He Didn’t Have to Be

by: Sarah Stodola

NOTES – Disclaimer – the song is by Brad Paisley. The story happens between the two Dukes movies. It does reference some ideas from “Lady Daisy”, but doesn’t happen in any alternate universe (I actually meant that fic to be true to the series).

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HE DIDN’T HAVE TO BE

Looking back, all I can say about
All the things he did for me
Is I hope I’m at least half the dad
That he didn’t have to be

*****************

He didn’t have to be my father.

I’d never met him before the night my parents died. I’d heard about my uncle and aunt who lived out in the Georgia countryside, but I’d never traveled outside of my suburban home in Alabama. But the night our car crashed, the night my world flew apart into a million dizzy, terrifying pieces, he came all that way to put them back together again.

I was only four at the time; scared, yelling for my mom and dad. Somehow, in my young heart, I knew that they were gone, since they wouldn’t answer me, but I refused to believe it. I later found out that the car had been halfway through an intersection when another car came blazing out of a side road without stopping like it should have, going something like fifty miles an hour over the speed limit. It had struck our car, both vehicles spinning and crashing into other objects. Our car had hit a fire hydrant, then a fence, and after rolling several times, had come to a crumpled halt upside down. I’d been in the back seat, and out of some instinct I had dived for the floor, seat belt and all, when I’d seen the lights coming at us. I was pinned there, in a tiny space just big enough for my body, hoarse from screaming and crying, when help showed up.

I vaguely remember lights, flashing red and blue and orange in the night, and the shouts of men as they cut the car apart to get to me. They never let me see my parents, and now I’m glad they didn’t; I can only imagine the nightmares the sight might have left me with. They took me to the police station, I think, after treating the minor glass cuts I had and checking me over to make sure I wasn’t badly hurt. I know I didn’t stop crying almost the whole time.

Then he came, a few hours later. He’d caught the quickest flight down that he could, and came running into the room out of breath but uncaring for his own well-being. When I first saw him, I just had to uncurl from my corner to look. He was dressed in blue overalls with dirt still on them, and a denim shirt underneath. His hair was mussed under his brown fedora, and his eyes grieving, yet there was something about his face, the smile lines, I guess, that made me think of Santa Claus even though his hair and beard only had a little gray in them. After talking briefly to the man at the desk, he came over to me. Kneeling down beside my chair, he slowly smiled and reached out one rough- callused finger to wipe the tears off of my cheeks. I’d stopped crying now, fascinated by this man.

“Hello, Luke,” he said softly, his voice gentle. “I’m your Uncle Jesse. You’re gonna come live with me. I know that I can’t take your parents’ place, but I’ll do the best I can if you’ll let me.”

He took me with him the very next day, on a plane flight to Georgia. I found that I’d be living on a farm, alone with him since his wife had died recently. Somehow the fact that we’d both lost loved ones brought us even closer together. And in a very short time, he *had* taken the place of my parents. All the love I’d had for my mama and dad, I turned toward him. And vice versa. I quickly learned to love the country farm life, and it’s been part of me ever since.

He didn’t have to be anyone else’s father either. Yet he chose to be.

It was six months later, just after I’d turned five, that he left me with a neighbor for the day, and came back with a little blond boy, about two and a half years younger than me. He’d just been orphaned, like I had a few months earlier. I’d been jealous at first, angry that I wouldn’t have Uncle Jesse’s undivided attention. I tried to ignore my younger cousin Bo, to pretend he didn’t exist. He was annoying; he’d take my toy cars and lose them, and cry all the time at night. I was trying to forget, I think, how much crying of my own I had done when my parents died. I was feeling like the tough, strong, proud one. And he was just a baby.

Oh, how things changed. I’m not even sure when they did, exactly. All I know is that sometimes, I started playing with him, letting him follow me around when I did my chores, and one day when I was six, I suddenly realized that I really cared about him, loved him. From that moment on, he was my brother and best friend. We’ve done everything together since; the first time we’d really been separated in our lives was these past few years. It was hard, leaving him behind and starting a life of my own. He says it was for him, too. Now we’re back together again, and I don’t think I ever want to leave this farm and my family again.

Bo wasn’t the only one. When I was ten years old, and he just eight, a third cousin came to live with us. A girl, from the city, (somehow I’d managed to forget that that had been my origins as well, and I looked down on her for it), and from a rich family, no less! Pretty little brunette Daisy Mae was a high- born young lady, unaccustomed to even getting her hands dirty, and had never worn jeans or gone fishing in her life. Bo and I both turned our backs on her, to a point, for a while after she came. As she grew to be more of a tomboy, Bo actually befriended her, and for a while I felt betrayed, like he was deserting me. But, later I finally decided that my pride could take a back seat, and gave in to being her friend as well. I discovered then that she could be a nice, fun person after all, and I was the one who planned her escape from her aunt’s manor when she’d been taken away from the farm by social services.

But, that’s all another story. Daisy lived with us from then on, again until we parted ways a few years ago. As a young lady, she’d often get mad at me and Bo for being so protective, yet there was always a lot of love between us. She never did completely lose that gracious, gentle streak, but she was always tough, too, brave and sassy and fun to be around.

I remember how Uncle Jesse would just sit back in a corner chair sometimes and watch us playing a game or something, with that soft little smile of his. I know he loved us. And we loved him, with all we had. All three of us would do about anything to please him, at least at a young age and later when we were adults, and we usually tried to keep some of our escapades, the ones that really were our fault, secret from him. Not just because we’d get punished sometimes, but also because it hurt us inside to see him so disappointed in us. For all three of us, he was our daddy, even though I in particular as a teenager gave him more than my share of grief and white hair.

He didn’t have to spend all that time and worry teaching us right from wrong. But it is perhaps thanks to his stubbornness that I’m still alive.

He could have let us grow up without check, but where would we have ended up? He taught us by the rules of the Bible, and by hand if he had to. He believed in the “spare the rod, spoil the child” bit, that was for sure. We fought him so hard from time to time, and I know that sometimes he would almost give up hope. But he never did, and for that I’m grateful now, though at the time I often thought it was unfair. Like the time I cheated on a test at school when I was twelve. He found out, and I got the whipping of my life. I sure didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I never cheated from then on. Or when I would constantly take off with the pickup without a license, or get involved with the wrong crowd and mess up somebody’s property. I was a real wild kid, from the year I hit puberty to the time I got so mad at his “overbearing” ways and ran away from home when I was fifteen.

It hadn’t been the first time I’d tried to run away… but it was the last. It was only two days after I’d taken off when he found me, somehow (I still don’t know how) tracing my tracks all the way to Atlanta. I was sure that I’d be punished then, and spat something not-too-nice about that, but Uncle Jesse didn’t do a thing or say a word. On the drive home, he just stared straight ahead. It was then that I got the first inkling that my guardian could be hurt. The next time I got the urge to yell back when I was scolded, I instead found myself crying and apologizing for all the hurtful things I’d ever said or done. I saw tears in his eyes that day, but I don’t think they were ones of sadness. It reminded me of the story of the prodigal son, when the father forgave and welcomed his boy back home, and from that day on, I fiercely refused to leave his camp again. He confided to me a few years back that that was when he stopped worrying about me ending up a real criminal, or even dead. I laughed a little when he said it, but later, thinking about it, I knew that he’d been right to worry. That kind of scared me, when I realized it.

Now, Bo… he wasn’t near as headstrong, as much trouble as I was, but he had his own set of problems. I only heard him talk back to Uncle Jesse a couple of times, and the only time he ran away, a rather childish try at ten, he was back before dinnertime. The trouble he got into was of a different sort, usually caused by his being so impressionable by others. For instance, the time in fifth grade that he was convinced by some of his school buddies to skip class to go swimming. Uncle Jesse found out, of course, and though Bo said he was sorry, he got extra chores for a week. Or the time when he went along with a group of boys in high school to a road race, again skipping school. That instance had had similar consequences, as did his daydreaming through a couple of finals and flunking a class. I think Uncle Jesse worried more about his not getting an education than anything else. As a matter of fact, the only time I ever saw him get in serious trouble, he was seventeen, and didn’t come home from a party until after midnight. Uncle Jesse was forever trying to keep us boys from getting into any sort of trouble that had to do with girls; we were pretty stubborn about wanting to, but he generally won. Daisy was much easier for him to deal with in that respect. She was much more the young homemaker.

She got into her share of trouble, though. Not as extreme as we boys, but she wasn’t always a little angel, either. She would have her fits of temper, and would often think up ways to get back at me or Bo when we’d been teasing her. She also tended to lose track of time and end up late for events or meetings. But she always wanted to please Uncle Jesse, and I didn’t see her punished many times. If he ever had a real worry about her, it would have been that her sincere caring about people would get her taken advantage of by someone who would play on her emotions. He was just as stubborn about protecting her as he was about protecting us.

I’m so glad that he had the will and love to turn this possible gangland kid into a steady young man who knew what morality and integrity was, the same young man who was able to take being drafted into the Marines with grace and pride. I think it was the thought of my family, especially Uncle Jesse, counting on me that kept me going those long years I spent in Vietnam. I know that it was because of him that I was able to keep a sense of right and wrong, because of what he’d taught me that I was able to remember that God was in control, not those wicked men. I was never sure I really could show him how truly thankful I was for what he did in bringing me up right, no matter how many years I had to try. But I think he knew.

He didn’t have to put everything aside, even if it was something important, to listen to us and help us. To love us, and even forgive us.

I remember when I was seven, and Bo and I had caught a really big trout. It had put up quite a struggle, and we were both dripping wet from falling in the pond, but laughing, when we brought our prize home. Uncle Jesse laughed with us, and before sending us both to take a bath, gave such glowing praise that we’d have done anything in the whole world for him in that moment, had he asked.

I remember when Daisy first came to live with us. She didn’t know anything about farm life, didn’t know anything about work or taking care of a home. But her heart was in trying, and although we boys joked about her first baking and sewing attempts behind her back, I now see how gentle and understanding Uncle Jesse was. No matter what she did wrong, he found a way to make it right, found a way to fix it. I never saw her cry over something that had gone wrong, because Uncle Jesse always took the time to help her get it right.

I remember a time when I was eleven, and Bo and Daisy both nine. Bo came running in, angry and almost in tears. He even refused to talk to me, a rare occurrence, just running to our bedroom and slamming the door. It was Uncle Jesse who went in to talk to him, who pushed past the injured defenses of a young boy to find out what was wrong. It turned out that some of the other kids at school had been making fun of him because he was too little to play basketball well. My Duke temper flared up instantly, and I started to run out the door to go yell at whoever I could find to yell at, but Uncle Jesse came to settle me down too, sitting us both down and teaching us about forgiveness. And the problem was solved in a few years, anyway. Bo went on a growth spurt that left him taller than me!

I remember other occasions… when I was having trouble with algebra and Uncle Jesse spent several evenings just teaching me at our kitchen table. When Bo was learning to drive and ran the pickup through the fence, and Uncle Jesse didn’t really get mad. When Daisy wanted to see what work in the fields was like, and put our whole schedule back a day because she wasn’t as strong as we boys and got in the way. When he taught me to play guitar. When I was a teenager and came home from a fight (again), and he patched me up without a single angry word. So many other times, too… ever since he took us under his wing, he was doing things like that, even after we’d grown up.

He didn’t have to risk his very freedom or give up the family profession for us, either. But he did.

Like the time I was on a moonshine run for a neighbor. I was just barely sixteen at the time, still wild and free-spirited and full of myself despite my new-found loyalty to my family. I figured that I, with our powerful shine car Black Tillie, could outrun anything else on four wheels. I’d been wrong. Sheriff Gerald of Kingston County got on my tail from the moment I crossed the county line, and I’d known nothing else to do but to holler on the ridge-runners’ CB channel for help. Two minutes later, Uncle Jesse, who’d apparently been following me though I hadn’t known it, raced past, spinning in front of the cop car and giving me a chance to escape. I had done so as fast as I could, speeding back into Hazzard to hide in the hills. I’d been scared when Uncle Jesse didn’t show up for a few hours, imagining him arrested and in jail. But he showed up about dinnertime, a bit haggard but smiling, with yet another tale to tell about how he’d outdriven a pursuer. I kept apologizing for being stupid enough to not watch for police, but he’d forgiven me even before I’d said I was sorry. The next day we went back out to rerun the shine, him sitting in the passenger seat. I learned a lot that day, now that I was willing to open my ears and listen, realizing that no, I didn’t know it all.

Then there was the time, years later, when Bo and I were on another moonshine run, for our own family. It was to be our last. We weren’t being cocky or doing anything dumb… we found out later that we’d been turned in by another ridge-runner, an unfriendly hermit who wanted our business. The revenuers were snapping at our bumper before we even got out of the county. They were yelling for us to stop on the secret channel, so we knew that we couldn’t call for help without being overheard. I was scared, but I refused to show it in front of Bo. He was worrying enough for the both of us. We spun and hid, leaped over a creek, and finally just plain tried to outrun them. But the revenuers were experienced, and knew how to drive. We didn’t lose them. Then we hit their roadblock, in a narrow canyon where there was no escape route. We got out of the car and tried to run for it, but men in uniform were everywhere. We were arrested and charged with not only making and transporting illegal liquor, but also with trying to evade arrest. Bo being legally a minor didn’t help the situation any, either. Things looked bleak; we were both up for a life sentence.

But then Uncle Jesse showed up in the Atlanta Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms office where we were being held. And he made a deal with the very people that he’d sworn he would never, ever give in to. For us. Because he loved us. He made a pact, in writing, that he would give up the Duke clan’s proud heritage of moonshining, never make another drop, if they would let us out on probation. I was surprised when the ATF agreed. We were on our way home after only an hour or so of paperwork. Neither of us boys could ever touch a gun again, could ever cross the Hazzard county line without our uncle accompanying us, like for a shopping trip in Capitol City, or without written permission from County Commissioner JD “Boss” Hogg. The family would be somewhat poor from now on, depending only on what we could get out of the farm. But, we were free. We had our lives back.

He didn’t have to put the farm in peril just because Bo and I wanted to do something we couldn’t on our own. In that, he went above and beyond any call of even family duty.

Just after I got back from the military, we boys decided to build a racecar, to try to finally beat Boss Hogg at his own crooked annual race. We built a powerful engine, with our mechanic friend Cooter’s help, but we ran out of money quicker than we’d thought we would, and had no way to buy a car body and fix it up. Especially when our old truck was impounded by Rosco for impeding traffic. We were in a real bind… and then Uncle Jesse risked everything he had left, just to make us happy. He went to his old enemy Boss and got out a mortgage on the farm. We’ve been fighting to not lose our home because of that ever since. In a way trying to repay him, we have used the car we built, the General Lee (which by the way did win that race), to fight for the justice he always complained was leaving our society. In Hazzard County, the power of right still reigned over wrong because of us Dukes, despite JD Hogg.

He risked the farm many other times as well, in getting Bo, Daisy, and I out of jail when Boss and Sheriff Rosco Coltrane would put us there under false charges. Numerous times we just barely got a mortgage payment to Boss’ door in time, because of the extra time it had taken to scrape up the money thanks to paying bails. But except for an occasional complaint about our being cocky enough to let our guard down and get framed, Uncle Jesse never seemed to mind. We tried for the rest of his life, but we never could quite repay him. He never seemed to want to be repaid. He just kept giving, to the very end.

Uncle Jesse didn’t have to be the man he was. He didn’t have to be our hero. He didn’t have to risk everything he had simply for the love of his kids. He could have just let me be adopted by other family members, could have done the same with Bo; after all, he was an older man living alone, hardly the “ideal” parent. He could have let Daisy stay with her Aunt Roseanne, he didn’t have to care enough to take her out of a wealthy but uncaring environment. He gave up his whole life for us. Again and again, he gave up his energy and time to raise us, teaching us to do what was right as well as giving us a freedom, a happiness we would never have known otherwise. He risked his livelihood, what was most important to him, to fulfill our dreams. He was always there whenever we needed help, or someone to cry on, or just a hug. He was our cheering squad, always making us feel that we were doing whatever we were doing really well, although now that I look back, I have to chuckle at some of it.

He didn’t have to do anything that he did. But he did… and the result, at least to my adult eyes as I glance over at my cousins standing near me, was a beautiful thing. I know that I’m not normally one to wax poetic, except maybe when I’m writing a song, but… he was in a way our angel.

We’ll all miss him. Especially I, I think, even though I’m the only one of the three of us not crying right now. Bo’s trying to act strong, his arm around Daisy, but he’s wavering; I can see it. I’m a little surprised that I’m not in the same state of shock. I was at first, a couple of days ago, but… I run a hand through my hair and look down at the green grass under my feet, at the hole in the sod that is meant to be a grave, and I can’t help but smile just a little. My eyes tear up, but it’s only part grief. Somewhere, deep inside, I can’t be completely sad. I’ll miss him, but I know he’s in a place of so much more joy now. It’s almost like his reward for all that he’s done for us. I can only hope that I can carry on his legacy, that I can be a credit to him, that I can be half the man he was.

I step forward slightly as the minister says his final words, and smile again. “You can rest now, Uncle Jesse,” I whisper. “You’ve done well by us all. You’ve been a wonderful father. Now it’s your turn to run to the arms of a Father.” I take a deep breath, glancing up at the blue, sunny sky. “You know…” I say thoughtfully, as if Uncle Jesse was here and could hear me, “He didn’t have to be, either.”

END

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