Willie Hoyt was a character. My mom met him when I was in the fourth grade. My father had died a couple years earlier after a long illness, she was lonely, and Willie Hoyt, an enlisted man, was on leave from Vietnam. He was a smooth talker, extremely funny, and a heavy drinker and smoker who had been in the Army since before the Korean War where he had been on the front lines and been awarded a Silver Star. He'd watched his best friend die in Korea by his side. He'd had a tough childhood, never married, and never had kids of his own.
The first time he visited Mama, he brought me a little golden musical jewelry box shaped like a piano. I liked him immediately. I'd hide goodies in that box for years to come. I still do.
After he returned to the states and Mama married him, life would be complicated. He was the most loving man I've perhaps ever known. He adored Mama and me; I quickly started calling him Daddy. A sports fanatic, he talked to me about football, basketball, baseball just like I was a boy; I still can only call that New Orleans team "them-damned-Saints" thanks to him. And he was so funny; when we'd drive his beige Oldsmobile 98 back and forth between Neshoba County and Fort Benning where he finished out his Army stint, he'd chain-smoke and reel off a chain of jokes about the billboards we'd pass, turning their messages into one long-running gag that could cover 200 miles. Or, he'd wink at me in the rearview mirror, take a long drag on his cigarette and slam on the power brakes, throwing our Siamese cat Tom-T off the middle of the front seat where he liked to ride regally.
And how he loved cats. He'd talk to them lovingly in the middle of the night, and help me teach them to play hide-and-seek. Long after I left Mississippi 20 years after I met Daddy, I'd get envelopes in the mail filled with nothing but photos of whatever cat he had around at the time; no note, just cats. My oldest cat now is named Willie Hoyt.
Todd and I like to go on these days about community and "third places," but my stepdad was a master at it. He made the rounds of all the coffee shops in Philadelphia every morning, told jokes and caught up on all the gossip. It seemed that this way, he could know everything. Well into my adulthood, when I appeared once on the Montel Williams Show as a contestant in a stripper dating game—don't ask; it was research—I thought no one I knew could possibly see it. Not long after it aired, I called Daddy from New York to catch up. "Donner, yo cousin Debbie said you was on the Love Connection!" Not exactly, but he was keeping up with me from afar.
My fondest memories of him, though, were from the precious few years when he was just my Daddy. I wanted one very badly and, although he was imperfect, he loved me to pieces, at least between bouts with the bottle. He'd take me shopping for school clothes and pretend-roll his eyes as I shopped. When he worked at night and Mama was in the factory all day, we'd watch soap operas together for hours and then he'd help me clean up and throw something on the stove 45 minutes before she showed up exhausted and hungry. When Christmas presents came from out of town, we couldn't contain our curiosity, crawling under the tree and unwrapping, then re-wrapping all of the gifts, even Mama's. He even awakened the political fire in me when he supported the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Gil Carmichael and kept warning me, "This state would elect a jackass if it was a Democrat!" (That was in the days before the parties completed their switcheroo.)
Of course, there were dark times, too. Life with Willie Hoyt was a roller coaster; he was not a pleasant drunk, and Mama ended up leaving him a few times. I would get so angry at him for his idiocies—no need to detail them now—but I always forgave him. He was my Daddy.
I'd also get mad at him about cigarettes, especially as I got older. He was one of those diehard smokers—you know, like the French—who thought you could smoke any time, anyplace. I remember so many times riding in one of his mammoth cars with my face hanging out the window so I could breathe. He never considered that he could be hurting me, too.
My mother finally gave up on my dad's drinking and left him for real. I stayed his little girl, though, spending time with both of them when I came home to Mississippi. Finally, in his 50s, he quit drinking for good and set out to get Mama back. It was too late, though; she died not too long afterward, leaving him heartbroken.
He didn't stop smoking then, though. It would take another couple years before the emphysema got so bad that he had to quit. I was living in New York then, and started getting calls from relatives: "Donna, yo Daddy looks real bad and won't go to the doctor." He'd even stopped making the coffee-shop rounds. He was 60.
It was almost Christmas when I got to him. When I walked into his trailer, I gasped. It looked like he had AIDS; he was all bones. Right then, I practically picked him up, put him in the back seat of his car and drove him to Jackson to the V.A. Center. There we learned that the lung cancer was so far gone that there was little they could do but keep draining the fluid. I didn't leave the hospital for days, telling jokes with him, watching them-damned-Saints play the Giants, listening to him brag to his doctor that he'd quit smoking six months before after 47 years. I helped him in and out of the bathtub and yelled for the nurses when he gasped for each breath every night. He went into a coma on Christmas Day that I decided to never bring him out of. I couldn't watch him fight to breathe any longer.
I now live mere blocks from the V.A. Medical Center. I usually avert my eyes when I drive down Woodrow Wilson; his death from smoking is just too painful to remember; I like to think of him from earlier, often happier times.
Daddy lived hard, and something else might have killed him, but I can't imagine a more painful or undignified death for a man who squeezed so much out of a tough life. I've learned firsthand the irony that people who like to have such a good time are often taken so tragically by their vices.
My hatred of Big Tobacco was cemented on a Neshoba County hillside the day the soldiers from the Navy base played "Taps" and handed me Daddy's folded flag.
Smoking is not cool. Please don't let the tobacco lobby convince you otherwise. Life is too short.
Donna Ladd is editor-in-chief of the JFP.