Daddy thought he was a dead duck, that he had just seen his last day. I was the driver. Here is another of my warped stories from a late-life confession that somehow seems to absolve me of responsibility because I didn’t know better at the time.
I was twenty years old, had been married one year to my high school sweetheart, Bettye Dickson, and we moved from our home county 250 miles east to Knoxville to complete my undergraduate degree. Bettye worked as a secretary until we had our first child, Joy. We stayed afloat with her salary, some scholarships I had received, student loans, and the annual sale of a few head of my cattle that Daddy and my older brother Nolen Robert looked after while I was away.
The University of Tennessee in the mid-1960s seemed like a magical, beautiful, and somewhat intimidating place to me. Founded in 1794, the heart of it sat on a high hill overlooking the winding, scenic Tennessee River. It was so much larger than Austin Peay State University that I attended in Clarksville my first two years after high school. UT, as it is known, was vast in comparison. There were students from all over Tennessee and seemingly from all around the world. The number of fields of study was mind-boggling–so many things I had never heard of before. I chose to double-major in agricultural education and animal science in the College of Agriculture, with plans to become a teacher. My farm background steered me in that direction. I had no other basis for making a choice, being the first of our clan to go to college.
Daddy and my brother Nolen Robert were pranksters themselves, so I came about my pranks naturally. Their pranks were more like practical jokes that they pursued for a laugh. Mine were sometimes more like psychological jolts that put people back on their heels with feelings of deep fright or even horror. I did not plan for my pranks to be more extreme than Daddy’s or Nolen Robert’s, they just came out that way.
Daddy only drove far enough from home that he could get back home by bedtime. He came on the bus to visit us in Knoxville, as he would later do in several other places we lived. Mother wasn’t a traveler, so she took care of things on the farm while he visited us. It was his first trip to Knoxville, and we wanted to show him around, including a trip to the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a spectacularly beautiful area.
We took U. S. Highway 441 from Knoxville for the short drive to the Smokies. After lunch in Gatlinburg, we headed up into the mountains. Daddy sat in the front passenger seat, and Bettye sat behind me in the back seat so she could talk to Daddy more easily. Daddy gawked and marveled at the beauty of this eastern part of his home state.
The two-lane highway had numerous pull-offs on either side to allow sightseeing and trailing traffic to pass. Low guardrails were along the edge of these pull-offs with steep precipices, and while turning into them at certain angles it was not easy to see the guardrails from inside a car.
Armed with this knowledge, I caught Daddy looking off into a distant mountain valley. While he was gazing in the distance, I abruptly turned off the highway onto one of the pull-offs where mature treetops were several hundred feet below as I said in a loud and fearful-sounding voice, “Oooops!” Daddy suddenly looked ahead at the onrushing abyss, grabbed the car seat and armrest while simultaneously stomping both feet on the floorboard trying to find a brake pedal to stop the car.
As I pulled to a sudden stop just short of the guardrail, I started to laugh at this prank. Daddy and Bettye were slower to catch on to what I was doing. Daddy had lost all the color in his face, and his eyes were as big as saucers. His pulse rate no doubt spiked.
When he realized I had pulled a prank, he smiled a forced grin, recovered, and began to laugh with Bettye and me. He was a good sport, took it well, and we went on with a beautiful day of sightseeing.
The feeling I got about this years later was that I again had pulled a prank that bordered on cruelty. Making someone think they’re going to die in the next instant isn’t in the ordinary stream of interpersonal humor. But at that stage of my young adulthood I thought this was funny. I later chalked it up to youthful folly, and I hope I grew up to be a better, more considerate person. Well, this story reveals that my maturation took a bit longer than I had earlier implied.
I didn’t ever mention this prank to Daddy in later years. He never mentioned it to me either. As I look back now, I think I know why.