Thursday, September 07, 2006

My Greatest Influence

Arnold Randolph Sterling Sr.
Feb. 14, 1923 - Sept. 4, 2006

My daddy was liked by everyone who ever knew him. Born to R.E. and Ida Mae Sterling in Norfield, Mississippi, he graduated from Picayune High School. He was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. At the termination of his enlistment in 1954, he was chief clerk of the Army Finance Office at White Sands Proving Grounds in New Mexico, and that's where he met my mother, Betty Jean Abernathy. One night he and his army buddies went to my grandfather's bar in Las Cruces where she was waiting tables, and he went back the next day to find out her name, because all he remembered from his first visit was her legs. He bought her wedding dress with silver dollars he won at the racetrack, and they went on their honeymoon in his powder blue '49 Cadillac.

He retired from the Terminal Railway at the Alabama State Docks in 1985, but he kept his love for the railroad and trains all his life. He had several collections of train whistles that he listened to, and he shared many wonderful stories with us of his early years spent on the tracks logging boxcars, gondolas, and hoppers before he moved into the yard office. I know the reason I'm able to write books is that he gave me his gift for storytelling.

Never would you call my daddy that you weren’t greeted by the most cheerful “hello” you’d ever heard, and he had a joke for every situation. He even had the ambulance attendants and ER personnel at the hospital laughing when they took him in two weeks ago. My sister and my brother and I got a call from him every night with a detailed weather forecast for the next day, any new jokes featured in Reader’s Digest, and some bit of trivia or obscure news item we could “tell all the girls on coffee break.”

A lifelong lover of music and talented guitarist whose father taught him to play at the age of six, my daddy filled our house every Sunday with Dixieland jazz, cowboy trail songs, gospel hymns, country songs, folk music, and rock-n-roll. He passed on this appreciation for all types of music to his children and grandchildren, and we all know the words to songs from as far back as the 30s. As recently as last month, he served as the “disc jockey” for the senior citizens at his apartment complex, and he had a vast collection of music that he’d painstakingly recorded onto cassette tapes in different categories to fit whatever occasion they were celebrating.

Although he didn’t attend church, he was a devout Christian who’d read the Bible from cover-to-cover many times, and he taught us about God through Bible stories he retold in his own words, modern parables he made up himself, and family games like Bible drills and memorizing verses, but our best lesson was the example he set for us because of the kind of man he was.

Born with one of the softest hearts in the world, he loved animals of all kinds, all the way down to the smallest of creatures. I remember him telling me when I was little about the colony of sugar ants on one of the piers at the Alabama State Docks that he fed every day on his lunch hour. He’d come home every night and tell me what kind of foods they liked and which ones they hadn’t cared for, and every Sunday afternoon I would sit in his lap and watch Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and learn about animals right along with him. This love and respect for all God’s creatures and exceptionally soft heart is another legacy he passed on to his children and grandchildren. My brother carries birdseed in his car to feed hungry birds in parking lots, and my 17-year-old daughter is a vegetarian as a personal statement against the cruel treatment of animals.

Generous to a fault, my daddy was always giving things away, and he loved giving gifts and treats. When my sister and I were little, he would come home from work with candy or cookies hidden in his coat pockets, and whichever one we found first was the one we got to eat. Before he stopped driving, he loved going to yard sales and buying knick-knacks and odd items like singing coin banks and fiber optic flower arrangements for everyone in the family, and he’d always say they were practically “brand spanking new.” He gladly spent all his extra money on his grandchildren, and never did they go to see him that he didn’t have them some kind of snack. Never also was there ever a Paw Paw loved more by his grandchildren, no matter how old or how young they are.

My daddy taught my siblings and me many things as we were growing up. He taught me how to tie my shoes, how to count in Japanese, how to draw a boy and a dog out of the letters in the words, how to do string tricks and play clock solitaire, how to be patient, how to tell right from wrong, and how to live by the Golden Rule. But the most important thing he taught me was how to recognize a good man, because he was the finest one I’ve ever known.

~Stay true to yourself, and your dreams will come true.

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  1. Joyce,
    I love your comments about your dad.
    He and my dad would have been good friends if they had known each other.
    My daddy was kindhearted,loved his family more than anything,and loved to read the jokes in Readers digest,and in the co-op news magazine.


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