He arrived early, way early, but I never knew exactly how early he was. Family lore always held that he was teeny tiny, small enough to "fit in a Charmer Coffee can with the lid on." I guess that means he was quite a preemie and that the prospects of his survival were low at best, especially given he was born at home in rural Laurens County, Georgia and in 1927 to boot. I can't imagine anyone taking wagers on such matters, but had they, the smart money would have been against little Frank Brewton Flanders, Jr., a fellow we ultimately affectionately referred to simply as "Big."
Well, the ones who bet against him would have lost their shirts because he made it, and I'm glad of that, because that small dude grew up to be my father. Between July 27, 1927 - he always loved that his birthdate was 7-27-27 - and March 7, 2012, the date of his death, he served his country in post-WW II Europe, married my mother, co-founded a construction company and then one focusing on commercial real estate development, raised three children, served his community and the Bethany United Methodist Church, and faithfully followed Jesus Christ. That's a quick synopsis of almost 85 wonderful years of life.
How does a grown man, a father of two and grandfather of one, look back and celebrate the life of his own daddy? I could tell you about him showing up at the hospital late one Saturday evening when my wife was going to have an emergency procedure a few weeks after the birth of our first son. Or, I could write about how he and my mother hitched a travel trailer to a Chevrolet Suburban and hauled us three kids all the way from Fayetteville, Georgia to Alaska, and back. Or how he instilled a love of rural places, of farms and cows and old, rickety barns in me.
Fried chicken, pig in the blankets, grilled steaks, barbecued pork, cubed deer steak, and grits - always, grits - were among the dishes around which he gathered his family and friends. Good food was an excuse for conversation, for discussion, and, before too long, for him to share an opinion or two on all things political. I can guarantee you left his table with two things - a full belly and a certain knowledge of where he stood on the issues of the day. You would probably also know at least some of what he thought about religion, marriage, the current business climate, effective child rearing, his middle child's latest sermon, fashion trends (especially hairstyles), educational philosophies, and where to find a good steak or some platter of fried catfish. It's hard to miss the common thread of food, isn't it?
Some tell of their father's love of automobiles, of sports cars or rugged pickup trucks or maybe old hot rods. Not Big. Automobiles were tools, little more, and the man delighted in bouncing across a red mud construction site in his Cadillac. That taught me that things were just things, nothing more. Actually, he did truly love two vehicles in his day. One was his Honda Civic Hybrid, a gas-electric gizmo that got over 40 miles to the gallon. The other was a 1952 Willys Army Jeep.
So many stories go with that Jeep. Nothing made him happier than piling a bunch of folks in it and riding around our farm in north Fayette County. Getting caught in the rain without a top made the whole excursion even better. My whole life changed one day when he said, "Let's go for a Jeep ride, Son." By the time we'd gotten back to the house an hour or so later, he'd filled me in on the basics of the facts of life, or the Birds and the Bees, or whatever you want to call it. I still get a nervous tic every time I see an old Jeep.
One day he backed his Cadillac into the Jeep. Or did he back the Jeep into the Cadillac? Doesn't matter, because what he did next became a family legend. My mother cackled when she told about him jumping out and scurrying to survey the damage. "The crazy nut," she'd say. "He didn't look at the Cadillac first. Ran straight to that beat up old Jeep to see if he'd dented it." A man's got to have his priorities in order.
He taught me to walk quietly in the woods, at least sort of quietly, and he was beside me when I shot my first squirrel out of a tall pine tree. And then my first deer. I was sitting at his feet when a buck with a single spike tried to sneak by us. I'll never forget hearing him almost shouting , "You got him, boy!" and how we tossed that little deer in the trunk of whatever Cadillac he was driving at the time. Now you believe me that a car was just a tool, don't you?
As kids, we giggled when he got teary eyed in a mall in Honolulu, Hawaii as Eddie Kekaula sang "How Great Thou Art." Standing side by side in the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when Sid Bream slid home, I saw him jumping up and down in merriment and I almost fainted when the seriously intoxicated woman in front of us hugged him. His eyes sparkled every Christmas morning and I never saw him happier than when his kids were smiling at a present they'd received. Nothing, though, matched the expression on his face when he glimpsed a grandchild for the first time.
Two things, I guess, sum up the story of his life. First, my mother, his wife of 49 years, was stuck on a ventilator for the last two years of her life. She slept much of that time and, when awake, she was often not particularly lucid and communicating with her was a chore. Ultimately, we had to put her in a facility near St. Joseph's Hospital, close to an hour from Daddy's home, and there she spent her final year.
One evening, Regina and I had gone with our sons, Miles and Cole, to visit her, and Big met us there. She was sleepy, and so the five of us went together to have supper. When we returned to the facility, Big told me that he was tired and he thought he'd head home and let us tell her goodnight. We bid him farewell and then took the long walk to the back corner of the nursing home and her room.
We'd been in the room less than five minutes when we heard shuffling footsteps coming through the door. I turned around to see my 72 year old father.
"I thought you were going home," I remarked.
"Well, I was," he said. "But then I realized that I couldn't be this close to your Mama and not come in to tell her goodnight."
I nodded slowly, and he stepped past me and to the foot of her bed.
"Susie Q," he said, calling her by the nickname he'd used for years as he gently rubbed her feet. "You get a good night's sleep and remember I love you!"
With that, he walked back to his car, having taught his preacher son more about marriage in that one minute than he ever did on a Jeep ride. And he preached a better sermon on Proverbs 5:18 - May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth - than I ever will.
The second thing unfolded in the last four weeks of his life after an oncologist told him he had liver cancer and there was nothing to be done. He accepted the diagnosis and willingly came to our home in Pike County to finish out his short days. Having read this far, you won't be surprised that he started asking for all sorts of meals, everything from squirrel to fried eggs to seafood to the Varsity to rabbit and who knows what else. Most of all, he loved when the house echoed with the sound of family laughing, talking, reminiscing, and also when friends made the trek down our dusty dirt road to pay him a call.
I'm not sure how many times he recounted the story of Jesus on the Cross to those gathered in his room. His favorite part, the part to which he clung as those days inexorably wound down, was when that thief asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Every time I heard him tell it, he'd ask, "You know what Jesus told that fellow, don't you?"
Daddy loved giving the answer. "This day," he'd say. "You will be with me in Paradise." Then, he'd crack a smile and proclaim, "That's why I'm not afraid of all this. I've been blessed more than I could ever ask for, and I know I'm forgiven and I know exactly where I'm headed when it's all over. And I hope you do, too."
The man could preach a sermon. Sometimes with his feet, and sometimes with his mouth. I only hope I can do the same.