Summer vacations, when I was a child, were of two main sorts.
One involved my dad driving us down to Florida from our home in Atlanta to stay in an inexpensive motel near the beach; patiently pulling over to get us orange juice at the first roadside stand we came to after crossing the border, and to any other attractions we wanted to see; listening to the rest of us singing to pass the time; proudly taking our pictures with parrots and palm trees; happily watching us while we played in the waves; and driving us home while quietly suffering us to moan about car-seat sand digging into our sunburned bodies.
The other involved my dad driving us up to the Smoky Mountains to camp; treating us to root beer floats and cheese sandwiches at the A&W Root Beer stand for lunch on the way; pulling over at scenic overlooks so we could stretch our legs; stopping at “Indian Trading Posts” so Kenny and I could buy Cherokee souvenirs; setting up our campsite while we played; and driving us home while gently cautioning my brother and me to stop fighting over our boundaries in the back seat.
All began with my soft-spoken, gentle dad taking us safely there, and ended with him bringing us safely home. We took this for granted, of course. But I recall one trip in the summer of ‘59, when I was seven, that revealed something more about my father.
We were traveling north on a winding mountain road, but we hadn’t reached any cool air yet. The windows were down, but the wind was hot and the bright sun made it worse. Suddenly we all flew forward when my dad slammed on the brakes, and we stopped just short of a line of parked cars that had appeared unexpectedly around the bend.
“I’ll see what the trouble is,” my dad said softly to my mom. We opened all the doors, and waited.
I watched him walk ahead past several cars, stop for no more than a second when he reached the crowd of people standing in the road, then turn and run back to our car. He didn’t explain, but he looked worried. He quickly opened the trunk, took out his hatchet, and ran into the woods beside the road. Within a minute he was back, dragging a tree he had chopped down. It was a pine tree, about the size of the biggest Christmas tree we’d ever had. He dropped the hatchet by the car, picked up the tree, and ran ahead to the crowd.
By this time my mother and brother were standing outside the car, straining to see what was happening ahead. They didn’t notice when I slipped away, to follow my dad.
When I reached the crowd, I saw what the trouble was. There had been a terrible car crash. A young man, probably a teenage boy, lay bleeding in the middle of the road. People were running around, some crying, some shouting orders, others arguing with those orders, everyone in a panic. All but my father.
He stood still, quiet, holding the tree up over his head with two hands. At first I didn’t understand why, but then I saw. The rest of us were in the blazing sun, on the burning pavement, but my father had put himself and the tree between the sun and the boy. The boy was in shade.
It seemed like a long time that he stood there, a still point in the chaos, holding up that tree. He held it until the ambulance arrived to carry the boy away.
My father and I walked back to the car, and we all got in. My mother gave him a handkerchief to wipe the dirt and sap off his hands, and I saw that his hands were cut. Then we were on the road again. Nobody said anything, but we all knew something terribly sad, something tragic, had happened.
And I knew that my father was a hero. That he was not one to shout, or to give orders, or to panic. That he was one to act quickly, and quietly, without drawing attention to himself. That he was one to do what he could, to help. That he did the thing that was thoughtful, and kind. That he would always do that for us. And that he would bring us safely home.
In Remembrance of My Father
Herbert Verne Ojala (Oct. 4, 1923 – May 26, 2007)
Bette Ojala, © Oct. 4, 2015