Today is Charles Ross Smith, Jr.’s 70th birthday. He’s my father. But, unfortunately, he’s no longer treading this mortal coil with us, so my family and I get to remember him and honor the day reflectively, rather than celebrating it with him in the flesh. I wish it weren’t so.
How would I describe him? Well . . . my dad was a highly-decorated warrior, a leader-of-men (and survivor) of Vietnam and Beirut, who retired from the Marine Corps as a bird colonel, ending his military career as the Chief of Staff at Parris Island, the place where Marines are made. (He’s buried nearby at Beaufort National Cemetery, alongside countless African-American soldiers who fought for their freedom in the Civil War). My dad was well educated with a pair of masters degrees, and spent much of his life as an educator, either directly (as a schoolteacher, late in his life) or indirectly (as a mentor, storyteller, sage, elder). He was a man of great, deep faith, who touched countless lives in his ministries in the Low Country of South Carolina, in his Church and as the manager and primary on-air personality of a Christian radio station. He was a foodie without pretense, who could just as easily appreciate a good chili dog as he could a fine meal at one of the world’s great restaurants. He was a loving husband to my mom, a great dad to my sister and I, and a doting grandfather to my daughter, niece and nephew.
But I think what I miss the most, when all’s said and done, is the fact that he was really quite the goofball much of the time, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. He had an infectious laugh, and loved to tell tall tales and stories; the truth was malleable for him, and did not necessarily have to correspond to reality. (The excellent Tim Burton movie, Big Fish, could have been his biography). He also found humor in all sorts of places where most folks didn’t look for it. I remember one time when my sister and I were young and our Mom was away for some reason, so Dad was left with the responsibility of making dinner for us. He spent a long time in the kitchen that night making a very special dinner for us: A Spam Lamb (for my sister) and a Spam Ram (for me). Both of them were anatomically correct, ahem. We laughed and laughed and laughed through our dinner, and meat from a can never tasted as good as it did that night. Later, I watched him make his grandchildren laugh just as hard as he did his children, which was lovely, and powerful, and memorable. I miss that, a lot. I know I’m not alone in that regard.
I should note, as I generally do on the occasion of his birthday and the anniversary of his flying away, that his death was avoidable: he was killed by an elderly driver with health issues who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car. I repeat that point regularly not to be morbid, but to encourage you to intervene if you have a family member in similar circumstances, and help them make a transition to a non-driving state if you can. Yes, loss of mobility for the elderly or infirm is difficult, but letting them kill another person is worse. I’ve experienced that first-hand, watching the innocent victim of such needless highway carnage leave his earthly body, in the same hospital in which I was born, no less. I hope that none of you ever have to experience anything like that, on either side of the transaction. So intervene if you need to. It’s the right thing to do.
But all that aside, that dark moment doesn’t negate the countless magical moments that came before it, some mundane, some life-altering, all part of the skein of my life, all important in their own ways,big and small. I wrote a poem a year or so after my dad died about one of my fondest childhood memories, which took place in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina, near the town of Albemarle, where he grew up. It’s called “Climb.” I close by sharing it with you. Happy birthday, Dad. I miss you.
The serpent switchbacks cut the mountain’s side,
each hairpin turn just higher than the last.
Straight up, between the curves, a gravel slide,
where trees were felled by avalanches past.
Both slide and road went to the mountain’s peak,
one paved and winding, one more steep, but straight.
We stood there at the bottom, by the creek,
and chose the rockslide without much debate.
We scrambled up the loose slate, crossed the road,
and climbed the next pile, careful of sharp shale,
bypassing slippery spots where moisture showed,
ignoring manmade paths for nature’s trail.
Exhausted when we finally reached the top,
amazed, on looking back, how steep the drop.
[Notes on the photos, from top to bottom: (1) My grandfather, father and I (2) My parents, my sister, and I (3) My Mom and I admire my Dad’s new Bronze Star (4) My father, my daughter, and I. Click the images for larger versions.]