By Wendy Hodge
My parents have lived in the same house since I was four years old, which is … well … a lot of years.
It was a brand new house, built just for us, back in the early 70’s. And on the day we moved in, my mother’s dad planted an oak tree in the front yard, right down by the street.
I wish I could say I remember that day, but the truth is I have looked at the Polaroid my brother took of me, all toothy grin and winter coat, so many times that I only feel like I remember it. In that picture, I’m standing next to the tender shoot of a tree. We are the same height and both starting off in a brand new spot.
My granddaddy isn’t in that picture. I wish he was. But he wasn’t one for fuss and attention.
Granddaddy Coxwell towered over me at 6 feet 4 inches. He was broad-shouldered and muscular; a man who worked hard his entire life. He was hesitant to speak, choosing his words carefully, as if he only had so many to spare and wanted to make them count. When he DID talk, his voice was deep and calm like a river in the late afternoon. His laugh was surprisingly high pitched, and his smile wiped away all his wrinkles, leaving a boy’s face in their place. He was happiest with his hands at work, preferably in the dirt. He was a magician in the garden, turning a handful of seeds into a glorious bounty of food, enough to fill the table day after day.
He was a state trooper, one of the finest in the state of Alabama. His uniform was always freshly ironed. His hat was perfectly aligned on his head. He carried himself like a man who knew his position in the world as a protector of the innocent, an enforcer of the law, a defense against all that was lawless and frightening. When I was in his presence, I had both the urge to be held high above the ground in his arms and to run and hide behind the nearest piece of furniture. I loved my granddaddy with a fear-tinged affection.
Everyone called him Sarge, and everyone knew Sarge was a straight arrow. During his years as a trooper, he arrested an Alabama governor for driving while intoxicated. We’ll call him Governor X. Governor X was well known for his alcoholism and his blustery personality, and one Saturday night he took himself out drinking. When Sarge pulled him over and asked him to walk a straight line, Governor X threatened to have my granddaddy thrown off the force. Sarge promptly handcuffed him.
Governor X asked, “Do you know who I am?!”
In that calm voice, Sarge replied, “Yes, I do. You’re the intoxicated citizen I’m arresting tonight.”
Sarge wasn’t thrown off the force. In fact, he was promoted. Years later, he was once again patrolling that same highway, on another rainy Saturday night, when he spotted a car weaving across the lines. The driver? Governor X, Junior. I’m told Sarge cuffed him with the same handcuffs he’d used on Governor X, Senior. Same jail cell, too.
It was during his time as a state trooper that my granddaddy lost his leg. A rabid dog was running loose in a schoolyard close to the house my mother’s family lived in. My mother was only a child, but she remembers that day very well. Sarge saw the dog and, without hesitation, grabbed his rifle and sprinted down the hill toward the school. No one knows what tripped him up as he ran (a tree root, maybe?), but he fell and his gun went off. He kept going, and he shot that dog. He also lost his left leg.
His artificial leg was plastic and pink, a Barbie kind of color, and he called it Sham. It both fascinated and repulsed me. I often sat on the floor, playing with my cousin, and from that vantage point I had the perfect view. Sarge’s pants leg would ride up, and I’d catch a glimpse of Sham, all shiny and fake. Granddaddy would catch me staring and reach down to scratch at Sham, pretending to feel a delicious itch. Then he’d wink and pick me up and settle me on his knee for a game of “ride the pony.” He’d bounce me up and down, strong hands holding me tight, and we’d laugh together. In those moments, he was not a slayer of mad dogs or a master gardener or a straight-as-an-arrow Sergeant. He was simply my granddaddy, and it seemed he’d always be right there.
I have little to no memory of the last days of my granddaddy’s life. He died the same summer Elvis Presley passed away – the two events forever linked in my head. It felt like the whole world was as sad as I was. I know that he did not die quickly. It took all summer for that strong heart to slow down to a complete halt. There are brief images in the basement of my memory – a hospital bed they’d brought to his home; his body reduced to a shadow of himself; old Sham leaning against the wall, never to be needed again; his little boy smile replaced with a painful grimace.
I can’t visit those memories often. They just don’t geehaw with the man my granddaddy was – the solid oak our family was built upon. Instead of recalling a memory when I feel his absence, I drive to Hall Avenue and stand under the shade of a giant oak. It is cool there, and a breeze often stirs the leaves. And the world is a safer place, a richer and better place, because of the depth of its roots and the spread of its canopy. And because one good man, living a genuine life, is a story that will never truly end.
Wendy Hodge is an Opelika native, an empty nester and lover of all things Opelika.
She previously had a column titled A Word or Ten, which was featured in the Tennessee Star Journal and is currently awaiting release of her first novel with Harper Collins Publishing Company.