In the mid twenties, Allan Odell, the son of the founder of Burma Shave, a small regional shaving cream company, approached his father with a novel advertising idea. Allan proposed putting small red and white signs along the roadside throughout the United States. Allan's father gave his son a $200.00 advance for his advertising budget.
The signs, arranged in groups of four, five or six, stretched along the roadside displaying parts of a jingle, culminating in the final sign displaying the product name, Burma Shave.
Eventually the red and white signs and their jingles graced the roadsides of America in all of the lower 48 states, becoming a legend. Rather than an urban legend, instead, a rural hallmark. Whole families would travel the two lane highways of rural America reading these signs, anxious for the jingle to continue on to the next red and white sign board.
for lads with fuzz
But sir, you ain't
The Kid you wuz
As I prepared to say goodbye and begin my drive to the airport for the return flight to California, my father pulled me down and close to him. Jack was sitting in his favorite chair, a big green lazy boy recliner. As he pulled closer to me, his face to mine, he said. "Gary remember I always love you." I knew then that he knew he was dying. It had remained unspoken, but he knew.
Jack had always been a scoundrel of sorts, (we had actually had a rather violent fight at one time some years before). However, deep down Jack was a good man, fair, honest, and infinitely more vulnerable than he would admit. A heavy drinker, he had smoked two packs of Camel non filters a day from the age of eleven. Now apparently it had caught up with him.
Driving, speeding on the way to the airport, thinking the real reason I had made the trip out here was to see for myself what had become of my dad since his stroke, one word came to me, Courage. I had never thought of my father as a courageous man, but here he was, dying from lung cancer, and he had never spoken of the disease, never evoked the first bit of sympathy or self pity nor even his own knowledge his limited time remaining. The doctors had made the diagnosis to my mother and had given him three months to live.
Jack was an old-time medical supply salesman, the type that knew as much medicine as the doctors to which he had sold a particular piece of equipment. Often he would make late night trips to an emergency room in a nearby town to operate some medical machinery that the hospital had purchased from him earlier.
So, when the doctors performed a bronchoscopy on him, he knew what they were looking for, what the doctors suspected, what they knew. Yet, until that day, when he pulled me to him and told me he loved me, as I said, never having complained of dying, I had never thought of my father in terms of courage. Yet, here it was, a dying declaration of his love without the mention of what was to come, no complaint, no pity, just a previously accepted fate and his peace with me.
Three months later Susan, my wife and I were awakened by the phone. My mother, Melba, said simply, "your father is going, get here as fast as you can".
Taking the earliest flight out from LAX to Palm Beach, we arrived in Boca Raton late that afternoon. Arriving at the house, I went inside to see my father. Jack had never weighed more than 135lbs in his life, but now he looked as if he could not have topped 100lbs. Barely conscious, Jack raised up enough in the bed to take what was to be the last food he would eat, a single teaspoon of chocolate ice cream.
My brother and his wife were the next to arrive, followed my Jack's brother, his wife and children. People were coming from all over the country and Jack held on to life until every one of them had made the pilgrimage.
The next morning at 6 am, my father Jack Trammell Hammontree died.
On curves ahead
That rabbit's foot
My brother, Steve, and I grew up in the 50's and 60's, a time when there still existed in most of America large, extended families, a time of innocence, when innocence was prized, desired, expected. That was all we knew. A gentle, polite, and respectful innocence.
Almost every Sunday we would go to visit my mother's parents, our grandfather and grandmother, Granddaddy and Mamaw, and about forty other aunts, uncles and cousins. This involved a large Sunday lunch and dinner outdoors, under the pecan trees, by the creek that ran through the backyard, adults gossiping and the children running wild all over the farm playing games and exploring the same places we had all explored a thousand times and catching small crawfish in the creek.
Our trip from Rome to Dalton was a relatively short one, but not short enough that Steve and I did not get bored in the back seat of our '58 Chevy station wagon. Often we fought gently yet silently, in the back seat when we grew tired of the trip, but sometimes we would amuse ourselves by reading the Burma Shave signs along highway 41, the main drag between Rome and points north. The jingles on the signs, although we knew them all, having traveled the road so many times, always seemed fresh and new to us. We had grown up with the Burma Shave jingles, which shared a place with the big old farms, their roofs painted with a sixty-foot sparrow inviting us to "SEE ROCK CITY," another traditional sight to see in the old South. We would read the signs, more or less the same ones we saw every trip until we drove our parents crazy and were told to find some other way to amuse ourselves. After a few car games, we would usually resign ourselves to lie back and let the miles tick off and be content reading the Burma Shave ads silently for the thousandth time.
His chick vamoosed
And now she won't
Come home to roost
We were on the playground at recess, in the fifth grade. I was ten years old, and recess was all there was, until it happened. President Kennedy had just been assassinated. I remember hearing about it, standing on the gravel courtyard. We had been playing kickball, with those big, embossed, red rubber balls, the kind you also played dodge ball with, heavy, but essentially harmless. Everybody stopped, the teachers came out to round us up and bring all of us inside that schoolhouse. Although we did not quite grasp the situation, we all knew that something big and bad had happened.
Days later at another one of those marathon Sunday dinners, I saw my first and only actual, live murder.
President Kennedy, having been assassinated days earlier, the news was now reporting that Lee Oswald, the man arrested and charged with the murder of President Kennedy, was being transported to the Dallas court. As Oswald steps out of the elevator into the basement of the jail, suddenly Jack Ruby steps out of the shadows, into view and fires directly into Oswald's abdomen.
At ten years old, I became witness to one of the greatest crimes in history and though I was not aware of it at the time, witness to the closing of any further progress in its solving.
A whiskery kiss
For the one
May not make her mad
However, her face will be sore
My family had owned a rather large parcel of land in north Georgia at one time. In fact, one of the earliest entries in the old family bible was dated around 1838, which was also the date that the Cherokee was expelled from North Georgia, their nation's capital, and driven to Oklahoma, in the "Trail of Tears".
The Love family and the Godfrey's, my grandmother's family, each had their share of Indian blood, visible in the faces of both O.C. and Llewellyn, my grandmother.
The farm and land holdings spanned most of North Georgia through the counties of Whitfield, Gordon and Murray. By the time, my brother and I were old enough to have awareness; most of the farmland with the exception of about 75 to 100 acres had been sold and developed. I remember when Interstate 75 was built, the north - south conduit from Florida to Detroit. O. C. sold a good portion of the farmland for the right of way and retired on the money. All one-hundred thousand of it. Not a lot of money by today's standard, but enough for him and Mamaw to retire on. I guess that was a lot of money in the very early 60's.
Down the hatch
But coughed him up
Because he scratched
The mayflies were buzzing as Steve and I were casting our hooks back into the pond. We had decided to go fishing today. My brother and I loved visiting our Granddaddy O. C. and Mamaw. Their farm contained a thousand places to go and things to do for two young boys. Whether we fished in the ponds nearby, caught crawfish in the creek out back, or later, rode our dirt bikes through the woods on O. C.'s farm, there seemed to be always something that we could do, play or explore, always.
Springtime was a particularly good time to be on the farm. There were all sorts' fruit trees bearing fruit, strawberries out behind the barn, most of all was the smell. Clean, clear and almost a nose tickling vibrancy in the air, everything was new, every time you saw it, every time you wandered the farm there was something else to discover.
We used to collect Indian arrowheads in O.C.'s fields, sometimes bring out dozens of the chipped pieces of flint.
The sale of the farmhouse and the last of the land marked the end of our youth. Nothing that we had known, nothing that we had grown up with was the same. The door that we had gone through would never open again. Steve and I would never be able to step through the looking glass again. That is the way that youth ages, isn't it?