Family is important. Many people understand this and stay close with their kin; others grow up, live independent lives with nary a phone call home and learn the lesson later in life; and some people miss out all together, taking relationships for granted and suffering — whether they realize it or not — due to the lack of support.
Wednesday’s edition tells the story of a Crestview family who annually celebrates one member who wouldn’t be with them if the outcome of an Air Force jet crash went just a little differently. (See “Crestview family celebrates 40th anniversary of father's jet crash survival.”)
Louis Richard and his copilot, Lt. Larry Dodson, were members of the 88th Flying Training Squadron of the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard (Okla.) Air Force Base when their T37 jet trainer went down on Oct. 11, 1973.
The plane crashed at 16 times gravity’s force, and the men shouldn’t have lived, by most accounts. The Richards know this, and spend Oct. 11 each year remembering the crash, but more importantly, they celebrate Louis’s life.
People like the Richards set positive examples for the community and inspire people like me, who know, all too well, the lifelong pain they avoided 40 years ago.
Fourteen years ago, also on Oct. 11, the outcome was different for my family. That was when Daddy, a lifelong farmer from a line of first-generation Italians who immigrated to South Alabama from Trentino, died in a sudden tractor accident.
I grew up on the family farm bagging pecans, picking peaches and riding on Daddy’s lap as he plowed the fields. But while he worked long hours — and, somehow, helped lead the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association and the local Italian heritage organization, was a Knights of Columbus and hospital board member and a church lectern — I had different dreams.
I read the Mobile Press-Register, which Daddy bought me every Sunday after lunch or dinner out. (I credit “Bubba’s English,” a fixture in that paper, for my pedantry). I watched the local and national news and would use a toy microphone to pretend I was reporting from the scene. I enjoyed music and movies and had interests in singing and acting, and knew that later in life, I would do those things, produce a newspaper, write and illustrate a book, anchor a news broadcast or all five. God blessed me with many talents, as Mom would say.
The farm had been around since the late 1800s, had seen its share of ups and downs, and its survival depended on future generations to continue the tradition, but I recall Daddy’s relentless support.
He bought the stapler, staples, drawing paper and pens, and paid 25 cents for each poorly pasted together or stapled “book” I published between 7 and 10 years old, when I operated Thomas’ Library. It had a mixture of Weekly Reader hardbacks, Berenstain Bears paperbacks, Highlights and Boys’ Life magazines and original works, with a logo marked on each title to deter theft (presumably from my Teddy Ruxpin, Henry plush dog or other suspicious toys.) We often had book fairs for one particularly loyal customer.
Daddy bought my first computer, a Power Macintosh Performa 6116CD, along with an inkjet printer and 28.8 Kbps modem — which he later upgraded to 56Kbps — when I was in the sixth grade. Forget pasted and stapled-together books; I hit the big time and could write family and entertainment news, design and lay it out in ClarisWorks and print it out, just like the pros.
Daddy entered me in our Woodmen of the World branch’s talent shows and paid for my first music collection to keep me singing. Remember those “10 CDs for a penny” advertisements? My brother, Frederick, subscribed to Columbia House and I subscribed to BMG Music Service. That subscription led to the realization that I wanted to be an editor. You see, each service produced a monthly magazine — to get you to order more CDs at full price to fulfill the contract. Well, I recall preferring Columbia House’s publications; the paper was glossier, and the writing and layout were cleaner.
BMG’s top brass should know, I thought.
I was 11 when I mailed BMG a copy of Columbia House’s magazine, along with a folded loose-leaf sheet of handwritten suggestions, with illustrations, for aesthetic improvements. Someone from BMG, who probably already had a bad day before reading my letter, wrote back, and wasn’t kind. (I really should have kept that letter.) Of course, I had the best of intentions — to help BMG improve its magazine and image, and thus improve its business — but received a lesson in humility as I advised on quality assurance without a college degree. Or working for the company I was advising. But I digress.
Over the years, Daddy allowed me to subscribe to Mac Warehouse to buy all kinds of things for the computer, including an Apple microphone that allowed me to narrate animated GIF and Quicktime movies.
He also bought my first camcorder and tripod. We had a family camcorder forever, and I guess the last one he ever bought was for “the family,” too, but we all knew who used it most. I would use both camcorders to record footage of our dogs and cats, hook them and a stereo up to a VCR and dub music videos of our animals prowling, sunning or playing. That camera had all kinds of cool effects that kids today would yawn at — like dissolve, mosaic, sepia tone and letterbox; yes, that was when camcorders were really coming into their own! — but I loved every second of video production.
I was a junior in high school when my father died. My mom crying, “What happened?” at the back door as a priest delivered the news, along with the gray sweatshirt and black floral pattern skirt she wore are forever etched in memory.
As are the crude cartoons the priest drew on Post Its to illustrate the accident and help it all make sense. He meant no harm, but to my 17-year-old mind, those sketches on the kitchen desk literally turned a tragedy into a cartoon. Still, I know that my brother, who has since joined the priesthood, would never do that to a family.
Frederick Boni Sr. was respected for his contributions to the community, and it seemed like everyone whose life he touched attended the wake. The funeral home’s chapel didn’t contain nearly enough room for everybody; the seemingly endless crowd left me dizzy, and eternally wondering whether I could achieve such greatness or fill such impossibly big shoes.
My world completely froze, and it didn’t help that I had recurring dreams, at least for a year, that Daddy didn’t die after all; that it was all an illusion or a game, or a secret mission of some sort and he had to go undercover. Waking up became a chore because it meant facing the harsh reality.
Our family has never been the same since that October afternoon. We’re close, call each other daily and share weekly dinners. We have photos, but we’re not so keen on posing for them anymore. And we haven’t shot family videos since 1999. Welcome to the new normal.
However, life goes on, and you have to count your blessings. After all, everything that Daddy purchased for me prepared me for my eight-year-and-running communications career.
And while it’s sad that objects can outlast people, those tangible reminders of love can mean so much for those who are grieving.
For instance, two weeks ago, the tripod we initially used to shoot Sports Editor Randy Dickson’s new “North End Zone Sports Report” (which airs Wednesday evenings on crestviewbulletin.com) seemed rickety, but I not once considered buying a replacement.
On instinct, I drove to Alabama and scoured the house for the tripod Daddy lovingly gave me that final Christmas. Not just any tripod would do; I needed that tripod to shoot the show. I needed a piece of my father to be here, in Florida, with me.
After searching for hours, I was ready to give up. Mom asked if I prayed to St. Anthony to find the lost object; I hadn’t, but thought it couldn’t hurt. So I said a little prayer and, shortly later, Mom remembered where she locked up the camera. Seeing that black leather case that I hadn’t laid eyes on in more than a decade gave hope that the tripod must be nearby, and something led me to the family room cabinets.
While removing stacked ziplock bags of mini VHS cassettes from one cabinet, I glimpsed the tripod’s gold veneer and tears flowed freely as I removed the buried treasure.
That, right there, is why the Louis Richard’s story is so compelling. I lost my father, when I needed him most, and can only cling to objects he once touched or gave me. Hoping he would be proud of me. Hoping I can fill his shoes. Hoping, at some point, our family will unfreeze.
But the Richards have their patriarch, and they celebrate a miracle that occurred in that Oklahoma field every year.
It’s comforting to know that this family has not taken their loved one for granted.
And I hope that their story, and perhaps my story, inspire others to treasure their family members more.