My dad was a real cut-up. I’m not saying he was flamboyant. To my knowledge he was never the life of the party kind of guy. His humor was more subtle.
If he was in a group of folks standing around, chances are he was the one telling some big yarn of a story. If the right opportunity came along, he could devise some of the silliest pranks. I’ve seen a few folks, usually the ladies, slap him on the shoulder and say something like, “Oh John, you’re a mess.”
I can hear somebody like Miss Jean Daniel telling him, “John, somebody’s gonna shoot you one of these days.” Or, Mama telling him, “John, you oughta be ashamed.”
I got a note the other day from Miss Helen Greer, an old family friend, saying, “I don’t know if you recall this or not . . .” as she proceeded to tell me one of her favorite stories about my dad. She was my Sunday School teacher when I was a kid. She came to my book signing a few weeks back. And from outta nowhere came a story I did not know.
Let’s back up to the early 70s and try to get the big picture. Even though I don’t recall her story, I know enough about the general lay of the land to give it a little color and to add details for flavor. This is what writers do.
Dad taught a Sunday School class at Berea Christian Church. I don’t know for how long, but I never knew a time when he didn’t fill that role. Probably pushing 40 years or more. I can still see him studying from his recliner in the den with his Bible lying open, face down, and his eyes closed.
His class was a tight-knit group. These were some of the people he worked with and some of the shop keepers he visited in town. Some were friends he had known since he was a boy. They had backyard cookouts together. They had Christmas parties together. They sat in lawn chairs together on a summer’s evening and watched the lightning bugs fill the air after dark.
So, it was not unusual for his class to take a bit of a road trip.
“We all rode together in the church bus,” she said.
Church buses were a big deal back then. Some of the big churches up around Atlanta had converted Greyhound buses. They traveled in style. Small town folks, like us, scrounged around and found a worn-out Blue Bird. Slapped on a new coat of paint. Put a dove or a cross on the side panel, and we were good to go.
Our bus was a short stocky model. 32 passenger, I think. I don’t know who chose the new color, but whomever it was, they were in love with their turquoise stove top and fridge at home. Our youth group took a trip to a youth convention in Tennessee one summer in that thing. We never had any problems picking out our bus from all the others.
She continued. “I don’t remember if we were going to eat at the Ponderosa or maybe somewhere to eat catfish. All I remember is that when we got there, the line to get inside was out the door and across the parking lot. We parked the bus, got out, and your daddy went inside to let them know we were here.”
One thing about a good restaurant. We don’t care what it looks like. If the food is good, we’ll stand in line for a long while if necessary. We’re not standing very long at the DQ, but if there’s a good steak and potato with black-eyed peas involved, we might be there as long as it takes.
“We didn’t mind waiting, really. It was a nice evening and we all just stood out in the parking lot and visited for a spell.” Miss Helen is being polite.
I don’t know why we’ve become such an impatient people. Have we really forgotten the gracefulness of patience? The art and value of gentle conversation just to pass the time with good friends? The lesson I was taught was that good things come to those who wait?
She thought about it for a moment. “You know, it must have been Christmas. The men were all wearing sport jackets, something they wouldn’t normally do. We were all kind of dressed up a little bit.”
Another lost piece of my upbringing. We dressed up for important occasions. Church. Weddings. Funerals. Christmas parties. And I’m as guilty as I can be. I’ll wear my jeans anytime I can get away with it. But this generation wanted to look nice when they went out together. Even if it was to eat at the Ponderosa.
“Well, the wait went on and on. We had been standing around in that parking lot for quite a while. The line had moved some, but we were a long way from getting inside.”
I know I just talked about how patience is a lost virtue but being hungry sometimes calls for a creative kind of strategy. Nothing wrong with going back inside and asking the hostess, “How much longer?”
Miss Helen then revealed the turning point in the story, which was a quick exchange between my dad and Billy Dan. You have to understand two things. Dad stood at about 5ft. 10 inches at most. He wore a size 40 Short jacket. Billy Dan stood at maybe 6ft. 4 inches and wore a 3XL Long.
Dad: “I done got sho’nuff hungry standing out here.”
Billy Dan: “Don’t you know it, and that food is sho’ smelling good.”
Dad: “I don’t want to jump the line, but we gotta do something.”
Billy Dan: “Whatcha got in mind?”
Dad: “Give me your jacket.”
Billy Dan: “What?”
Dad: “Give me your jacket and hold mine for me.”
Billy Dan: “I don’t know what you’re up to, but I gotta see this.”
She gave me a detailed image. “When your daddy put on Billy Dan’s jacket, it nearly swallowed him whole. It drooped over his shoulders like a sack. His hands just disappeared up inside the sleeves. We all were just laughing.”
Dad: “Come on Billy Dan. Let’s go.”
The two of them walked inside and up to the lady at the cash register.
“Can I help you?” the lady asked my dad. She saw the jacket but didn’t quite know what to make of it.
“Well, yes ma’am. You see here, we’ve been waiting out in the parking lot for some time now. In fact, when I got here my jacket fit me just fine.” He holds his arms out to the side. “I been here so long, though, I done lost almost a hundred pounds and shrunk 6 inches. I’m a wondering when we might get us a table.”
Miss Helen says, “I can’t swear that his little stunt helped us or not. All I know is that it wasn’t too long, and they called us inside.”
And that’s how my dad’s Sunday School class remembers him.
Yep. Sounds just like him.