This Little Piggy Went to Louisiana

We have returned home from our Christmas sojourn. . .well, home. It took us seven hours to get there (a new best time with children) and TEN hours to get back thanks to some highway hijinks with a horse trailer and a semi. I have now become more intimately acquainted with the trees, asphalt, concrete, tar puddles, and “wake up” bumps on I-20 West between the Choudrant/Sibley exit and Ruston than I dreamed possible. At one point we just turned the car off and sat.

But now we are home, and I am clean, and while I was looking in the mirror at my forlorn face before showering, I was struck by this thought.

If God knows the number of hairs on my head, that means he knows the number of hairs on my chin too.

I will let that be an encouragement to me when I despair.

Sometime this week, photos of where I grew up as well as the two funniest signs between here home and there home.

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The Advent of the Sunday Leg

Imagine if you will a 68 year old bald-headed man with one leg. He is trying to get some exercise after his recent surgery, and when he goes too long without “wearing” his leg, it hurts him. He is clothed in a pair of “Sunday pants” and wearing “Sunday shoes.” This is because when the ambulance came to get him, he had on his Sunday Leg.

I am not kidding.

We call it his Sunday Leg.

We’ve always called it his Sunday Leg.

About 20 years ago now a new preacher came to where my parents go to church. One Sunday the song leader couldn’t attend, so the preacher asked Daddy if he would possibly lead singing. He told him he was sorry that he couldn’t because he didn’t have on his Sunday Leg. The preacher’s wife was within hearing of this and laughed so hard she nearly passed out. For real. She was trying not to laugh loudly, because she didn’t want to hurt Daddy’s feelings, and she got a little carried away. She now calls it his Sunday-go-to-meetin’ Leg. The non-Sunday Leg makes a very distinct noise which I can imitate perfectly. Too bad I don’t have sound on this thing.

The Sunday Leg, it is really a “spare” for those unfortunate accidents I mentioned here–like running over your Work Leg with a car, for instance. It BECOMES the Sunday Leg because it squeaks less than the other leg. It leans against the wall in my parents’ bedroom with the Sunday shoe and the Sunday pants on it all week long until Sunday when my father wears it for approximately 4 hours. If he doesn’t need to go hunting or driving the tractor or generally making a mess, he may leave it on until after church on Sunday night. He changes the pants from time to time when they need washing, but the shoe stays put.

My biggest fear as a teen/pre-married person was that Daddy’s Sunday Leg would be out of commission when I got married, and he would have to wear the other leg which would squeak all the way down the aisle.

Thus, seeing as how it was Sunday when the ambulance came to whisk him away, he had on his Sunday Leg.

So, today, when Daddy was trying to walk the halls of the hospital, he had on the Sunday Leg, and the Sunday shoes, and the Sunday pants, and a hospital gown. He was holding onto a wheel chair for support (like a make-do walker), but the chair kept tipping up–popping wheelies if you will–when Daddy would lean on it. To add some ballast to the errant wheel chair/walker, my father instructed my mother who was pulling along his I.V. pole to sit in it please.

And there they were–Daddy dressed to the 4 1/2’s (rather than the 9’s) in his church clothes and hospital gown, while my perfectly (hopefully) healthy mother sat in the wheel chair holding onto the I.V. pole getting a free ride.

See why we laugh so much?

If THAT didn’t make you laugh, click over here. I recently found this chick through either Sarah or Antique Mommy or both. Her post today is well written and hilarious.

And has NOTHING whatsoever to do with legs of any sort. I promise.

Outcomes

Daddy has surgery today to put a stint into a blockage that had developed from his bypass surgery in 2004. When I spoke to Momma earlier, he was resting and feeling good. Thanks for all your prayers.

July 5, 1969 The End

If you lived in our town you either worked in the mill, were related to someone who worked in the mill, or knew someone who worked in the mill, so by church the next day most people had heard the news of Daddy’s accident. One lady, Mrs. Jean, hadn’t heard but she knew something of note must have occurred. During the song service she looked around and saw my mother singing “Count Your Many Blessings,” eight months pregnant with me, holding my sister, tears rolling down her cheeks. The blessings were many, and my brother was added to the list just one year later.

Daddy had lots of visitors while he was in the hospital. One of them was a man named Speedy Goodnight. He was a local writer for the paper. Mr. Speedy wrote articles about hunting and fishing and outdoorsmen. There is a copy of an article he wrote about Daddy and in it he said he went to the hospital to make Daddy feel better, but he was the one that got cheered up. Daddy drove himself home from the hospital when he was able to leave. The nurse who wheeled him out to the car and wasn’t supposed to let him drive, but he was determined to do it so she said, “Well, just let me go inside first so I don’t see it.”

I showed up hale and hearty just a little less than one month after Daddy’s accident. Due to the Vietnam War and the number of veterans in need of wooden legs, he didn’t get his prosthesis until early September. During that time, he learned how to use his crutches, and he learned how to get along without that leg. When someone loses an arm or a leg, the nerve endings that go to that part of the body are still there and working. The arm or leg that used to be there can still be felt. It can itch, or hurt, or go to sleep. Those are called phantom pains, and Daddy says it’s mighty hard to scratch something that’s not there any more. It was especially hard for him to sleep at night, but he figured out he could simulate the weight of his leg by tying sand bags to his stump or by putting his right leg on top of where his left leg used to be. They got a window unit air conditioner to put in the family room where the sofa bed was located so Daddy could sleep better during the day. My sister told me she remembers she and my mother going to get the litter of puppies in a laundry basket who had to be bottle fed during the day so that Freckles, their mother, would not collapse from exhaustion. Everyone, including me, would pile in the middle of that sofa bed with a pile of bottles and a pile of puppies.

Shortly after he got out of the hospital, Daddy was back in the boat fishing bass tournaments. He was also back on the shooting range with his gun. Mr. Perry built a stool for Daddy so that he could shoot skeet. Daddy would go out to the range with his gun, his crutches, and his stool. He would hop from one station to the next on his crutches while one man carried his gun and another carried his stool. When he got to the shooting station, he would lean his stump on the stool and take aim. He he had the best deer season of his life that fall killing his limit in both Louisiana and Arkansas. He also shot a huge cougar while deer hunting in Ashley County, and the skeleton was donated to Northwestern University in Louisiana. The rest of the cougar was mounted and has been in my parent’s home for the past four decades. After Momma discovered she was pregnant with my brother when I was just three months old, one friend from church quipped, “We gotta get that man back to work.” If he ever needed to prove that life can go on with one leg, he surely did that in the six months that remained of 1969.

I have never known my Daddy with two legs—or hair on the top of his head for that matter. A one-legged Daddy is the only Daddy there was in our house. Helping him put his leg on and take his leg off was part of my childhood. Using it to play jokes on our friends was part of it too. It was a fact of our lives, like living in the country or going to church or having both sets of grandparents near by. I have also never known the full extent of everything he lost the day he lost that leg. I’m sure it was more than I can imagine. I know it was much more than just a leg.

For all he lost, however, there were some things he didn’t lose. He did not lose his sense of humor. Some of our hardest laughs and family jokes are about Daddy’s leg. He did not lose his will to live. If anything, he pushed himself to live harder and for all he was worth. He did not turn to alcohol or to drugs or self-pity. He, in fact, was the man people would call when someone lost an arm or hand or leg. He was proof that life goes on even when part of your body is missing. He did not lose his drive or determination to continue doing what he’d done before. He invented a deer stand that he could pull up the tree with his artificial leg so he could still tree hunt. He rigged a trolling motor so he could run his own boat. He amazed kids by hopping along the diving board on one leg and making a perfect dive into the swimming pool.

Not to mention that it made for some great stories. Like the time he ran over his own leg while fixing the car, then carried it to our neighbor’s house so he could weld it back together. . .or the time he came home early from work because he’d broken his leg in the machine shop and had to put on his other one, then I nearly scared my mother to death when SHE got home and I told her Daddy had broken his leg. . .or the time he nearly drowned because the new dog got too excited and rolled him off the log while he was duck hunting. His leg was floating so he couldn’t get out of the water and the men he was hunting with were laughing so hard they couldn’t get him out either. . .or the time a new-comer to the machine shop walked in to find Daddy calmly grinding slitter knives, which were used to cut the huge rolls of paper the mill produced, as another machinist was drilling a hole in his foot while he still had the leg on. There is no shortage of material. There is also no way to bring back the way things could have been.

My father is not a saint. His flaws are not unknown to mankind. Some have called him plain, old hard-headed. Some have called him worse. But his stubbornness and tenacity—that hard-headedness—are what kept him alive 38 years ago in that fan shaft. They are what got him up and got that leg strapped on every day that followed. He and my mother were determined that life would go on. And, by a powerful trust in God, sheer determination, and the blood of generations brought up on hard times coursing through their veins, it did.

July 5, 1969 Part 2

There was a slight downward slope in the fan housing, and Daddy could see the fan turning at full speed in front of him where his leg used to be. He knew the leg was gone because when he moved it there wasn’t any weight attached to it. He also knew from his years in the military that if he did not crawl out of that hole he would bleed to death inside of it. His yells for help were being sucked up onto the roof of the mill by the monster fan along with his leg, his tools, his flashlight, and his hard hat. He made his mind up not to follow. With a four and a half year old daughter and another baby on that way, death by exhaust fan was not an option.

As he tried to undo himself from the fan belts and the small space, he saw a welcome face look up into the hole. Henry Earl, a pipe fitter, had heard an unusual racket when the fan kicked on. He knew the fan should not be running, and he knew there was trouble up in that shaft. Henry Earl was quick. He scurried up the steep ladder like a cat squirrel, and as soon as he saw Daddy sitting in that hole, he slid right back down and began hollering for help. One of the electricians on duty, Glen, knew where the control box was for the electricity leading to the fan. He grabbed a pair of insulated pliers, pried the cover to the locked power box open, and used the pliers to cut a wire that was carrying 440 volts of electricity. Cutting that wire was like a welding torch lighting up, but Glen knew what he was doing. The fan stopped turning, and Daddy and Glen both lived to tell about it.

Meanwhile Henry Earl had crawled back up to help Daddy. Everyone was trying to figure out just how to get a six foot tall, two hundred pound man with only one leg out of a 30 foot high vertical shaft when Daddy told them if they’d move out of the way he’d get himself out. He had two good arms, one good leg, and if one man would go down before him, he could get down the ladder on his own. Henry Earl used his pocket knife to cut Daddy loose from the fan belts, then headed down the ladder with Daddy coming right along after him.

This story is Watts family lore. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard it, but when my Grandaddy died, I had the opportunity to meet Henry Earl. He introduced himself to me then said, “I helped your Daddy get out of the fan the day he lost his leg. I’ve never seen anything like it. He just hopped down that ladder with one leg like it wasn’t anything.” It may not have looked like anything to Henry Earl, but Daddy said it sure did feel good when he got five feet or so from the ground and felt several hands reach up to grab him. They told him to let go, and he did. The fan had cauterized the wound when it took his leg so he wasn’t bleeding to death, but the trauma to his leg and the onset of shock had taken their toll. Reaching those waiting hands was his signal to let go and his body’s signal to let him pass out. He was out of the fan, and he was alive.

The men who were in the shop loaded him onto a gurney and took turns carrying him out of the paper mill. He was in and out of consciousness, and soon he found himself in an ambulance headed to the hospital. He was worried about Momma. She was just one month away from having me, so he had them call his mother, my Nanny, instead. In addition to a pregnant wife and thirteen puppies, his dad, my Granddaddy was in the hospital himself due to a month long case of hiccups that would not quit. Just a little more proof that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction. Nanny walked across the pasture to my parents’ house to deliver the news. My sister was only little at the time, but she still remembers our Nanny’s shape framed in the doorway to the house–her purple pant suit–the silver strip in her black hair as she said, “There’s been an accident.” My mother’s parents, my Granny and Papaw, lived in town, so they dropped my sister off at their grocery store on their way to the hospital.

I know what happened to Daddy truly was an accident. The man who turned on the fan had no malice against my father. He made a very foolish mistake, and several things went wrong all at once to cause the accident to happen. After learning what he had done, he suffered a massive heart attack that same day. That being said, I do NOT believe it was an accident nor was it luck or fate that bought Dr. Reynolds, a returning veteran and field surgeon, to the hospital that Saturday to find out when he needed to report for work. I do believe “. . .that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, who are the called according to His good purpose.” That includes doctors straight from Vietnam showing up at just the right time with just the right experience.

There was much discussion about how to save Daddy’s knee, but from his time in the field, Dr. Reynolds knew that Daddy wouldn’t be able to use the knee and that amputation just above it would make fitting his prosthesis easier. Dr. Reynolds had not even signed in to the hospital, but he did surgery that afternoon to finish what the fan started. Momma stayed with Daddy through the night, then she got up the next morning and took my sister to church.

July 5, 1969 Part 1

He was brought up on a farm raising cows and sheep and horses just across the pasture from the new, brick house he and his bride had built. After growing up together and going to church and high school, one night while driving through the game reserve he proposed marriage and she accepted. She finished college and took a job teaching. He took classes to be a mechanic. It was war time, so before being drafted into the Army, he joined the Air Force. He ended up in Homestead, Florida and started by fueling planes, but due to his skills as a marksman was given a job as a specialist teaching soldiers how to shoot. He managed to stay out of Vietnam, then with his young wife and two year old daughter in tow, came back home to work in the paper mill like his father before him. Most afternoons and weekends found him in his boat fishing or in the woods hunting. He was young, one month shy of 30, strong as a bull ox with the build to prove it.

July 5, 1969 was hot. Any July day in northeastern Louisiana was hot. That is why, despite years of tradition, they chose to stay home from the family reunion on the 4th. There were lots of babies on the way as well. She was 8 months pregnant with their number two child. His English setter had delivered a litter of 13 puppies the day before. Early that morning, Saturday the 5th, he had gone into town to work the shut-down at the paper mill. She washed and set her hair to have it ready for church the next day, and while their little girl played, laid down on the couch to rest.

During shut-down, several machines are turned off for maintenance. The mill is full of men working to get the machines serviced, back up, and running smoothly. First thing that morning all the mechanics had been assembled on the floor of the machine shop and told that the main power switch to all machinery including the lights would be off. They would be working with flashlights that day. They were also told they didn’t need to “tag” any machines, because the tags from the day before had not yet been pulled. The tags let other crewmen know not to turn a machine on.

He was to work on one of the big exhaust fans in a boiler room. It was a job he’d done many times before. He knew the drill. For my Daddy, the hardest part of that Saturday should have been folding his six foot frame into the small space at the top of the shaft where the exhaust fan was housed.

This particular fan had a 48” blade and was run by a 20 horsepower motor. It was used to pull heat and steam off the boiling wood pulp and out onto the roof of the mill. Temperatures in the mill could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so the fans were very important. It had been worked on by several other men the day before. They had replaced the bearings and belts, and it was up to him to finish the job they had begun. The motor for the fan was at the top of a vertical shaft, and the shaft was about 30 feet high. Along with the metal rungs that were attached to the wall as a ladder, there were also pipes and steam lines with which to contend, but he strapped on his tool belt, headed up through the maze, and set to.

When he reached the top of the shaft, he found Melvin, one of the insulators, sitting in the hole where he needed to work. Melvin, happy for a break, excused himself to go smoke a cigarette. Daddy was too big to crawl through the maintenance hatch that Melvin had just vacated, so he stuck his left leg down between the blades of the fan and lodged his right leg against the wall for leverage.

There he sat, sweating, wedged into that too small space, tools out, flashlight clamped in his teeth. He had finished the major work and had begun to screw all the fittings into the motor. He was hooking everything up and in line–just minutes away from leaving–when he heard the fan crank. Someone who didn’t know he was up there had turned it on. It didn’t take very long for the power of twenty horses to kick in. To add insult to injury, that particular fan had two blades. One just below his knee, and one at the top of his head. There was really no time to react, but with reflexes honed by years of hunting and muscles hardened by years of work, my Daddy had the sense to duck his head, grab onto the seams in the hood of that fan, and hold on for his life and for ours.

If only I had Roy Rogers to sing it. . .

“He’s back in the E.R. again. . .going where he’s already been. . .”

Got a call from my sister while on my way home from church. Daddy is back in the hospital. Despite things not being “quite right” and some chest tightness and some out of whack blood sugar and equally out of whack heart beats, he was determined to go to church this morning.

De-Ter-Mined.

But he went to the hospital in an ambulance instead. Of course, he walked OUT the front door of the house under his own power (one-legged power that is) and climbed onto the gurney himself.

I say all of this with humor, but that is just to beat back the raging fear that lives in me every second of every day. I dread every phone call from home. I hate seeing my brother or sister’s numbers–or Momma’s cell number for fear that the worst has come.

My faith is not weak. I am not in despair. I am just realistic.

I am also the daughter of Harold Watts–a man who tends to bounce. But his elasticity is wearing a bit thin these days–his panty hose, they are shot.

So. Please keep him in your continued prayers–especially keep my mother there as well. And me too–it is hard to be the one so far away from home.

They celebrate their 45th anniversary this Friday. They are quite a pair.