While the details aren’t clear, my father’s side of the family went easy on Howard during that first meeting at the park. I don’t say this because of the affable conversations that pepper my memories, but because I just don’t recall there being any yelling, crying, or scrambling to pack up chairs, cups, blankets, and leftover coleslaw. The peaceful bits for me that day include walking along the treeline of the forest, dodging in and out among the thick evergreen branches to hide from my sisters. A game of catch with Pops. Don’t get me wrong. These folks didn’t exactly welcome Howard with open arms either. They simply joked about him when he wasn’t there to hear it. And they had plenty of material.
“He dresses like some kinda fruity golfer,” my father would bark. He was a man with little tolerance for anything he didn’t understand. Grandma Bonnie with a mustache. “If I ever dress like that, you have my permission to put me outta my misery. I mean, really, who the hell wears a white belt and green pants?”
It was true. Those early years were colorful ones for Howard’s wardrobe, and I’m not excusing myself from those who giggled about them. He was the embodiment of the loudly-dressed characters on the PGA Tour, patterned pants and bright, cotton shirts. He wasn’t the coiled, muscular Arnold Palmer, who managed to bring a level of class and strength to flamboyant colors in the 1950s and 60s. No, Howard’s frame bordered on gawky, and while he may have cut a sharp look a decade or two before I met him, it now stained him with a bit of silly. Perhaps the most comical part of my father’s disdain for his “fruity golfer” attire was the fact that Howard would indeed teach him the game, and it would become the closest thing to a hobby Pops would ever have. He would never adopt the fashion sense, at least beyond the neutral colored polos and windbreakers, but golf, along with music, would pave the way as their earliest connection.
But there was more that made Howard an outsider. Beyond the fashion choices. There was his hair: thin and wispy, dyed shoe-polish black, even though he’d grayed some years back. He drove the largest car I would ever know, a bright, white Lincoln Town Car, with fuzzy red interior. Seemed like a school bus back then. And of course, the way he talked. Words like, ‘ya’ll’ and ‘reckon’ made their way into my life for the first time. There were his catch phrases, like, “It’s hotter than a burnt boot out here.” Or, “fairways are slicker’n a hound’s tooth today.” He was a showman, and though I wouldn’t find out much about his musical career until years later, I can look back and see his brain turning all the time, playing with words, making up little rhymes that he would find ways to work into conversation that, more often than not, prompted a chuckle. There was music rolling through his head all the time, pulsing in his voice, a rhythm and pacing to his stories and anecdotes that kept you listening, no matter how absurd his diction was.
I imagine it was difficult for him to carve out his niche during those early years, though you’d never know any different. Just last weekend my father shared a story about moving a couch into Grandma Bonnie’s apartment, shortly after Howard had entered her life. Their relationship was still of the long-distance sort: he in Arkansas, she in Illinois. But he was visiting. She lived on the second floor of a two-flat, and I can still see the single, straight line of stairs all the way to the top, Bonnie’s white plume of hair poking around the door frame the minute she heard the creak of a stair. There was a lovely, screened-in porch at the front of the place, overlooking the street. My father ranted and raved as he carried the couch up Grandma’s driveway with his friend.
“She’s lost her damned mind,” he said to a friend who was helping with the couch. “Bringing this damned hillbilly around with her. I don’t know what the hell she’s thinking.” For twenty years he had no idea that Howard was sitting on that screened-in porch with a glass of sweet tea, listening in silence to every way my father cursed his existence. Grandma Bonnie hadn’t heard, probably roughly tidying up some porcelain knick knack in the bedroom, or sweeping the floors for the third time that day. Her house was always a museum.
A lesser man might have confronted my father. Perhaps funneled that anger into an argument with Bonnie later that night simply because he felt challenged or abused and didn’t know what to do with his indignation at it. Howard didn’t say a single word about it to my father until just a couple years ago, long after Pops had finally loosened his grip on vigilant duties as protective son. And Howard did it in the non-threatening way he always managed to tell stories: through laughter. Though I wasn’t there for this conversation, I can piece together the scene. I can hear him imitating my father as he always did, exaggerated voice, growl of laughter, trying to copy the sandpaper in Pop’s voice, my dad unable to hold back his own guffaw.
“Damn hillbilly,” Howard grunts through a smile. “Thought you was gonna run me outta town,” Howard laughs, my grandmother hissing in amusement next to him. “Almost started packin’ my damn bags.”
The truth is, I’m not sure why such hardened folks went so easy on Howard that first day, or why he so easily found a spot in our clan, but I suspect that much of that had to do with the energy he brought. He was a jokester. A storyteller. A man who knew a little bit about everything. He’d been a cotton picker. A rowdy hillbilly kid. A musician of minor fame. A soldier. A chemical plant manager. A jewelry store owner. A junk collector. A darn good golfer and pool player. He could always find a way to talk to you about something. And that was easier than being angry about things he couldn’t control. Don’t be mistaken. Howard wasn’t a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination. And I definitely saw him frustrated at times over the years.
“Think you better move over and let me drive,” he grumbled at me once as he slammed a club into his bag, climbed into the golf cart, and punched the pedal one afternoon after slapping a ball from one sandtrap to another. It was the first and only time he’d not ordered me to drive him around the course, which began somewhere around my ninth birthday.
“Hold my glasses,” my grandmother recalled him saying one afternoon after he pulled over to have a confrontation with another driver who’d cut him off. She still laughs and swells her eyes in disbelief at the memory of his 70 year old frame preparing for a fistfight in an empty parking lot.
Spend a few hours with him and you’d inevitably run into stories about him and his brothers “beatin’ the hell outta each other” when they were kids. And not just play fighting. Bloody noses, busted lips, black eyes, ripped collars. Weeks without talking to one another. Arguments were made with knuckles and boots. Counter-arguments with forearms and elbows and fingernails. And while I’m sure the tears flowed heavily from the losing party as they sobbed in the dust, it was all in good fun for Howard and his 12 brothers. Yes, you read that correctly: 12 brothers. You had to stand up for yourself in a group like that. In a world like this. Stand up or get swallowed.