Father’s Day once more looms around the corner … a time set aside to honor our living fathers and to recall with what is generally saccharin sweetness those dads who have passed on … those whom we can no longer gift with Old Spice, socks, and Hallmark cards.
My earliest recollections of my own father, Terry South, are not pleasant ones. Most of those have lain buried for years in the grave of my blissful forgetfulness having long been displaced by precious memories of later years. Events taking place in recent days have somehow resurrected them. My ears have slid down some passageway near my soul’s memory and I am straining to hear. I must listen hard.
It was a mild and bright Sunday morning in the early spring of 1962. I know with certainty that I was six years old because only once did I confide this story to another person. I remember shamefully whispering the details of the incident to my first grade school teacher, Mrs. Bessie Morton.
My Daddy was still quite drunk from way too much gin the night before. He and Mother had had another one of those loud shouting matches that unfailingly always seemed to occur around Saturday midnight culminating in my Daddy getting a brown paper grocery sack or a cardboard box, and cramming some clothes in it, bellowing the promise of leaving home and never coming back. I recall several prior instances of being awakened by this drama, of crying and holding to his pants legs, and begging him not to go.
I remember that awful day watching him staggering around in the yard attempting to do his usual morning farm chores … feeding the chickens and milking the cows. My hyperactive cocker spaniel was with me, ripping and jumping with the unrestrained reckless abandon of her breed. Her name was Whitey, my beloved and beautiful friend, Whitey. She was running around generally making a nuisance of herself by torturing Mother’s cats, the stump of her bobbed tail switching frantically as she hopped and weaved back and forth between my legs. Daddy was straining to stay upright in the worn path from the barn carrying buckets of fresh milk when little Whitey made a joyous leap in front of him. Daddy fell sprawling, dumping all the milk and planting his face in the pasture muck. When he was able to get on his feet, he went roaring after her.
Whitey apparently sensed impending danger and ran for the protection of her bed on the front porch. Somehow my Daddy was able to apprehend her. I watched in horror as he grabbed both of her hind legs and carried her wiggling and thrashing to the large silver-gray painted propane tank beside our house. Cursing, he maniacally slung my poor Whitey over his head and began to smash her brains out on that big gas tank. Her blood sprayed in all directions as he repeatedly bashed her now limp white and black speckled body against the unforgiving metal. His rage ended only with his complete exhaustion. He leaned breathlessly against the tank and glanced in my direction.
I was paralyzed by the shock of what I had just seen, and perhaps may have had the thought that I was next in line. When I could bring my legs to move, I ran inside the house to Mother screaming about what I had just witnessed. Memories seem a little blurred after that. I don’t think my mind could really process what had just happened in those few moments of his sudden drunken fury. Apparently, that was the last straw for Mother. She found the courage to lock all the doors, and make a call to the Sheriff asking him to come.
The Tippah County Sheriff, Robert Estes, lived and farmed several miles from us. He was a contemporary of my parents and long-time family friend, a tall, straight-backed and handsome man with a solemn countenance. More than once he had been to our house in the past to talk to my Daddy about some plumbing or electrical problem that needed fixing. As a child he inspired a little trepidation in me because he had a mechanical left arm that he could control well enough to smoke his Pall Malls. Our Sheriff was a World War II veteran and had been a prisoner of war, but his arm had been lost in a farm accident with a silage cutter. I remember being fascinated by his ‘artificial hand’, something I had never seen before. In the past when Mr. Robert had noticed me staring at it, he would quietly point it in my direction, snap it open and closed it in rapid succession, and give me a sly grin.
Time seemed to pass quickly and he arrived in our driveway. On this day, he was not coming to my Daddy to ask for help, but to give it. The Sheriff got out of the car, and came to the front door. I heard him talking to my Mother but could not decipher the conversation through my huffing sobs and tears. He went around the north side of the house to look for Daddy. I watched the two men through the window as they talked. Both of them sat on some big unsplit blocks of firewood. I mainly watched Mr. Robert because I thought that I didn’t want to see or look at my Daddy ever again. I remember that he did not seem to be a lawman to me at all in his khaki pants, brown fedora hat, and with no visible badge or firearm. I remember the Sheriff calmly and constantly smoking his cigarette with the metal claws that intrigued me so, and the motion of Daddy repeatedly nodding his lowered head. After a while and without any ruckus, unbelievably my Daddy willingly got in the car with the Sheriff and they drove away.
The memory of that day ends there for me. Of course, this episode did not ever become a fond family topic of discussion. Only as an adult did I learn that the Sheriff had taken my Daddy and put him in the county jail. I suppose Daddy must have slept it off for a day and a night. While the horror of the previous day was vivid to me, Daddy apparently was so toxically inebriated that he had no memory of any of the actions which resulted in his arrest. I learned many years later that when Daddy sobered up and came to his senses the next morning, he found himself alone in a jail cell with no recollection of why he was put there. He was still dressed in the stinking clothes he had been wearing for three days, caked in mud and dried black blood for which he was offered no explanation. The Sheriff left him to stew in his confused anguish and Daddy came to the conclusion that he likely must have killed someone. But …who?
Tippah County Sheriff Robert Estes let my Daddy continue to believe that he had committed murder for the next several hours without telling him what had really taken place. His traumatic awakening that morning in reeking bloody clothes made enough of an impression on Daddy that he literally never took another drink again in his life. My Mother had never learned to drive, so Mr. Robert delivered him home personally that Monday afternoon.
My parents did not mention the incident in front of me ever again. The loud episodic nocturnal rages and threats subsided and became somehow unremembered. Oh, they still fussed with each other until their dying day, but they always seemed to thrive on it. I don’t know who buried my dog Whitey or where. I know that scores of dried rivulets of her life’s blood stained that big propane tank for many, many years… a constantly seen and terrible reminder of the madness of that Sunday morning.
I don’t remember seeing Mr. Robert much after that morning. Our paths didn’t cross except when he might make an occasional stop by our house to request some plumbing help or to buy some blue channel catfish from Daddy. They would converse with each other away from my view or earshot. When he would leave, Daddy would remark that Robert Estes could do more with one hand than most men could do with two.
Then, in the spring of 1982, I was able to get deeply acquainted with Mr. Estes. I was a very young doctor and he had been admitted to the Tippah County Hospital during his last days of dealing with metastatic lung cancer. He was only 66, but the Pall Malls, the L&Ms, and the Vantage (he quite appropriately referred to this brand as ‘hollow points’) cigarettes which he smoked for over 50 years had finally taken their toll. I remember that he didn’t point and click his artificial hand at me during that long and final hospital stay. I don’t believe he even bothered wearing it at that point. Mr. Robert Estes was dying, extremely sick and weak, but when I made hospital rounds we were able to really talk. It was only from him that I learned the backstory of that dreadful spring morning of 20 years earlier.
So you see, this is a Father’s Day story about not one but two very memorable men.
Mr. Robert Estes was a lawman who did not routinely require the use of firearms, handcuffs, or violent actions to perform his duty. In those days and in a very Mayberry sort of way, law enforcement officers had the good fortune to truly know, understand and be respected by almost everyone they served. His kind friendship and wise actions literally helped save my Father’s life that day.
Almost a quarter century has passed since his death, yet not a day goes by that I don’t quote some of his witty sayings. It is rare to go through a week when I don’t run into someone (usually Tommy Benson) who has a hilarious Terry South anecdote to tell me. New tall tales continue to surface. Most every day I still want to ask him for advice. My Daddy thought I hung the moon and the feeling was mutual. As old as I am, I still miss him fiercely.
It almost seems now that my Daddy spent the rest of his life making amends for this one horrendous experience. Through the awesome and amazing grace of God, my Daddy was able to find redemption and become the remarkable man and Father that I will forever cherish. He was truly ‘washed in the blood.’