“My grandfather thinks stop signs cause wrecks.
“That’s what he told Mama when they put up those signs at FM 20. If you just go on across, you’ll get out of the way, but if you have to stop, you can’t build up enough speed and somebody’ll come along and hit you for sure. Mama didn’t argue. She’s a firm believer in safe driving, but she says when you marry into the Coburn family, you learn to choose your battles. In the meantime, you’re polite. Of course, with Daddad driving, stopping isn’t an option anyway. He hasn’t had a car with brakes since 1925.”
The lines above open my short story “Stop Signs,” winner of the 2000 North Texas Professional Writers’ Association’s fiction contest.
The story is fiction. The first two paragraphs, however, are pretty much true. Frank Waller did think stop signs cause wrecks. But instead of telling my mother, he said it to Mr. Farr, a new neighbor about his age. Although Mr. Farr nodded, I was sure he was just being polite. I was seven years old, and I thought the idea was crazy. The reasoning seemed sound, but the facts were skewed.
Of course, I also knew my grandfather was capable of making outrageous statements just to see the listener’s reaction.
But having been his passenger the day he tested that theory, I’m satisfied that in this case he believed what he said.
The flaw in his system was that he drove so slowly he rarely built up any speed at all. He also drove on the wrong side of the road. If he saw a car approaching, he moved to the right, but not until he had scared the bejeebers out everyone else in the car.
His five sons, four daughters-in-law, and several dozen “adopted” relatives called him Dad. He was especially delighted when one of his tenant farmers addressed him that way. Rejecting the suggestion of Granddaddy, I called him Daddad until I got too old for such juvenile behavior and joined the adults.
Dad was tall, built like a scarecrow and, as is evident from the photograph above, mostly leg. He wore khaki shirts and slacks and a scruffy old hat. When he did house painting, he wore white overalls. I think I saw him wearing a suit once, but I can’t remember when or why.
He farmed. In the 1920s, he also ran a filling station and sold Chevrolets. When I was very young, he turned the farm over to one of his sons and moved to a little house he built on his sister’s lot in town.
When he wasn’t sitting on the bench outside the post office with the other old men, he did painting and paper-hanging. He was slow and meticulous. Seams he taped and floated became invisible. Wall-paper he hung was perfectly aligned, and he used enough paste to keep it up for decades. He fell short in only one area: according to my mother, every room he papered was missing two or three feet of border.
Everyone who hired Dad knew he would interrupt the job to indulge in his great love, trotline fishing in the San Marcos River. He used Crystal White soap for bait. The picture below is an average catch. By the time I was seven, I was helping him skin the fish. He then filleted them and put them in his freezer. When he had enough, he’d host a fish fry on his front porch: fried cornbread, Aunt Bettie’s potato salad, Aunt Jessie’s tartar sauce, my mother’s pecan pie.
The summer I was eight, while I was spending a week with him, a friend who’d been hunting gave Dad two wild rabbits. Dad told me we’d have fried rabbit for supper. When I mentioned the plan in front of my uncle’s wife, she said, “You’re not going to eat a bite of that rabbit!” Thinking her just a tad bossy, I ate extra to spite her. Ten years later in a college biology course, I learned why I shouldn’t have eaten the rabbit. It’s a wonder I’m alive today.
A widower for over forty years, Dad lived on canned Pillsbury biscuits, sorghum molasses, instant coffee, and roll-your-own Bull Durham cigarettes. A daughter-in-law occasionally got him to eat a square meal.
He saucered his coffee and gave lessons to anyone who asked. On a camping trip, I watched him coach a thirteen-year-old boy. They sat side by side on the edge of an army cot, the boy holding the steaming, trembling saucer halfway to his mouth, Dad saying, “Now you’ve got to let go with that right hand.”
He let me roll cigarettes and smoked them even though they were severely deficient in tobacco.
The day he died, one of my uncles called to say Dad was sick but refused to see a doctor. My mother and my uncle’s wife convinced him to go with them to the hospital.
When he was settled in a room, a nurse came in and said, “Mr. Waller, I need to get your temperature.”
He replied, “Now, you just call me Dad.”