The Sharecropper’s Son

sharecropper

(NOTE: This is a re-posting of a blog entry I did ten years ago on the passing of my father.)

He was born between the Great Wars, in the middle of what became known as the “Great Depression” in 1933. His mother gave birth in a charity hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, and returned to the little town of Dubach with the new baby. She and her husband named him “Wilford Eugene” and they called him “Gene.” He was seven years younger than his next youngest sibling, his sister Erma Lou.

As war engulfed the world, Gene grew up working the red clay soil of north-central Louisiana with his father. He  graduated from Dubach High School in 1950. His older brother Melvin served in the military, as did most young men during WWII and immediately afterwards.

So it was no surprise when Gene enlisted in the new United States Air Force, which had before been the Army Air Corps. He soon found himself flying around the world in one of the biggest airplanes ever built, the B-36, which had both turboprops and jet engines. It also carried nuclear weapons. Gene’s job was to sit in the extreme end of the fuselage and man the guns mounted at the rear. He was a “tailgunner.”

He served in two wars, Korea and Vietnam. He never talked about combat much. He moved from the B-36 to the B-52 when the great StratoFortress took to the air. He talked about the extreme cold at the altitude the bombers flew, and the cramped quarters and the constant fear of sudden death that all crew members felt. But he would also talk about the roiling vortices of contrails spiraling from the wingtips, corkscrewing behind the plane as it flew. When flying east at sunset he described the vortices as looking down twin spiraling tunnels of rainbow-colored ice crystals. It was one of the most beautiful things he ever saw.

He got married in Spokane and took his young wife, Marie, to Texas after giving birth to their first son, Keven. Keven had a difficult childhood, his bones did not form properly and he lived much of his infancy in a full-body cast. Gene and Marie drove to El Paso, Texas with Keven in his cast. Marie also had health problems that nearly took her life, but a miraculous surgery repaired her problems and she made a full recovery.

In El Paso the couple gave birth to three more sons, Scott, Huey, and Sean. These were heady days for Gene, he was moving up the enlisted ranks and found himself flying a desk more than a plane eventually. During the Cuban Missile Crisis though, he was on patrol over the Gulf of Mexico, with nuclear weapons just a few feet in front of him in the belly of the B-52.

They moved to Mississippi for a short time, long enough to have their only daughter, Tammy, and their last son, Mike. Then he was stationed in Guam where he was the top NCO in the command center during the height of the Vietnam war. It was there that he met and talked strategy with Jimmy Stewart, by then a Brigadier General in the Air Force, and one of the most respected men in the country. He described Jimmy as respectful, polite and extremely competent. He played golf there with Bob Hope one blissful day, and would speak of that for the rest of his life.

When his tour in Guam ended he returned to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, just a short drive west of his boyhood home in Dubach. After more than 20 years serving his country honorably and with distinction, he retired in 1972. A divorce followed soon after and the children went their separate ways, Gene keeping the oldest four boys, and Marie taking the youngest two children. The divorce was bitter and the family was estranged for decades.

He took a job in the Civil Service, working for the Louisiana Employment Office to pay the bills. He bought two airplanes and flew them everywhere. He married again, to a woman named Viona who had children of her own. For a few years he and Vi tried to make one family out of two broken ones, and eventually gave up on that effort. The divorce was not so bitter, but just as final.

At the age of 45 he met the last great love of his life, Laura, just as he decided to embark on a new career as an attorney. He quit his job, sold his airplanes and when his last remaining son went off to college, he did too. He graduated with a law degree at the age of 47 and embarked on another 20+ year career where he again served his profession with honor and distinction. He and Laura married and they shared a 20 year life together before it too ended in divorce.

His oldest son, Keven, had struggled with his health his entire life, and was killed in a car accident one day. Gene never really got over that. His three other sons moved on in their own lives. Sean was long married with two kids of his own. Scott married late and had no children. Huey finally gave him another grandchild just last year. But he usually had at least one son around to play golf with.

And Gene loved golf. He played golf well. As a young man he was a long ball hitter, but his short game was the envy of his peers. As he got older his ability to hit the ball past his partners faded, but his short game never left him. He loved more than anything else playing golf with his sons.

He came to Colorado the summer before last to play golf with Scott and me (I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I’m Sean). We played at the Evergreen golf course and had to dodge the elk which roamed around the golf course. He beat us both, he always beat me. He was 72 years old.

Last year he had his first heart attack, which almost took him from us. He survived it, but never really regained his health. We played our last round of golf with him in July of last year, and it was cut short due to the birth of his last grandchild. At the time we were sure it was just a temporary interruption to our golf plans.

Four weeks ago he was diagnosed with inoperable gastro-intestinal cancer. The doctors said there was no hope. He was given just weeks to live. It is difficult to accept such a thing, especially when he was still “Dad.” He joked and laughed and told stories just as he always had. Denial is a difficult thing to overcome. Scott and I drove down to Shreveport to see him in the Hospital and were there to move him to a place to care for him. Even then it seemed that it was all some sort of mistake.

Gene passed away about this time last night, Februrary 8th, 2007. Just two days past his 74th birthday. Huey was with him his final days, as was his ex-wife Laura. Huey held his hand as he departed.

He started his life behind the back of a mule plowing the red clay of Dubach for a share of the harvest on land his father did not own. He flew tens of thousands of miles in the most advanced aircraft in the world, just a few yards away from nuclear weapons. He saw a man land on the moon. He always believed the cigarettes would get him, but they never did.

I’m proud that he was my Dad. I’ll miss him.

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About seandgolden

Husband, father, author
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