“And that’s when I discovered that my father hadn’t been dying after all. He was just changing, transforming himself into something new and different to carry his life forward in.
All this time, my father was becoming a fish.
I saw him dart this way and that, a silvery, brilliant, shining life, and disappear into the darkness of the deep water where the big fish go, and I haven’t seen him since-though others have. Already I’ve heard stories, of lives saved and wishes granted, of children carried for miles on his back, of anglers mischievously dumped from their vessels and emptied into various oceans and streams from Beaufort to Hyannis by the biggest fish they’ve ever seen, and they tell their stories to anybody who will listen.
But no one believes them. No one believes a word."
Daniel Wallace, Big Fish
This time last year, dad passed away. With characteristic hyperbole, I like to say that his soul took its leave through the bedroom window that mom had left open (like any good wife of a dying Irishman). And with additional hyperbole, on that day, to quote Daniel Wallace, “my father became a myth.”
Writing an obituary for dad was not easy. It was impossible to sum up in a handful of paragraphs seventy-eight years of a life well-lived. So, with help from mom, Vicki and even dad (don’t ask), I pieced together a modest, presentable obituary. But anyone who actually knew Ken Roark probably took one look at that obit in the Gadsden Times and knew there were about 647 additional pages of his story missing. So, on the first anniversary of his death, for the sake of sharing a bit more about Dad, I’d like to add to his obituary. Not an additional 646 pages, but probably another four pages.
“Kenneth Victor Roark, passed away at his home on June 8, 2016. He was seventy-eight years old. A long-time resident of Rainbow City, Mr. Roark was honored when he was named the first king of the Alabama Chocolate Festival in 2006. No other king has been named since.” This is all true. Ours is the royal house of Roark. He is the one and only Alabama Chocolate Festival King. Which makes mom a queen, Vicki and me princesses, and Eric and Tony princes. With no sons, I believe the crown and scepter will one day go to his grandson Alex.
“Born in 1938 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Mr. Roark served in the United States Navy on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain from 1955 to 1959.” Indeed, he was born in Cincinnati, which is where both of his daughters were born. And yes, he served on the U.S.S. Lake Champlain, which sailed many places, most notably, the Mediterranean Sea. While in the Navy, dad was in two police actions: one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the other in Beirut, Lebanon. And while he didn’t often talk about his time in the Navy, certain stories about dad were common knowledge in our household. I certainly grew up knowing the name Buford Greer, the man who kept a young and underweight Ken Roark from being blown off the deck of the ship during flight take offs and landings. I also knew about dad’s jail time in Lisbon, Portugal for throwing a man through a plate-glass window while defending a woman’s honor. And I knewabout that one time his ship caught on fire. It’s hard to think about dad being that young and tender, experiencing so much before he was even twenty.
“It was after his military service that he began working for Proctor & Gamble in downtown Cincinnati, where he met coworker Joan Smith, who would become his wife in 1962. In 1971, he moved his wife and young daughters, Vicki and Carol, to Gadsden, Alabama to work as terminal manager/owner operator with D.O.X. Trucking Company. He served in various management and driving positions related to transportation and distribution, including working for the Goodyear Wingfoot division for ten years.” Yes, my sister and I have P&G to thank for our lives...it is a long-running joke in our family. And yes, we did move to a rental house on Noccalula Mountain in Gadsden (our backyard was on the banks of Black Creek), and then further out to up-and-coming Rainbow City when he purchased the old Hamilton Place. And much of the last part of that paragraph was a fancy way of saying that dad was, simply put, a trucker who also acted as a manager and owner/operator at times during his career.
Now, it was during his tenure at Goodyear that the myth of Ken Roark was further developed, like the time he was driving his eighteen wheeler through downtown Demopolis, AL during the Christmas season and, with holiday ornaments and trappings hanging too low from the traffic lights, tore down ornaments, lights and all with his semi, resulting in some jail time (probably more for what he might have said to the officer of the law who reported the accident). And the time his truck was hijacked…dad, luckily, not being in it. The short version of that particular story is that dad’s truck was stolen while he slept in a hotel room. When the truck was found a few days later, it had been stripped of its load and of all dad’s possessions. When dad testified at the trial and was asked if he could pick out the defendant in the courtroom, dad pointed at the man who stole his truck and said, “That’s him.” “How do you know this is the man who took your truck?” asked the defense attorney. “Because he’s wearing my boots,” responded dad. Dad never got those boots back, saying, “He must need ‘em more than I do.”
The stories continued to be told about dad’s adventures when he began long haul, coast-to-coast trucking for Tyson. He’d haul not just chicken, but Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, steak and other things that sounded like delicacies to me. One especially blizzardy haul through Colorado found him stranded just outside of Aspen/Snow Mass with a number of other travelers in a rest area on I-70. The roads were closed and the storm showed no signs of letting up. Folks were hungry and there were no stores or restaurants near. So dad broke the seal on his trailer, and pulled boxes of frozen chicken out from the back. Starting up his truck’s engine, he cooked that chicken on his manifold that night and everyone ate. As a trucker, breaking the shipping seal on your trailer is illegal, punishable by termination. Dad didn’t lose his job.
And then there was that one time dad was on the lam, having had a disagreement with the California delivery warehouse that made him sit with his truck and wait until they would accept his delivery of celery…a wait that lasted so long, the celery went bad and they refused to accept his subpar produce. Dad had some words with them that probably included something about their efficiency and where they could stick it. When told to relinquish his truck and take the Greyhound home, he responded with, “I came out in this truck, by God, I’m returning in it.” At the time, he was supposed to meet up with me somewhere in the Four Corners region of the Southwest on his return trip, as I was on a two-week geography/archaeology camping excursion with JSU, but he couldn’t risk the stop. Instead of telling me that dad was a wanted man, mom just told me he had a change of plans and was coming back to Alabama. It was days after I returned from my trip that I found out what really happened.
“He was a generous soul, exhibiting his civic-mindedness by being active in numerous organizations: Rainbow City Lions Club, Cedar Bend Masonic Lodge, local VFW Post 2760, Shriners International, and Scottish Rite. For many years, he assisted with the Rainbow City Public Library’s Summer Reading Program. And until illness prevented further service, Mr. Roark volunteered as a van driver and coordinator for the Veterans Administration.” Yes, dad was a member of all of those civic organizations, and gave back to his community any chance he could. Whether he delivered dozens of pizzas to children for their summer reading program party, drove eighteen wheelers of supplies to communities in need of disaster relief, or raised money by flipping pancakes and selling brooms and mops, he could be counted on to help. And to say he was generous doesn’t even come close to describing his soul. I don’t know how many times he gave away or traded one of our family cars to someone who needed it, or came up with odd jobs around the house (ones that were not necessarily necessary) that “needed” to be done so he could hire friends who may have been cash strapped. And I still on occasion have people who rode in dad’s van to the VA hospital in Birmingham tell me how he not only drove them to their different appointments, but that he personally pushed their wheel chair through the hospital wings to get them where they needed to go, and often bought them lunch and sat with them when the wait for treatment stretched too long.
This is where I leave his obituary behind completely, because there was no room to talk about the times dad saved people’s lives. The young woman who attempted suicide, only saved by my dad and a priest who witnessed her jump into icy waters from a bridge and dove in after her. The child at the YMCA who was choking on a piece of candy, heimliched by dad into coughing the offending treat out of a blocked airway…there were others. So many others.
And there was no room in his obituary to tell the end of his story, an end that began the day before Thanksgiving of 2015, when he became terribly ill. While Eric and I were in Kansas visiting family, my mom tried to nurse him back to health at home, because that’s what they had always done. When that failed, Vicki took him to the doctor, and then on to Gadsden Regional. And having an understanding that when dad was hospitalized, it was never for a short period of time, Eric started the thirteen-hour drive home so that we could be there to help circle the wagons. The next day, dad was transported to UAB for a blocked bile duct and a mass on his pancreas. There, dad and I were roommates for five days. We talked about life. We talked about death. We waited for tests. We waited for results. All of the nurses, interns, residents, orderlies and surgeons liked dad. Of course they did. He was a funny and caring person who liked to connect with everyone he met, even in the most difficult of circumstances. I’ll never forget the day an orderly came with a gurney the day before surgery to take dad to have an ultrasound on his kidneys. Once on the gurney, Dad asked the orderly if he wouldn’t mind pulling the sheet up over Dad’s eyes because of the brightness of the light. Dad then joked that maybe he shouldn't pull the sheet up because it would look like the tech was pushing around a dead body. The orderly laughed, pulled the sheet over dad's eyes and told him that it would even more cool if, while wheeling dad down the hallway, all of a sudden dad sat up like he was miraculously alive. They rode off together, conspiring, leaving me to wonder where we would go if dad was kicked out of UAB for bad behavior…
The day after dad’s surgery to repair his blocked bile duct and the revelation that the mass on his pancreas was most likely cancer, we were told he could leave. I was in total “handle it” mode, completing the tasks I needed to do in order to make sure we had everything before we left the hospital: both sets of our possessions, medications from the pharmacy located in a totally separate building (three buildings away, accessible via hobbit hallways that may or may not have contained giant man-eating spiders), and instructions from the nurse as to how to give said medications (one of which was an injection to be administered twice a day by shooting it into the stomach meat). It was four o’clock, Birmingham rush-hour time when I buckled dad into the passenger seat, and prayed silently that my Waze would work us around the never ending downtown construction. Dad, looking remarkably energized despite the day’s exertions and super interested in my iPhone doubling as our GPS, chuckled and said, “We got this...you can do it.” We exited the parking deck into a pouring rain and followed the back alleys and rail yards upon which Waze sent us to avoid traffic. We arrived home safe and sound approximately one hour later, just in time for me to beg his forgiveness as I gave him his first injection (unfortunately for him, it was my first injection, too...to give one, at least). Luckily, mom took over from that point forward...and she nursed him at home for the next seven months, with some help from Vicki, Tony, Eric, me and our hospice nurses.
So, I only want to tell one more story about dad, and it’s not because there aren’t any more to share. There are quite a few. It’s just that most of dad’s stories beyond this point are too personal, too private. We cried with him. And we laughed with him. Dad was courageous. And he was home with mom by his side when he departed.
Even though dad passed on Wednesday, June 8th, our final adventure together took place on Thursday, June 16, 2016. I received a call from Emily at Morgan Funeral Chapel while I was at work, letting me know that dad was ready to go home. As I was signing paperwork at the funeral home, the gentleman asked if I needed help getting Dad to the car. My response was, “No, thank you. I’ve got him.” I seat-belted his platinum-trimmed, navy urn into the passenger seat and headed home. But along the way, I stopped for French fries at the Arby’s on 77 because I was hungry. And because Dad would’ve totally loved the story of me stopping to get French fries with his urn riding shotgun.