Alfred H. Carter (April 22, 1921 – December 22, 2001)
My father would have been 90 years old today. In honor of his memory, I’m posting this story I wrote to my then 5 year-old son after his grandfather’s funeral.
January 3, 2002
A phone ring at 3 a.m. is never good. This one came early Saturday morning three days before Christmas. By the time I was fully awake the answering machine had intercepted the call and I could hear my sister crying softly through the speaker: “Wayne… it’s Patti. Please call Dad’s number at the Lee Convalescent Center.” She hung up before I could get to the phone. I spent a few awful moments wondering whether something had happened to my mother or my father. My dad had been ill and in nursing homes for more than a year, but maybe my sister was at my dad’s bedside comforting him because something had happened to my mother. I called back immediately and got my answer. My mother answered the phone crying and said, “Daddy has left us.” I just remember collapsing to the bed at that point with the portable phone and sobbing with her.
Your grandfather passed away around 1 a.m. that morning and about a half-hour before your grandmother and aunt Patti reached his bedside. The nurse had called my mom shortly before that time to let her know that his breathing was very shallow and he might not make it through the night. They rushed over but it was too late. Patti tells me my mom spent six hours with my dad before they took him away. She held his hand and cried and talked to him and then crawled in bed beside him and stayed with him until she felt strong enough to let them take him away. Fifty-three years of marriage doesn’t let go easy.
My first thought when I got the call was to jump in the car in drive down there immediately. If I had done so, I might have gotten there before they took him. I might have seen the peaceful smile that mom said he had on his face; probably the first time he had looked peaceful and not full of pain in a long time. But I also knew the moment had passed, he was already gone, I would not get the chance to tell him good-bye or “I love you” one more time. I also had to think about the living.
Your mother and I had prepared to have Christmas for you that Saturday morning. Your big present was your first two-wheel bike and helmet. I originally bought it for your five-year birthday this past September, but you got so many presents from everyone already and were still so attached to your big green John Deere tricycle, I decided to save it for Christmas. I bought your mother and I big bikes also, so that we could all ride together. I put them all under the tree with a big red plastic sheet over them topped with a green ribbon. But what good would it do to present you a brand new bicycle, then hustle you into the car first thing after you woke up before you even had the chance to ride it? So your mother and I instead hustled the bikes into our bathroom, closed the door, and packed the car. As soon as you woke up, we planted you in your car seat and announced we were going to grandma’s two days early for Christmas. Fortunately, you were still too young to have an exact idea when the day really was, and we thought we were pretty smart not to have told you Santa was coming to our house the very next morning. You would have been wired and up all night. Your dad would have never had a precious couple hours sleep before the 3 a.m. phone call.
On the ride down to Cape Coral I asked your mother to call my tennis partner on the cell phone and warn him I wouldn’t be able to make it this Sunday. You heard her say my father had died and you suddenly blurted out, “Granddaddy died?!” That was how you found out. But even though we tried to explain to you that granddaddy had gone to heaven and we would never see him again, we didn’t expect you to fully grasp the concept. I got the feeling you related it to how the plastic Army Men soldiers in your Playstation video game died. In fact, you asked if he got shot or died in the war. I visualized one of these games in my head as I thought about the question. You begin with a mission and fight in the game until your health runs out, and then you die. So I finally answered, “Yes… he did.”
Your grandfather was a veteran of both World War II and the Korea War. He was born in Houston in 1921 to Merle Carter and Alfred Hinds Carter, Jr. He was named after his father, so he became Alfred Hinds Carter, III. Technically, I was to be named Alfred Wayne Carter, IV, but my mother was wise enough to drop the number and save me from future schoolyard taunts. I wanted you to carry the name on, but not get caught in any of the confusion of having the same first name as your dad, so I made Alfred your middle name. We’re allowed to innovate with family traditions as long as the intentions are good.
Your grandfather’s father was a dredge boat captain who cleared silt and sediment from the bottom of deltas and rivers and gulfs to make clear passage for ships to navigate. He worked on the Mississippi delta, the Chesapeake Bay, and even cleared Lake Okeechobee in Florida. It was a tough life, and my dad remembers his father could string swear words together in ways they had never been combined before. Maybe it was because of this exposure that my dad rarely ever swore himself. I never heard him say anything worse than an occasional “Damn” when a hammer slipped and hit his thumb or some other sudden mishap. Your own father, as you well know, curses quite freely, which leads me to believe that swearing is a genetic disposition which somehow skips a generation. This means you’re off the fucking hook.
You may have noticed the stub of an index finger on your grandfather’s right hand. I remember you looking at it once with curiosity. That wasn’t a hammer, but an accident with the machinery on his father’s dredge boat that cut it off to the first knuckle. Perhaps this was another reason why his mother was so determined to see her son get a formal education and pursue another line of work. Dredging required his father constantly move around the country. By the time he got to the Mississippi delta near Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Merle told him “Enough.” She wanted her two children, Al and Doris, to stay put for a while and go to school in one place. And so they did. Your grandfather went to Louisiana State University and became the managing editor of the school’s newspaper, The Daily Reveille, which had a circulation close to 50,000. He was thrilled with journalism and wanted to become a writer. Then came World War II.
Alfred Hinds Carter, III, graduated from LSU in 1942 and immediately went into the service, where he eventually rose to the rank of Captain in the Army’s 30th Infantry Division. He was stationed in England before the massive allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe known as D-Day, June 6, 1944. His command landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day + 6, or six days after the initial assault. They worked their way across France in support of the main offensive. Many times they were bombed by their own planes because the smoke used to mark the target sites would drift back across their own lines. In one such allied bombing raid, his division lost 800 men.
I asked my father to write about his experiences in World War II for the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Your mom and I had moved out of Hollywood and into the small back room of my parent’s house in Cape Coral, Florida. I was working as a reporter for a chain of local newspapers. My dad wrote a very funny and poignant account of his adventures, and I managed to land his story on the front page of the Cape Coral Daily Breeze. The last great fun memory I have of my father before he later became partially paralyzed from an aortic aneurysm operation was of driving around Cape Coral that morning, putting quarters in the newspaper machines and stealing all the newspapers inside to send to his family and friends. He was very proud that, 52 years later, he was back in journalism.
I told this story and read my father’s front-page article at his funeral service on December 28, 2001. My mother and sisters were there, along with your mom, you and his six other grandchildren. A few of my father’s AA buddies were there, as were many of my mother’s church friends. I didn’t know what to do that would suitably honor my father until I remembered this article. It would have been very hard for me to read something I wrote at his service, let alone get through the emotions to write it during that traumatic time, but it was very easy for me to read something that he wrote. My mother was very grateful that I was able to present your grandfather in a light that most of the people in the room didn’t have a chance to know him. They didn’t know his humor, his modesty, and his honesty.
I told the people at the service that it was because of my father’s sacrifices that I was able to become a writer. My dad served in World War II and was awarded a Bronze Star. He was recalled to service for Korea, but was honorably discharged before going overseas after contracting polio, a crippling disease. He left the service and was even turned down for work he had been promised before, because he was now crippled. He had two children by now, my older sisters Sharon and Patti, and a great sense of responsibility. He learned how to walk again with the aid of crutches, took survival jobs during the day and went to law school at night so that he would have a secure profession to take care of his family. He was always very practical minded.
He continued to feed this mind with books and created a large library in our house where his children could always be exposed to the classics of literature. I revered this library and used to imagine that I would someday write something that my dad would have on his shelf to read. His career in law enabled me to go the university I wanted. I’m sure it disappointed him that I chose the University of Miami over Princeton, Duke or Dartmouth, but he supported my choice, and then later helped support my early survival in Hollywood. I became a successful writer, which, by the extremely tough nature of the profession, refers to anyone who can make his living solely by writing. I know he got great pleasure reading my features in the paper every week during our time together in Cape Coral. I know how great it made me feel to read his story at the service.
Your grandfather’s memorial service ended with full military honors in the Coral Ridge Cemetery in Cape Coral. There was a reserved plot for him and my mother in Arlington National Cemetery just outside our nation’s capitol, where President John F. Kennedy and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are interred. But, once again, my dad was very practical and thinking about his family. He thought the whole experience of transporting his body up there would be a great hassle for us. I personally liked the idea of having my father buried at Arlington, and how it would give me incentive to occasionally visit the area where I was born and raised, but I knew he was right. With kids, jobs and busy lives, we would rarely get up there. It just wasn’t very “practical.”
So the guns fired over a patch of tall pines in southwest Florida: Seven soldiers, seven rifles, three reports, and 21 shots. The American flag was removed from the casket, carefully folded and presented to his widow. And there you were, the only grandchild bearing his first and last names, scrambling around the cemetery lawn looking for the spent shells to put in your pocket as a souvenir in memory of a fallen soldier. I couldn’t have been more proud.
— A. Wayne Carter