The Road Not Taken
I don’t really think of my Dad as the outdoorsy type. Oh, sure, up until he and my Mom downsized to a condo and moved out of the country a couple years ago, he still mowed all ¾ acres of the old house yard behind a push mower. At 70. And, I guess, come to think of it, there were plenty of family camping trips for all of us when we were growing up... in fact, there still are, actually. But most of the canoeing and fishing had cleared up from our regular activities by the time I was a teenager. Once a Marine, though, he says, always a Marine, so you’d better believe he can still build a fire from scratch, rustle up some wild game to roast on the spit with only a pocket knife, and camouflage a concealed shelter to keep a low-cover wilderness survivor profile, if ever the need should arise. At 72.
But even going back to his leatherneck roots, though, he’s certainly never been the hearty, rugged, lumberjack flannel wearin’, grizzly-beard sportin’, rifle-totin’, beer-guzzlin', chaw-spittin’, hog-rasslin’ kind of manly man’s man.
That’s just not who he is.
So it might surprise some folks who know him to learn that the house I grew up in boasted, over its stone-hearth fireplace mantel, the mounted head of an 8-pt white-tailed buck. Shot by my Dad. When he was 16. Mind you, I never met the man until I was past the age of reason, so I had no idea how out-of-character for him it should have seemed to me that he would display such a trophy. And, when you are suddenly dropped into a very different kind of family environment, especially if you’re primarily focused on learning how to become acclimated fairly quickly to the trying life experience of instantly having 2 new parents and 3 new older brothers, you just tend to get used to the way things are in the space, and don’t always think to question the ambiance of your surroundings.
We dressed the deer up for Christmas with an evergreen and holly wreath around its neck, a red nose someone in the family had knit for it, and a white-fur-lined red Santa hat. I’m pretty sure there were a few other occasions throughout the year upon which it was costumed with holiday-related accoutrements, but I don’t recall just now what those adornments might have been. The manner in which we outfitted this particular prize was never the sole purpose of its function in our home, though. No, that deer family member served as a reminder of how we were able to live a comfortable life with 4 kids, a few pets, a small vineyard, a football-field sized garden and a chicken coop, on a 10-acre wooded country plot 17 miles outside of town in a 5-bedroom, 3-bath farmhouse. And that’s because my Dad was the Director of Social Services for the State of Florida, and NOT a Special Agent with the FBI.
It’s after 10PM on a mid-December Friday night in Memphis. Daniel Abbott had been away for most of the weekend prior with his older brother, Neville, Jr., on a hunting expedition in the woods of Mississippi, a few miles outside of Holly Springs, where Neville lived. On this particular evening, however, Daniel had been in attendance at a holiday party for a local church youth group with his best friend, Jimmy Arlington. At the event, the younger Abbott had been eager to regale his buddy with the tale of this recent outdoor excursion – his first and only deer hunt – in which Daniel had taken down an 8-pt white-tailed buck with a one-slug pull from a borrowed 12-guage shotgun. He’d left the deer with a local taxidermist from that region, paid $25 from his newspaper delivery earnings for the trophy to be mounted, and was looking forward to picking it up on his next trip back there, which he’d planned for the next morning.
(Daniel generally spent most weekends in Mississippi, visiting his brother, a preacher in that area, and intended shortly to return the shotgun, borrowed from Neville’s neighbors, who were good friends of the older Abbott, who did a great deal of hunting with the Reverend, and who had several guns to spare. The loaner remained in the trunk of the auto Daniel was driving, pending his upcoming regular visit to Holly Springs.)
Leaving the church house at the end of the young adult gathering, a little loopy from too much sugar and lack of sleep, and high on the excitement that only comes from sharing stories of adventure with one’s best friend, Daniel said goodnight to Jimmy, and the two young men headed for their respective homes, each via their family’s outdated, all-but-retired 4-door sedan that had virtually become his own; Jimmy in a 1951 Ford Custom Deluxe, and Daniel in an old ’49 Plymouth Special. Daniel’s vehicle, with its humpback, bubbled frame, and military olive-gray-green paintjob, reminded him of nothing so much as a colossal land mammal, and, thinking the car a tad too pedestrian for his adolescent reputation, he’d taken out the grill, and had spray-painted the interior of the gaping maw at the front blood-red, like the nose of a B-52 bomber, giving him the appearance of cruising down the highway in a giant armadillo.
A family beater looking every bit tricked out to be the mobile of a West Side Story gang member was surely better suited to a teenager than it would have been for his father, a mid-40s business owner, but with 4 of 6 children still at home, all with various activities and even greater varying schedules, it was sometimes a juggling act to get everyone where they all needed to be on time, and though Daniel used the old jalopy more often than anyone else, Neville Abbott, Sr. still laid claim to it for transport on occasion, as he had that morning, when opening his Barber Shop in downtown Memphis. He’d closed up the shop that day just as he always did, shortly after the last customer still in the store by 6PM had left, and, just as he always did, he’d gathered the daily cash from the register, carried it to the car in an unassuming brown paper sack, and left it in the trunk. It was his usual habit, when driving the vehicle he’d planned to use to get to work the next day, to leave the bag there until the following morning, when he’d bring it back in to the store, to open up the register with some starting out change for the day.
Banks didn’t include night deposit boxes back then, and Neville, Sr. kept the shop open late enough that his time off rarely coincided with banker’s hours, except on Wednesdays, when he closed down at noon, his only other day off being Sunday. Having started out his business during the Great Depression, though, his spending habits were generally more cash oriented, anyway, and he assessed every purchase based on how many haircuts it would take to pay for it. Using this formula, he’d not only weathered the depression, but flourished despite it, putting 4 kids through college on haircuts and real estate investments.
It was because of these factors that Daniel Abbott now found himself piloting a punked-out automobile whose trunk carried a loaded 12-guage shotgun and a brown paper sack full of money.
Jimmy and Daniel headed out from the parking lot at the same time, in the same direction, and, at the very next intersection, they found themselves both sitting at the stoplight in adjacent lanes. They looked over at one another from their cars, still coming down from the fun of hanging out, and each mischievously revved their engines at the other. It seemed there was no one else on the road. When the light turned green, they took off at full throttle headed west on Central, like the flag had been dropped for an old school causeless rebel style drag race.
Neither of them had seen the officer lurking on the Southbound side of Parkway, until there were lights and sirens behind them.
The traffic cop was more than happy to take in these budding hooligans... hauling in a couple of moving violations was so much more exciting than simply writing tickets. Both “racing cars” were left there on the street, and Daniel and Jimmy were thrown into the back of a squad, to be given a couple of steel bracelets, and a state ride downtown, courtesy of the MPD.
There weren’t many folks around at the juvenile facility after hours on a Friday night. The two boys were simply dropped into an empty office, where a bored overtime worker barely bothered to pay them any attention. Of course, the wheels of justice turned in a much less complex manner back then, and after getting their names at the roadside, the next course of action for the police department was to call the kids’ parents. Not much fun for either, naturally, but not otherwise overly stressful. Neither had anything in the way of prior history that brought them any sort of reputation as a “delinquent,” and in both cases, the families were slightly embarrassed and apologetic, but agreed to come pick up their kids without too much ado, no harm, no foul.
After all, as they say, boys will be boys.
Jerry’s Dad came for him first. Daniel noted that his father, Neville Abbott Sr., seemed to take his own sweet time getting there, and let Daniel stew for a couple hours before arriving to collect him.
It’s important to note that nothing about this experience including any formal “processing” like you might see on TV. (Or like you might have perhaps had the misfortune to endure firsthand, if your path in life has ever taken you down that particular road in the decades since.) There was no lock-up, no Miranda, no fingerprinting. He wasn’t even officially arrested, so he wasn’t ever booked, but both boys did have to appear before a juvenile judge a few weeks later, and their licenses were suspended for a while... perhaps 3-6 months or so... the exact details have been lost to the passage of time. So, there might have been something with his name recorded in a juvenile courthouse somewhere, but, nothing so significant as to create the kind of “rap sheet” that would haunt the wayward youth for the rest of his life.
Things continued on for Daniel Abbott from there as they always had, and he grew up with no more ill-advised brushes with the law, and without any further incidents of note to tarnish his otherwise pristine criminal record.
Daniel Abbott had concluded his service with the Marine Corps just a couple years prior – honorably discharged as a Captain – and was on leave from his post with the State of Florida at the Department of Child Training School in order to complete his Masters of Criminology at Florida State University in Tallahassee. It was the time of J Edgar Hoover’s reign over our nation’s more covert law enforcement crew, and Daniel had determined that the next great adventure in serving his country would be found within the ranks of the FBI. His bride of three years was not terribly excited about the potential of such a position calling him away from their home in Woodville, Waukulla, and his two young boys under two years old, but she did not speak against his efforts, and the agency itself was excited he was applying to join them. Of all those to set sights on their office, Daniel Abbott was a most promising candidate.
The experience of applying to such an esteemed official government organization was a long, involved, and occasionally grueling process, but not one Daniel was not up to. Being a former marine (there’s no such thing as an “ex-marine”), he was not daunted by challenge. He aced the personal interview. He passed the psychological testing with flying colors. His marks in the fitness exam were exemplary. And, of course, his physical revealed him to be in peak condition. Daniel Abbott represented everything that the government could hope for in a specialized public servant.
Except for one thing.
The FBI is not in the habit of disclosing to interested hopefuls why they failed to make the cut. That information is considered classified, on a need-to-know basis for those who need to know. The rejected candidates, well, they just don’t. But, Daniel Abbott, he figured it out. After all, the only thing left to pass was the background check. Yet, what could have possibly gone wrong there? He was a law abiding citizen. He’d never committed a crime. He’d never even been arrested...
Daniel had gotten to be friendly with the man who’d been assigned to work with him throughout the integration process of developing him as a new asset, so when it occurred to him what had actually happened, he asked his “handler” if he was turned down because he’d forgotten to mention that fateful December night 10 years ago on a crossroads in Memphis. The agent, disappointed to be losing a recruit with such great potential, admitted the act itself was not enough to deter the agency from accepting him, but that its omission was the solitary determining factor, as it suggested Daniel could not be trusted. And, Daniel was disappointed, too, that such a significant moment could have so easily slipped his mind, or at least had done so with such unfortunate timing.
The young Abbott might have been inclined to question how differently his life might have gone if he’d just remembered to mention his previous “brush with crime.” Though, for that matter, one could just as easily ponder over the additional questions and complications that might have been raised if only the easy-going Memphis cops from back in the day had ever bothered to look in the trunk of that beat up old Plymouth. Sure, though he wasn’t guilty then of anything worse than being a mildly reckless teenager, which most likely would have been found eventually, it could have gotten a little hairier there for a while until the truth sorted itself out in the wash. But, the harder road in that case was not how things had gone down then, and, there’s not a lot a lot of point in losing any sleep over the what-ifs involved there.
Neither did the man cry over the spilt milk of having to give up the FBI dream... after all, he’d already sailed through every one of the more difficult hurdles... in the end, the only thing keeping Daniel Abbott out of the Bureau, when it was all said and done, turned out to be Daniel Abbott himself.
His thoughts on the matter recalled to his mind the experience that put him in that position in the first place, and he remembered the conversation he’d had with his father, Neville Abbott, on the long ride home from that station, when his Dad had come to get the errant youth. Daniel asked his old man what had taken so long to arrive. The elder pursed his lips and pondered a bit, and then gently spoke, in his low, calculating tone, as he was wont to do, carefully weighing the measure of every word. His answer delivered to his youngest son a message that would be carried with Daniel throughout the rest of his life, as a guiding formula in times of question.
“It’s never a good idea to be in too big of a hurry to get someone out of trouble that they got themselves into,” Neville had said, passing down this simple wisdom that Daniel never forgot.
It had been no hurried affair, trying to get into the FBI. But, failing the attempt, well, that was a bit of trouble Daniel himself had gotten himself into. And, getting out, well, he’d have the rest of his future from that point left for that, now.
No, the life of a G-man wasn’t the right path for Daniel Abbott, otherwise known to me as Dad. His place was with my Mom, raising five kids, dedicating 40 years of leadership to Social Services, founding an inner city mission for the Hmong community, and retiring to Haiti to continue the work that calls to him, that fuels his spirit, and fills his soul.
Dad tells me Mom was very tolerant of the deer head, as well as the full sized buffalo hide he got for a wedding present from the youth ranch where he worked, despite neither of these very masculine items benefitting her all that much, or even really seeming so fitting a match to the man we both know and love. We kept them both a long while as I was growing up, though we never cared for them like you might expect should a true enthusiastic whose intent is to proudly display the spoils of victory. In time, each memento came to show signs of aging, and began to dry and crack, before both were sold at a garage sale during one of the moves in which my parents were “downsizing.” (They seem to do more and more of that the older they get.) Neither of the folks remembers what they got for it, but I’m sure it was a small pittance, and certainly not reflective of any emotional attachment, as I can’t imagine there was too much there.
And, if you were to ask either of them, both would also tell you that Mom was supportive of Dad’s intent to become an Agent with the Bureau, too. She’d at least admit she was never excited about the idea, but, Mom has always been pretty good at standing by her man. Make no mistake, she’s never afraid to voice her opinion, but, she’s old school, in that, when the dust clears, she will go where he goes, and be by his side, wherever life may take him, come what may, no matter happens, so long as they are still on the same path together. That’s not just because she sees it as her responsibility, but because it’s easy to do when you’re crazy in love with the person you marry, and remain so for more than half a century.
What’s always more important to her, though, is that making sure the path that she follows, that her husband follows, and that the whole of her family follows, is always the one that God intends for them to follow. So, every time she prays over every major life decision, no matter what may be the collective agenda or even her own genuine desire, she, like my Dad, is always sure to include the caveat, “Not my will, Lord, but thine be done.” I’m sure when the discussion of Dad’s interest in this particular career choice for adventures in law enforcement came up, there would have been no exception to that lifelong practice for either of them.
Nearly five decades, three more children and a totally different direction in life later – one that didn’t involve too much in the arena of long trips away, stakeouts, shootouts, or other dangerous potentially life threatening working conditions on a regular basis, nor any great deal of secrecy around classified material – I’m betting she’s pretty happy about which side the Almighty came down on in that case.
And, having been blessed by the constant presence of the man who raised me, having come out a better person as a result of his guidance, and considering myself fortunate to know and love the man I call Dad, I'm sure I can say that I am.
I just hope my Dad agrees.
LJ Idol | Season 9 • Week 15 - Topic: CHEKHOV'S GUN
This post has been brought to you by an association with the online writing community forum, LJ Idol.
If you have enjoyed this entry, please feel free to speak your piece, share the love, and pass it on...