Friday, August 3, 2012

Jimmy and his Dad

        Jimmy and his dad at the Stars & Stripes America's Cup compound, Freemantle, Australia, 1987.
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“I was supposed to have been a Jesuit priest
Or a Naval Academy grad
That was the way that my parents perceived me
Those were the plans that they had
But I couldn’t fit the part
Too dumb or too smart
Ain’t it funny how we all turned out
I guess we are the people our parents warned us about”

“We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”

We are all products of our environment, and the child-rearing environment of the early fifties was pretty straight-forward. Like most of the other war babies I know, I come from a fairly dysfunctional background. My parents worked for as far back as I can remember. I know that’s where my worth ethic came from. They were typical middle-class Southerners in most regards, but there were also inherited traits that set them apart.

My father was a man of simple rules, though he could be totally unpredictable. We were well-known along the Gulf Coast as a seafaring family, but when World War II broke out, my father joined the Air Corps. I guess we have a hidden flying gene in there among all that salt water. My mother was the visionary. She loved music, musicals, and anything that had to do with the arts. She had attended college for two years before the Great Depression sent her out into the workforce, where she stayed for nearly sixty years.

My father’s idea of my future was hinged to the past. He saw me working on a boat. My mother taught me to dream and expand my horizons beyond family traditions and my childhood surroundings. They sure as hell did some things that I loved them for and some things that really pissed me off, but I still love them and love to go back to Alabama to visit….

I had made it a habit of coming home whenever I bought a new plane. It had become a ritual and a good excuse to visit my folks and get the approval of my purchase from former Army Air Corps master sergeant J.D. Buffet. Dad and I had never really talked about his flying days. I was so enamored of the exploits of my grandfather that I forgot that my old man had had a few adventures of his own. All I really knew was that he had been a flight mechanic in the war and had worked on B-17’s in Maine, B-25’s in Africa, and C-47’s in India. Now that we were both older and I had become romantically involved with airplanes, it became a wonderful opportunity to stay in touch with my dad. He had ridden with me in every airplane I had owned, and there had been a lot of them…

One day we had come in from a grueling day of multiple takeoffs and landings on the Cumberland River and I was venting my frustration about crosswind when my dad casually said, “You should try one with a fire on board.” He proceeded to tell me a flying story that made my day of training look like an afternoon at the spa.

He had been flying over the Himalayas from his base in India on a test flight in an old C-47. There was just the pilot, co-pilot, and my dad. They were cruising along when suddenly a fire light came on, indicating that the heater in the plane was on fire. It was located in the lower nose compartment. My father donned a gas mask, grabbed a fire extinguisher, and went down below. He found the heater ablaze and the fuel line that fed from the main fuel tank to the heater spraying aviation fuel, which immediately burst into flames. He managed to put the fire out and close the fuel valve. He picked up the headset that was connected to the flight deck to report to the pilots that the fire was indeed out. There was no reply. He climbed back out of the belly and found no one flying the plane. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the pilot and copilot preparing to bail out. They had failed to inform my dad of their intentions. The master sergeant ordered the officers back to the controls, and when they landed he reported them to the commander of the base and they were grounded.

“You never told me that story,” I muttered in disbelief.

J.D. never got to ride in the Albatross. To put it in old Army Air Corps terms, shortly before I bought it, he was ground zero for a direct hit, a hit from which he would not recover.

In early 1995 my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He knew something had been wrong but wasn’t sure what….After the initial shock and once the devastating news had settled in, my father and I talked. Our conversations were more personal than they ha ever been…By the time he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we had fortunately already made our peace. We had made it passed those testosterone-produced clashes that seem to be rites of passage for fathers and sons. But he was a fighter and in the next breath would come out swinging, ready to “take the bull by the horns,” as he put it. He never talked about licking Alzheimer’s like it was some kind of opponent he was going to defeat. He knew his fate. He told me he just wanted to so a few things he had never gotten to do. He was going to study his options and let me know.

When tragedy of such proportions occurs, the only thing you can do is hope that there have been some good times. It’s hard to catch up. My parents had gotten to enjoy the fruits of my success. They went to shows, hung out backstage with my crew and band, and acted like that was unique, wonderful, and very small group of people known as the parents of successful rock stars. They had traveled the world together, hoping to cruise on through the last part of their lives in the comfort of their nest, called Homeport. But that was not to be.

My father always had a great sense of humor. I think that’s where mine comes from, so I think he would be most pleased if I told this little story. One day I got a call from him, asking me to come to Alabama…I didn’t know if he would ask me to go to Mars on mainland China…We were sitting at the end of the pier. Pies on the eastern shore of the bay were not just structures that jutted into the shallow waters. They were not just shelters from the near-tropical summer sun. They were wooden islands…My father had overseen the construction of a pier that ran from the house on the bluff for the length of four football fields. It was his signature upon the landscape of the eastern shore…Since his retirement, the pier had been his base of operations….We were looking out over the shallow waters of Mobile Bay, savoring the day and the unique taste of fresh fried oysters on buttered French bread with hot sauce and tarter sauce, which mad eup the sandwich that’s synonymous with the Gulf Coast – the oyster loaf…

He drained the last sip of his Barq’s (rootbeer) and stared out across the bay. “You know what I was just thinking about?”

“What?” These days that could be a loaded question.

“Remember when you got thrown out of the sailing club for leaving the race and sailing all the way across the bay?”

I only had to think a moment about that major event in my misspent youth. It had been the same kind of day as today.

“You bet I do,” I said with a laugh.

“I never told you, but that was about as proud as I ever was of you. I mean, being the first Buffet to get a college degree was good, don’t get me wrong, but that time you decided to light out on you own, that was a moment.” 

Tears came into my eyes. I started to drift back to that incredible day…

“You know why I chose to fly instead of go to sea?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it was what I wasn’t supposed to do. Looks like you have made a career out of that, doing what you’re not supposed to do. I’m proud of you, boy.” 

Today when I join him for his walks down the oyster-shelled driveway out towards old Highway 98 or down to the end of the pier, I think of the lines from a song that I wrote about a fictitious but favorite character of mine named Desdemona.

“Her heart is in the kitchen, but her soul is in the stars.” Change the pronoun, and you have my dad – J.D.

Jimmy Buffet – From “A Pirate Looks at Fifty” (Fawcett Crest, 1998)

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