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Tell Me Your Story: Born a century ago, Dad was a farmer and a soldier

December 25, 2011

The person whose story I’m telling today is not someone local or even anyone you know, but he was very dear to me.
Today’s column is about my father, Clyde E. Smith, an Appalachian farm boy and unlikely soldier who was drafted into World War II at the age of 30, after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today would have been his 100th birthday.
Dad was the last of four children born in Halleck, an unincorporated West Virginia outpost with a tiny church, cemetery and school surrounded by sprawling family farms where men worked themselves and their children nearly to death.
Dad had a sister, Grace, and two brothers, Glen and Jim; his mother died in childbirth. What he forever called “the old home place” was a house that had collapsed into a bramble-covered heap by the time I was old enough to understand the sorrow on his face.
Long before that, as a seven-year-old attending second grade, his education had crumbled, too, when he was forced to leave school to labor on the farm.
He was functionally illiterate until the day he died at the outrageously young age of 59, the victim of pancreatic cancer. Growing up, I can remember him struggling to write his name and – baffled by punctuation and its functions – putting a period after each element: Clyde. E. Smith. where nothing at all was needed.
As someone for whom the English language has been a lifelong love, I recognize that my father’s battle to absorb news by looking at pictures in the paper and his complete inability to compose a sentence mean absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things.
He was a truly good man. He loved animals, brought home strays and was a one-man rescue operation, saving injured birds, chipmunks and even a skunk. It was a gift.
It was the same with plants.
He grew the best-tasting vegetables and the biggest strawberries in the county. When I was very little I followed him around the garden for hours on end asking annoying questions that he never tired of answering. At the age of six, I received my very own packet of cucumber seeds to plant and I hovered over the patch awaiting the arrival of my crop.
One enormous cuke the consistency of cordwood was the result. Dad proudly displayed it in the window by the dining table, like a ship’s model, until it was so disgusting my mother threw it out.
This fall, as the nation observed the 60th anniversary of the infamy at Pearl Harbor, I reflected on my father’s great adventure.
He was grabbed up off the farm despite a host of physical impairments. Besides his age, he was blind as a bat and had a broken arm that had never been set. As a kid, he’d fallen to the ground from the hayloft and it was decided he could await treatment until the next time the veterinarian came around.
The arm was forever bent at the elbow. In his wedding photos, he can be seen clutching the cuff of his right sleeve to prevent it covering his hand.
He was tiny: five-feet-three inches tall, 135 pounds of solid muscle and he could run like a deer – all great if you’re a high school track star but for the rigors of active duty in wartime? Not so much.
Then there was the fact that other than selling produce in town each Saturday, he’d never been anywhere in his life. I have tried to fathom his reaction at being whisked away to California by the Army Air Force whose astute leaders determined that, after 10 days of training, he was the perfect guy to drive a troop transport truck.
Clyde Smith was the worst driver on the planet. Ever.
I believe the military was where he learned to grind gears; throughout his lifetime, he was never able to conquer the concept of the stick shift, causing the family car to hop down the road like a huge, steel, rectangular kangaroo.
Somewhere during his three years of service he managed to sustain another injury, probably fiddling with an engine: Dad lost his left finger at the middle joint.
He didn’t teach me to drive or acquire a love of language, although my mother helped him memorize bedtime stories which he pretended to read to me. If I caught him skipping a part, he’d say, “Well, then, you tell me how it goes.” I would babble away until I fell asleep and he tiptoed out.
What he did pass along to me, his only child, is a passion for animals and gardening and a belief in living your faith; reaching out to others even if it seems you have nothing to give.
I am deeply grateful.
Today I have a small, carved rosewood box with mementoes of Dad, among them the wallet he left 41 years ago. All it contains are two photos. They are both of me.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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