A July 5 Visit With Dad
It was Tuesday, the 5th of July. All the parades, fireworks and veteran services were over. I thought this had been an exceptional year for celebrating the fourth. This has always been one of my favorite holidays, but this year I was a little late in carrying out one of my annual traditions.
My very first novel, Bertha, had arrived on July 1st and it was doing pretty good among face book friends and those that follow my column. I had several meetings at the history museum with folks wanting copies and I dropped off a box with Pat at the library.
I was a little overwhelmed to say the least. The book had been a two year struggle and now it was a reality. We were holding out on releasing it to the gift and book stores until after the first signing which had been scheduled for July 16th. We wanted to have a launch party at the Museum, but had released the book on-line for those who had eagerly anticipated its arrival.
After the delivery and meetings had taken place, I eased my car into East View cemetery, parked and got out. I usually try to make this trip around the fourth to pay my respects to the man buried there. I have written several columns about my mother dying on Mother’s day when I was fifteen. However, I have not written on her husband, my father. Next to their graves is another plot which has a raised wall, just the right place for me to sit for a few minutes.
Harry Ragland was a complex, multi-faceted individual. He was extremely intelligent. Years of reading had created a self educated man. But from the time I was old enough to know him, he had to fight the demons that lived in the whiskey bottle. He was an Alcoholic, and he knew it. It wasn’t that he wanted to be one, or even liked the taste of the stuff. In fact he tried over and over to quit and stay quit. He was never able to accomplish that feat. Alcoholics Anonymous kept him sober for almost two years one time. And he had lasted many times for six or eight months without a drink. But he always failed in the end.
He was not a chronic Alcoholic. He was not the guy who drinks every day or gets soused on week-ends. He was what AA called a periodic Alcoholic. He would go weeks or months without a drink and then fall off the wagon. And when he did, he drank and drank. He wouldn’t eat anything or even touch water. Sometimes these bouts would last for as long as two weeks. At times it almost killed him. Then, he’d sober up and hunt a job. He always got fired for staying out of work so long.
He was a textile worker and loved working at Lindale. But they’d fire him nevertheless and he’d go to work for another Cotton Mill somewhere in North Georgia. He was a loom fixer, and a good one. And all the Mills knew he was good at his job. They also knew they’d get somewhere between three and six months of premium work before he pitched another drunk. They hired him time after time hoping he’d stay quit. I think he held the record for being hired at Lindale.
Dad was born in Chattooga County, Georgia in 1915. His family moved to the little cotton mill village of Lindale when the Boll Weevil destroyed their farm. They were forced to become mill hands to survive.
Harry finished the eighth grade. That was as far as the Lindale school system went at the time. He asked his mother if he could repeat the grade, he didn’t want to quit school, and she agreed. But after that he went into the mill. Working in the weave shop where he soon learned the trade of a weaver. He often told me that he loved his job. To him it was better than farming.
He met my mother at a dance at the Hearn Academy in Cave Spring sometimes in the late thirties. They were married on March 1, 1940. At that time he was not bad to drink. My mother would have never tolerated it.
Then Pearl Harbor was attacked. He had five older sisters. Sister number two’s husband had been a doughboy in World War I. He had often told my father and his brother that if this country ever goes to war again, join the Navy. Don’t get stuck in a trench and live in the mud. That’s exactly what he did.
Dad enlisted in January of 1942. He was one of the first from Rome and Floyd County to enter the military. I have an article somewhere of him and others marching up Broad Street heading for the Induction center in Atlanta. He attended Boot Camp in Norfolk Virginia and then went to Radioman school in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. After that he went to sea on an old World War I destroyer that was to provide protection for convoys heading to Europe.
He very seldom spoke of this part of his service until he had downed a few drinks and I prompted him. He said that in the summer of 1942 the German U-Boats were waiting for them off the coast of the U.S. The first convoy that he escorted started losing ships almost in sight of the Statue of Liberty. The crossing to England lit up the night sky with ships on fire. He said the burning ships looked like street lights as far as one could see. And his destroyer and others would pound the subs, or where they thought they were, with Depth Charges. This went on day and night.
He told me that the part that bothered him most was the fact there were sailors and merchant seamen in the water drowning and screaming for help. Others were being burned alive in sinking ships and from the oil that was burning in the water, and he couldn’t stop and help, because to do so would have been certain death. Half the convoy would be lost before they got to England. They would re-supply their ship and escort basically a convoy of empty ships back to the U.S. While in England or a United States port waiting for the next convoy, he and many of the crew would stay soused. They knew what was coming.
On one crossing, he said they caught a German U-Boat on the surface and rammed it hard as it was diving. He thinks it was cut in half. There was a lot of garbage and dead bodies floating around and his ship suffered some severe damage. They were repaired in England and the War continued. By the summer of 1944, the U-Boat presence had been reduced greatly. They were now getting most of the convoys across without losing to many of their ships.
Dad went to Lindale on leave sometime in September of 1944 and when returning to New York he missed a train connection and arrived a day late. His ship had sailed without him. Expecting the worse he reported in and explained what happened. Rather than getting in trouble he was assigned to the USS Anthedon—A Submarine Tender. He was in heaven. It had a library, barber shop and all around better, cleaner and modern living facilities than the old destroyer.
He got to go through the Panama Canal and went to Perth, Australia where they outfitted American Submarines that was wreaking havoc on Japanese shipping. He was enjoying his new home until they sailed up to the Philippines and some of the adjoining islands. He was in the vicinity of a little island called Okinawa when Japanese airplanes started diving at them. He couldn’t believe his luck. He’d lived through the German submarine offensive and now had to deal with Japanese Kamikazes. He was really scared. The Anthedon was nothing more than a big floating gas tank. If one plane hit it, there would be no purple hearts here.
When the war ended he had enough points to be one of the first out. But he caught Malaria in Manila and stayed in a VA hospital for nearly a year in Jacksonville Florida.
He eventually made it back to Lindale. Went to school at night to finish High School and took a correspondence course on fixing looms.
All the time at sea he read everything he could get his hands on. When I was just a youngster he told me the story of Ulysses and the Trojan War and his trip back to his home on Ithaca. He was well versed in Shakespeare and all the old Greeks. I got his and my mother’s desire for reading, and their love of books.
I had just made Captain on the Police Department and was working a second job parking cars at a local country club. It was near midnight when my wife pulled up. Dad had been living with an older sister in Lindale for years. My wife had received a call from my aunt which said she found him lying in the floor in his bedroom. I wondered if he was he drunk. I had just spoken to him earlier in the day and he wasn’t.
Dad was a baseball fan, he took me to Textile league games when I was five or six years old until that league finally folded up. He loved to listen to the Atlanta Braves on the radio. His sister said every night he would go to his room around eight. He would listen to the game then get up for a drink of water. This night he didn’t get up. She went to check on him and he had never made it to the radio, it wasn’t on.
The doctors said he had a Cerebral Hemorrhage. He had High blood. I looked at the quart jar of pills the VA sent him and they hadn’t been opened. He complained that they made him feel bad. He was sixty three years old that night in June.
Dad was forty-six when my mother died. He and I lived together for the next two years until I entered the Navy myself. He never re-married and as far as I know never even came close. He truly was a one woman man. For the next seventeen years he lived a lonely life. He loved my daughter, but I didn’t take her to his house nearly as much as I should have. And she loved him too.
You see, in the back of my mind it was always the alcohol. Growing up I could never have friends over, you didn’t know what was coming home. Children of Alcoholic parents are a special breed. They’re denied a very integral part of childhood. I envied my friends that had parents that didn’t drink or could at least control it. My early life was arranged around his Alcoholism, and I hated it. And when I got out of the navy, I didn’t come around Dad near as much as I should have. And now I regret it. This is the one thing I wish I could change.
Yes, I drank my share in the service and after as well. I’ve often said that I know I paid for one of those Budweiser horses and I want it. But in the back of my mind was the saga of my father. I couldn’t live with it any longer. So I gave it up.
He died on June 29th 1979. He loved all Veterans services and especially his American Legion post in Lindale. He kept my dues paid up for years, and I didn’t even know it. The fourth of July was a special time for him. He loved the flag waving and patriotic venues. He also loved the barbecues and being around his friends from Lindale who had also served.
I got off my resting place. And once again read the foot stone the Government sent stating he was a World War II Veteran.
I took the little American flag, stuck it next to his head stone, and said “Happy fourth of July Sailor. Rest in Peace. I’ll see you shortly.”