Today is the tenth anniversary of my Dad’s passing….in remembrance, I’m reposting the post I did at the time. If you need me today, I’ll be sitting on the porch, drinking Lite beer and listening to the Eagles.
As many of you already know, my father passed away last week. Suddenly, unexpectedly and far too young. We aren’t sure what happened, but it doesn’t really matter — Dad’s not here anymore.
For twenty-four or so years, I’ve called my dad on Sunday night. It’s a long-standing tradition, one that survived through adolescence, college, marriage and China (where it became Monday morning phone calls). Throughout the week, I’d make a list of things to tell him, and our calls would last an hour or so. I’ve missed very few and when I did, I called on Monday. I regret that last Sunday I was on the west coast and remembered too late to call. Dad died Monday morning.
My dad was 59 years old, and if you ever met him, you wouldn’t forget him. For those of you that he met, he never forgot — he asked about you and was happy for the babies, weddings, promotions, new jobs, graduations and new homes.
Dad was the world’s best story-teller, and while I had heard his stories a kajillion times (and tell them now myself), I never tired of sitting on his side porch, doing what we do best in the South — visiting. We did a lot of that this week with the family around and old friends.
Dad always said he’d have to give away barbeque and beer to get anyone to come to his funeral, and he would have been amazed — and touched — at who called, wrote, visited and otherwise reached out to Meg, Sandra and I this week. Dad knew everyone, could talk to anyone, made friends everywhere he went, and this week, it showed.
I flew home to DC on Monday, picked up Meg, and we drove home Tuesday. Dan and James flew down later in the week. We wanted them there, needed them there, and they were wonderfully helpful, but Meg and I wanted to drive.
I got my fascination with fast cars from Dad, and we both inherited the love of the road trip from him. It wasn’t an easy drive, but if you’ve never driven through east Tennessee, I encourage it. My family is from Tennessee, and despite growing up in Texas, it’s home. And my dad loved Tennessee, despite having traveled all over the world. It was for him, and me, home in every sense of the word.
May is by far the most beautiful month in Tennessee. It’s warm but not hot, and the evenings are cool enough to sleep with the windows open. Horrific afternoon thunderstorms break up the monotony. So we got on the road, tolerated Virginia, and breathed a sigh of relief when we hit the Tennessee state line. It’s a palpable difference that you have to see to believe.
Interstates in the south are different than back east — wide and open, with seas of wildflowers in between the lanes — and are worth driving. The wildflowers are red and pink and white, but the shades change when the wind blows. It’s fascinating that red and pink and white seem to self-select into equal thirds, and I got angry to find a patch of purple breaking up the consistency somewhere near Watts Bar Lake.
As you come in Hamblen County just south of Knoxville going west on 1-40, pause for a moment — the Great Smoky Mountains lie out before you in all of their glory. They are old mountains, worn down by nature, and seem to simply ebb and flow forever. Much older than the Rockies, the Smokies aren’t nearly as sharp and jagged — there’s no skiing to speak of — but simply rise and fall, much like the agrarian or mining lifestyle of their residents. The haze is permanent, a silky fog that hugs the tops of the hills. Skip Gatlinburg and head to Beersheba Springs down south, or Crossville and Bean Junction back east. Drop your pretension, and those people will welcome you with open arms.
The mountains are steep — Dad used to talk about Smith County cows, which had one set of legs shorter than the other — and difficult to navigate. The interstate bends and curves down steep grades, and I’ve seen more than one runaway truck buried in sand turnoff. It’s worse going to Chattanooga, but from Bristol at the state line to Knoxville to Nashville is almost a straight shot down until about 30 miles east of Nashville. Your ears pop and the temperature rises fifteen degrees.
The mountains plateau momentarily at Crossville where most of the family now lives (Dad was somewhat of a rebel, living in the big city). If you get off, go north and on the right is Green Acres cemetery. It’s a beautiful, small, typically southern cemetery, and if you look closely, you’ll see the testament of how many in the Looney family have lived and died in those mountains. There are flowers at every grave and the grass is neatly trimmed, a labor of love of the family that maintains it. Stop at the Cumberland General Store on the way back to the interstate, and get yourself some sweet tea. It’s real tea — not that fruity, corn-syrup crap we’ve all gotten used to.
From that exit to Dad’s exit, it’s 110 miles. Sandra holds the record for the best time home, as far as I know. Dad taught Meg and I how to drive: accelerate into a curve, drive the inside of a curve so you drive a straighter line, don’t lose momentum going up the mountain, be nice to truckers and they will let you draft. Track your time, and if you averaged less than 55 mph you’re wasting time. We had long-standing “races” between Nashville and Crossville, where my grandparents lived. Before we’d get on the interstate, he’d say “OK, what time is it? Exit to exit, and all tickets are mine.”
It’s exactly 670 miles from Nashville to DC, and Meg and I made it back in exactly 10 hours and 27 minutes, an average of 63.8 mph, including an hour-long stop to run Ernie (Dad’s dog) and eat lunch. Dad would have called it a “damn good run,” told the folks at the “fillin’ station” about it.
There are wonderful fillin’ stations and truck stops in East Tennessee — there’s a Texaco in Sevierville that’s always open, a roadside stand near Morristown that has boiled peanuts, and a place at the Carthage exit that’s still carries moon pies and RC colas (a favorite combo for my dad). People will chat, give directions, ask about the family. And if you get hungry, you’re never more than exit or two from Cracker Barrel.
Dad loved Cracker Barrel, and Meg and I do too, but we just couldn’t quite bring ourselves to go. At the one near the house, we’d have to tell all of the waitresses that Dad had passed — he knew them all, their grandkid’s names and so on. When I was there in February they were showing him pictures, talking about Christmas.
Dad remembered every detail of their lives. I have no idea how Sandra will tell Tiny at the bait shop, the teenagers at Subway, the ladies at the dry cleaners or any of the other thousands of people that somehow knew my father.
We paid tribute the only way we knew how. We listened to the Eagles and Willy Nelson, lamented the lack of Roberta Flack and James Brown on the MP3 player (Dad had great taste in music). We sat on the screened-in porch, drank a few beers and listened to the frogs (His taste in beer left a little to be desired, admittedly).
We chatted with family and old friends, remained strong together, shed a few tears, told stories, remembered things we had forgotten about.
Meg and I brought home two of Dad’s denim shirts, the only thing he had worn in the past 15 years, regardless of the event.
Many of you have called, emailed or written. Thank you. One day, I will read them all, but right now I can’t. I know that Dad always wanted us to not grieve — open up a beer, turn up the music, and have a hell of a party, he’d say — but that was easier to agree to when he was alive.
I’ve been cheated and I’m pissed — Dad needed to be here another 20 or 30 years. But I also know that it will be OK at some point, and for now, I’m content to remember my dad as he was — a wonderful father that I will miss terribly. We’re following Dad’s advice whenever things got tough — “press on.”
So if you’ve got nothing better to do, put on some Eagles (Lyin’ Eyes, preferably), drink some light beer from a can, smoke a cheap cigar and sit on the porch for a while. Dad would be proud.
Jerry Lawson Looney
September 3, 1942 – May 6, 2002