My father, Burnett Draughn, was born in on Decoration Day, May the 30th, in 1919, somewhere near Daniel’s Branch, Kentucky. He was Joe and Melissa Draughn’s eighth child out of an eventual total of ten. My dad liked to say that he had nine brothers and sisters, and every one of them also had nine brothers and sisters.
Burnett is an unusual first name. His parents had named him after a local Baptist preacher who they must have admired. Not too long after my father was born, according to family legend, Burnett the preacher robbed the post office and took off for parts unknown.
My father grew up on a farm, where he did some horseback riding, took care of the animals, and sometimes had to go out hunting for the family’s dinner. Squirrel mostly, to hear him tell it.
He went to school in Hindman, but later he was sent to the Pine Mountain Settlement School, a boarding school founded by philanthropists to help educate poor children in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. I suspect it was a little bit like a modern youth home, except that it was in the Appalachian mountains, and that it was considered normal to teach troubled youths such handy skills as how to blow things up with dynamite.
When he was 17 years old, my father took off and lied about his age to join the Army. A couple of years ago, I saw some paperwork from the Veteran’s Administration that still showed his birth year as 1918.
Burnett was a big farm boy and used to hard work, so the Army soon had him carrying a BAR—a Browning Automatic Rifle—which is a heavy .30 caliber machine gun. In addition to the usual reasons army units have machine guns, my father also filled the role of air defense. If they were attacked by enemy aircraft, he was supposed to try to shoot them down.
Later on, the Army found out he could ride a horse pretty good, so they sent him to a pack artillary unit in Panama, where the Army used horses to haul artilliary through the mountains. His unit did have one truck available, though. They used it to carry food for the horses.
My father mustered out and went home, only to join up again a few years later as World War II started. He was sent overseas, and I gather he arrived in Italy after the controversial landing at Anzio. Eventually he ended up with the 44th Infanty Division in France, chasing the German army through the Vosges mountains, which he remembered as being very beautiful.
(My mother once told me that my father’s unit saw the Nazi death camp at Dachau, but he’s never talked about it with me.)
After returning from the war, my father married Thelma Jean Chalk and they had a son named Burnett Lee and a daughter named Sue Jean. The marriage ended badly, and my father moved away.
In the early 1960’s, Burnett found himself in Chicago, where he met a woman named Elizabeth Kielkiewicz. They got married, and by May of 1964 they had their only child, a boy they named Mark.
Through the years, my father has held a bunch of jobs. Among other things, he’s worked as a truck driver, a salesman, and a security guard. During most of my life, however, he worked in the dockyards of various trucking companies—P.I.E., Terminal Transport, and American Freight Systems are the only ones I remember—loading and unloading trucks until he retired at the age of 67. That’s a lot of hard muscle work. I remember he had a handshake like iron.
He mostly worked the night shift, which allowed my mother to work days without leaving me alone in the house, although I can remember a period where I had an hour to myself each day. I didn’t get to see much of him, since he was rarely home for long when I got home from school.
We went on a few long driving vacations, mostly to Kentucky to visit the family—Louisville for my Aunt Mary Elizabeth, Pikeville for my Uncle Hagan and his children. I can remember long drives through the hills of Kentucky. One time we picked up a couple of hitchhikers, and another time we ran out of gas.
On one of the trips we were on a long stretch of open road, and my father decided to see how fast the car would go. He got our 1969 Plymouth Valiant up to an even 100 miles per hour. Just a few months ago, he told me that he realized this was not a smart thing to do—if one of our cheap street tires had blown, we’d all have died—but I told him it was a vivid and fun memory for me.
One summer we drove to Washington, D.C.—I remember we toured the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the Capitol Building, the White House, and the FBI building. We were really impressed by the new subway system, which was much prettier than our own CTA. Of course, we returned home through Kentucky.
My dad enjoyed playing card games, and was something of a card sharp in his younger days. I remember long hours of he and my mother and I playing 500 Rummy around the kitchen table. He also like to play the horses occasionally, although later he switched to the state lottery.
My father was always looking to “work the angles” in any situation. This meant trying to figure out any tricks that could be pulled. He wasn’t very good at tricking other people, but he was good at spotting other people trying to trick him. I remember one afternoon as a child when I had a friend over to play one of my games that used marbles. When we were done, as my friend was getting ready to leave, my dad came over and laughingly picked him up and held him upside down. Marbles fell out of his pockets.
After he retired, my father used to like to run errands around the neighborhood, stopping to chat with everyone he ran into. For a while he used to tell all the ladies that he wanted to give them a kiss, then he’d hand them a piece of Hershey’s Kiss chocolate.
In recent years, my dad spent much of his time watching MSNBC and CSPAN. He followed politics a lot, and he was a life-long Yellow Dog Democrat: There were some Democrats he didn’t like, but I never heard him say anything nice about a Republican. When I took him to the V.A. hospital, he would always ask me to turn his wheelchair away from the portrait of George Bush in the waiting area. I’m glad he lived to see the Democrats retake the White House.
Over the years, my dad had a few important pieces of advice: Don’t buy cheap stuff because quality always pays off in the long run. Always treat every gun as if it’s loaded, and never point it at another person unless you want to kill them. Don’t let cops in the house unless they have a warrant. If you’re setting off explosives with a burning fuse and they don’t go off when you expect, wait a while before you go to check it out because the fuse may still be smoldering.
Only that first one has really proven useful.
When my mom died in April, I moved in with my dad to take care of him for a couple of months until we could find a nursing home. In May, just a few days before his 90th birthday, we took him to Norwood Crossing nursing home, located about 15 minutes from my house.
At the age of 90, he had some problems with his memory, his time sense was messed up, and he had a few crazy ideas. He wasn’t all there, but he could hold short conversations, and if the subject interested him enough, he’d remember it the next time we saw him.
During the next few weeks, he started to settle in. He was eager to take physical therapy to keep walking. He was starting to make friends with some of the other residents, and he’d sing aloud to the ladies when they wheeled him through the hall.
In mid-June, however, he suddenly got much more confused. This change in mental state happened overnight, and the concerned staff sent him to the hospital. After a bunch of tests, his doctors found a restricted blood flow to part of his brain and said he’d probably had another stroke. There was nothing to do but send him back to the nursing home.
For a while, my dad was very agitated, but he began to settle down. Then he began to get too quiet, and by last Monday he was barely about to get up the energy to speak. On Wednesday night, my wife visited him, and she told me afterward that she had a feeling he didn’t have long in this world. On Thursday, his daughter Sue called him, and he was barely able to talk. He told her he thought he was dying.
On Saturday morning he had breakfast as usual. He listened to his music for a while until the staff helped him sit up on the edge of the bed to eat lunch. Afterwards, they put him back down for a nap.
Around 3 pm one of the staff was in his room and noticed he wasn’t breathing. Burnett Draughn had passed away in his sleep.
He too will be missed.