Things I like to remember about my Old Man:
– How he liked to rake leaves on a crisp, autumn day and stand there with the rake and enjoy the zen of a burning pile of leaves.
– How he’d get up at 4:30 a.m. and sip coffee till the Post was delivered at 5:10, give or take five minutes. (“Get it while it’s news.”)
– How on hot, Saturday afternoons when I was outside playing with friends while my mother was working in the linens department at Penny’s downtown, we kids would go inside for popsicles or Hostess Cupcakes and he’d be sitting at the kitchen table with hot cornbread crumbled into a glass of milk (a cornbread milkshake) and reading The Houston Post with a fan blowing on him.
– How, till the day he died, he was never seen without a fedora on his head or with one in his hand or close by on a hat rack. (And never mind that the formerly fashionable fedora went out of style forever with John Kennedy’s distaste for fedoras. Deanie was a fedora man.)
– How he liked to sit under the shade on Elm Street and crank out homemade ice cream and watch all my friends on Elm come running down to our house when he sent me to fetch them for ice cream. (Most of which he consumed himself.)
– How calm he could be under pressure, as when a friend in childhood fell out of a tree in our yard and hit her head a little hard on something and all us kids on Elm Street were scared spitless, she cried so much. (Everything turned out OK and he had an ice cream party later that same day.)
– How much he loved to cook and how he liked to cook food that was so spicy (especially Texas chili, of course)–”it’ll make your head itch.”
– How cool it was to ride at his side in the chuck wagon when, for many years, he was the “French Fry and Chili Chef” on the Salt Grass Trail Rides into Houston for the parade for the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo on those cold, February trail rides.
– How he put me on a horse and we rode up to where the TV star and Fat Stock Show & Rodeo parade marshal Hugh O’Brian was camping so I could meet the star of the huge hit TV show “Wyatt Earp.”
– How he had “the gift of gab” and never met a stranger.
(He was fast friends with Hugh O’Brian and they talked a good while, probably talking horses, food, clothes or cars–the Old Man’s favorite subjects, with me, a child, in awe and disbelief at Wyatt Earp’s shiny boots. It was way better than sitting on Santa’s lap ever was.)
(And anyway, whenever Santa Claus was anywhere in Navasota, he always looked suspiciously like daddy’s great friend and occasional drinking buddy Ike Ashburn.)
– How he’d take me down to the arena rails at the end of the Rodeo Shows that starred Roy Rogers and Dale Evans every year in Houston so we could shake hands with Roy and Dale and their kids when they kept circling around the arena in a jeep at the end of their shows.
– His wit. (“It’s easy to quit smoking; I’ve done it a thousand times.”)
– How spicy his language could be at times. (As when he tried, again, to stop smoking, or when a son sassed him–not a very smart thing for one of the McKay boys to do, really.)
– How off the wall his colorful language could be. (Description of a dancer on TV one time: “He’s a dancin’ Jesse.”)
– How open he was to changing his life sometimes in radical ways without ever looking back.
Example: Growing up on horses, and owning and riding and enjoying his white mares (there’s many pictures of me or the brothers on those white mares with the Old Man when we were babies–he must have taken home from the hospital on his horse), he sold his last horse when he was 46 and never owned or rode another one, deciding that with no more feeding and keeping horses he could buy more food to put in the freezer. (My mother Goldie was thrilled.)
– What a clothes horse he was. (My mother Goldie–not so thrilled that all the savings from horse upkeep went to new threads, shoes and, of course, fedoras for Deanie.)
– How cold he could be as when he’d put a cube of ice on my back at 5:15 a.m. when I wouldn’t get right up at 5 in the morning to go to work at the cotton or cow farms where I worked in summers. (“Get up now!” he explained.)
– How he abruptly (and at great risk) quit a long, good-paying career as a blue-collar man in the oil patches as a roughneck, and then as a pipeline inspector, traveling all over the Southwest U.S. and Mexico for Humble Oil Co. (forerunner of Exxon) so he could finally settle in with his family and get to watch his last son (yours truly) grow up.
[His explanation that I forced out of him once and wrote down, since he was one never to look back much in the interest of family history: "I got sick of being homesick and living in hot deserts with fools who drank and gambled away their paychecks all night. A lot of fools never outgrow that foolishness. Your kids don't ask to be brought into this world. You feed them first and send them to school with good shoes and clean clothes and if there's anything left over for a little poker or a party, fine and good. By all means, have your fun after you've fed your family and saved a few dollars."
– How much he liked to buy, sell or trade anything–especially cars and especially Ford Mustangs he restored.
– How he could break down the engine in a car, hang it up in a garage and totally overhaul it.
– How he (a jack of all trades if ever there was one) could make or build most anything. (Some of the dads in town bought go-karts for their kids. He built me a go-kart out in the garage.)
– How much he loved to do woodwork in the garage. (Come to think of it, the Old Man pretty much lived in the garage.)
– How he built a very Southern Living patio with an awning in the back yard when we moved from the house on Elm to the house on Kettler so he and Goldie could host parties out there for friends and neighbors on Saturday nights, pre-grandchildren days.
– How much he loved Methodist preaching and his beloved First Methodist Church, where he ushered for a hunnerd years after coming home from the oil patches.
– How he told me several important things outright that stayed with me:
1. “Never let a horse, a snake or a bully smell fear in you.”
2. “Your family and a decent house is all that matters–and really that and a little good food is all you need.”
3. “Don’t ever dress up without your shoes shined.”
4.”I just like to get up and go to church on Sunday morning and hear good preaching and singing and shaking hands and hugging people that care about you and you care about even when you have your differences. It’s just always a better way to start the week.”