Appeared in the June 2013 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange Quarterly

FINDING DADDY

By J. G. Braddock Sr.

I do not sit around and wonder about Daddy all the time. My obsession comes in highly infrequent spells. Sometimes it is impromptu; he will pop into my head for no reason at all some nights when I'm almost asleep, and I'll end up spending half the night taking a mental inventory of the scant few memories I have of him.

At other times, something will be said, or I'll see something—an old Model A Ford like the ones he used to help assemble at the Ford Plant in Jacksonville; a tweed cap like the one I remember seeing him wear; a harmonica like the one he played—and I’ll suddenly feel an aching emptiness. Soon I’ll find myself sifting through the meager collection of memories I have of him, trying to glean from them something I missed the many times I sifted through them before.

My personal remembrances of his existence are meager and exist only on the corruptible media of an old man’s brain cells. However, I have kept them well imbedded and vivid through much recalling.

My first memory of him is more of hearing him than seeing him. My mother had dressed my brother and me in our pajamas and had us sitting in the living room awaiting Daddy’s arrival from work. She told us to listen for the sound of his harmonica. In a little while we could hear the strains of Over the Waves, his favorite harmonica piece, growing gradually louder. I can remember him opening the door, but I’ve never been able to squeeze more from the scene.

In the next memory, my mother had baked a cake and placed it on a high shelf over the kitchen sink. Driven, I suppose, by my quickly budding penchant for bakery goods, an affliction the years haven’t diminished, my brother and I conspired to rake it down with a broom. As small as we were and as high as it was, we somehow succeeded, but the prize we sought landed face down in the sink. Daddy and Mother suddenly appeared in the doorway. They weren’t smiling. Perhaps mercifully, my memory of the event ends at that point.

The far and away most cherished page of my mental book of childhood memories is well worn from frequent fondling. It is also my first piece of memory of a duration long enough to qualify as more than a fragment. Even after all these years I can close my eyes and with no effort see him pushing a wheelbarrow across our yard as my brother and I scampered about picking up bits and pieces of trash to put into it to “help” Daddy clean up. Each time the wheelbarrow became full, he sat one of us on top of the load and the other on his shoulders and rode us to the edge of the street to dump the trash. In the midst of the cleanup, his brother Eddie drove up in a new Ford convertible coupe. He had just bought it and invited us to go for a spin. Daddy walked to the rear of the car, grasped a chrome handle in the center of the coupe’s sloped back and opened out a cushioned seat—a rumble seat—large enough to hold two people. To our delight he hoisted my brother and me into it. I vividly remember seeing him and Eddie in front of us talking as we rode in a several block loop.

My next memory of him also took place in our yard. My brother had accidentally broken the pane out of a window. Daddy brought the sash into the yard and laid it on the ground to repair it. Intently, we watched him remove the broken glass, strip off the old putty, use pliers to pull out the glazier points that held the pane securely to the sash, gingerly ease the new pane in place, and tap in new glazier points. After applying putty, the toughest part of all because he had a time beveling it without scraping it all off, he stepped back to admire his work. Before his admiring eyes, my brother picked up the hammer and smashed the same pane again. Daddy reacted as I probably would have had one of mine done the same thing. He yanked the hammer from my brother’s hand and began spanking him, perhaps a little harder than he should have, but certainly not unmercifully. Our mother suddenly rushed out the kitchen door onto the porch with a saucer in her hand. She yelled something to the effect, “You big bully! Don’t beat on my child like that!” He yelled something over his shoulder as he continued administering justice. He turned, as if by premonition, just in time to throw up his hand and deflect the only flying saucer I have ever seen from sailing into his face.

My last memory of him is etched indelibly in my brain. As a four and a half year old, I watched through a window as he was placed in a vehicle. I learned later in life that the vehicle was an ambulance that took him to the hospital. I also learned that his grief over the unexpected death of his daughter, my ten month old sister June, had plunged him into an emotional crisis affecting him so deeply that he had to be hospitalized. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital shortly afterward and died September 5, 1935.  

Stored away in the same set of brain cells are remembrances of him I heard from others long before I became obsessed with learning all I could about him.  Two came from Uncle Eddie. One was of the time Eddie, a practical joker, crawled under the house and drilled a hole in the floor under the bathtub in which Daddy was taking a much too leisurely bath, making others wait. He then lit a firecracker and stuck it through the hole. The resulting explosion sent Daddy running all the way out into the street, naked. The other was about the time he invited Daddy and Daddy’s father-in-law, my grandfather Henry Sessions, to go fishing with him. The two, both partially deaf, sat at opposite ends of the boat and carried on a conversation most of the day while relying on poor Eddie, sitting in the middle seat, to relay what each said to the other.

One of Daddy's Crandall first cousins, who had lived in the same neighborhood in the country when they were boys, remembered how strong he was as a boy. He told of being waylaid and beaten up by several bullies on the way home from school one day. When Daddy heard about it, he immediately hunted down the culprits and soundly convinced them to keep their hands off his kinfolks.

Daddy’s brother-in-law, Wiley Futral, who had worked with him at the Ford plant, said he was the strongest man he ever knew. He saw him become so angry one day at work that he threw a wrench through the engine block of a Ford he was assembling. Wiley added that in spite of his extraordinary strength, Daddy was a gentle man.

Surprisingly, I learned little of him from my mother. She did say that although he assembled autos, he never learned to drive one. Once, when I griped about having to write a poem for a fifth grade assignment because I thought poetry was for sissies, she said he wrote poetry. Poetry suddenly became a man’s thing to me.

I sometimes tell myself I would know much more about Daddy had I not moved at a young age from Jacksonville, where his contemporaries—those who knew him well—lived. But I don't think it would have mattered. Not until I entered manhood did I inexplicably develop this insatiable hunger to know as much about him as I could. Caught up in working and raising a family, I had neither the time nor money to make the necessary journeys to Jacksonville to question relatives who knew him. By the time my five were grown and I became financially able to make the trips, most who knew him had passed away.

Learning in recent years that two of his relatives with whom he was close were still around, I made a special trip to Jacksonville to talk to them. Both, John K. Parnell, known to everyone as “John K.,” and Buck Wood, were his first cousins. Knowing Daddy had been closer to John K., I visited him first, anticipating the joy of spending an afternoon drinking in exploits of Daddy I had not heard before. In spite of looking well for his eighty plus years, I quickly learned John K. was all but totally deaf and lived in his own little world. It took several attempts before I got him to understand I was Arnold Braddock’s son who had come to learn what he could tell me about my daddy. He said that after leaving Georgia while in his teens, Daddy worked in a sawmill near Jacksonville for awhile. He then launched into an account of where each of his children were and what they were doing. Knowing he had nine offspring, I kept trying to interrupt him with more questions. Finally successful, I asked him what kind of man Daddy had been. It took a long moment for him to remember who I was and another one to understand my question. “Oh, Arnold was a nice fellow,” he replied, then picked up where he had left off chronicling his children. Along about the fifth child, I decided my quest was a lost cause.

A visit to Buck’s house proved almost as fruitless. Sound of hearing and very much alive for his seventy-five plus years, he was a ready talker, but only about his recent trip to the Holy Land, which he illustrated with an arm’s-length stack of photos, including at least two rolls’ worth of him being baptized in the Jordan River. I broke into his dialogue when he left a brief moment of silence that allowed me to state the reason for my visit. All I could get out of him before he resumed his illustrated Holy Land travelogue was he and Daddy had left Georgia looking for work in Jacksonville, and both worked together at a sawmill, which he identified as being on the outskirts of Jacksonville, and that they later found jobs in a bakery closer into town.

I headed home with only the added knowledge that Daddy came to Jacksonville from Georgia with Buck and worked in a sawmill and a bakery.

From his hospital record, which I was able to obtain, I learned that he quit school in the eighth grade. The record showed he stood 5’ 7” and weighed 150 pounds—my height and weight at the same age.

I can’t remember how I learned some of the things I know about him. It seems as if I’ve always known them. I know he was born in 1903 in Hoboken, Georgia. As much as I’ve searched, I’ve never found his birth month and day. His father, James Owen Braddock, worked out of Hoboken as a section foreman for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. After his father died of TB when Daddy was seventeen, Ola and her three sons lived with her brother, Ed Wood. The 1920 census confirms this. I also know that during layoffs from the Ford plant, he worked for Armour’s lard plant and for Ambrosia Bakery.

The known tangibles of his life are just as meager as the intangibles. My brother and I were two of the very few he left to testify that he existed on this earth for 32 years. The list of others can be uttered in one breath—a letter, a cap, a harmonica, a painting, and a few photographs. I have the letter. He wrote it to my mother to apologize for the problems his uncontrollable grief had caused her. She gave it to me when I first began to hunger for knowledge about the father I knew for so short a while. 

His mother, our grandmother Ola, kept the rest of these tangibles in a buffet drawer she had set aside for the honor: his gray tweed cap, his harmonica, an oil painting he did in the hospital as part of the therapy, and four photos of him.

Recalling the reverence with which she handled these items each time she took them out for my brother and me to see and hold during our several months stay with her after his death, my fingertips can almost feel again the cap's soft inner fabric as I tried to make it sit on my head without falling down over my eyes. And the harmonica’s squalling sounds echo faintly in my mind's ear, even well after over two of my father’s lifetimes, as I recall running my untrained lips across the same notes he so expertly had run his. I never saw these two treasures after Ola died a few years later.

The painting, rendered as part of his therapy at the hospital, depicted, with talented perspective, a scene of snow covered houses along a creek. My biased eyes saw it as an exceptional piece of work, not amateurish in spite of being the only work of someone who had never seen snow. I thought for a long time that the painting had gone the way of the cap and harmonica until a faint recollection sent me to an album containing photographs from my high school years. In a photo taken when I was sixteen, it is hanging above the mantle on which I am leaning. In a subsequent conversation with my brother, he remembered having it on his apartment wall when he worked in Washington many years earlier, but he could not remember its fate after that.

 

I don’t know what happened to Ola’s small collection of photos after she died. However, I was able to get copies of three of them from Uncle Eddie. One is a 3 by 5 studio portrait in which he wears a suit and a polka dot bow tie.

 

Hanging next to it is a family portrait taken when he was about four. In it are his father, mother and older brother, Lewis.

 

The third photo is of Daddy and Aunt Mae, Uncle Lewis’ wife, standing on a bridge in Jacksonville.

I had been able to identify the three photos in Eddie collection of family photos. I knew there was a fourth photo in Ola’s that I didn’t see in Eddie’s. As it had been so long ago that I had seen it, I couldn’t remember who it was of.

  

Above all my family pictures hangs a photo of the employees of the Jacksonville Ford assembly plant standing in front of the plant. The huge building still stands, deserted, at Commodore Point, near the Gator Bowl. When first seeing the photograph, my brother-in-law exclaimed, “Now, that's a remarkable photograph!” And it is. In this 10 inch by 40 inch shot—much too large to reproduce here, but a snapshot of it, is below—taken somewhere around 1929, the face of each of the several hundred employees can be seen clearly. A larger, clearer copy can be seen at: http://www.woodenshipsironmen.com/Ford.htm 

     Daddy is kneeling on the second row.

Until several years ago, I did not know the Ford plant picture existed. One evening, while visiting my mother’s older sister, she pulled it out of a closet and asked if I wanted to see an old picture that had my father in it. Noting the pleasure I found in looking at it, she insisted I take it home with me, a generous gesture considering her late husband, Wiley, is in it.

Sure I had exhausted all possible sources of information about Daddy, I gave up my search for him thirty years ago, content with what I had accumulated. Recently, a cousin through my Braddocks, James Folker, sent me an old sepia photo of two barefoot boys. It was in his grandmother’s family photo album he had recently acquired. The photo literally took my breath away. Thrilled, I exclaimed to myself, “That’s the fourth photo I saw at Grandma Ola’s!” I hadn’t seen it in seventy-five years, yet I recognized it right away as being Daddy and his older brother Lewis. I had forgotten that my mother had told me he had flat feet. Seeing them in the photo reminded me of another tangible he left, this one through his genes. I have flat feet, four of my children have flat feet, three of my grandchildren have flat feet, and one of my great-grandchildren has flat feet.

As said earlier, having exhausted all avenues of information, I made the decision to give up my search for him thirty years ago. However, the section of my brain that controls wonder, acting on its own volition, continues to unexpectedly send me sifting again through the meager collection of intangibles and tangibles I have of him, trying to glean from them something I missed the many times I sifted through them before.

 

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