Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My father would have been 97 yesterday ...

On March 12, 1915, Robert Ernest “Poss” Smith was born to John Robert and Mattie Mae {Ernest} Smith. He was the third of eight children and the second of three sons.

When he was born, the family lived in the Bluefield, Virginia, area where his father was a locomotive Engineer for Norfolk and Western Railroad. While he was still a small child, the family moved to Richlands, Virginia, and settled in an area of town known as Dalton Addition. The family first lived in a 2-story wooden framed house typical of the era. As the children grew and extended family began to visit more frequently, his parents built a new, larger brick home on their property.

Poss was an adventurous child, and would often go off on his own to explore and amuse himself. His sisters told stories later in life of how adept he was at disappearing on the walk to church on Sundays, coming home hours later with stained clothing and a sheepish grin. He was given the nickname “Possum”, later shortened to Poss, at an early age, an apparent reference to his tendency to sneak off on his own. Poss was very much his mothers son, in part attributed to his father’s line of work. Being a train engineer was a time consuming profession and it had fallen upon Mattie to shoulder the bulk of the instruction and discipline of the children. From all accounts he had a happy childhood, and excelled in his studies in school.

Poss had aspirations of becoming a teacher of history, a dream that did not find favor with his father John and a series of defining events in his life began to unfold. John would not willingly finance a college education for the boy, who graduated from Richlands High School in 1931, about 3 months after his sixteenth birthday. A compromise was struck and he attained a 2 year certificate from a business college. He declined to go to work for Norfolk and Western and follow in his fathers footsteps, opting instead to try his hand at coal mining.

As he grew older he developed an appetite for alcohol that would play a destructive role in his life over years, the physical affects would eventually contribute to life altering ailments. He married a woman who was slightly older than he, Evelyn Stallard from Wise County, Virginia, and they quickly had fraternal twins, Larry and Gary. His inlaws were farmers, owning good sized apple orchards. Evelyn soon made apparent her desire that they live on her parents’ property and expected Poss to work for her father and with her brother in the orchards. He was not keen on this, and the couple fought bitterly. Evelyn moved back to her parents’ home when the children were very small, and Poss spent the next years rambling about the world.

I am unsure as to what he did when, but know the general idea of those years. His sister Fay and her husband Farris settled in Florida, and he spent no small amount of time there. He told me once that he had a job at one point that entailed going out into the ocean off the coast in the Cape Canaveral area and retrieving the experimental rockets that were being tested by the precursor to NASA. I have no doubt he worked hard at whatever he did, and played hard as well.

He spent no small amount of time in the Merchant Marines, and was aboard merchant ships during WWII. He used to tell us about the various ports he had visited, and of being on at least one vessel that took enemy fire from German submarines while transporting supplies to Allied forces and crossing the Black Sea. He had been ashore in France, England, Turkey, and Egypt and sailed around the horn of Africa. He spoke of Paris, Cairo, Ankara and other cities. He sailed out of New York and New Jersey most frequently. He was recruited to attend officers’ school while in the Merchant Marines but declined. He had a few scars from minor mishaps and suffered from the effects of malaria for as long as I could remember, having tremors and sweats for which he was prescribed medicine. When he would return from a voyage, he would send part of his pay to his mother, part of it for the support of his sons, and he would drink and carouse until he was broke with the remainder. From time to time he would find himself on a train headed to Virginia, where his mother would lovingly nurse him back to health.

He developed bleeding stomach ulcers as a result of his lifestyle and was ‘home’ to get healthy when he and my mother met.

My father was the best read man I have ever known. There were few subjects he could not converse about with no authority. 

He was in his forties when my sister and I, and our younger brother, were born. He had developed diabetes by the time he was 50, and suffered from congestive heart failure. He spent the last years of his working life as a salesman and warehouse foreman for a wholesale grocer in our town. He gardened well, growing an amazing volume and variety of food.

My father was sarcastic, and had an extremely jaded view of mankind. He was kind and lenient with his three youngest children and a loving grandfather in his later years. He thought of those he loved first, always. He had close friends he talked and visited with often. He loved cherry pie, apple pie, Boston cream pie and pound cake. He had a weakness for Reese’s cups and Kit Kat bars. He drank hot tea with milk and sweetener with his evening meal and always had fruit and cottage cheese as well.

When we were small we climbed over under and on him as if he were a jungle gym. I cannot count the times my mother punished me as a child, yet remember with shame the times he did so.

I am a spoiled woman today because he spoiled me as a child, and my sister will tell you the same.

I could, and one day may, write a book about him. Even then there would be much untold.

He passed away less than a month after his 71st birthday in 1986. I can still hear his voice in my dreams, and would like nothing more than to be able to make him lunch one more time. Grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup and Lane cake for dessert. I think he would be pleased.

I love you, Daddy.

1 comment:

  1. Love... Made my eyes leak... You remind me so much of my own attitude towards my father... Loed him ferociously, and still do! Thanks Ellen...