My latest book, HALLEY, has just been released by NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley
My father didn’t have a lot of humility. In my day–and even more so in his–you were expected to be humble if you were poor. Daddy didn’t buy that. Even when he was a farm worker earning a dollar a day on a big north Georgia cotton farm, he thought he was as good as anyone. Or maybe better. “Owning stuff don’t make nobody better’n me,” he always said.
Because Daddy had charm and was a great storyteller, his boss began inviting him to dinner in the dining room of the big house. Years later, Daddy still talked about the fine grub served. And Daddy, though he was so tall and lean that he was always called “Slim,” could chow down with the best of them. Ham, fried chicken, roast beef, sweet potatoes, fancy breads, and, sometimes oysters. He never cared much for sweets, and maybe that is the reason he made it to fifty-five before having his first cavity.
When Daddy told of the elegance and riches of that dining room, my mother was always amazed. “Wasn’t you nervous, eating at that fancy table?” she would ask, horrified at the thought of herself in a situation “above herself.”
“Hell, no,” Daddy would say. “I’m George Junkins. I’m good as anybody.” Sometimes he added, “I’m much of a man,”
And he was. Though he only had a second grade education, Daddy was intelligent. He had a mechanical mind and could figure out how practically any machine worked. During World War II he became a precision welder in the Savannah ship yards, despite having no concept of fractions or higher mathematics. The mills in and around Dalton had discovered Daddy’s talents when he and my mother moved there in 1940. Despite the alcoholism that began soon after the move, he nearly always found work. During the times when his drinking became a problem on the job, he could always dry out and then hire on at the same mills. He was that good.
Drunk or sober, he didn’t have much tolerance for fools, even when one happened to be his boss. If one asked a numbskull question, Daddy never felt compelled to pretend otherwise. Once when he got an injury working on a lathe, the supervisor asked, “Oh, did you cut your finger?”
“No,” Daddy replied with heavy sarcasm. “I just thought I’d bleed a while. Now wasn’t that a stupid question?”
I suppose because Daddy was so very good with machines, most supervisors accepted such bluntness with at least the appearance of good will. One who didn’t was fired by his superior, who then promptly rehired my father.
Daddy liked having his talents acknowledged. If praise wasn’t forthcoming, he took the job into his own hands and told his bosses how lucky they were to have him. Most agreed.
One machine shop where Daddy worked ordered him to weld a leak in a huge propane tank. “No way,” he said. “It may be empty, but if there are any fumes, that’s all she wrote.”
The angry customer took the tank to another shop, where the welder wasn’t as smart as my father. The tank exploded and caused injuries. Daddy got a lot of mileage out of that story.
Daddy passed on his mechanical skills, wit, and sharp intelligence to all three of his sons. My sister and I missed out on the first two, but we got enough of the last to do the things we wanted to do.
It has been a good legacy.