My father, Louis Wright Ferguson, died in 1993, mercifully before 1995's Hurricane Opal destroyed the retirement home he shared with my stepmother and brother Jimmy at Santa Rosa Beach on the Florida Panhandle. After the storm, my partner and I drove to help clean up. A single image lingers in my memory — my dad's recliner, tipped over about a block away from his damaged beach home.
Faded and frayed with age long before the hurricane, the chair stuck out of the sandy road like an object in a Salvador Dali painting. The flotsam and jetsam of Dad's life lay scattered around as far as the eye could see, including an entire interior wall that had dislodged and floated across to a neighbors lawn like a deck.
I picked though tax documents, personal papers and paperbacks puffy with salt water, until I salvaged more important items. His old passport. My mother's engagement photos. And some Hollywood-like glamour shots of Dad taken during his days at the University of Texas.
These days, every time I wander by a University of Texas building that was around in the 1920s, I pause and think, "Dad used to walk by these same buildings." I was separated from my father for several years as a child after my parents divorced, so I feel closer to him in Austin than anywhere. He graduated from UT in 1929 as a geology major and member of the Longhorns tennis team, also nicknamed the "Steers."
When I was invited in 1996 to join the faculty of a then-fledgling acupuncture school now known as AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, I jumped at the chance to live in a city where it was easier to relate to my dad than in the various places I'd called home, like Mexico, the U.K. and Africa, where my brothers and I grew up.
Not that Austin then was anything like the Austin my dad remembered. Dad attended UT after oil was discovered on campus-owned land, which helped to swell campus coffers and fostered a solid reputation in mining engineering. "We used to step off campus into desert," he'd say. Dad would recall streetcars rattling down Congress Avenue, and he regaled me with tales of how he and fellow chemistry students made bathtub gin during Prohibition. As their geology fieldwork spanned the Hill Country, he told me of a time they ended up at some rancher's illegal still to see turkeys staggering around drunk on discarded corn mash.
None of those details appeared in letters to his mother in El Paso, of course, handwritten on embossed Kappa Sigma letterhead. Except he expressed a hope in 1927 to land a summer job "in the chemistry department" at the iron smelter in El Paso, "because that would teach me quite a lot about practical chemistry. This stuff that they hand out to the students wouldn't be of much benefit to anyone." Hmm.
Just before his 21st birthday in April 1928, Dad wrote about his approaching "manhood." He apologized for boyhood pranks such as "broken windows and petty thievery" he and his brother used to get up to, which made his mother's "hair turn gray."
While browsing through an antique market in Victoria a few years ago, imagine my joy when I happened upon the UT Cactus yearbook from 1930 and came across photos of my dad on the tennis team, under the guidance of legendary tennis coach and classics professor Dr. Daniel Allen Penick. Headlined "The 1929 Season," the text boasts about the undefeated squad that "captured all-Southwest Conference honors, and then won half of the National Intercollegiate honors." Team captain Hugh Dunlap and my dad were runners-up in the Southwest Conference Doubles competition.
Dad's letters to his mother the previous year described returning from successful tournaments in Oklahoma, Waco and Fort Worth, where they played against “Oklahoma University, Baylor, and TCU, and all in all it was a very good trip. I haven't lost a match yet and I'm going to try to go through the season without losing one. ... I have been trying to fight a lot harder this season after a slump last year."
Even though he admitted tennis sometimes shifted his attention away from his studies, he graduated and took his Hill Country rock knowledge to Africa, where he excelled in the exploration of strategic minerals, his focus when he joined the State Department in 1949 as a mineral attache under the Marshall Plan's Economic Cooperation Administration.
In some of my final moments with him, long after his days in Austin, Dad spent a lot of time in that recliner. He would often laugh, tilt back to lift his feet onto the foot rest and clink ice in his bourbon. In soft moments, I would stand behind the chair and apply acupressure to his shoulders and neck to relieve pain and tension. A silent touch was one of the most bonding memories at the end.
Or I would sit on a stool to work on his hands, especially his left hand with its missing ring finger and pinky, gone because of a shooting accident when he was a boy in El Paso. The accident had propelled him to become a star tennis player (and golfer, too), and to teach his four kids obsessively about gun safety.
Seeing that upturned chair in the wreckage after the hurricane haunted me. It was like a part of Dad during his final years, as he battled leukemia and whiled away hours watching TV. He dozed there, ate his meals there while watching a game.
Only in the early morning Gulf breezes would he wander outside the patio doors to feed gulls wheeling above. Everything whittled down to a sweet simplicity toward the end.
All of this ribboned through my memory as I stood and stared at his upturned chair. I tumbled it back to his damaged house and said my final goodbye as I tipped it onto the garbage pile.