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30 Years Without My Best Buddy -- My Dad Kenneth Ray Gullette Sr.

Ken Gullette Sr
My dad and a typical smile first thing in the morning.

Throughout our lives, as we work and play, develop relationships, raise children and try to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads, moments pass without being noticed.

One moment after another ticks by, gone forever, and most of the time we give it no thought. We are just living our lives.

There is always tomorrow. There is always next year.

And one by one, the moments slip away.

My father, Ken Gullette Sr. died 30 years ago today. He was 61 years old.

I was 36 at the time. I am now five years older than he was when he died. When I think about dying at age 61, I realize just how short his life really was.

Last night, I was in the bathroom and glanced into the mirror. I saw my dad looking back at me.

It seems the older I get, the more I see him in my face; a living reminder that his genes are a key part of me.

Fortunately, the memories are part of me, too.

The first thing I remember him saying to me was, "Kenny, are we buddies?"

He had a wonderful, goofy, Southern sense of humor. He grew up in tiny Wilmore, Kentucky during the Great Depression. Life was hard back then, but he always had a smile on his face.

He joined the Marines in 1945 at age 17 and he was told he would die during the invasion of Japan. But we dropped the bomb, ended the war, and my dad was allowed to grow up.

He had an Indian motorcycle as a young man, and would stand up on the seat and ride it down the street in Wilmore to impress the girls. He was a good-looking guy.

I remember the day I realized my father's age for the first time. I was walking down a sidewalk in Wilmore with my mother and sisters and I remember realizing and saying, "Daddy is 29 years old." That would have been 1957.

He was an entrepreneur, and he wanted to work for himself. He started ornamental iron businesses and did iron work on houses, apartment complexes and more. I can still see some of his work when I drive through my hometown of Lexington.

One time around 1967, his business ran into trouble. Contractors weren't paying him, he couldn't meet his bills, and he filed for bankruptcy.

After the bankruptcy hearing, he came home from the court with twenty dollars in his pocket. He was smiling.

The next day, he went out and started a new business.

Ken Sr Sucking It In 1979
Sucking it in for a 1979 picture with his brothers and sister. From left to right: Orbra, Robert, Ken and Irene.

His resilience was amazing to me even then. As years passed, I realized that I inherited it. And, of course, that sense of humor. Everyone he met was a friend, until they proved otherwise. My dad never met a stranger, and greeted everyone with a smile.

I am the same way, and I am grateful to him for giving me that trait.

We used to talk about everything, and he shared with me his sense of wonder about the world. I remember sitting out at night, and he was looking at the stars and the moon. He would marvel at how far away they were, and how long it took the light to reach us. 

"We aren't seeing that star right now," he would say. "We are seeing it as it was millions of years ago."

And he would be in awe.

That sense of wonder rubbed off on me.

He was a hopeless romantic. One of the warmest memories I have of my parents comes from 1959, when my father put a romantic record on the record player in the living room and slow-danced with my mother around the room. He would have been 30 or 31 and she would have been about 25. As a first-grader, it made me feel really good inside.

But it was his sense of humor that I loved the most. My father made me laugh my entire life. Here is a typical joke that he told.

"Kenny," he would say, "did you know that when I was young I wanted to study law?"

"No, I didn't know that," I said.

"But I didn't because I found out I was against it."

He pronounced "against" the way a hillbilly would -- "uh-GINN."

And he would laugh his head off at his own joke. I would laugh, too.

Ken Sr Lawn Darts
Playing lawn darts in 1979 as my dad tries to grab it before I can throw it.

He developed congestive heart failure in the late 1980s, and finally, during a hospital stay, doctors told him he also had lung cancer, probably from chain-smoking since he was a teenager.

He was given two to four weeks to live. I rushed in from Sioux City to spend a couple of days with him and say goodbye.

When he was dying, I had been through some ups and some serious downs for several years. I was not in a happy marriage. Our second daughter, Shara, died of crib death nine years earlier and devastated me.

My dad had his first heart attack at age 50, around the time Shara was born. The first time he saw his granddaughter was when she was lying in her coffin.

I worked in TV news, which can be pretty brutal. I was still struggling to make my mark in the business and found myself in Sioux City, Iowa.

He kept seeing life slap me down, and he kept seeing me get back up and do a little better than before.

But now he was dying in August of 1989. As I sat next to his hospital bed in Louisville, trying to savor every moment, knowing it would be the last time we were together, he reached over and gripped my arm tightly.

"Rock of Gibralter," he said.

I didn't ask what he meant. I knew what he meant.

My father never gave me any advice about school. He only earned a G.E.D. He didn't give me advice about work or careers. He spent money as fast as he earned it, so he was not a good role model for financial matters.

When my father died, he did not leave his children any money. I got his U.S. Marine uniform, a beat-up Timex watch, his wallet with photos and ID in it, and a leather belt showing a hunter with his dog, and the words "Ken Gullette Coon Hunter" etched into the leather.

That is what my father left me.

But we were buddies. Sometimes, that's enough. Those memories, and that legacy, does not run out. It stays deposited in the heart. As time passes, the love compounds and continues to grow.

He was the nicest man I ever knew, and the most honest, too. I never heard one story, or witnessed one event, when he cheated someone or was dishonest in any way.

I am lucky that I had a chance to tell my father goodbye, and to tell him what a great father he was. Walking out of the hospital room to fly back to Sioux City, knowing I would never see him again, is one of the hardest things I have ever done.

In the 36 years I knew my father, we never had a cross word between us. He got mad at me when I acted out as a child. Once, he gave me a spanking after guests left because I kept playing "earthquake" with my sisters' doll house while they were setting it up with their little girlfriends. I was about seven years old. He did not give spankings very often. It was not something you forgot.

I guess I deserved it.

The day before he died, I called dad on the phone in his hospital room. We had been talking every day, but during the last couple of days, his body had begun to shut down. He didn't need any pain medication. He was not in a talkative mood.

"Well," I said, "I guess we've said it all."

"I guess so," he replied.

The next day, my cousin Larry called from the hospital.

"Kenny," he said, "your dad passed away."

We drove from Sioux City, where I was the news director of KCAU-TV, to the funeral home in Nicholasville, Kentucky. It's a long drive and we had to stop for the night.

As soon as I reached Nicholasville, I had to pull the car over. I was hyperventilating at the thought of seeing my father's body.

He was laid out at Betts & West Funeral Home, in the same room where services were held for my grandparents and for my daughter. I was overcome with emotion when I walked in. For about ten minutes I held back, unable to gather the strength to see him that way.

I lost my buddy.

We returned home after the funeral, a long drive back to Sioux City. On the evening we got home, I went to the local high school track and ran a couple of miles to try and clear my head. Then I sat on a hill next to the track.

In the sky, there was a bright, clear moon, and I sat in the darkness, looking at the moon, pondering the universe, and what a wonderful journey we are on. This life is finite. There is an ending. 

It dawned on me, sitting on the hill and looking into the night sky as he and I had done many times, that I could live another 60 years and never see him again.

Now, 30 years has passed. 

I was a little bit wrong about my prediction. I do see him. I see him in my face sometimes. I hear him in some of his silly sayings that I still repeat. And I hear him laugh occasionally when I laugh.

Life sure does throw challenges in your way, doesn't it? As I have gotten older, I have decided that a true test of character is how you deal with the losses that pile up as the decades pass.

In the years since his death, I have lost marriages, I have lost jobs, but I have gained a lot, too. Few losses are as profound as losing my daddy.

I would love to talk with him today with 66 years behind me. I would ask why he did this, why he did that, why we moved to Florida when we did, and why we moved back to Lexington. What was it like for him to marry a teenage girl and take her from the orphanage where she grew up? 

My mom was a good person who was capable of sudden rage. I would love to ask him when that first surfaced, what he thought, and how he put up with it as long as he did.

But most of all, I would like to ask him where he has been during the past thirty years.

I have a feeling his answer would be, "I don't know, but it sure is peaceful and quiet."

And then I'm sure he would grin and crack a joke. And I would laugh.

For years after my father died, he would appear in dreams. They would almost always play out the same way.

In the dreams, my father would suddenly be standing there. I would run to him, hug him, and I would always wake up with tears running down my face and into my pillow.

One particular dream has haunted me for the past 20 years or more. Perhaps haunted is the wrong word. It has stayed with me. It has become a part of my outlook.

I was at the Louisville Fairgrounds in the dream, and suddenly, my dad was standing a few feet away. I ran to him, put my arms around him and whispered four words in his ear before I woke up crying again. 

What I whispered, I understand now, was a message to myself -- a message everyone should realize as we live each day and as the moments pass into oblivion. It's a message that I wish I had thought about a little more when I was younger, busy with work and family, and when I had the opportunity to spend more time with my father.

We always think there will be more time. That is not always true. And sometimes the moments pass by, forever carrying away the things and the people you love.

The four words I whispered in my dad's ear in the dream, as I hugged him tight and struggling to speak through the tears, were these:

"Every moment is precious."

And then I woke up.

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