In the 1940s Micajah Barfield ran Wheat Swamp’s corner gas station when his four oldest sons were shipped off to Europe to fight the big war. That well-worn crossroads station contained vivid memories for Micajah’s youngest son, M.C.
Some of those memories were told to M.C.’s two oldest sons when they were in early grade school. On a trip home to North Carolina from his life in Sioux CIty, Iowa, M.C. took his boys down to the school where he had established himself as a local basketball legend.
He walked the boys into the old gym that stood across the street from that corner gas station. Took his boys along as he relived his memories as a forward for Wheat Swamp High; wandered among the ruins of the gym which was being dismantled. There were piles of broken bleachers scattered over this old basketball court. M.C. smiled as he seemed to be tracing some favorite shooting spots on the worn court, while relaying random memories of games and teammates who had been a part of his glory days on this now-forsaken court.
His boys shadowed him as he walked the gym and time-traveled back to a high school career that had drawn the attention of Duke University’s coach. The Korean War spoiled any dreams M.C. had of playing for Duke. He joined the Navy which directed his future away from the life which might have been.
After a thorough retracing of the old court M.C. took his two boys across the road for a Pepsi at the corner store. When he walked in a couple of old farmers greeted him. He was still somewhat of a local celebrity. They started up about some game M.C. had “practically won single-handed.”
M.C. had his sons grab a Pepsi and Nab and pointed the boys to some straight-back oak chairs while he visited with these men. The chairs were huddled near the pot bellied stove. The place hadn’t changed much since M.C. was a boy sitting on one of those chairs during the war.
This station had been his lunch room on occasion. He told his boys, “Sometimes when I’d come out of school to walk home to the farm for lunch, I’d catch an awful whiff of Mammie cookin’ chitlins. I’d go grab a Nab and Pepsi here instead.”
And he told his boys how one day when he was sitting in one of those chairs his boys had sat in that a well-off farmer came into the place and said in a thick East Carolina drawl, “M.C., I’ll pay for every axe handle you can break with your bare hands.” M.C. pulled one of the axe handles out of an old rain barrel and braced it against his knee and snapped it like a twig. The farmer said, “Okay, that’s enough.” Then in a whispered voice M.C. leaned over to his boys and said, “The old farmer thought those were ash axe handles. They were just pine.”
That memory of my dad is so hard to reconcile to the wheelchair-bound old man I’ve seen waste away over the past couple of years. As his oldest son, I have countless memories of him when he was in his twenties and thirties. Memories of his athleticism. Bits and pieces: like the time he pole vaulted a flaming row of honeysuckles just for fun, or how he would beat my mom’s brothers at golf or in a pick up game of basketball.
I’ve been thinking about that this morning because my dad passed away last night.
My dad was a private person. He was personable with people. Had a great sense of humor. When I was in high school he devoted a lot of time to teaching me about integrity and living honorably; passing on what his dad, my Papa, had taught him. But I never really knew him. We were so different. I was all artsy and sensitive. That embarrassed him. When I told him I was getting a degree in art, he was disappointed. Sighed and told me, “Well, I guess the important thing is you’re getting a degree.” At a low point in my life when I had to take a job in manual labor, that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an artist, I called home to be consoled. Dad’s response was, “Well, good. Maybe finally you’re growing up.” When I told him we were going to homeschool our four kids, he was upset. “I don’t want a bunch of weirdo grandkids.”
But when he moved into his seventies he began to change. He saw how my kids turned out and the life I had carved out and one day sitting in the back yard after a deep draw on a cigarette he said, quite out of character, “I’m proud of the way you raised your kids.” Of course he said it as if talking to no one in particular. He couldn’t look me in the eye and say that. It was too close to intimacy. I saw that pronouncement as his way of saying I did okay with my life.
As I watched my dad decline into poor health I began to see just how frightened he was of life. When I was a kid he seemed invincible. In old age, I could sense how often he had bluffed his way through so much.
I think that’s the way a lot of men live their lives. I can only go on what I’ve heard. Like when I asked one extremely successful friend of mine what he was most afraid of these days. He told me he was afraid that he was going to be found out. That someone would figure out he was just “wingin’ it.”
The past few months I have been reliving so much of my life at home. I was only there for 18 years. Dad spent so much of his energy on me. I guess as the oldest I was a lightning rod to all of his hopes and dreams. I felt the pressure of it. And when I left for college I had a pocketful of anger.
I am now an old man myself and I see things much more clearly. He loved me. He wanted me to have a better life than he felt he had. He wanted me to have opportunities. In his generation a college diploma opened doors. He didn’t want any doors shut to me.
As I come to realize he is really gone, I believe he and I came to an understanding. One time at the end of his career he admitted he just didn’t understand why I chose to do the things I did. Why didn’t I take the big job in Houston, Texas that would’ve paid me gobs of money with a huge bonus tacked on. I told him, “Dad, you taught me one thing while I was at home with you and Mom. You taught me that family was more important than work. You spent lots of time with us. You turned down jobs that would’ve kept you away from home most of the week. I’m doing the same. That job in Texas would’ve meant tons of hours, travel, and precious little time for my four young children. I’m trying to honor you by doing what you taught me was important.” He didn’t respond. Yet, I believe things changed between us. And I am glad of that as I prepare to leave this next week to say a final goodbye to him.
I look forward to the day when it is my turn to go and we will be reunited in a place where I’m convinced he and I will have a good laugh about the misunderstandings, remembering the great times here, and discovering that close friendship of father and son.