My “Bridge Builder”: (Read-time: 00:09:09):
John Lewis Ashton was the second most important man in my life. He was also one of the best bird hunters (even when he became half-blind) and Texas 42 (just "42", for short) players I have ever known. He was an exceptionally bright, witty person and interesting for me to carry on conversations with. He had a tender heart for children. But, if you were a man that had any intention of abusing another human being, with him around—you will not. And do not even think of messing with him because he just did not take any flack whatsoever from another man. I know. I have seen it. I am not exaggerating either. I was told his nickname was "toughie" in certain circles when he was younger. In fact, I heard him called that a couple of times. So, that was proof enough for me.
I only saw him cry once; not to imply that he was stoic with no visible emotional expression. He had a heart of gold to me. That was when the "missing man flight of F-104s" flew over the burial ceremony for my father. It was not prolonged, but his sadness was just too overwhelming for him to contain, I am sure, for he loved and respected my father. Some things are just too overwhelming emotionally for anyone—the missing man flight during his burial, no feeling human being could hold back. It brings on such a feeling of loss, pain, and sadness. This presentation of respect cuts to the middle of your soul and I am sure it did the same to the pilots.
My grandfather wanted us to stay with them for a while. As it turned out, we ended up living permanently with my grandparents and attending the Rotan, Texas schools. Both of my mother's parents provided us with stability we needed very much at that time. I knew them both very well and loved them very much.
But, for male bonding after my father's death, I gravitated to my granddad Ashton and, as a child, hung-out with him often. He was my rock in my times of need. Some of the funniest moments I can remember were sitting on a bench outside the drugstore with him and a group of old-timers and listening to their stories. These were some of the funniest conversations I have ever heard. The sense of humor these men possessed is an experience to behold. I was incredibly lucky to have been there. No profanity, just good-natured humor. I loved listening to them.
And, as to growing up with grandparents around, I would not trade those experiences for anything. It was sort of what families used to do out of necessity before World War II, I suppose. But it gave me a perspective on life and family roots that would not have been there without that experience.
He did not have much of a childhood. Like many others from poor backgrounds, life was rough. But I believe his family was particularly rough for he left home around the age of twelve and lived by himself on the fork of the Brazos River in Fisher County. A gentleman by the name of William Franklin ("Boss") Edwards from Rotan heard about a twelve-year-old boy living by himself on the river and he and his wife took him in.
John Lewis Ashton is testament to the fact that money does not make the man. There was a lot of love in their home. He reached out his hand and helped me up when I was down. He continued where my father left off. I will mention it again. He was the second most important man in my life. He was a diamond in the rough. He was a good man. My father knew this. My mother knew this. I found it to be so. I still miss him.
His last pair of glasses were very thick. I really do not know how he saw out of them, but he did, very well in fact. He saw life better than many, with virtually no formal education to aid him. Sitting with him on the porch, in a booth at the local café, or on the bench outside the local drugstore were times I will never forget and cherish dearly. I loved taking rides with him in his pickup truck too. In fact, he let me drive him in and out of town ever since I was eleven years old. To know him, you had to need him. People like that need to be needed. Like all of us, that is their reward in life. They live for that. I certainly needed him as a youth looking for a male role model to continue where my father left off.
I will never forget an incident that happened a few days after my Granddad died. There came a knock on the back door of my grandmother's home. I answered it and there stood a large black man that I recognized as a man named Donnie Powell. He was probably around 25 years old at the time. He asked for my grandmother. I asked him in, but he declined and said he preferred to stay outside. My grandmother came to the door and greeted him. He looked up from the bottom of the steps and said, "Mrs. Ashton, I am very sorry about Mr. John passing away." That was it. That is all he wanted or needed to say. She thanked him for his kind words. He had said what he wanted to say, then left. I knew then that my grandfather was truly what I had always thought he was—a genuine person that had compassion for his fellow human being, no matter what color their skin was. Donnie Powell's words attested to that. I was never prouder to be his grandson than that one fleeting moment of confirmation of who he was—a man that was even respected by a black man. I knew right then that was the type of man I wanted to be.
My granddad’s source of income in those days came predominately from raising hogs for the market. A hog does not require soil with any value to it. He wants to wallow in the mud on a hot day and it does not require expensive mud for that. In fact, the least expensive, the better. So, my granddad's hog pens were located across the railroad tracks, where land was cheap—the black side of town. There was many an occasion that took us through the black part of town. Sometimes, it might be to search for a hog or two that had somehow made his way past the electric wire fencing—roaming freely among the small wood frame houses of this town's black neighborhood.
And, I can recall on more than one occasion, watching my granddad step out of his old Ford truck with those ankle-high Red Wing work boots, stepping down into that cheap-dirt mud, sinking down into that muck until it was well over the top of those boots of his, grabbing the chain from the bed of his truck, wrapping one end of it around the rear bumper of the pickup and the other around the front bumper of the black man's vehicle; after which he proceeded to rev up that old tired engine like I had never seen him do. I would be sitting on my knees, looking out the back window and I’m here to tell you, from my vantage point, peering through the dirty back window of the cab of that old truck, as my grandad would give it all that engine could muster, mud being slung out from behind those spinning tires of his, it reaching the front grill of that black man’s car, proceeding up over the front hood, then onto the windshield, and right over the top, to the point where you would have thought—"that poor black man must be thinking there was a landslide a-coming." But he always got them out of that same mud-hole that he stepped into. To his credit, I never heard one word come forth from his mouth that ever gave me any indication that he considered the black man to be any different than the white man in his eyes—not one time. He would pull the black man out, get back out into the mud, undo the chains, throw them in the bed of the truck, get back in, and off we went down that muddy road of life—together. Me, sitting in that pickup truck with my "bridge builder” right next to me, all the while thinking to myself, in silence, “I want to be just like him when I grow up to be a man!"
To be remembered, as I remember my granddad, you must lead a life here on the good earth that confirms your adherence to those principles that define goodness of the human heart. There are no shortcuts. You must see the value of that and want it. You must give yourself up to a much higher cause. And you must be willing to become "ordinary" for a while and come down off your throne of vanity of your own making. This respect must be earned. It comes not with titles nor wealth.
I will always be grateful and cherish those moments with my granddad; for it was during those moments that provided me a glimpse of truth, compassion, and respect from one soul of another, no matter what color of their skin.
You must develop a keen eye for those moments, moments where simple truths are confirmed and validated about another human being—fellow bridge builders, if you will. For me, the ability to see these fleeting moments were honed from the times with my granddad—constantly looking, listening, and storing those moments of real life-lessons in my memory bank for later use by me.
William Franklin Edwards
(19 Aug 1870–1 Feb 1949; 78 years old)
Burial: Belvieu Cemetery, Rotan, Fisher County, Texas, USA
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