Leland Thompson was the truest Floridian you’ve ever met.
He was my first hero. And he passed away on Sunday evening.
Uncle Leland was my grandfather’s brother. He spoke with a rattle in his voice that belied his years of life; slow, deliberate speech, with a southern drawl and that gravel that told me maybe he’d smoked in his past.
He and Aunt Margaret lived on a farm in Dade City. If you imagine a farmhouse from the 30’s, complete with wood paneling and hardwood floors, a gorgeous front porch – the exterior painted white. No trim colors of any kind. Just white. Set by a pasture, next to the woods, under a hammock of the most stately oaks ever seen, just at the end of a dirt road near the river . . .
In his younger days, he was elected sheriff of Pasco County. As an officer, he once apprehended a man after the man shot another officer while the three of them were in an elevator. His farm had hundreds of cattle, and pigs and gardens and all the stuff farms should have. He was a real life hero, as well as one in the imagination of a little boy.
When I was little, he’d always slip my mom a dollar for both me and my sister, right at the end of our visit. He’d pretend we were in on it, and wink, and say “Now, Mrs. Joy, these young’uns need some ice cream – so here’s a little money for each of them.”
He would always make time to take us on rides on the Grey Gopher, his old army jeep. Some of the most thrilling memories from my childhood were of my parents telling us we were going to Dade City on Saturday, and getting there, knowing we’d take the Gopher out for a ride. We’d see deer and hogs and turkeys and alligators – some of my love of Florida was formed in those tattered vinyl seats.
There were summers when I’d spend whole weeks on that farm
His barns were filled with hay bales we could climb on, or a recent batch of kittens, or maybe some little fluffy chicks he’d give us to bring home, much to my mother’s chagrin. There might be a horse in the stable, or a docile cow, or his tamed deer Buddy might show up in the pasture. He once let me pet some buffalo that wandered in. His front porch was a southern Sunday in the south with old folks in rockers and someone singing gospel and sweet tea and chicken and dumplings . . . in short, it was everything a country boy could want out of life, all in one place . . .
I’m rambling a little bit, but it’s hard to put into words . . . the last time I saw Uncle Leland was 2011 . . . we had brought him some furniture from my apartment. Cancer and time had savaged my hero. He met Will, and Olivia. He teased her about how pretty she was, about boys and school, and he gave Will a watch. We visited for a couple of hours. He bragged about his grandkids and kids, and I knew, when I shook his hand and hugged him goodbye, that it was probably, you know, a real goodbye . . .
Each of my kids, in turn, gave him a hug, this man who was so large in my mind, a frail and genial old stranger to them. In that moment, I flashed back to my childhood:
My grandfather, my Poppy, Uncle Leland’s brother, died when I was 12, and Em was 7. It was sudden – I talked to him on Saturday, and Sunday he was gone. Poppy was buried in Dade City, in the city cemetery there. As was always the case, after the funeral, we all headed to Uncle Leland’s after the service. All of my cousins and uncles and aunts were there, and it was a family reunion of sorts, somber at first, but warming as the day went on.
If Uncle Leland was my hero, Poppy was my buddy – we talked on the phone almost every day, about sports and fishing and who knows what else. But like most 12 year olds, I didn’t fully grasp the situation. I was sad, but I didn’t completely understand.
And, as we got ready to leave that June evening, in the late 80’s, I’ll never forget saying goodbye – he put his arm around me, and around my sister – he looked us in the eye, the only time I’ve ever seen him misty, just hours after burying his brother. He always called my mom “Mrs. Joy,” and his raspy voice scraped the words one more time . . .
“Mrs. Joy – the young’uns are gonna need a grandfather now . . . here . . . Let me get ya’ll some ice cream money . . . ”
I’m out of town for work today, 2500 miles away, so I won’t be there this afternoon, after the funeral in Dade City, when all the Thompson’s will head down that dirt road out to the farmhouse near the river. Bring a dish, comfort Aunt Margaret . . . it’ll start somber, but warm as the day goes on . . . there’ll be sweet tea and chicken and maybe a gospel song . . .
And I’d give all the ice cream money I’ve got, just to do it one more time, to sit there with him, in that little white house, under those stately oak trees, set by the pasture . . .