My father was the worst driver on the planet, possibly because his first attempt was on an ancient piece of farm equipment that rolled over, pinning him underneath.
That was how he explained his right arm bent at the elbow with a big knot on full display. I noticed in his wedding picture with my mother that he couldn’t straighten that arm so he clutched the edge of his jacket sleeve to keep it under control.
It wasn’t as though his lack of training for tough chores was a punishment, but his mother had died giving birth to him Dec. 22 so he remained the one quiet in the family. He never had a birthday party or a Christmas celebration because nobody considered it important.
This year he would have turned 110 after a remarkable life that included growing up with his father, Elery, and four siblings living on the vast spread that the patriarch – yes, he was – Joseph Smith acquired as he went about founding Halleck, West Virginia (unincorporated). Dad’s grandfather, who made all the decisions, named him Clyde for the longest river and the deepest loch in Scotland, the Smith ancestral home.
As a second-grader, he’d been forced to quit school to help out on the farm, leaving him a barely functioning illiterate – as well as an amputee who’d lost his left ring finger helping Elery in the forge.
He entered World War II in the Army Air Corps at 33 after Pearl Harbor struck. Memorably at his first meal in the barracks, he looked at his chipped beef on toast and asked brightly, “Is this what they call s--- on a shingle?”
In their wisdom, military officials chose Dad to drive a troop transport truck, which probably felt like an out-of-control tractor to the soldiers.
When he emerged with an honorable discharge and a letter of thanks from Harry Truman, my father’s world changed. Rejecting the coal mines and a return to farming, he opted to step out and take his chances in Morgantown, a hamlet to everyone else but a city to Dad.
Being a nice mannerly guy, he got hired as the driver (!) of a small panel truck delivering boxes of published material. Immediately his eye was drawn to the only woman press operator on duty buzzing around showing that she meant business. He would learn it was a fact, something he was accustomed to on the farm and in the armed service: she gave orders while he quietly obeyed.
For someone who had never known love, he fell splat for this remarkably pretty woman who had also been orphaned and was actually shorter than he was, an even 5 feet tall to his 5 feet, 3 inches. He was also a muscular 135 pounds if anyone was counting.
They married in 1948 and I followed a year later, remarkably on the 22nd; I have a little photo of him pushing a baby carriage, taking care not to wreck it.
While Clyde knew that as newlyweds he and Hilda could not afford a house, that didn’t stop him from farming. He planted flowers his wife loved and then he found elderly neighbors with property going to waste. He made them a deal they couldn’t refuse, sharing a large portion of his own vegetable harvest with all the delighted neighbors. He gave to my grade school, too, first getting the owner's permission to use the delivery truck and then loading it with pumpkins.
Every kid wrote him a thank-you letter which I read to him. It was a practice I’d started at age 4, him sitting by my bed, hoping to read me to sleep. Dad would open a Little Golden book, show me a picture and then start inventing a story that seemed OK. I’d let him do this before interrupting.
“That’s not right,” I complained.
“Well then, how does it go?” was his soft response as I drifted off.
When I became a teen, he drove me to classes and various meetings – a sweet gesture, but he had no clue where the four-on-the-floor stick controlling the gears was located or what it did. So every ride would start with us hopping along like a rabbit, in third gear.
“You want first gear, Dad. It’s over here.” He’d slam his hand into the shift as if the car was a troop truck that had to be wrestled into submission. I offered help, wishing he could find second by himself, but that was expecting the unexpected. The instruction manual was stored in the glove box but my father could not read.
He didn’t drive my mother’s posh car, bought on sale when she started working for the university’s offset press wing. But without fail Dad emerged every morning before Mom left making sure the vehicle was good and warm.
In return, she played a part in the new job that would fill him with joy. Clyde was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, which had a major outpost in the heart of the coal fields. He heard about it from a longtime employee who was glad to put in a word. There were no mines or driving involved, just spending the night shift cleaning the first floor, a topnotch skill he possessed in abundance.
In no time my dad won the possibility of cleaning the third floor while managing the whole crew, preparing reviews on every man on each floor. He had to write.
He came home sweating, thinking how important the money and benefits were, sure he was doomed. My mother was having none of it. A lifetime of lousy luck and things he could not control ended now. She said it and as usual seemed to be speaking the 11th Commandment.
They settled into a routine: she would ask how specific workers had handled their jobs, if they’d followed governmental expectations in a pleasant manner; was their work thorough; had they kept themselves clean. Specific things to point out? Anywhere they could do better?
She carefully phrased them in language he found acceptable and then, under her scrutiny, Dad did something he’d practiced and practiced. He wrote his name at the bottom of the report. The friend who had recommended Clyde E. Smith stood the man called Smitty in front of the American flag and this loyal buddy, called Blinky, and promoted to a top position, handed the short a certificate for rank and time served. Both are smiling as though their chests will explode.
On Christmas, three days before his birthday, we sat around the tree that Mom had chosen after dragging us through every lot in the county. I placed a big rectangular box in his lap, urging him to open it. “Happy Birthday, Dad!”
After turning it over and over as though he couldn’t imagine such a thing, removing the tape just as slowly he opened the box. There was a stunning tartan in the Ancient Smith pattern, made of warm flannel.
He put it on, holding it close around him as though it was his birthday.