Eighteen years ago today, on November 14, 1994, I got the telephone call. It was a Monday. My parents called to let me know that Granddaddy had died.
Through our twenty-three years together, Lloyd Blair rarely called me Jonathan. To him, I was J.B., or more often “Buddy.” I find myself calling each of my sons Buddy from time to time, and I smile inside, thinking of my first Buddy.
My earliest memories are of lying on the couch with him watching TV, smelling that unique mix of Pall Malls and Old Spice that I would recognize in a second even today. I remember how hilarious I thought it was that we always ended the “Hey diddle diddle” nursery rhyme with the dish running away with “the ‘poon,” rather than the spoon. I remember listening to southern gospel record albums with him, usually featuring The Inspirations from Bryson City, North Carolina.
For my ninth birthday, he gave me money to buy a calf at his own Tri-State Livestock Market, and from then on, he and I went out together to feed and farm pretty much every day until I went to college. I would wake up early in the morning and look out my bedroom window to see whether his kitchen light was on. If it was, it was time to get up. If not, I could snooze a few more minutes. By the time I walked into his kitchen, breakfast was ready–sometimes sausage biscuits, often cinnamon rolls, always with black coffee.
On many occasions, I was the passenger in his pickup truck when the tires on my side drifted onto the shoulder or slightly into the ditch as he concentrated on cattle in a roadside field more than he concentrated on the road itself. I cherish the memory of suppers with him at Shoney’s. I recall the trip of a lifetime when I spent three weeks in a Buick with him and his sister, my Aunt Cot, as I drove them to Barstow, California, to visit their sister Julia. But that’s a story for another day.
He’d had heart trouble through the years, probably in part because of those cigarettes he loved and I hated. Then prostate cancer came along. There were treatments. There was optimism. Then, there was reality. Most of us say that we would want to die quickly, maybe in our sleep. But in Granddaddy’s case, I think terminal illness brought hidden, unexpected blessing. In the face of mortality, he didn’t feel the need to be macho. He became more affectionate, more willing to express his love. He had great visits with his siblings and other loved ones. He embraced the opportunity his cancer offered to make his peace and to show his heart.
I celebrated Veteran’s Day this Monday by reading My Service Record, a thin, hardbound blank book distributed to military personnel by the United Drug Company in the early 1940s. I could almost hear my grandfather’s voice as I read in his own handwriting of his wartime experiences in the US Army Air Corps. Of course, there were the facts about his service from 2 October, 1942 until 6 October, 1945.
Beyond the facts, though, I got to see his heart. Through his elegant script, I could almost see twenty-two year old Lloyd’s excitement as he experienced for the first time the Mississippi River, the French Quarter, and “The Republic of Old Mexico,” as he called it. In March 1943, he traveled to California, where he reported, “I have been through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Seen the homes also in person some Movie Stars.” He was obviously impressed by the geography, as he reflected, “the desert country is something unbelievable.”
I really enjoyed reading the other expressions of his heart–the glimpses into his love story with my grandmother! On Wednesday, June 23, 1943, he “arrived in Knoxville at approximately 4:00 PM. I was married and on my way to Gatlinburg at 8:00 PM. We were married in the home of Rev. & Mrs. J.P. McClusky Jr. in Knoxville. Arrived at Gatlinburg at 10:00 PM June 23rd and stayed in the Mountain View Hotel.”
Twenty-two months later, on April 21, 1945, he wrote from Hondo, Texas, “Received my wings & commission as Second Lieutenant today but instead of being the happiest man on earth I think I was one of the most unhappy ones. My leave for home had been cancelled and I didn’t have time for Margaret to come to my graduation. I’m going to an aerial engineering school for B-29. I don’t mind the school but I do wish I could get me a leave.”
I remembered what a joy it was to visit Roswell, New Mexico, with him in 1993–to see where his military career had ended with his honorable discharge forty-eight years earlier and to hear him tell how excited he was that my grandmother traveled out there for the occasion. It warmed my heart to hear my seventy-two year old grandfather talk about being young and in love!
Love. That word very neatly and nicely sums up my relationship with him. Ours was a relationship of mutual admiration, appreciation, and maybe even adoration. I know how much I loved him, and he always made it clear how much he loved me.
I sat in his living room with him on an autumn day eighteen years ago, just a few weeks before I got the phone call. It was a Monday. I had come home from Atlanta for the weekend, and I stayed with him as long as possible that morning before I had to make the five hour drive to Atlanta and he had to take the thirty minute ambulance ride for his cancer treatment. We were in the same room in which we had said nursery rhymes and listened to gospel music together in simpler, better days.
The ambulance arrived, and he sat on the gurney facing the back doors where I stood. Just before the EMT closed the door, I heard the last words my granddaddy would ever speak to me in person.
“I’ll see you later Buddy.”
I believe that.