By Ronald E. Johnson, C.Ph.D.
My eyes sparkled as my dad raised the rusty hood of a 1946 Ford coupe. I watched and listened as Dad probed the carburetor, spark plug wires, and fan belt. My heart beat like a drum as Dad said, “I think we can fix her up to take you to college.” Wow! That was music to a 17-year-old Texas country boy! We towed the coupe to our home in Mount Belvieu , Texas and pushed it beneath an oak tree.
That was the beginning of my lessons in the art of shade-tree mechanics. Dad laid out a bunch of tools, and explained that wrenches, socket sets, bolts, washers, and nuts were identified with fractions: 1/4, 1/2 , 3/8, 7/16, 3/4, 19/32, etc. He explained that round-headed wrenches were called “box end” and that others were called “open-end” wrenches. With Dad’s guidance, and mostly his labor, we dismantled the motor until it was a bare engine block. Then, we replaced piston rings, bearings, gaskets, and seals. We rebuilt the clutch, transmission, differential, and brakes. The paint was stripped off and the coupe was repainted metallic blue. I scraped together a couple of dollars to fill the gas tank, and did the first test drive down a county road. She was a beauty. The motor purred like a contented kitten…and she ran like the wind!
Unfortunately, while Dad was teaching me how to be a “grease monkey”, he was continuing his violent abuse of my mother. My older brother had finally taken all the beatings he could tolerate, and the previous year he had run away from home to join the U.S. Air Force. One day during my senior year in high school, I entered the family living room to discover my mother curled up on the couch, weeping, and holding a large butcher knife. I asked, “what’s wrong?” She turned terrified, tear-swollen eyes to me and sobbed, “Your father just threatened to use this on me! He said he wanted to kill me!”
That was the last time I saw my mother alive. She disappeared. So did Dad. I did not know where they had gone. My little sister, Beverly, went to live with her best friend’s family. I was “taken in” by another family so I could finish my senior year in high school. Beverly had some contact with Mom, but I was not in the information loop. I knew that she was somewhere in the geographic area, but she did not correspond with me. That ignorance probably saved my life…and hers, for a short time.
A few weeks after my parents disappeared, I drove my Ford to the home where my sister was staying. While there, Dad showed up with a 20 gauge shotgun. He walked up to me, placed the barrel against my chest, and growled, “Tell me where your mother is or I will blow you apart!” I froze in stunned disbelief that the dad who had guided me in rebuilding my Ford so I could go to college was now threatening to kill his son! Somehow, I remained calm, and answered, “Dad, I honestly do not know where she is. I haven’t seen her since you both left home.” He took a deep breath, searched my eyes, shook the shotgun, and said, “If you see her, tell her I have this for her.” He turned, got in his car and drove away. A few weeks later, he saw me in town and repeated the threats against me and my mom. Then, he handed a $20.00 bill to me and said, “This is for your mother.” He turned and walked away. I realized that my dad was mentally ill…and desperate! I learned later, that Mom had placed a restraining order against Dad, but I shuddered to think of what might happen if Dad did find mom alone. The only time I saw my dad alive again was when he came to watch me ride a bull in the Dayton Rodeo. I saw him in the stands, but he did not say anything to me. The next time I looked at his face, he was in a casket, several months later.
Somehow, I finished my senior year, and graduated from Barbers Hill High School. My grades were low average, even though the school faculty honored me as “The boy most likely to succeed.” During the summer, I earned “college money” by mowing lawns, hauling hay, and driving tractors for local farmers. When Fall arrived, I enrolled in Lamar Junior College, bought my books, and went to the library to get a jump on class readings. As I browsed through the stack of books, I became very discouraged, depressed, and was overwhelmed with an awful sense of hopelessness. I glanced around the campus library and realized that going to college while dependent on a neighbor for room and board just wasn’t a good situation for me. I didn’t have a regular job, and weekly gas money, tuition, and food was beyond my financial resources. I sighed deeply, sold my books back to the campus store, withdrew from enrollment, and drove to the home where my sister was staying. I handed her the keys to my Ford coupe, and said, “Sis, take care of my car and yourself. I’m taking a Greyhound to Houston to join the Air Force.” We embraced, cried, and parted. The next time we met was at the funeral of mom and dad.
I found out later, that in August, Mom had sold the family home and used the money to rent a small apartment in Mount Belvieu so Beverly could walk to classes during her senior year at Barbers Hill High School. I was assigned to complete boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Around midnight on Nov 2, 1958, a chaplain informed me that my parents had been killed. I asked, “Did my dad find mom and kill her?” The chaplain nodded his head as he said, “He shot her and killed himself in a murder-suicide.” The chaplain made arrangements for me to take a week off to attend the funeral and settle my family’s affairs. My brain whirled in a combination of anger, numbness, and confusion: “Why did this have to happen?”
The next week was a blur of anger, long glances into space, groans, migraine headaches, meetings to settle funeral arrangements and insurance papers, and to gather Dad’s personal items from the tiny apartment where he had lived alone. Uncle Raymond and Robert Jonte , our Methodist Pastor, guided me through the steps to bury my parents and make legal arrangements for guardianship of my sister, who was only 17 years of age and in emotional shock at the sudden and violent death of both parents. My older brother went on a week-long drunk, and left me to take care of the funeral and burial arrangements. We buried Mom in Memory Gardens near Interstate I-10 in Baytown; Dad was buried next to his father in the Johnson cemetery plot in Kosse, Texas. I drove my Ford back to San Antonio, Texas and completed boot camp.
My first assignment was at Biggs Field in El Paso, Texas. I hated that place. The migraine headaches attacked me more frequently. I sought relief almost every weekend by loading my Ford Coupe with Airmen and heading to Juarez, Mexico, where we wasted our money, tarnished our virtues, and escalated my depression. Within a few weeks, I definitely was not “The boy most likely to succeed.”
Fortunately, an Air Force Chaplain showed concern for me and arranged a hardship transfer to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where my brother was stationed. That move likely salvaged my tattered life, but my brother did not recover from the traumatic loss of our parents; shortly after I joined him, he was arrested for bad debts. I needed my brother, so I sold my Ford to pay his bail. He was discharged from the Air Force, and returned to Texas. His absence left another big hole in my life. Again, I felt abandoned and alone. My Air Force roommate, Jerry Spain, saw my emotional turmoil and headaches, and invited me to go to church with him. Reluctantly, I agreed. That was a hinge point in my life.
There, I met a Christian family who invited me to their home after Sunday church services. Their compassion turned my life around. The husband, university professor Arland Foster, had no sons; he had three daughters. I had no father. Almost every Sunday, I went to their home. The arrangement was good for both of us. Within a few weeks he was taking me fishing and hunting, and he hired me to work part-time on weekends in his garage-work shop, where we built weight lifting equipment and pick-up truck bumpers. We bonded, and little by little, my migraine headaches diminished. I began to heal.
Meanwhile, his oldest daughter and I discovered that we had a lot in common with politics, Christian beliefs, and outdoor recreation. We were both elected as officers of the church college-age young adult class. That put us together a lot. She began to lose interest in her boyfriend, and spent more time talking with me. Her father saw our shared-interest and stipulated that I had to go to college if I was thinking about building a long-term relationship with his daughter. I immediately enrolled in night classes at The University of Arizona (where I eventually earned three degrees).
Dad’s insurance policy was finally settled and I received a small payment. Two thirds went into a college fund. I asked my sergeant to use the balance to pick out a car for me…one that would last for the rest of my military enlistment and through college. He picked out a blue, 1955 Chevrolet V-8 Belaire. It was a great little car. It lasted through my enlistment and first four years of college.
Even though my Dad had committed a horrible, murderous act that left me fatherless, his earlier time with me under the Oak tree equipped me with a lifetime of “shade tree mechanical skills” that enabled me to take care of my little blue Ford and Chevy, and most of the other cars I bought. I was also able to use those skills in a ministry to service cars owned by widows. Recently, my wife…the professor’s oldest daughter… and I returned to the Oak tree in Mount Belvieu. My mind swirled in a jumble of emotions as I recalled the days Dad and I spent overhauling the Ford coupe. I took my wife’s hand and walked thoughtfully back to our new Chrysler Aspen. I touched it gently, and glanced back to the Oak with a deep sense of appreciation for time spent under that tree and for the Lord’s grace to provide complete healing.
For more articles and books by Dr. Johnson, visit www.pacworks.com (“Doc’s Blog”). Students will be interested in a high school elective course designed by Dr. Johnson, “Character and Skills For Home and Careers” and his book, Teaching Eagles To Soar…Guidance and Counseling For A Fatherless Generation. Both are available at www.pacworks.biz.
Check us out on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003000021331&sk=wall. Stay up on the latest news and articles from Dr. Johnson, we would be honored to be added to your list of friends. Already a friend? Share us with your friends. To reach those who advocate school of choice whether home school, private school or charter school, and to reach out to the fatherless and father-challenged according to James 1:27.
Dr. Johnson is Founder and President of Paradigm Accelerated Curriculum and Paradigm Alternative Centers, Inc. You are invited to correspond with him at P.O. Box 810, Zephyr, Texas 76890 or Learn@pacworks.com.