“What fools these mortals be!”Puck
Whenever I’ve stayed up late with friends, pondering Life The Universe, and Everything, and we discuss big picture things, I say I can’t answer how to honor my father without first considering my PawPaw, Mr. James “Ed” White. He was my first foster father.
James Edward “Ed” White was born some time in the late 1920’s in the pine tree forests of Mississippi, coincidently near Woodville, where Big Daddy had been born in 1926, though I never learned if they had met. Unlike Big Daddy, PawPaw was a physically small man, thin and wiry, but he was a cheerful force of nature with a heart bigger than anyone I’ve known since. He had slicked back black hair that smelled of inexpensive and common hair oil, and his clothes were humble and obviously well worn from physical labor. He laughed frequently, chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, sipped bottles of Miller beer, and never quite figured out why other people weren’t as happy as he was.
He had lost an eye as a sailor in WWII, and though his glass eye matched his other one perfectly, he never saw the world the same again. He choose to be happy. After the war, he moved to Louisiana to find work, though I never learned why he chose Baton Rouge, but I know he became the custodian at Glenoaks High School, where his daughter, Linda White, was best friends with Wendy, and that he’d show up to work early and stay late, cleaning up and repairing things as part of his job; and, on his own initiative, he also cared for the many stately oak trees that gave GlenOaks it’s name and made it so beautiful. PawPaw loved trees, and though my parent’s school may have been in a poor district, most people felt the campus was one of the most well cared for they had ever seen, with trees more majestic than in the fancy schools funded by wealthier neighborhoods, though few knew that PawPaw was behind the scenes. He often came home in the evenings with sawdust in his, by then, mussed up hair, and he would smell more like chainsaw oil than hair tonic at the end of a long day.
PawPaw was behind the scenes for many other things, and he had even organized a small statewide movement for public school custodians, cafeteria workers, and landscapers after a massive state teacher’s strike in the 1960’s led to higher salaries for teachers and administrators, but nothing for the invisible workers behind the scenes. Some newspapers reported the outcome of the strike and said that administrators could now afford steaks instead of hamburgers, but forgetting that invisible workers like PawPaw couldn’t afford even the hamburgers. A March 1964 Time Magazine feature article about Big Daddy being an All American Hero showed him walking the picket line with teacher’s, big and handsome and smiling and handing out cash from his pocket so that teachers could pay their bills while striking, and telling Governor McKiethen that Local #5 stood with teachers and implying that if McKiethen and the state legislature didn’t provide the teachers and administrators with healthcare and a raise to afford an occasional steak dinner, Big Daddy would call a Teamsters strike and shut down the state economy, which would be unable to ship anything along the new interstate system to other states or in or out of other countries via the port of New Orleans. My grandfather was given credit for the teacher raise and benefits, but Life didn’t mentioned PawPaw. But, elderly men around town who had been invisible to most would recall PawPaw’s slicked back black hair and best suit, loose and baggy around his small wiry frame, handing out hand-written fliers telling them that they were important and valuable to the kids getting an education. He was right.
Like Big Daddy, PawPaw served in the military during WWII. But, Big Daddy had only served two weeks, being dishonorably discharged after punching a captain and stealing his watch, PawPaw served honorably in the U.S. Navy for two years until he lost his eye working on a battleship and was honorably discharged. His former shipmates said he was always hard working and cheerful, but mischievous, and he would sneak into the officer’s quarters and steal their beer and give it to enlisted men, like Robin Hood on a battleship.
As a kid, I viewed PawPaw as Popeye the Sailor, a popular cartoon character who was a small man with big forearms and squinted with one eye and smoked a pipe and protected Olive Oil’s infant son from the big Brutus, possible because he ate his spinach and it made him strong. Like Popeye, PawPaw mumbled a bit. He pronounced his words with a southern accent that omitted sylables and blended ‘th’ sounds into d’s, like New Orleans Saints football fans that chant “Who d’at! Who d’at! Who d’at talkin’ ‘bout beatin’ d’em Saints? Who d’at!”
His son in law, Craig Black, didn’t watch football or cartoons but read a lot and had been in GlenOaks theater department, and he thought PawPaw was like Puck, the jestering hobgoblin ferry from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a woodland ferry who adored trees and playing pranks on people. Puck’s pranks sparked the other characters into action; without him, there would be no Midsummer Nights Dream. That sentiment was echoed by anyone I spoke with who had met him.
Like Puck, PawPaw loved nature. As a side gig, he was a tree surgeon, and the most respected tree surgeon in all of Louisiana. His services were requested by families protecting the magnificent stately oak trees that had been planted by their great-great grandparents. He was called to be preventive in the spring, repairing damaged bark and limbs before insects or disease took root, and reactive in the winter, removing toppled trees after hurricane storms. There wasn’t a lot of work, so he had other entrepreneurial ventures, like running a franchise of the Kelley Girls, a national franchise designed to give young, uneducated women opportunities for employment with flexible schedules so they could attend school or attend school meetings for their children, and he had given Wendy her first job. Judge Lottingger mentioned Wendy’s job with Kelly’s Girls, but, like Life, didn’t mention Ed White. Considering that Lottingger knew PawPaw viewed me as a son and was hoping for custody, it’s remarkable that PawPaw had selflessly helped Wendy, and ironic that he couldn’t attend my custody hearing because he was working at GlenOaks during weekdays.
Craig would tell me that PawPaw never made money from his side gigs of Kelly’s Girls and as an arborist, which is what people call tree surgeons now, because instead of taking a percentage of pay for himself as an administrator he gave all of the money to the people he hired. For Wendy, that was $516 per month, a lot of money back then, especially considering that Mamma Jean was paid $300 per month only a decade before to care for her five children. And he used his tree surgery business to hire and train men recently released from jail when no one else would give ex-cons an opportunity, and those ex-cons became, in a way, his competition. Craig himself would work for 40 years as the landscaper for Houmas Plantation, a tourist destination among the many former slave plantations in and around Baton Rouge, where he also sold his paintings that were fanciful and centered around ferries and elves in Louisiana’s swamps and forests. After Wendy would pass, Craig pointed to a majestic stately oak tree that PawPaw had planted before I was born, and say that hundreds of thousands of people saw its beauty each year and received shade from it’s long undulating branches, and he’d humbly admit that even his best paintings only brought joy to a few people who purchased them and kept them in their homes.
All Judge Lottingger had to say about PawPaw was that, “The Whites came to regard Jason as their own,” and though I appreciate his phrasing, it’s an understatement. I know that PawPaw loved me as a son. He passed away before I could thank him or tell him how I felt or ask his version of this story, and whenever I struggled with how to honor my mother and father, I also struggled with what defines a mother or a father. But now I can’t imagine sharing my family history without beginning PawPaw. Just like there would be no midsummer night’s dream without Puck, I wouldn’t be who I am without the seed planted when he saved me, and I hope whatever I write about him brings as much joy or hope to people who read it as the trees he planted have given to people who rest in their shade or climb in their branches.
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