Thoughts On: Dad’s Closet

Recently I read a Reader’s Digest article by Damon Beres. The essay was entitled “Dad’s Closet.” Mr. Beres poignantly describes his grieving emotions surrounding his father’s death. The essay opens with a suggestion to pause and reflect what is in our respective closets.

Mr. Beres artfully describes how after his father’s death his mother left “Dad’s Closet” untended for many years after the elder Beres died. The younger Beres described how his vibrant, loving father kept his personal possessions in a closet. Everything he remembered about his Dad was in that closet. When the author would venture to his home for visits one of his first joys was to revisit memories in Dad’s Closet.

Mr. Beres’ father contracted a serious brain disorder and subsequently died. His wife dutifully kept Dad’s Closet the way he left it and the younger Beres would seek solace in the memories there.

As it turns out Mr. Beres’ mother determined it time to clean the closet. The author was concerned and alarmed. Where would the memories be when the closet was closed?

I hope you will find a copy of the November 2014 issue of Reader’s Digest and read this essay of love. It is a good trigger to prompt a self test. What’s in my closet? What memories will my kids have of our time together? What will they cherish about their youth?

I started this essay to tell my brothers (and our respective children) about our Dad’s Closet. Our Dad’s Closet contains little to help us remember him or our time with him.

Over the course of years Dad told me many things about his life. Most of what he tells is of a life my brothers and I did not share with him.

These are memories from Dad’s Closet. Some of what I write about are shadowy in my mind. Dad doesn’t have the capacity to confirm my stories of his closet. I’ll probably leave out some detail or significant moment, but the gist of the recollection will be valid.

There is one more important point before you start to read about my Dad’s Closet. The memories are not like a Norman Rockwell painting of an American Nirvana. Some of the memories are hurtful. Some are shaming and even alarming. In none of them though should any other person find reason to find fault with Dad or even to hold sympathetic indignation for the sake of Dad’s sons. Each of us has excelled in our personal and professional lives. Besides, my brothers and I have our own closets.

1931 – 1949 The Early Years

Dad was born to James Oscar and Lessie Lorene in November 1931. The couple had three other children earlier. All were daughters; Mildred, Bobbie Jean, and Barbara. Mildred died early of complications from pneumonia. Bobbie Jean and Barbara (often referred to as “Dude”) are living today.

James Oscar was a tenant farmer on the Mississippi Delta in Arkansas. James Oscar would work for a large farm during the day. The owner gave James Oscar claim to bottom land to farm. In trade James Oscar would give portions of his farm produce to the owner as a means to purchase the land. James Oscar hoped to own his own farm and to raise his children there.

Before the land could be successfully farmed it had to be cleared. There were stumps and trees on the land. James Oscar worked to clear just a small portion to start his farm. He never planted a seed on that land. He became infected with tuberculosis and died before Dad was three years old.

Lessie was left with three young children to raise. She was on land she could not farm. The owner could not let her stay on the land.  That’s not the economy of tenant farming.  He would not let Lessie stay on the land or in the small house James Oscar built.

Lessie moved with Dad and his sisters into an abandoned feed shack. I can only guess the owner of the land took some pity on their circumstance and allowed Lessie and her children this bit of shelter. Lessie and the children picked cotton for their income. They rummaged and found old clothes. Dad tells of having no shoes and never really felt like he missed having them.

Lessie kept the family together for as long as she was able. Inevitably, though, there was no amount of effort she could make to feed all. Bobbie Jean and Dude went to live with Lessie’s family in Galveston. Dad stayed with Lessie and they moved to another of Lessie’s family’s home.

Dad tells of a man Lessie married. This man was a Native American and he was an alcoholic. The man was abusive to Lessie. She took his abuse.  Doing so assured she and Dad would have a place to live. However, there a came a day her new husband abused Dad.

I’ve heard Dad’s story numerous times. His recollection is consistent. Lessie’s husband touched Dad in inappropriate ways. Dad never told me specifics about the “touching.” I can only imagine what it was. Dad was shamed by this man and Dad concocted a plan to retaliate for the indignity he and his mother were suffering at the hand of her husband.

They lived in a home that was off the ground on cinder blocks. There was a small staircase at the back door. It wasn’t so heavy that Dad could not move it away from the door. That is what he did. Dad did something to infuriate Lessie’s husband and then ran for the backdoor. Her husband, as Dad expected, gave chase. Dad jumped from the doorway to the ground. Lessie’s husband, as Dad tells it, almost caught him before he could exit. Lessie’s husband expected to find the steps at the doorway. They weren’t there. Lessie’s husband fell from the doorway and broke a leg.

That day Lessie and Dad left Arkansas headed for Galveston.

For a time Lessie, Bobbie Jean, Dude and Dad lived with Lessie’s brother, Jimbo. Lessie eventually found work cleaning houses. There was enough income to rent an apartment in Galveston. Everybody except Dad worked and contributed all they made to keeping the family afloat.

Galveston was a wide open town when Dad lived there. Gambling and prostitution were common there. Alcohol flowed freely. Dad was right in the middle of it. He tells of a time he rode a bicycle delivering Western Union messages. He giggles when he tells of the times he sneaked into nefarious places. The things he saw or the experiences he tasted he doesn’t share. My sense is those are dark corners in his mind and he doesn’t want to relive them.

Dad graduated from high school in Galveston. On a lark he and a friend rode into Houston and stopped at the Army Recruiter. His friend was going to enlist. Dad threw his name into the hopper too. He was only 17 and Lessie would have to sign to allow him to enlist.

Overtime Bobbie met and married a good man and made a family home in Brownwood. Dude met a good man and moved to Arizona. Lessie and Dad lived alone until the day Dad enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Corps (later to become the U. S. Air Force).

1949 – 1969 In Service To His Country

Dad enlisted in 1949. He went to basic training at Randolph Army Air Field. He finished basic training and was sent to a specialty school. He was tested and as it turns out Dad has great intelligence and possesses certain kinds of skills that make him a highly valued recruit. He was selected to serve in the Management Analysis section of a large headquarters section.

Dad completed his training and was sent to Greenland for his first duty station. Greenland, as can be imagined, is an isolated, cold place. There is little to do in the form of recreation. Much of a person’s time in those days were spent indoors. Off duty time was consumed in the Enlisted Clubs or the NCO Clubs. It’s in Greenland that drinking became more of a need than something to do to pass the time.

The U. S. Army Air Force was split from the U. S. Army to become the U. S. Air Force in about 1950. Dad had achieved standing and was now a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). His position and his rank gave Dad a great deal of latitude for a young man not yet 21. He reported to other officers, but he had sway over their potential promotions. His management analysis reports were used to help determine the success of a Squadron’s leadership. His Commanders were willing to overlook Dad’s bad behavior. It is fair to say he exploited his position.

Dad was reassigned to serve as an NCO Management Analyst at Cornell University in New York. He was assigned to the ROTC program there. While there he became known to a number of Officers and his skills were recognized to be of import to the Air Force.

In this time the United States was being directly confronted by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This particular era is known as the Cold War. Additionally, the United States was engaged in battle in Korea. The Communist Chinese had advanced on the Koreans to overtake the peninsula.

The Air Force was moving from propeller driven airplanes to jet powered attack planes. Our pilots would engage the enemy in frigid conditions. The pilots were poorly trained to survive the desert or cold if they were forced down from the skies.

In 1952 General Curtis Lemay was assigned to establish a Desert / Mountain Survival School. The site chosen was a small Air Force Base in Northern Nevada near Reno. Dad was part of the team that established the training center at Stead AFB.

In that summer Dad was in Reno during his off duty time. Reno is a small city fully engaged in the gambling industry. Reno was also known as the place for disgruntled husbands and wives to come to establish residency in the State of Nevada. A residency of thirty days was sufficient to file for divorce. Reno was known as the “Divorce Capital of the World.”

As it happens he was cruising Virginia Street; the main highway through Reno. He was driving a Lincoln that he was particularly proud of. He crossed paths with a carload of girls.  They were recent Reno High School graduates. They were in a Lincoln of the same make and model, but more elaborate and with more bells and whistles than Dad’s. One of the girls in the car was Patricia.

Patricia liked to be called Pat or Patty.  The couple liked each others company.  They were intimate and a child was conceived.  Dad didn’t know about the pregnancy for a time.  Patty made some decisions regarding her future and the pregnancy.  Times were different then.  Unwed mothers were frowned upon and the stigma would have been tough to bear.

Patty did contact Dad at his duty station in New York.  Dad took leave from the Air Force and flew back to Reno. He and Mom were married there. Dad went back to New York and established a household for his new bride and soon to be born son.

Dad decided to end his military career in late 1953. His four year commitment to the Air Force was ending. He and my Mom boxed up all their stuff and prepared to move Riverside, California. There was an airplane manufacturer there. Corsair I believe was the corporate name. While in Riverside Dad’s son became very ill. Hospitalization was required. While at the hospital Mom got sick and then Dad. All of us were hospitalized at the same time.

It was clear to Dad that he needed the structure of the military in his life. He reenlisted in early 1954 and was assigned to Japan. He kept his rank and his position. His skills were in demand and he was able to pick up where he left off.

After a Dad spent a few months in Japan he was able to send for his family. Dad would spend the next three years in Japan. I have too few memories of that time.  There are fragments of memories, but they don’t seem to make any sense. My brother was born in Japan in November 1956. After about three years Dad was transferred out of Japan.

Dad, Mom, my brother and I spent about a week on an old troop ship sailing to New York and then on to the next duty station, Charleston AFB, South Carolina. Another brother was born there in November 1957.

Every year or so Dad would be reassigned from one duty station in one State to another duty station in another State. Dad took his family to Panama City, Florida to Yuma, Arizona, to Colorado Springs, Colorado and lastly back to Stead AFB in Northern Nevada.

Mom and Dad divorced in Reno in 1962. The day of their divorce was the last time Dad saw his sons for about nine years. Cards and letters didn’t flow from the many far away places he went.  Dad didn’t take much time to reach out to his boys.

From Stead AFB Dad was assigned to an AFB in Wichita, Kansas. He married and divorced while there. He was transferred to Germany where he got into trouble. Alcohol abuse had something to do with that.  He was sent by way of fastest transport available to Turkey. From Turkey he was returned to Kansas and from Kansas back to Randolph AFB in San Antonio.

Dad rekindled a relationship with his high school sweetheart. She was living in Galveston and was divorced with teenage sons. They married and made their home first in San Antonio then in South Houston.

After twenty years Dad retired from the Air Force in 1969.

1970 – 1983: The Corporate Life

Dad and his new (third) wife settled in Houston after his discharge from the U. S. Air Force. He did what most young military retirees do. He sought a job in the civilian world. His first job was selling real estate in a development project at Lake Livingston in Texas. He had a modicum of success, but his time selling lakefront property was short lived.

He applied to manage a warehouse operation for a local dry goods retailer. He tested and won the position. His time managing the warehouse operation lasted about six months.

The president of the retail chain was made aware of Dad’s testing results. The president was impressed and interviewed Dad for a position as site location and real estate officer. Dad was taken under the wing of the president. Dad often referred to him as the “Daddy I never had.”

Dad’s career took off. He possesses the intellect and skills necessary to succeed in retail market real estate. The retailer’s business grew and Dad was a key to their success. He found locations and partners to build 20,000 square foot buildings that would house the retail operation. Small towns like Rosenberg, Manor and Seguin became markets where the retailer became successful.

Dad tells a story of a time the president directed him to meet another retailer at the airport and to take that man around to several store locations. The gentleman was building stores similar to those Dad was building for his company. That gentleman was Sam Walton. He was the principal owner, mover and shaker for a retail chain headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. We know that chain as Wal-Mart.

Dad laughs when he tells the story of his time with Mr. Walton. As they drove from store to store Mr. Walton described his expansion plan. He was going to build 25,000 square foot stores in rural towns of a specific size. He planned to capture the business in those smaller towns that was going into the larger metropolitan cities to buy their dry goods. Dad says, “I told him he was out of his mind and that his plan wouldn’t work.”

We all know Wal-Mart is thriving. Dad’s retailer is defunct.

Dad made money working for the retailer in Texas. After ten years Dad was dismissed. He only tells that he had a falling out with other functionaries at the retailer. He told me privately about his shame for having let down his mentor.

In this ten years Dad’s third marriage failed.

He met and married another lady; his fourth marriage. She divorced him in 1984. Dad then chose to live a bachelor’s life from that time forward. He would not marry anyone ever again.

His career with the retailer ended and Dad worked for a number of major retailers in their respective real estate acquisition departments. Those were environments in which Dad was not the leader, but a member of a team. The rules and procedures didn’t suit Dad’s style and he didn’t stay long. He moved to San Antonio to work with a major real estate management company. He moved to Bentonville, Arkansas and worked for a time for Wal-Mart.

In 1984 Dad and a friend struck out on their own to build their own retail stores to sell or lease. They entered into an agreement with an international tire company. That didn’t end well. Dad and his friend were sued and eventually lost the suit. Their business ended before it started really.

1984 to Present: God’s Will

Hebrews 8:10-12
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel. After those days, declares the Lord:  I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,  and I will remember their sins no more.”

In 1984 I moved to Texas and stayed for a time with Dad in a “penthouse” condominium in Houston. He and his wife had divorced and he was left only with the condo and his clothes. We were both at the proverbial bottom of the barrel. Neither of us was too interested in clawing our way out of it. Drunk enough we could weather any storm. And every day was a storm.

God delivered me from that lifestyle and was showing me a better Way.  Dad and I continued to live together for the rest of that year.  Then came a Saturday night in August 1984; August 8, 1984 to be specific.

Dad came home from a night prowling the bars in his neighborhood. He was drunk to the point he could barely walk. As he came into the condo he was peeling his clothes and leaving them where they lay. He stumbled to the couch and fell face first into the cushion. His knees were still on the floor and he went fast to sleep. A young lady knocked at the door. She was looking for Dad. There was an arrangement made between them and she was making sure he was okay.

I picked up his legs and laid him on the couch. I put a blanket over him and retired to my bedroom. At my bed and on my knees I cried out to God, “Please heal my Dad.”

That Sunday morning he was suffering the after effects of too many drinks. He was an active alcohol abuser for the better part of his life and he looked it. He couldn’t remember how he got into the condo or even how he got home. He didn’t remember soliciting women for favors and bringing a stranger to his door the night before. He asked me what happened and I told him.

In the first few moments of that “morning after” I was disappointed. God hadn’t heard my prayer or so I thought. I gathered up some of the newspaper and was heading to my bedroom to read. Dad stopped me and asked if I knew anything about Alcoholics Anonymous. His question was stunning. God DID hear me.

I found an AA meeting in the area. He asked me to go with him and happily I agreed. That night was the beginning of my Dad’s recovery, but it was not to culminate that day. Dad has been a member in good standing and claims sobriety for the past 30+ years.

The most important transformation in Dad is not that he is sober. It is that in his sobriety the LORD touched his heart. Dad made a real confession of his sins. He made a real cry out to God to forgive him. He started attending a church and he chose to be baptized by immersion. Dad made amends to many, many of those he harmed in the course of his life.

Dad’s life of decadence ended that day in August 1984. A life in Christ began.

For the past 30+ years Dad has been deliberate in his effort to treat others with the kindness Christ would expect of him. There have been obstacles and there have been failures in his walk with the LORD.  Dad knows the grace given him by God. The Father’s forgiveness covers even those straying days.

All the darkness in Dad’s Closet is exposed and destroyed by the Light. That is the memory I cherish. Jesus saved Dad. There will be a time in Heaven when everyone in my family will stand together in awe of Christ Jesus. None of us will be set aside by our Shepherd.

Yes, that is the content of Dad’s Closet I remember. All honor, glory and praise to God our Father and His Son, Christ Jesus. Amen.

About Jim Barnes

A man seeking to please the Lord. A man striving to abide in Christ Jesus. A man whose hope is to see just one more come into the fold.
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