This week my father died the same way he was born- quickly and without the meddling intervention of a doctor. My grandmother told me that she sent my grandfather to town to fetch the doctor, but because of heavy storms, they arrived after my father did. So on January 8, 1930, his grandmother’s 42nd birthday, my father became the third Robert Lee Simmons in his family. Most of his family called him “Bobby Lee”.
He was a worrisome child from the very beginning- always taking risks, doing things other children had the good sense to avoid, and recounting elaborate reasons for his actions. My grandmother told stories of his childhood with a shake of her head and a grin, as though she couldn’t quite believe they had actually happened. Many involved accidents, broken bones, and near-death encounters. Much of Dad’s life was like that. I sometimes stopped him in the middle of one of his stories and said, “You did what?”
There were two things Dad loved- people and a good story. His retirement years were spent enjoying both. He was a fixture at the local DQ, meeting there twice a day with his friends to reminisce about the past, discuss the problems of the present, and predict the outcome of the future. I’m sure many found his gift of gab entertaining, but when I was growing up it was a burden. It was my job to “go get your father”. It seemed to me that no matter where we lived or visited Dad could strike up a conversation with a stranger and talk forever. Mom knew better than to go into a store with him. Gas stations…forget about quick service. And if he ran into another farmer, welder, truck driver, or Okie we might as well buy a cold drink. But pretty soon Mom would tire of sitting in the car waiting and I was sent inside to fetch him.
I spent a lot of time in a car with my dad. In fact, my very first childhood memory includes Dad and a car…and screaming. My grandmother said I was two and a half when we nearly careened off a mountainside. Mom and Dad were in the front seat, Gran and I in the back. I was standing up, holding onto a little strap that hung above the passenger window, and Gran was screaming, “Slow down, Bobby Lee, slow down!” Perhaps the fact that he had overturned a car when I was an infant passenger made her less than confident in his driving ability.
But Dad could drive…and he drove as often and as fast as possible. He loved Sunday drives and long trips. He loved cars in every shape and size. We usually had one that he drove and two or more that he was tinkering with. I helped him work on cars when I was six and learned to drive when I was nine because he simply couldn’t wait any longer to pass on his skills. Thank goodness I soon had brothers to take my place in the garage!
We also spent a lot of time quietly sitting in a car…listening to Gunsmoke on the radio. Dad loved westerns and we didn’t have a television for several years. When we finally got one he enjoyed watching even more westerns and of course, the Three Stooges. If you look at the movie collection he left behind you will find nearly every movie John Wayne ever made, and a bunch of westerns from the days when good guys wore white hats.
One of Dad’s best stories involved other people’s cars. He and his brother hitchhiked from Oklahoma to California. I believe the year was 1947 or ’48. “Thumbing a ride” was safer and more common in those days, but still fraught with unpleasant experiences. He and Don found themselves in Flagstaff, Arizona with very little money and no one to carry them on any farther, so they spent the night huddled in a large cardboard box in the parking lot of a store. Yes, of course they made it to CA! And back to OK, and then they drove back to CA after he graduated in ’49.
I noticed that as Dad got older some of his stories got a little more “detailed”. I’m not sure if he remembered things more clearly or just added a few things that should have happened. Either way, I don’t think it matters. The gist of the tale was always true and the telling of it was entertaining. His purpose was always to make someone smile or feel better or just enjoy their time together.
So…if you want to pay tribute to my dad in the coming days and weeks, tell a good story about your times together. He would love that!