Off the Porch: A rusty barge and a memory of daddy
When the food arrived, Daddy was in a grand mood. The platters were covered with fried flounder, shrimp, oysters, and deviled crab. We were at Smitty’s Restaurant in the little square that was, in those days at least, the business district for the town of Kure Beach. I’m pretty sure we were in the same building Robert Ruark wrote about in The Old Man and the Boy when he talked about the crowd who fished the Kure Beach Pier. The waitress was Daddy’s favorite, a rotund little silver haired lady who whistled while she strolled about the restaurant filling tea glasses and coffee cups. Daddy had named her “Whistler” and she liked the name, her face spreading into a warm smile when he said it. Now, we were celebrating the day and Daddy was picking up the tab.
We’d had a great day of fishing. There were several of us, and we’d fished below the rocks at Fort Fisher. I had a four wheel drive truck, the first in our family as far as I know, and we’d piled on and driven a couple of miles down below the end of the road towards what I believe Robert Ruark referred to as Corncake inlet, though I’m not sure. If you crossed the dunes, you could see an old rusty barge that had been swept into the salt flats behind the beach by the hurricane, Hazel, who left it there to rust. It was a landmark I used for years afterwards. The first cast had yielded a puppy drum and afterwards, we’d caught eating sized bluefish all afternoon long. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me, holding a stringer loaded down with two pound blues and with a big smile on my face.
I can still see him on that beach. With his pants rolled up around his ankles and his feet, misshapen from wearing the wrong sized boots in World War II, wading out and casting the surf rod and reel that now grace the wall in my sun room. Along with his salt water and fresh water tackle boxes, his Mitchell 300 and his fly rod, they’re all reminders of a man who shaped who I am today. In my mind, I can see him in a lot of scenes, riding his old John Deere Tractor, laughing at the supper table, or leaning on a white Rambler station wagon. I can even see him when I look at my own hands, the index fingers slightly twisted inward; they look like the same hands that showed me how to hold a rifle or cast a Zebco.
My eyes get wet when I write about him. I miss him so. But I also think about what he did and how he taught me to be a father. Once, when my Julie was a little girl, I was working for Thomasville Furniture and had dozens of burnt out fluorescent light tubes replaced from the plant. They were put back in the boxes the new bulbs came in. Instead of putting them in the trash, I loaded them up in my pickup and brought them home. Julie liked to ride with me to the dump. We rode to the dump and I gave her gloves and safety glasses. I took each glass tube out of the carton and let her smash every one into the big long dump box. She had a ball smashing all that glass. Later, I told Daddy what I’d done and he just laughed. “She’ll remember that,” he said. She still does.
He knew how to be a real father. Not just a dad who gives his children what they want, a dad who gives them what they need. When I messed up, I had him to deal with, and it was not pleasant. I still remember my last whipping as a boy. He sternly told me I’d been inconsiderate of my grandmother and I knew he was right. He used a switch and the whipping hurt. He wasn’t mad at me, he was molding me, and I was old enough to know it. I cried after that whipping but I cried because I was sorry I’d disappointed him, not because my legs stung. I loved him more after that day and respected him more, too. I understood the discipline more clearly than I ever had, and resolved to try to be as good as he was in my role as a father. I don’t think I succeeded.
This is a day we honor fathers, but I’m not writing this to make the fathers who read it feel good about themselves. I’m writing it because I want them to aspire to be better fathers. I know I was luckier than most in being sired by Lewis Thomas Jones. I know many who read this had dads who might not have done such a great job of fatherhood. If you’re in that category, you should honor your father anyway. The point is, some have more room for improvement than others, and all fathers could do a better job of parenting.
Parenting isn’t just providing for your kids and giving them what they need and want. Parenting is being wise in foreseeing the qualities that will take your children through life, and doing your best to instill those qualities in them. Parenting is doing things your kids don’t like if those things are the best for them. Parenting is setting an example in the way you live your life.
Many years later, I had occasion to drive down that same beach. Daddy had passed away a year or so earlier and, after his long illness, suffering the horrible end that comes with dementia, I didn’t cry at the funeral. It was a relief to know that he now knew where and who he was again. As I drove down the beach, I saw a place that looked familiar. For some reason, I stopped. All parts of the Atlantic coast look similar and a single storm can change the way a beach looks. No other landscape changes as rapidly as a beach. Somehow though, this stretch reminded me of the place we caught the blues. I parked the truck and walked to the top of the dunes and there was that old rusty barge just where it had been on that day. I sat at the edge of the dunes and cried for an hour.
To everyone whose father is still with us, celebrate him today. To all fathers who have offspring young or old, think about your legacy and be the best father you can be. If you screwed up early, it’s not too late to change. It is the most important thing you will do in your life.
Dick Jones is a freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for several NC newspapers as well as national and regional magazines. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or offtheporchmedia.com.