Jan. 9, 1922 is the birthday of my late father, Frank Thomas McCall Sr. A veteran of World War II, he served with the Army Air Corps in the European theater. As an airplane mechanic, he never saw combat, but he lost his pilot and best friend who stepped on a landmine while taking a walk in the French countryside. My father never spoke of the incident to his children, but the war and the death of this pilot affected him deeply as we would learn in later years.
When my father returned home from the service after the war, my mother asked what he was going to do.
“I’m not going to do anything for a year” was his reply.
“And, he pretty much did what he said he would do,” my mother related to me. “For that next year, he didn’t do a whole lot of anything.”
Looking back, I realize there was wisdom in his action – or inaction – because he allowed himself time to reacclimatize to civilian life.
My father was a man of the seed and the soil. He was a farmer by nature and by calling. Gifted with a mechanical genius, he was a tinkerer and an inventor. He never met an internal combustion engine he didn’t like. From small lawnmower engines to diesel tractor engines, he could tear them down and put them back together. If an engine had a tendency to run hot, he knew how to baby it to keep it operable.
His clothes always smelled of diesel and gasoline. My mother speculated it was the reason he was never bothered by ticks, chiggers, fleas or mosquitos. My best childhood memories of summers past recall him in bib overalls and faded denim, long-sleeved shirts. He wore his shirts with the sleeves rolled up above the elbows. His forearms were powerful and tanned the deepest color of bronze. His feet were fitted with dark brown work shoes, also known as brogans or clodhoppers. He didn’t wear the expensive kind. They were usually ordered from Sears and Roebuck or picked up at the Farmers Co-op. His head cover of choice was what we called a turtle-shell hat. It was the kind of hat the bad guys wore in the Tarzan movies.
Bumblebees and wasps were no match for him when he went to battle with that hat in his hand. I can still recall the unique sounds emitted when each wasp and bumblebee met its maker.
Consistent with his generation’s commitment to American made, my father was a GMC man. He bought new GMC trucks in 1948, 1958 and 1968. Each was purchased minus the metal bed. My father custom fitted each with a flat bed and wood cattle rack. The 1948 model was forest green equipped with a four-speed floor shift. It was a powerful old truck. The 1958 model was red in color and sported a three-speed shift on the column. It was less powerful than the one before.
In 1968, my brother, Tom, enrolled as a junior at the University of Tennessee. Consequently, the 1968 GMC featured a white cab and an orange cattle rack. I promise you, there was not another one like it in all of Middle Tennessee. It, too, featured a three-speed shift on the column, and, again, was less powerful than the one before.
In later years, my brother, John, who returned to the farm, bought most of the heavy working trucks. I recall another GMC and a Chevrolet.
Well, the years flew by. A 10-year span took me away to college and then to life on the road as a livestock marketer. I returned to the old home place one day to visit my mother and father. My father met me out in front of the house.
I guess that marked one of the first times I realized the world had changed. Instead of overalls, my father was wearing dungarees. And he was sporting a short-sleeved shirt. Atop his head was a baseball cap. His shoes? They were Nike running shoes. And to beat it all, he had just bought a new Toyota pickup truck.
But some things never changed. Until my father’s death on Father’s Day in 2003, he remained the same kind and gentle man he was – true to his family and his God – solid as a rock. I miss his bashful smile.
In his closing remarks at my father’s funeral, his longtime pastor and friend looked at my brothers and me and said, “Boys, your father left some mighty big shoes to fill.”
With the passing of the years, I have found those big shoes hard to fill.
Jack McCall is a motivational humorist, Southern storyteller and author. A native Middle Tennessean, he is recognized on the national stage as a certified speaking professional.