My reflections of the day Dad died 54 years ago
~Growing up in a broken home, raised by my mother, I looked forward to the years ahead that I would spend learning from and about my dad
It was about three hours before daylight on Feb. 19, 1959, when I climbed behind the wheel of Clay’s big, black Lincoln. I had allowed myself enough time to drive from our place on the Brazos River in Burleson County to arrive at Dallas hospital before 9 a.m. I made my way from our Avalon Ranch down the Brazos Bottom Road that came out at Hearne on Highway 6. I pulled into a family restaurant at Calvert, grabbed a quick bite and coffee. The sky was dark, and the temperature had been dropping. At Bremond, I made the choice to take Highway 14 instead of following Highway 6 into Waco.
A few miles down at Kosse, I started noticing a few snowflakes. By the time I came across Groesbeck, the white stuff was really starting to fall. I had never driven in this kind of weather before. I would try the bright lights and then the dim ones. Neither worked very well. The traveling was scary enough but by the time I got to Mexia, it was plum frightening. Daylight was peeping through and everything was covered with the snow that was coming down in dump truck loads. I couldn’t see ahead or behind. My hands dripped with sweat. I debated whether or not to stop or press on. I creeped along for the next two hours. It was 9 a.m., the time I was due in Dallas when I made a pit stop. The snow had eased up some but at Ennis; I figured I was still an hour and a half away from downtown Dallas.
My dad, Clay, was scheduled to have surgery at 9 a.m. Under normal conditions, I would have been there with time to spare. A call the previous evening had told me dad wanted to talk to me before he went into surgery. A few years before he had suffered a couple of heart attacks. Up until three days before, he had been in Bryan’s St. Joseph Hospital. A gallstone had slipped into an extra duct of his gallbladder. I’m told the extra duct is consistent in the Dunn bloodline.
The last time I had seen him was before my uncles had forcefully removed him from St. Joseph and moved him to Dallas. He was jaundice, yellow as a lemon. Dr. Andreus, his heart doctor, wouldn’t release him, saying his heart couldn’t withstand gallbladder surgery.
I’d never driven in Big D before. Snow covered everything. Just before 11 a.m. I walked into the hospital. The surgery had been postponed waiting for my arrival. Being Clay’s only child, they wanted me to sign some papers, plus Dad wanted to talk to me first. The doctors assured me that three EKG’s showed his heart would be fine for the two-hour operation.
Dad wanted me to get an attorney; there was something he needed to take care of. I assured him of the doctors’ confidence that everything could wait. He said he needed to have a talk with me. I told him we would go to Arizona for his recovery and would have plenty of time to talk. He was prepped and ready.
I walked alongside while they wheeled him in to the operating room. At the two big doors, they said that was as far as I could go. With my hand on his, I wished him good luck. He responded that he would never make it through the operation. He looked me in the eyes and said, “You’ve got two strikes against you. One is being my son; the other you’ll find out about.
Three of my uncles and I waited. One I had never met before. I didn’t know the Dunns very well then. Dad and I, until recently hadn’t spent much time together. I looked forward to the times ahead together. Clay had done Mom and me wrong. We had struggled through some hard times and often near starvation. He had thought if times were hard enough, she would give me up. I held some resentment towards him for that.
The operation ran longer than expected. After three hours, a nurse came out and told us the operation had been a success and they were sewing Dad up. The doctor would be out to talk to us soon. A couple of my uncles left to return to their office.
Dad was a black sheep. His brothers owned Dunn Brother’s Pipeline Stringing Co., the largest of its kind with nearly 500 trucks. Their slogan was, “Around the nation, it much be Dunn.” They strung the Alaskan Pipeline and operated in all the 49 states.
At age 14, Clay had ridden a donkey from his home in Sipes Springs, near Rising Star, to Comanche where he got a job with the telephone company. He strung wire and post all the way to Houston and eventually to Port Arthur. Clay had the most fascinating and colorful life of anyone I’ve ever known, bar none.
After about 45 minutes, the doctor came out to talk to my Uncle Hobby and me. The operation, he said, had been a success but while sewing him up his heart had stopped. They had cut into his chest and had hand-massaged his heart, but it wouldn’t respond. They had pronounced him dead at age 65. I thought about what could have been. His last words ran through my head.
In a couple of days, we laid Dad to rest in the little cemetery on the hill in Sipes springs with his mom, dad and siblings, who had preceded him. He was born just a half-mile away.
The Dunns had blazed quite a trail, starting with my grandfather, Allen. Clay often spoke of his last ride being to Sipes Springs. Over the years, I’ve made several pilgrimages on Feb. 19, to visit the burial site of my Irish bloodline.
Fifty-four years have passed since that cold February day. Several years have gone by since I last visited the gravesite where so much of my roots are buried. I often wonder what might have happened if Dad would have lived a few years. How my vocation would have changed. Instead of publishing, I’m sure the highway would have led in another direction. On that February day, in that snow storm, I extended Clay’s life by two hours. Even today I miss the times that might have been.