Remember My Father

I abuse the privilege of this space and my position to once again ask this favor of you.

It is 14 years ago this week that my father left this world to journey into the next. Many fathers have made that journey, and I don’t pretend my own dad was more important than any other. But he was my dad, and just once each year, I ask your tolerance and your favor.

I ask it, because my father was a champion of his people. A warrior of a different sort. Had his life not been so filled with toxins, it would not be unreasonable for him to still be here today. The things he inhaled in his job, his sideline work, his smoking habit, all weakened his heart and his lungs but in the end, could not curb the valiance of his spirit.

He was not alone in his duties as a warrior. Forty-six years ago, five men united to create a constitution and by-laws for the tribe, securing the final bureaucracy of becoming a sovereign nation. They are all heroes.

In the years that followed, my father took on the call of the sacred flame. It is believed by some that when the Chitimacha left Natchez, they brought with them a brand from the eternal flame that burned at Grand Village. No one knows when it went cold here in the swamps and bayous they eventually called home, but only the glow and heat of its flame died. Its power survived in men like my father.

He became the orator, the teacher, the historian of sorts. Again, not the only one, but perhaps the most vocal and the most sought out.

But you knew all that already. Suffice it to say, he was a champion of his people, a repository of lore and a warrior.

Instead, here’s a dip of the ladle into my memories, all random, all free-spooling line across the span of a lifetime.

My father was a deadly weapon with a fly rod. It seemed he, the rod, the line, leader and a little yellow popper fly became one being. In his casting, he was eloquent; in his catching, he was magnificent. He laughed every time a fish was hooked, talked to it all the way to the boat, and whether it went into the livewell or back into the lake, he commended it on its battle. In some way, I think my father was counting coup in his fishing, though taking life for the table to feed his family, he also gave life back to his prey.

He forgot more about fishing than I’ll ever know, I’m afraid. My best friend used to say, “Nick could catch fish in a pothole in the street,” and he wasn’t far off the mark. His magic was also evident in his fishing, especially way back in the sloughs off Grand Avoille Cove, the ancestral worship place. I’ve related to you before how we would follow him into Sawmill Bayou in separate boats, see him vanish around a bend in the black water canal, but fish our way to the end and not overcome him. When we emerged back into the open cove, there he’d be, inquiring how we did in our fishing.

When I was, I don’t know, 10 or so, a lady asked me to carve her a duck. She offered to pay me for it. I knew nothing about carving; that was Dad’s forte. But I tried, and with more than a little help from him, it came out pretty fair, seduced from a cypress knee with great diligence. When I presented it to the lady, she thought $15 was too high a price for the hours and hours and hours of work I put into it. So Dad sent her out the door, gave me my asking price for the duck, and it stayed on the little mantle between the kitchen and living room of the old house. I still have it today.

I was supposedly “helping” build the interior of Little Pass Baptist Church one weekend. In my clumsiness, I dropped a two-by-four from the stairwell leading up into the baptismal right on his head, leaving a terrible gash and a lot of blood. He looked up at me, as I perched above terrified…and he stammered, “Son of a….what the…get your…” Then he stopped, realizing that he wasn’t going to be able to say what he really wanted to say in a church, unfinished or not, and just growled, “Go…home!” I am lucky to be alive to tell that story.

There was always a guitar around. You couldn’t walk through our house without tripping over a guitar. They were in a constant state of flux, being bought, sold and traded. He kept one in the nook of the corner-fitting sofa set in the living room so that he could at any time reach over and grab it. The man was a remarkable musician. You have never heard “House of the Rising Sun” unless you heard Nick Stouff sing and play it, I kid you not.

After Hurricane Andrew took about a third of the roof of the house off, he gathered the materials, got up there and fixed it, at age 67. The tribe got a housing grant and built a new house for my parents. They moved into a trailer on the property for the duration.

When he was serving in Europe during World War II, he decided to swim across the Danube River for the heck of it. The current was so strong, he ended up a mile downstream from where he started, and therefore had to walk two miles back upstream, swim back across, to end up where he started.

He wasn’t cut out for military life, or rising in the ranks. He was promoted to corporal at some point, and put in charge of a litter detail. As he was walking behind the line of men picking up trash, he noticed a scrap of paper one had missed. He picked it up himself. A lieutenant saw him do it, and bam! Back to private first class! He said he really didn’t mind.

All my life, he warned me, “Careful of those pilings back of Grand Avoille Cove! Always hang left, ‘til you get past that little slough there, before you make your way back across. Those old pilings make a crescent across the cove, and they’ll knock the bottom out your boat!”

If he told me once, he told me a million times. From the day he gave me my first boat until one day when he came paddling home at dusk. I was down there waiting, about to call the sheriff’s department to go find him.

“What happened, pop?” I asked.

He wouldn’t look at me as he pulled up the boat on the trailer, and I noticed the lower unit of the engine was gone. He just mumbled something I couldn’t understand.’

“What’s that?” I asked again.

“Hit one of those damn pilings back of Grand Avoille Cove,” he mumbled.

We never spoke of it again. But he did go back and find the lower unit out of the muck, and put it back on his prized 1963 Mercury 110!

The phone rang late one night.

I rushed over. Dad was in the back bathroom, slumped against the wall.

The ambulance was already coming. I sat there with him, but he was unresponsive. I cradled his head against my shoulder until the EMTs arrived. We went to Franklin Foundation Hospital.

They pulled him through. But upon coming home, he told my mom, “Your prayers must be stronger than mine, old woman. Because I was ready to go.”

Three weeks later, I was heading to the Banner’s Christmas party when I got the call. Mom found him lying on his back beside the bed. Arms folded over his chest. His pose was deliberate, absolute.

I beat the ambulance to the hospital. When they wheeled him out and into the ER, I knew his spirit was gone. Not long and the doctor came into the waiting room and confirmed what I already knew.

Oddly, the thing I remember most clearly was wishing I could speak Chitimacha. Neither one of us could. There was no language program back then. But I knew that, wherever he was at that moment, he had learned it, had the entirety of it in his belly and his heart. I wished I could send him a prayer and remind him of something from when I was just a little tyke.

He used to put me on the coffee table and kneel back, arms outstretched. I leaped, each time, physically and in faith, and he’d catch me, and we’d laugh hysterically then do it all over again.

My father gave me so much. More than I ever knew. He was always there to catch me when I leaped. That night I stood again on toddler’s feet, unbalanced and uncertain, to leap into the rest of my life, but not without him. He is always with me, and one day, when the sun of this new day sets at last, I too shall be a babe at the feet of my ancestors, and we’ll sing Chitimacha songs, he and I, forever.


2 comments to Remember My Father

  • Jon

    Thanks for sharing your memories of one of the real/true Tribal members (your own blood father) who was a direct ancestor to a beat down culture of humanity; among those mauled of their rights to their natural lands we call amerika today. He would have lived a lot longer had he not been lied to by the forked tongue.
    He represents something that I’ve been following for a few months now, called, ‘the return of the Sacred Masculine’ .. probably all of the great American Indian leaders of those Sacred Tribes of their purged lands; were true representatives and whom are warranted of that title. He was a real man, who’s ego played very little to with his individuality as a human; and something your memories are deserving of.
    thanks again for sharing your remembrance in your eloquence;


  • Suze

    A truly beautiful tribute, Roger.

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