When Horses Could Fly

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“The promise of America is that something is going to happen, but after a while you grow tired of waiting because nothing ever does happen to people in America; except they grow old. And nothing ever happens to American art, either, because the story of America is the story of the moon that never rose.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Time wrinkles a man’s memory as much as it does his skin. There is also a chance that a few dozen electroshock sessions had ruined my father’s recall. In his final years Daddy was unable to remember ever striking his wife or children or how his whirling fists had terrorized the people he had said he loved. His children saw this loss of memory as a kind of grace, though Ma’s anger had not greatly lessened and she thought Daddy needed to be reminded of the pain he had wrought on his family. Instead, his hazy reminiscences carried him back to when he was a boy in the South and they created for him a pair of attentive loving parents and a bountiful farm he shared with his siblings. Often, I saw him staring into a blank distance and smiling and I thought I knew what he was seeing.

Although I had not been responsible for the breakage, I wanted to fix what might be repaired between my father and me. I was never going to be the son who hunted and fished and took joy from the sound of a gun in the woods but there was a chance we might be comfortable with each other, if not close, and maybe he could come to understand his eldest son. We were given some extra time when Daddy’s broad chest was split for a heart bypass and his life extended after he had retired to Mississippi. All his years of hard work on the assembly line and the exercise he did on a weight bench in the back yard did not much reduce the damage caused by the decades he spent loving fried eggs, ham, bacon, steak, butter, ice cream; or anything he might eat that could be deep-fried, grilled, buttered, or sugared.

On one of my last visits to Mississippi, I sat on the steps of Daddy’s back porch as he sipped a tumbler of whiskey flavored by a peppermint candy he had dropped into the bottom of the glass. When he was young he rarely drank but a friend from the factory had told him that a spot of whiskey now and then had the power to soften the arthritic pain in his joints. He put the glass between his feet on the porch and then looked at me as if he were going to make a profound confession.

“You know, when I was a boy, horses could still fly, Jimmy.”

I do not know if he thought I had an education that might confirm what he had just said but he looked at me in anticipation of my response.

“Daddy, I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Hell, I mean what I said, that’s what I mean. Horses could still fly.”

He ground his lower teeth against his uppers and pursed his lips like he was expecting me to provide evidence he was wrong.

“Daddy, horses could never fly. That’s silly and you know it.”

“Aw hell, Jimmy, don’t tell me. Horses could fly when I was boy.”

“Why in the world would you say such a thing? Can you imagine a horse flying””

“I don’t have to imagine it,” he growled. “I done seen it, buddy boy. And so did Poppa. He seen it all the time when he was a boy, too. They was just getting’ to where they couldn’t fly no more when I was little. They did what you call evolve a way from it, is what you call it. But we saw ‘em flying every mornin’ when we went to chop cotton.”

“You saw a horse fly?”

“I done told you that already, damnit.”

Daddy reached for his tumbler of whiskey and ice and turned his head away, disgusted by my unwillingness to accept such an idea.

“Well, I’m telling you, horses can’t fly,” I said, softly. “They never could, Daddy. There are horses in mythology that have wings and flew but there has never been any such animal that has lived on earth.”

“Aw, go to the devil; you don’t know what in the hell you’re talkin’ about. What do you think Poppa and I saw then? He seen ‘em before 1900 and I seen ‘em when I was comin’ up in the 20s.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have no idea.”

“You damn sure don’t have no idea,” Daddy told me. “’Cause I know what I know and I know horses used to be able to fly. Cain’t nobody tell me what I seen with my own two damned eyes.”

He threw back his head and swallowed a gulp of whiskey and looked at me again. He knew who I was but my father never understood what I was. Often, he referred to my career in television journalism as “that TV doin’s’.” The business left him unimpressed because, while visiting a broadcast newsroom where I was working, he had been able to read as quickly as the AP wire clicked out copy onto a paper spool.

“You know, maybe you are right,” I told my father. “I guess I need to do some more research. I never heard of horses flying but I suppose that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I’ll check it out.”

“You do that, buddy boy,” Daddy said, victorious in his persuasion. “You’ll find out what I already know.”

The pecans were falling from the trees early that year and we went out behind Daddy’s house and gathered a large bag. He walked me through his garden and explained what he grew in each crop row that summer and told me about the boy who came and chopped the weeds because Daddy was no longer able to swing a hoe. A healthy garden with good tomatoes and corn was always a matter of pride to my father and to be able to grow things well was an important measure of a man.

“You shoulda tasted my tamaters, buddy boy,” he said. “They was as big as my fist and the sweetest you ever did see. I had more corn than I could put back. I got a freezer full of it and gave the rest to some colored folks.”

Back inside, we cracked the pecans and spread their fruit across a cookie tin. Daddy got out a stick of butter and sliced thin pats to place on each pecan half and then he used a shaker to sprinkle salt across the top. As they heated in his oven, we shared the whiskey and he told me more stories of being a boy during the Great Depression. The one he had been repeating since I was little was about a headless horseman my grandfather and he had come across one morning while taking a buckboard wagon loaded with hay into town.

“He had his hands up just like this,” Daddy said, holding his arms out. “But they wasn’t no hands and the reins was just floatin’ in the air at the ends of his sleeves. And right where his neck shoulda started and his head oughta been there wasn’t nothin’ but space and a big ole top hat was ridin’ in the air above the empty place where his head was supposed to be and he was ridin’ a big, ole painted mare in circles around a oak tree in front of a farmhouse. Poppa said, ‘Son, do you see what I see?’ And I told him, ‘I sure do, Poppa.’ He told me, ‘Don’t you ever talk about this to no one, son, ‘cause all they’ll do is think you’re crazy.’ I never did tell a soul until Poppa died and then I told all y’all kids.”

After eating the pecans, Daddy asked me to draw him bathwater and pour into it a bottle of vinegar and a half box of Epsom salts. Hot water and vinegar when combined with the salts, he had heard from someone in Starkville, was a cure for arthritis. His bones and all their connective tissue had grown creaky and aching from the uncountable hours he spent lifting bumpers out of a General Motors metal press and stacking them on wooden pallets. While he soaked, I wandered around Daddy’s cluttered and disorganized house and wondered how he made it alone, what value or purpose did he see in his isolated existence in the far woods, a thousand miles from his children.

The next morning, he drove me around in his used Lincoln Town Car and showed me where my grandparents were buried. I had never met my grandfather and have only a vague early childhood memory of a brief encounter with my grandmother. Daddy went past a high school and pointed out the window.

“That’s where I ‘quituated,’” he said. “Poppa needed me to help on the farm during the Depression.”

As hard as I tried while staring at his old school, I was unable to imagine my father sitting at a desk and learning from teachers and books. During the course of his entire life, I had never seen Daddy with an open book in his hands and that seems to have had much to do with his economic destiny. In over three decades of working the line and the metal presses, his gross annual income had rarely topped $10,000.

Because most of his children and grandchildren were living around Flint, Daddy gave up on Mississippi and moved back to Michigan for his final years. He had hoped to have constant visitors to his little house in Sturgis, Mississippi but his children had busy lives and were inclined to spend vacation time in locations slightly more appealing than rural Mississippi. Daddy lived frugally when he returned to Michigan, as he always had, in a house less than a mile from Ma’s old restaurant up by the Chevrolet plant, Joyce’s Coffee Shop, and he was only a few more miles from the assembly lines where he had bent his back to the hard work he had endured to provide for his family. When he needed clothes, he often went to the Goodwill Store and bought brown paper bags full of unidentified articles of clothing for $1.50 and then took them home and picked through them for anything that might fit.

Before I left him that last time in Mississippi, I asked my father what he thought of the way his life had turned out.

“I just never had me a chaynch, Jimmy,” he answered. “The crops was never good enough down here to be a farmer and I never did make enough money on the line up north. I never got me a chaynch to do what I wanted.”

“I guess that was to be farmer?”

“That’s what I wanted when I come home from the war. But when I was up north if I’d of had me some money I’d a bought some land around them factories and gotten rich. I wanted to buy that lot on the corner of Hill and Fenton Roads years before they’s anything there and now they’s a big ol’ McDonald’s and grocery store there. I’d a made a million dollars, buddy boy.”

“Did you hate working in the factory and building cars you couldn’t afford to own?”

“I hated a lot of stuff. But in them days we did what we had to do. The Buick job made the house payment and fed you kids. But that’s about all it ever did.”

“Do you regret going up there, Daddy?”

“Naw. I don’t think about it much. Wasn’t no point. I did what I had to do to provide. I had yer mumma and three of y’all kids and it was all the work I could get so I took it. That’s all. When there was six of y’all, I had more kids than I could afford. I never had time to look up and think about anything else. Besides, I didn’t have nothing to sell but my arms and my back.”

“You think things might have been different for you if you would’ve stayed in Mississippi and married a girl from down home?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I was ever gonna have too much just ‘cuz a the way I come up, Jimmy. We was raised to grow crops and take care a animals and they just wasn’t much use for that after a while. I reckon I was lucky I got one a them factory jobs in Michigan. I know it wudn’t a hell of a lot a money but I did what I could, that’s all. I don’t know that I’d of had me any better chaynch.”

While his heart began marking its final beats, Daddy lay in the hospital and accorded me a kind of acknowledgement that would have meant nothing to most sons. My brother Tim, who was handling Daddy’s finances, had also been asked to take care of our father’s old Lincoln. While I was visiting Michigan from Texas, Daddy urged Tim to let me into his automotive fraternity.

“Why don’t you give Jim the keys to my car so he can take it for a drive and see the kinda ride I like?” Daddy asked.

Tim smiled and we later drove the aging brown Lincoln around Flint. This seemed to be as close as my father was able to draw me until his failing heart required that his leg be amputated. I was at his bedside while the drugs were still massaging his nerves and he reached up and pulled me down toward his chest.

“I love you, son,” he whispered.

The words seemed so simple to say. I wish I had heard them frequently as a boy but here they were, and no matter how much wrong he had done, I loved the sound of that sentence from my father. What son would not?

“I love you, buddy boy.”

In his dreams as he tilted slowly toward his end, Daddy had begun to be visited by his Uncle Horace, who had taken him hunting and fishing as a boy and who he had loved the way he would have liked to have loved his father. Horace was constantly gliding through Daddy’s sleep and telling him he was waiting for him and where they were going to find abundant deer and catfish and bass and the kinds of horses they were going to ride across eternity.

“I don’t know if I’m gonna see Momma and Poppa after I’m gone,” Daddy told me. “I hope I do. But I’m damned sure gonna be with Uncle Horace. Ain’t no doubt in my mind, buddy boy. He’s waitin’ on me right now.”

Before he was transferred to a nursing home for rehabilitation after the removal of his leg, Daddy pleaded with doctors to freeze the excised limb so it could be buried with him when he died. He was insistent that he go to the next place with all of his limbs, the whole and robust man he had been when he walked through the world. The doctors convinced him they were not allowed to preserve severed limbs and that God would make him complete again after he was gone.

Leaving the nursing home, Daddy was transferred to a group housing facility where he lived in a private residence with other people dealing with infirmities. My sister Becky visited him often and he asked her to order him an inflatable raft because he intended to go fishing as soon as he recovered his health. Daddy had focused his contemporary dreams on an area north of Las Vegas, which he had decided was crossed by streams overcrowded with fish and there was rich soil to grow all the crops he needed to feed himself. No one was able to convince him that this spot on the map was a desert. Becky asked him how he might get himself into the blow up raft with just one leg and he said that he would “damn sure figure it out by himself and he didn’t need nobody, no way, no how to tell him how to do nothin’.”

Exasperated by what he viewed as near imprisonment, Daddy managed to slip away from the care facility in his wheelchair. No one knew where he had gone but Daddy had always had strength and independence and he was having difficulty relying on other people. He was discovered many hours later a few miles distant from where he was living when someone had called to inquire about his identity. Not too long after he was returned to his group home, a caregiver found my father lying motionless on his side. His angry heart had stopped and all of the fierce blood that had flowed through him for so long had pooled along one side of his body.

The muscles of Daddy’s arms had atrophied and shriveled and when he died he had the same skinny bird-like appendages that he had carried around as a teenager. I still thought he looked large, though, even in his final repose, just as he did when he was standing upright and daring the world to test him with whatever it wanted. The part of his life that I was proudest of was his time serving his country during World War II and I arranged for his casket to be draped in a United States flag. Daddy was buried off of Hill Road not far from the factory where he had worked and the house that he and Ma had purchased when they were young and hopeful. Becky and her husband Skip take a blanket to lay upon his grave once each year and I have Daddy’s flag in a triangle box above my writing desk down in Austin. He belongs to the soil of Mississippi but even in death he wanted to be near his children in Michigan because he had at last come to know and love them and he wanted whatever there was to have of us even after he was gone. Daddy kept an empty space in the graveyard beside him for Ma, just in case the girl he never stopped loving chooses, in the end, to come back to him.

“I don’t have no regrets about nothin’,” was one of the last things my father had said to me. “I lived in the best times they was to live in. I seen human bein’s go from ridin’ in buckboard wagons to walkin’ on the moon. You cain’t see much more ‘n that, buddy boy.”

I think of him that way now, as a man who did not waste time second guessing himself, and who did not see the Buick car plant as a place that killed him but as the source of his livelihood and the method he used to care for his family. Daddy and Ma scraped by on small collections of ten dollar bills to make their 62 dollar a month mortgage payment but I once had a new bike and a baseball glove and a bed to sleep in and fairly regular meals. We were not privileged but the rise of the automotive industry almost certainly saved us from dirt poor farms down in Dixie. There was more to our lives than there would have ever been if Daddy had stayed in the South busting the soil with his muscled back.

I hope he knows he made a good choice.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Funny you mention ‘time’ in your reply above to Mary. While reading the last 2-3 paragraphs, I was separately thinking how uniquely worthwhile that time itself had become while reading When Horses Could Fly. My time became more valuable by doing so than it could have during any other pursuit. It gave me pause to realize that. It also makes me grateful to you for remembering, feeling, and writing the story, and to your father for having lived it.

  2. Absolutely loved this. Beautiful piece of writing and memory Jim. Feel as though I met your father. Thank you for sharing. Terri

    • Many thanks, Terri. I wonder what my dad would make of being remembered in this fashion by people he’d never met. I appreciate you taking the time to read about him.

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