Some folks asked me to post the eulogy I gave for my Dad this morning. We had a beautiful service out under the pines with lots of people participating and sharing love and memories.
Later his children and some of his grandchildren spread his ashes in five special places around the property, ending down at the pond with with us all spontaneously singing "Down To The River To Pray" as a couple of small, doubtless puzzled gators looked on.
We just all made it up as we went, the locations and the method; a gentle convoy of cars and trucks alighting here and there to deliver him back home. Sweet closure.
Anyway, this is what I read during the service under the pine trees:
JOSEPH S. CLARK SR. - Eulogy
Thank you all for being here today in this beautiful place that Dad loved so much. He would also like it that we're talking about him. I have an impossible task before me, because there's no way I can do him justice with a few words. And what I will share with you is my own perspective, necessarily partial and biased. I don't speak for Mom or my siblings or anyone else who knew him. Please bear that in mind and speak up afterward if you have anything to add or correct.
On the way to this spot you passed through a parklike section of longleaf pine forest, one of Dad’s favorite places on the property. That ecosystem – upland longleaf pine and wiregrass – once covered millions of acres in the southeast, from Texas to Virginia. In the early 1800s – not long after the Seminoles arrived – a widowed mother traveled through that vast forest with her children, migrating to Florida from western South Carolina. That was Dad's great-great grandmother. The Clarks settled in the area around Greensboro; Dad's paternal Clark grandfather ran a mill on Telogia Creek. They would eventually cross paths with a well-to-do local family. Joseph Inman, Dad's maternal grandfather, scowls flinty-eyed out of old portraits; his son, my Dad’s uncle William Inman, became a successful cattleman in Quincy who served as county sheriff and state legislator.
The Clarks and Inmans were well established in Gadsden County by the time Paul David Clark and Essie Inman met and married almost 100 years ago. We called them Andaddy and Anmamma; Andaddy worked for the Apalachicola Northern railroad and then in Kwilecki's Hardware in Chattahoochee; Anmamma earned a teacher's certificate at Florida State College for Women, but when I knew her she was a homemaker whose sweet tea and hoecakes were the stuff of legend.
Dad was the middle of their three children, the only boy and thus the crown prince, no doubt spoiled a bit. His older sister Marian, who we called Aunty Sissy, was a lifelong resident of Chattahoochee. (We always had to clarify to puzzled friends that “going to visit our relatives in Chattahoochee” did not mean what they thought it did.) She and her husband Joe King raised a family in their hometown, some of whom are here today. Dad's younger sister, whom he almost always referred to as Emma Sue, settled in Gainesville and is here today with her family as well.
When I went off to college, I lived at Aunt Sue's house and heard with delight many stories about Dad's shenanigans as a child and teen. He was evidently a prankster who delighted in irritating his sisters. They got back at him once by tying him into his bed while he slept, making him late for school. Another time, later in his teens, he was all gussied up for a hot date and kept poking at Aunt Sue, teasing her. She delivered on her promise to pour a glass of milk over his head if he didn't stop.
There's a pattern here. Dad liked to tease and he could sometimes take it too far – but he also grew up in a house where love and affection were never in short supply. That was obvious to me even as a child. He loved his momma and daddy and at least tolerated his sisters.
And as early photos indicate, dogs were an important part of his life from the get-go. He learned to play the cornet and made toy soldiers by pouring molten lead into molds. He earned merit badges and became an Eagle Scout. He rode horses on his Uncle William's property and spent a lot of time on the water, fishing and taking part in a newfangled sport called waterskiing. He and his buddies prowled the Three Rivers area that would eventually become drowned under Lake Seminole. He spent one summer driving a Coca Cola delivery truck that slid around the red-clay roads of Gadsden County. He smoked and drank. He got rambunctious enough that his parents sent him to the Bolles School in Jacksonville to finish 12th grade.
Just a year or so ago, he and I were riding around the lake as he told me stories. I asked about some historical detail regarding one of the places we passed, and he said “I don't know, son. I had my head up my ass most of the time when I was young.”
That's not the only way I take after my father.
But he cleaned up his act enough to get into Auburn University and was a War-Damn-Eagle fan through most of my childhood, especially when we lived in Alabama. (He was proud as punch when my daughter Lindsay became a professor at Auburn.)
He left before finishing his degree, to serve in the Army of Occupation in Japan, based in Yokohama. We have some photos from that time; one of my favorites is him standing outside a Quonset hut, clowning around with a geisha parasol. He learned a couple of Japanese words and brought home a souvenir suitcase with Mt. Fuji hand-painted on the side. I wish we still had that.
After returning home, he eventually enrolled at FSU to finish college. He was still something of a wild man – he was a Pike, after all – but he must have been thinking about settling down, because he joined the choir at First Baptist Church in Tallahassee. That’s where he met a pretty Tri-Delt from Tampa and convinced her to marry him. Well, first he won over her mother; Mom says my grandmother was so impressed with his southern charm that any other man wouldn't have stood a chance. So Deborah Fennell married Joseph Clark in First Baptist in Tampa and they settled in Tallahassee.
After he and Mom were married, Dad briefly sold mechanical calculating machines the size of typewriters for Remington. He had an old one we loved to play with when we were little and I can still hear the whirring and clunking noises it made. Then he landed a job with Massachusetts Mutual, and stayed in the life-insurance business for the rest of his professional career. He was promoted to general manager when we lived in Mobile but he preferred working directly with clients -- not only could he make more money on commissions, but I think he just enjoyed the people he met. Whenever I would visit him at work as a kid, his coworkers seemed to genuinely enjoy him; several of his colleagues became family friends. I emulated his way of answering the phone – Joe Clark – and do it unconsciously now. I never heard him speak cynically about the business he was in. I think he believed that the product he sold was beneficial to people and that he wasn’t so much selling as informing and helping. He had an almost zero level of tolerance for sales-talk BS -- one of the funniest and most cringeworthy experiences I ever had was tagging along while he shopped for a used car, watching him ninja every salesman who tried to sell him a bundle of goods.
He was a great dad as we kids came along: me, then Paul, then the twins Sarah and Maggie, and finally Susannah. He often had to play bad cop to Mom's good cop, but in my mind they shared pretty equally in both the discipline and the fun and affection. He was generous with his praise and often told us he loved us. He lost his own father when I was very young, and even though that must have been devastating, I never saw him act like he felt sorry for himself about it. I think he regretted not having a brother, in fact, one time Paul and I were angry and sobbing over something we were fighting over, and Dad stopped us, trying to get us to see the big picture. “You boys have something I never had,” he said. Paul and I looked at each other, still sniffling, puzzled. GI Joe? Hot Wheels? “A brother,” he said.
Dad could criticize but he was also a great cheerleader for his kids. He talked me out of countless harebrained schemes without making me feel like an idiot, and helped me get into FSU after I had failed spectacularly at UF. When I came up on weekends to help with the Christmas trees, he'd press a few twenties in my hand as I was leaving, knowing that at the time I barely had two nickels to rub together.
I have so many wonderful memories of fun times, especially on the water. When I was little, we’d fish on Lake Talquin in a rented green wooden boat with the 3-horse Evinrude he'd won in a sales competition. Later in Mobile, he bought a 15-foot Chapparal, a bowrider with a 60 horse Evinrude; this was 1970 and the motor was a special model with psychedelic decals on the cowl and a purple propeller. Dad wanted the dealer to swap it out for a plain model, but Paul and I weren't having any of that, so Dad caved and had to endure the sideways grins from the other guys at the boat ramp. Those are some of the best memories I have: getting up before dawn and trailering down to Fowl River, a brackish estuary where we'd fish for speckled trout, stalk blue crabs, and spend the afternoon skiing. On other trips we'd go all the way to the ramp at Dauphin Island and spend the day trolling for Spanish mackerel in the Gulf, filling the cooler with our catch alongside the cans of Coke, Dr. Pepper, and Old Milwaukee. Thirsty? Reach past the fish and pull out a can, hold it overboard in the wash to get most of the slime off, pop the top, and drop it inside the can. I can smell the carbonation and fishiness right now. The three of us camped under a tarp on Sand Island, eating baked beans right out of the can, and sleeping on cots so the ghost crabs wouldn't overrun us at night. We were the three caballeros. We were Porthos, Athos, and Aramis. We were the Clark Men -- mighty and sunburned and salt-crusted.
Dad and Paul and I connected over other things, too -- though I didn’t have the football gene they shared and I envied them that connection. We took an auto repair class together at the vo-tech in Palm Beach County. Dad was not a natural gearhead but he built a trailer and a haywagon and was always tinkering on things. I was so proud of him when he earned an A.A. in computer science after retirement, and even had a brief gig as a programmer.
We also bonded over trips up here from Tallahassee in the late 70s to cut firewood. In fact, those days helped us reconnect with the land that Andaddy bought. After Mom and Dad moved up here in the 90s, they bought a pontoon boat, and once again we created memories dodging the hydrilla forests and stumps out on the lake, even holing a pontoon one night on a return cruise from Bainbridge and nervously counting the gator eyes reflecting our spotlight as we limped back to the dock in the dark.
Dad enjoyed travel and his eyes would always light up whenever I would mention the trip he and I took to visit Sarah in Europe. When his condition got to where he really definitely should not drive any more -- please don't drive, Dad, oh please don't, someone hide the keys – we'd take him out for rides. In fact, it was mandatory – he'd get stir-crazy sitting around the house. I've mentioned that Dad could be impatient. Of course that got worse as he got older and his physical condition started to decline, but I think he also figured he had earned it at his age. As the contemporary expression goes, he was fresh out of effs to give.
He always hated being in the hospital, even for routine procedures. A literal im-patient. “Can I go home now?” he would ask, roughly every five minutes. Only a cute nurse could make it bearable. Like many men, he was a bit of a baby when he was sick, but he was – again, literally – very hard headed. Mom helplessly watched him fall a couple of months ago and bounce the back of his head against the carport floor, with no damage the doctors could find beyond a goose egg. Fortunately, the concrete was undamaged. He could be tough: When we were in Paris – he was almost 80 then -- Sarah and I watched in horror as he took a tumble down a cobblestone ramp. Visions of a vacation spent in a French hospital filled our eyes. But he jumped right back up and said he was fine, and proceeded to take an hourlong boat ride on the Seine. Only when we got back to the hotel room did we discover he'd bloodied himself up pretty good -- but he soldiered on because there was so much to see. His back troubled him from time to time and once he had a nasty muscle spasm that was causing him a great deal of pain. Mom helped him gingerly get into the car for a trip to the doctor; his hand was still on the door frame when she slammed the door and mangled it. Mom was mortified and apologetic, but all Dad said was “Well, my back doesn't hurt any more.”
He had that hyperbolic, self-deprecating, classically Southern sense of humor, the kind that looks at you and winks as if to say, “Yeah, I know that's corny as all get-out, but it's still funny, isn't it?” He and his fishing buddies would return from an early Saturday morning trip and crack up over Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons. He loved the hayseed humor of Hee Haw, and delighted in expressions like “big as a mule's lip from its eye down” – that's how big a slice of pie he wanted, if you asked. Around these parts someplace is a wide spot in the road called Scratchankle. I asked him about that and he said it got its name back in the pre-fence days, when a local farmer's flea-infested hogs would escape the midday heat up under the one-room schoolhouse. Scratchankle. I don’t know if it’s true, but who cares?
Once on a family trip he was chastised for changing clothes too close to the front window of the motel room, and his reply? “If they ain't never seen it before, they won't know what it is.” When we all went to see the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” I thought he was going to give himself fits cracking up over all the great cornpone one-liners. One of the last times I remember him just busting out laughing, he and I were driving around the north side of the lake, exploring the back roads -- one of which is called Green Acres road. We came to a cross street: Arnold Ziffel Road. He and I giggled over that for the next half hour.
In many ways we were so different. I'm a liberal Democrat; he was a Reagan Republican. He was a philatelist in his youth; I was numismatist. Y’all gonna have to look those up. He was a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock and roll. There were certainly plenty of times when we completely baffled each other. But I'm proud to be Joe Clark, Jr. I can't imagine having any other father. I've known many fine men, but never envied anyone their father. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
I mentioned before the longleaf pine and wiregrass ecosystem that you traveled through to get here. The clearcut area you see behind me – which was pasture when I was a kid – was previously a crop of slash pines, but has been replanted with longleafs. There's a Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” In the past few years, Dad became more focused on re-establishing longleafs, even though he knew he'd never see the results.
The longleaf is an amazing tree. Picture Lake Seminole heating up in the summer sun. The water vapor boils up into the atmosphere, and eventually we get those spectacular thunderstorms that dump so much rain they're called toad-stranglers. They also hurl lightning bolts that start fires. They do that all over the south and have for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe longer.
The mighty longleaf pine noticed this and took advantage of it. It has actually evolved so that it needs fire. Think about that. It needs fire. Fire sounds like the enemy of forests, but the longleaf just chuckles and says “Bring it on.” Its seeds won't germinate without touching the mineral-rich soil left behind after a fire burns off the ground cover. It depends on fire to limit the broadleaf hoi polloi that would otherwise try to take over. It has all kinds of adaptations to fire: a deep taproot, a sudden growth spurt to put the needles above a wildfire, even fire resistant bark. In the longleaf community, arson isn't a crime, it's a hobby. They scatter their dry, resinous needles on the ground and look up at the looming clouds with smiles of anticipation.
They've taken destruction and loss and turned it into a benefit. They need it. It makes them who they are, and yet they are so much more, towering above the wiregrass and nodding in the wind, watching us now as they watched Dad lighting controlled burns, getting all sooty and reeking of smoke. They remind us that what looks like the end is just one of those necessary processes that go on in the world.
You know, the quantum physicists tell us that time is something humans dreamed up. That this idea of a past, present, future -- of an irreversible arrow of time – is just an artifact of human consciousness. That may not mean we can travel back in time to Mobile Bay or Yokohama or any of the experiences we remember, but it it does mean this: They are always here now. They aren't past and gone. They exist now and always will. Dad's out here now, dibbling the seedlings into this crazy red clay. He's riding around with Andaddy in that old pickup, taking salt blocks out to the cattle. He's sitting outside the barn, watching the trees and soaking up the sunlight. Right now. Always.
That's the scientific view, and it's not that different from what religions have taught us. In fact, it's not at all hard to imagine Dad pulling up to the pearly gates in a dented pickup truck, the bed full of farm implements and trash bags, and the cab full of happy dogs. Waking up St. Peter with an impatient blast on his horn, and probably a second one if he doesn't hop to. “Need some help here!”
Let him in, Pete. I promise you won't regret it.
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