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.