This June marks the second Father’s Day since my Dad passed away. I think about him frequently, partly because he bequeathed me his entire name: James Edward Reynolds. That was a decision he may have regretted from time to time, but if he did, he never mentioned it. Dad was known as “Sonny” until he met my Mom one afternoon in the late 1940s on a Selma, Alabama, street corner. (She hailed the taxi he was driving for his father’s Red Top Cab company.) She preferred the name “Jim,” or so they say. But I always enjoyed hearing our relatives call him Sonny.
My father’s future profession as an Internal Revenue Service auditor marked him as suspect in the eyes of many in the community. He prepared my tax returns every spring, and I felt helpless the first April 15 that he was no longer around. Many Selma residents who made jokes about the IRS nevertheless sought his counsel during tax season, especially at the Baptist church we attended. As April 15 loomed, Dad would get into his annual telephone shouting matches with the finance director at our church. The director had questions regarding church members’ contributions and tax deductions, and my deeply religious father always complained that the church put him in a “damn awkward situation” when they asked his advice on such matters.
After his B-24 bomber was shot down over Germany, his buddies at the air base assumed he was dead and drank a few rounds in his memory, which they charged to him. He wasn’t a drinking man. After his rescue, he refused to pay for the cocktails when presented with the bill. He didn’t like to spend money. A bowl of water filled with envelopes frequently sat on the kitchen counter, the contents soaking so that the stamps could be removed and used again. Dad never failed to pick up pennies in parking lots. Yet his generosity had no boundaries or conditions. He financed three college educations, gave his children down payments on their first homes, and tossed in a few bucks to help buy cars for his kids and grandchildren from time to time.
He spared no expense in caring for dogs, either. Someone shot our Old English sheepdog Sebastian in our backyard one night, presumably for barking. My father ran onto the patio in his boxer shorts, waving a .44 while shouting for the dog’s long-gone assailant to return for a showdown. The next day, Dad drove Sebastian to Auburn’s veterinary school, which saved the dog’s life. He and I shared a fondness for dogs. Being a pragmatic sort who wanted to prepare his son for the sadness of burying a pet, he often asked about my aging dog Nicky, only to follow with this reminder: “Son, you know you’re going to come home and find her dead one day.” I laughed and told him I was going to visit and find him dead one day. He thought that was pretty funny.
The most endearing memory of my Dad is the devoted care he gave during the last seven years of his life to my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. In the early 1990s, my parents moved from Selma to Tuscaloosa. I spent Friday nights at their house a couple of times a month to give Dad moral support. The ritual was always the same; we went to Captain D’s for “supper.” (The evening meal was never “dinner” in our household; “dinner” described what most people refer to as lunch.) Then we watched their favorite TV program, “Wheel of Fortune,” as he and Mom attempted to solve the puzzles while commenting on Vanna White’s scandalous attire. After that it was time for Atlanta Braves baseball. Dad would make Mom stay awake until the seventh inning to keep her mind active. From season to season, the onset of her dementia could be somewhat measured as she slowly began to forget the names of Braves players. After Mom went to bed, Dad and I sat in our recliners, often watching war documentaries or reading. He usually read the Bible, whereas I might be reading a biography of Ho Chi Minh. He often expressed his disdain for the invasion of Iraq and shocked me one night when he said that had my brother and I been drafted to go to Vietnam, he would have considered sending us to Canada. I used to tease him about the “No Lottery” sign he posted in his front yard when the issue was proposed years ago, because any time he traveled through Georgia he always bought $5 worth of lottery tickets.
Dad’s pragmatism was best exhibited in 1945 during World War II, after the B-24 bomber he co-piloted was shot down over Germany. Crawling from the wreckage, my father and the pilot found themselves facing two dozen enemy solders and a German “tiger” tank. The pilot whipped out his .45 automatic, urging my father to “shoot it out” with the Nazis. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Put that gun away!” Dad shouted at the pilot. Dad later discovered that his buddies at the airbase where he was stationed in England had assumed he was dead and drank a few rounds in his memory, which they charged to him. He wasn’t a drinking man. After his rescue, he refused to pay for the cocktails when presented with the bill.
In July of 2008, Dad was hospitalized for a kidney problem. He developed pneumonia and spent three weeks with a ventilator in his throat. His living will stipulated that no artificial life support was to be used, and as his condition deteriorated, my brother, sister, and I were faced with deciding at what point to carry out his wishes. He was unconscious most of the time but would open his eyes and try to talk for an hour or so every couple of days. One night he was able to remove one of the mittens he was forced to wear that prevented him from pulling out the breathing tube. He snatched the ventilator from his throat and refused to allow it to be replaced. When my sister arrived at the hospital, the first question he asked was, “Is your mother taken care of?” My sister reassured him that Mom was okay. He died the next day.
At his funeral, a soldier played “Taps” and the American flag that had draped his coffin was folded and given to my sister. The soldiers seemed to struggle while folding the flag, prompting my father’s 90-year-old sister to lean over to me and whisper, “Sonny’s up there in Heaven griping, ‘They sent rookie soldiers for my funeral.’” We quietly laughed, reassured that no one would have found the moment funnier than my father. There are good dads and lousy dads. I was blessed to have been raised by one of the good guys.