Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Grandfather Lives

The biggest regret of my life is never having known my maternal grandfather. He died before I was born. But he was never dead to me because my mother and grandmother did such a great job of keeping him alive. There were many stories, many photos, many newspaper articles, historical society accounts, and even excerpts from books about my grandfather. His name was Howard L. Clayton. Yeah, Clayton like my Clayton...obviously a family name. In my childish mind, many parts of my life would have been greatly enhanced had my grandfather not died.
"Your Pa-Pa would make sure you had a horse if he was alive," my grandmother would say with confidence to this horse-loving grade schooler, thus transforming his persona into a Santa Claus-esque figure. A very second choice to ownership was settling for weekly riding lessons while wistfully watching the horse-owning girls.
My grandfather loved everything equestrian. His standard dress as county Sheriff was riding pants and boots, he raised Tennessee Walkers, and, as a child, my mother always had her own horse. I was convinced Fate had stolen my biggest childhood dream.
My mother had a very interesting childhood, and my grandfather had the money to make just about anything happen for her, his only child. In fact, of the many stories told of my mom's childhood (of which there are many colorful ones), the greatest was of the pony that arrived on Christmas morning...complete with surrey and a hired driver. Sure made my sting ray bike with the purple, sparkled banana seat and monkey handlebars lose its luster in comparison!
As I said before, my grandfather was a county Sheriff. Several interesting stories survived through the years regarding his career and how he was perceived by the public whom he served. Once a lynch mob surrounded the county jail; my grandfather had to sneak his prisoner out the back and to a safe place. Turns out the man was convicted and put to death legally. But because of my grandfather, he was allowed a fair trial. After the execution, as was the tradition in the 40's, a death mask was made, and it hung on my grandfather's wall until his retirement. I've seen it because it ended up in their small town's museum...creepy.
My grandfather was a well-respected political figure in Arkansas, respected by people in high places. I have pictures of him with the well-known Senator Fulbright (yes, like the coveted scholarship) and a telegram from the Governor expressing condolences at his death. But he was also esteemed by the common man. Once an escaped county jail prisoner was reported to be hiding on a nearby Mississippi River island. My grandfather rode his horse out to the island, and the prisoner was re-captured. Later the criminal said,"From the tree where I was hiding, you were in plain sight,but I couldn't pull the trigger because I like you too much." This anecdote is telling about my grandfather's character... also about how once even criminals used to have consciences.
And speaking of guns, being a Sheriff, my grandfather was an expert marksman and avid gun collector. His pair of custom designed pearl-handled pistols were "burgled"(Don't you love that word?Learned it from my English friends.) from my parents' house several years ago. Stinks for us because the pair was worth around $12,000. After Sheriff Clayton died of a heart attack while deer hunting, my grandmother distributed his guns amongst family members. Recently, my second cousin Clayton kindly returned Howard's very collectible pistol to "my" Clayton. When Jeff and Clayton fired the mint 1930's Smith and Wesson K-22 Outdoorsman at a local range, they were surprised by the huge fuss employees made over the weapon!"Hey look," they kept saying while pointing, "That's the guy with the K-22!" Some time later, while hunting, my Clayton shot a six foot rattler dead in the head. Afterwards, he proclaimed the gun "retired". Cool retirement...snake's skin's on the wall.
Howard Clayton had a strong connection to J. Edgar Hoover. He was the first sheriff to be trained at the Quantico F.B.I. training facility. There are cool photos of him dressed 1930's G-man style wielding "tommy" guns. I also have a personal letter from Hoover. Before I got married, my grandmother died and her very full attic stash became garage sale fodder. Flipping through the 25 cent book stack, Jeff discovered a personally signed copy of Hoover's "Persons in Hiding". We kept it.
What some people would call "reincarnation", I would call "strong genetics". And my Clayton has a strong genetic tie to my grandfather. My mother has taken up the mantle once held by my grandmother, "If your great- grandfather was alive, he would be tickled pink at how much you love guns and hunting!" Nobody had yet related the stories to Clayton when he, in 8th grade, announced he was going into the F.B.I. Nobody had to encourage Clayton's gun obsession or his love for deer hunting. Extremely eerie how God has designed families.
Looks like Clayton's F.B.I. career morphed into being an Army officer, but it could re-surface in the future.
The biggest regret of my life is that I never knew my grandfather, yet I can know parts of him as he lives again through Clayton.

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