No, I’m not referring to the childhood game 1-2-3 Red Light. Red Light was my dad. Our last name was Light. To be honest, when I got married, finally, I hated to see my last name go.
Red stuck with him from his childhood. He had beautiful red hair. As the years went by, you knew who his old friends were because they called him Red. Later acquaintances called him by his given name, Arthur. I called him Daddy. We were pals.
I know even less about my dad’s upbringing than I do my mother’s. My grandmother’s family lived in Eminence for a generation or two. (That’s my best guess by looking at headstones in the Eminence Cemetery.) I believe my dad was originally from Louisville and was transplanted to Eminence by his parents.
I think his dad and grandfather worked for the railroad. His dad died young of typhoid fever. Daddy attended school in Eminence. It was the same school I attended when I started.
A Black family played a role in raising him and his brother, Harold. I don’t know the arrangement my grandmother made for this. Nana didn’t seem to have time for parenting. As I was told, she hung out in Louisville and partied.
I know my dad and uncle lived with this family but I don’t know for how long. I wish I knew this story. There again, questions I wish I’d asked.
Daddy served in the U.S. Army in World War II. He was stationed in Manila, The Philippines. He never talked about his service. He said he wasn’t supposed to.
He was also uncomfortable talking about the war out of respect to his fellow soldiers. He was in a situation once where he and his buddy were the only two who made it out alive. How horrible.
He shared one story that I know of. He and his buddy had gone off base for R&R. They’d had a good time. When they returned to camp, they couldn’t remember the password to get back in.
They were panic-stricken about their predicament. They were at the gate quite awhile trying to talk themselves in. I don’t know how they got back in, but they made sure they’d remember the password going forward.
When I hear WWII stories or read books about it, a lot of them take place in Europe. I knew nothing about The Philippines campaign until I read John Grisham’s book, The Reckoning.
When I started The Reckoning, I did not know the war in The Philippines would be a subject. It covered a lot of what went on in Manila. Here are a couple of my dad’s pictures.
Prior to his life in Eminence with my mother, at some point Daddy moved to Elizabethtown. He lived there with his first wife and the boys. I figure that’s where my parents met. Mother lived just outside Elizabethtown in Glendale.
I was born in Elizabethtown. I had my 15 minutes of fame the day I was born. I was the 1,000th patient at Hardin Memorial Hospital. My picture was in the Elizabethtown newspaper. Big whoo, right?
Taking Up Residence in Eminence
After Daddy married my mother, he returned to Eminence. They initially ran the town movie theater. Daddy was the projectionist and sold tickets. Mother handled concessions. My 4-year-old birthday party was here. We had cake and cartoons.
The House on King Street
The first memories I have of Daddy are when we lived beside the railroad tracks. I was 4-6-years-old.
Right across the tracks was the Black community. The school the Black children attended sat atop a hill we could see from our backyard. When desegregation happened later, I was unaware of its meaning or significance.
I knew at some point the Black children were attending school where I was. We were taught to be respectful of others — so I was aware in a not so obvious way.
The house was a small two-bedroom. It had one heating register in the hall in the middle of the house. In winter, Mother and I sometimes dressed in front of the open door of the oven. Even then it was a tad chilly.
I hate to say this but I remember looking through my parents’ cracked bedroom door. I saw my dad hitting my mother. I don’t know how often this happened.
Afterwards, Mother would leave the house with me in tow. She would take a tea towel to dry her tears. She went all around town and cried as she drove. I sat quietly in the back seat. Naturally, I didn’t understand.
Sometimes I saw them hugging and kissing. This embarrassed me to no end.
There was the time Mother made a birthday cake for Daddy. It was yellow with orange piping. It was a pretty cake. She told me not to tell him about it. Almost the minute he arrived home from work, I told him. A kid gets excited about birthday cakes.
I turned around in time to see Mother dumping the cake into the yellow trash can in the kitchen. No birthday cake for Daddy. I had disobeyed and this was my punishment.
Mother did strange things. She would sit on the couch, and then instruct me to stare at her. I was seated on the floor in front of her and just stared at her face like she told me. This happened more than once.
I don’t know how long I stayed there staring at her. This was weird. I remember it feeling awkward.
The Liquor Store
After Daddy quit working at John Deere, he managed one of the town’s two liquor stores. Daddy suffered from alcoholism so this was putting the fox in charge of the hen house. My grandmother said he was doing the devil’s work.
I spent time here. Children then were not allowed in liquor establishments. While Mother was at church choir practice or taking a quick trip to Louisville, Daddy babysat me here.
I was hidden in the back room where all the liquor, beer, and wine was stored. The townspeople probably knew about this but nothing was made of it. Hard to keep a secret in a small town.
This was when liquor stores were closed on Election Day. This was also when children were not allowed in Churchill Downs because of wagering. My dad loved the horses. Later in his life when he lived in Lexington, he would go to Keeneland to place his bets.
Sometimes I’d stop by after school to see Daddy. He would give me money for candy. If I had an exceptionally good report card, that garnered a little more money. He was a generous and kind person — and lots of fun.
When Daddy left Tampa, he returned to Lexington. After several years, he began working for Wyncom, which was a motivational speaking company. He was the right-hand man to the founder.
When Wyncom had conventions in Atlanta, I usually attended. They were held at the Georgia World Congress Center.
Wyncom presented popular business speakers. My favorites were Tom Peters, Denis Waitley, and Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
It was during this time Daddy started making decent money. His old childhood sweetheart, Eleanor, his third wife, was by his side. They were living the dream. One Christmas, Daddy’s boss gave him a maroon Corvette, a lease surely.
I thought at Daddy’s age the car was inappropriate, but then who’s asking me. He kept it long enough to make a Christmas card picture with Eleanor and him wearing matching sweaters and arms held high. Daddy was a lover of fun so this was right up his alley. I can see him smiling and laughing in that car now.
Daddy eventually got his drinking under control. He and Eleanor were in Dallas. He became ill and was admitted to the hospital. The doctor told him if he didn’t stop drinking, it would kill him.
Daddy finally retired, and it was hard for him. I’m glad Eleanor was there. He was a people person and loved working. Now that was gone. He later developed Alzheimer’s. He lived out his last years in the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, Kentucky.
Daddy lived life full throttle. People loved Red. He was fun and liked everybody. Even though he suffered from alcoholism, he was kind and gentle toward me.
He had a rough go of it at times, but he remained positive. At one of Wyncom’s conventions, Daddy gave me a small, gold-lettered pin that spelled Attitude. He had the best.
There was strife in the family over his drinking though.
If I hadn’t noted it in my diary, I would not believe it but I do remember it — my mother went for over a week without speaking.
I don’t remember what happened during this time. All my diary says for days is “Mother no speak.” Therapists tell you that giving the silent treatment to anyone is unhealthy.
I remember what I said that caused her to respond the way she did. When I was 13, I told her I thought the way she was caused Daddy to drink. Now that was a humdinger! Whoa. To this day, I can’t believe I said it. What did I know about such things?
Through counseling, I came to realize Daddy never took up for me. He did not intervene when Mother stirred up commotions. He did not try to make situations better. He was not always home to lend a hand if he had so decided. I was too young to be aware of this, and I’m so thankful.
I guess he didn’t know how to help a wife with mental illness. Parts of his life were no walk in the park either. God rest their souls.
It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.
— Anne Sexton
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month