of cell phones? What about IPA beer? Or online shopping?

His world wasn’t high-tech. The life he knew was slower. Radio was still important, newspaper was king.

He was the kind of man who loved books. He read so much that he ruined his eyes. I still see visions of him in my memory. Lying in his bed. A book in his hands.

Twain. Doyle. Michener. Ludlum. Clancy. Steinbeck.

I wonder what it would have been like for him to read one of my books? Would he have liked my writing? Or would I have bored him to death? Like I’m doing to you right now.

Would he have thought much of the man I became? Would we have gotten along? Would he like me?

I’ll never know because I grew up without him. He is a memory to me. I think that if I were to meet him today I would have discovered that we weren’t anything alike. I don’t look at life the same way. I don’t care about my lawn like he did.

Certainly, I try to stop and help people on the side of the road, but not as often as he used to. And I don’t think I could handle an unfiltered cigarette.

He was only one year older than I am now when he died. When I look in the mirror, I think about that. He was a baby. He was too young. He didn’t even have gray hair.

I remember so little about him that sometimes he seems more idea than person. Even so, if I close my eyes I can still smell him. He smells like soot. And leather. Like foliage, and dirt. Like being outdoors.

And I will forever be sorry that he chose to die.

Happy birthday, Daddy.


  1. elizabethroosje - September 11, 2023 9:05 am

    Praying especially for you 🙏 today

  2. stephen e acree - September 11, 2023 9:31 am

    i love your story. I write one about my dad every year, too. Yesterday was his birthday. Your dad would have loved your books and stories.Bet he would have bragged to everyone about his son, the writer. Your old man was a good man it is obvious.

  3. Sean Chatham - September 11, 2023 11:38 am

    Your Dad would be very proud of you…and he produced one HECK of a son!

  4. ellen clairmont - September 11, 2023 1:31 pm

    First of all, you’re not boring. I’m sure he sees you and is very proud of you. I mean, look at your talent. He saw that in you when he surprised you with your piano! I can’t imagine your loss. Especially at such a young age. But because of it, you have something most of us don’t have, which is a great amount of compassion and humanity. Your Dad was a good guy and so are you. By the way, I’m from Michigan and just found your blog. I spent an hour reading your stories with tears and laughter. You’ll be in my prayers today.

  5. Steve Leachman - September 11, 2023 4:00 pm

    I was lucky. My dad didn’t die till 89. He was a wonderful father and a Christian who never met a stranger. He loved kids and ice cream. I miss him but like I said I was lucky to have him for so long. I can feel your pain when you write about your father. I read your book about your struggles to come to some sort of closure with his suicide. I guess you never really will. But this article shows you really loved him and I pray that God can give you some peace.

  6. Lin Arnold - September 11, 2023 4:01 pm

    My Dad was like no other Dad that I have ever known. He grew up being the only son, he had 4 sisters. He was close to his father, but his mother couldn’t stand him. She signed the papers so that he could join the Army at the age of barely 16, it was 1937. He was stationed on Bora Bora during WWII. And that’s where the Army found his true calling, even though he never finished high school. His superiors realized that he was truly gifted in what we would call electronics today. He could fix radios, switchboards, walkie talkies, field telephones and just about anything else they threw at him. He was eventually assigned to the White House Communications Agency. He worked in the basement of the White House and became the guy that carried “the football” when the president would travel. Then he was transferred to Paris, France, to oversee the switchboard that all the White House calls to anywhere in Europe would go through. He was with WHCA during Eisenhower, Kennedy and part of Johnson. We were in Paris when DeGaulle kicked the US troops out of France. That’s when he was transferred to Ft. Riley, Kansas and ultimately to Vietnam. Vietnam changed him. When he came home from there in November 1967, he was up for reenlistment in January 1968. That’s when the brass told him that if reenlisted, he’d be back in Vietnam within 6 months. So, he retired at the age of 46. That’s when we moved back “home” to Montgomery, AL. As hard as that was for us “kids”, it was even harder for him. It broke his spirit. His first civilian job was as a milkman …. the old-fashioned kind that delivered it to the front doors all over town. He hated it. Then he went to work in the maintenance department at the hospital. He felt more at home there. He wasn’t fixing communication devices, but he was fixing all kind of things. He liked that. But he just wasn’t the same. His spirit just sort of vaporized. Us “kids” were fish out of water. Think about it … growing up on Army camps and going to Army run schools to falling into the middle of Montgomery, AL, in 1968 … in the middle of integration. But there just wasn’t anything Dad could do about it. There was 4 of us kids, I was the 3rd born. My brother was younger than me by 2 years. But I became Dad’s “girl”. I was the one that went fishing with him. I was the one that helped with the yard work. I was the one that helped with the vegetable garden (about half of the backyard). I was the one that he taught how to change the oil & filter in the car. I was the one that put my life on hold to stay with him after he was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. (The cancer was caused by prolong exposure to Agent Orange.) I was the one that totally lost it when they played taps and did a 21-gun salute at his funeral. I am the one that has that folded flag encased and hanging on the wall alongside the frame with all his military ribbons and awards. I was Daddy’s Girl. And I miss him so much … every single day.

  7. Phil Phillips Jr - September 12, 2023 8:02 pm

    I remember spending time with my grandfather. My grandfather grew up during the depression. He always wanted to be a farmer but his career was spent
    as a manager at the Goodyear factory. My grandfather had always wanted to be a farmer. I remember his colossal vegetable gardens. I too remember he had this dirt,green leafy sweat scent and the scent of filtered Bellaire cigarettes. I watched ( and attempted to help)him work in it and marveled at how he managed the whole process from seed to table. Working in that garden was tough, it was hot,very hot and dirty but it was the satisfaction of working with your hands and producing something yourself that gave my grandfather great pride. From what I remember he gave away alot of his vegetables! I learned alot from my grandfather. Sean I can tell your dad was a good dad and a good human being. This story helped give me even more appreciation for my dad and Grandfather. Thank you for sharing that wonderful story about your dad.


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