Henry Mathias Dalton.
The Reverend H.M. Dalton.
He had many names. Which one you used depended on how you knew him. I just called him Papa.
He was born at the start of the 20th century, in 1911. His mother died in 1922, after which he and his 7 siblings were shuffled around to the homes of various friends and relatives for the next several years. He never progressed beyond a 4th grade education (though if you asked him a question about math or carpentry, you’d have thought he had a Masters in engineering). In his teenage years he was a smoker, and took a drink from time to time. He evidently had a penchant for pocketing items he wanted but didn’t quite have the cash to pay for. He began dating my grandmother (courtin’ as they used to say) when he discovered she would never marry a man who wasn’t a Christian. One night he went to a prayer meeting at the local Pentecostal church and felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit come on him. He asked the people there to pray for him, and having encountered Jesus for the first time, he left a changed man, intent on amending his ways. He went back to every place and person he stole from, told them what he’d taken, and promised to pay them back. He swore off tobacco and alcohol, and sometime shortly thereafter, in 1931, he and my grandmother were married. He was 20, she was 16.
He worked in a factory in the tiny town of Bassett, Virginia until sometime in the late 30s when he contracted tuberculosis. For 5 years, he couldn’t work at all which, if you consider the time frame, probably saved his life. Prior to TB, his was a big, strapping man who would no doubt have been selected in the draft for WWII. TB kept him from the war but also from making a living at all. My grandmother worked at the knitting mill to support the family (by then 2 boys and 2 girls). At some point in the midst of this he felt the call to ministry and began studying to become ordained in the Pentecostal Holiness church, where he’d spend the bulk of his life serving and caring for the people of SW Virginia.
When I was a little tyke, around 6 or 7 years old, I remember my Papa and Granny coming to visit us in Oklahoma. They usually visited in the summer, which meant it was usually hot. Our 2 acre yard had long since turned brown (except for the three lush, green stripes over the septic tank) and we had no shade to speak of, since the only trees on the property were planted by my family sometime after we moved in and had yet to become anything resembling a shade-giver.
It was HOT, but even so Papa would sit out side and play one of my favorite things with me: stagecoach. We’d arrange a couple of my mom’s porch chairs (you know the old metal kind with two-tone paint that Pottery Barn wants to charge a small fortune for today) into the two front seats of our “stagecoach.” Somewhere, no idea where, Papa found a stick long enough to which he’d attach a string to act as my whip. I was always the driver, he was always riding “shotgun.” We’d travel the plains together, out-pacing bandits and robbers, getting our cargo safely to the bank in whatever town we were headed to.
There’s a picture of us doing this somewhere. I’m pretty sure I’m in a tank top (or maybe no shirt at all) and shorts while my grandpa was in his usual slacks and long-sleeve button down shirt. He always wore long sleeves, even in the dead heat of Oklahoma summer. I didn’t know why until many years later: once he was sunburned so bad working outdoors he swore to God that if it healed he’d never wear short sleeves again. And he never did. I don’t know if that’s commitment or stubbornness, or both. Whatever it is he passed this same trait on to his kids and his grandkids. Heck, I see it in my kids too. Dalton genes run strong and deep.
On one of their visits out to see us he got the idea that he wanted to visit Mexico as well as see the Pacific Ocean while he was “close.” So they drove to California, literally put their toes in the Pacific, drove south across the border near San Diego, made a U-turn and drove right back into the States. He did what he set out to do. He saw the Pacific and he went to Mexico, then headed back cross-country to the hills of Virginia. Check those off the bucket list.
From the time I was old enough to remember riding in a car with Papa was quite the experience. He drove painfully slow most of the time, slumped down in the driver seat, peaking over the steering wheel from underneath his straw fedora. Sometimes on the two-lane roads around their home you could look out the back window and see a mile of cars snaking behind you, unable to pass due to the curviness of the road.
Speaking of passing: he once argued with a Virginia State Trooper about a particular passing possibility. If he was on the Blue Ridge parkway and came upon someone going too slow for his liking (unlikely, but still) he could pass them on a double line IF no one was coming the other way. The State Trooper smiled, nodded and said “Mr. Dalton, you just be safe out there.” He quite rightly ascertained the odds of winning that argument.
Many years later, after I was grown and married, I decided I’d go camping up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I’d just finished up a big trade show (High Point Furniture Market) and needed some decompression time. My wife was out of town so I packed a cooler with some food, grabbed my tent and set off alone to take in the crisp air of the mountains in the Fall. The Blue Ridge Mountains were and are my “happy place.” My dad instilled a love for those mountains in me from birth.
Upon arrival, I built a fire and was sitting alone enjoying it when Papa and my Aunt Nita pulled up. They lived about 45 minutes from the campground and had been out “visitin’” family and friends when they decided to stop by. We sat and talked as the autumn sun sank low. I kept thinking they would head out soon, as Papa wasn’t really what you’d call a night owl, yet while I stoked the fire and we chatted, he seemed content to just sit and wait. Eventually it dawned on me: he was worried about the fire. He was afraid I wouldn’t put it out properly and the entire Blue Ridge would be engulfed in flame. I asked him about it, and he said he’d feel better if it was out before he left. So I smoothed out the remaining coals, trudged off to the camp bathroom, filled up a bucket of water and put out the embers. After he was satisfied the destructive potential of my fire was exhausted, they loaded up and went home (it was one of the last times I’d get to see him, but I didn’t know it then). Seeing as it was dark and I had no electrical hookup, I crawled in the tent for a long restless night. I wasn’t anywhere close to tired but no doubt Papa slept like a baby.
Which is ironic because about a decade prior, when I was a scrappy long-haired teenager, Papa caused me another sleepless night. It was summer of 1988. We’d just moved to the East coast from Oklahoma, but we hadn’t settled in NC yet. I was staying with Papa and Granny while my dad worked and mom visited her newborn granddaughter in Oklahoma. My dad had our travel-trailer parked in my grandparent’s yard, so being the moody teen I was, I was sleeping out there in order to have “my space.” At one point my mom surprised me by bringing my best friend from Oklahoma, Scooter, to visit for a week. We spent the week catching up and, I’m sure, acting like fools on “our own” out in the trailer. One night we must have been making too much racket because it woke Papa up. However, instead of coming to tell us to quiet down, he just walked down into their basement and unplugged the extension cord which fed power to the trailer, then went back to bed.
Scooter and I did not go to bed. We could see that the power was on in the house, and we were convinced a serial killer had snuck up on the trailer and was just biding his time to bust down the door and take us out. This was prior to texting, we had no phone, and we sure as heck weren’t opening that door and making a run for it with a serial killer just outside! We didn’t sleep a wink.
Papa got a kick out of that at breakfast the next morning.
My grandpa could talk. To be clear, he was not a boisterous man. He didn’t walk into a room needing to hold it in rapt attention, but if you asked him something he had an opinion on or had a story about (which was most things) he had no trouble telling every detail…and then some. My dad had a habit of walking into the sitting room when Papa was sitting and venture a query: “Dad…tell us how things are at the church.” I swear he did it with a slight glint in his eye. Two hours later we’d emerge from the room dazed and confused with all the “scandalous” (completely tongue in cheek) details of whatever was transpiring at that old church. Looking back, it was pretty comical. It was also revealing as I’m pretty sure Papa still felt responsible for many of those people from his time as a pastor. I think he never stopped carrying them them near his heart.
My grandpa was one of those folks who upon encountering Jesus truly undergoes a radical change. He was still Mac, or H.M., but he was different. Whatever happened to him that night at the old prayer meeting, it produced real, lasting change. The Holy Spirt worked through Papa’s stubbornness and faithfulness, meaning if he said something he’d do it; if he promised something you could take it to the bank. Integrity would be the word we’d use today. His yes was yes, and his no was no.
Also, love is a powerful motivator, and he deeply loved my Granny. If I ever doubted it, I didn’t after she passed away. I’d never seen a man more brokenhearted. Papa was a big man, but seeing him at granny’s funeral, he seemed so small, so fragile. He was never the same. It was just a few years and he left to join her. That was always so sweet to me. They spent the bulk of the 20th century side-by-side. He couldn’t endure the 21st without her.
He passed away in December of 2000 after a short illness. I can still remember getting the phone call, standing dumbfounded in the kitchen of our house in NC. He’d always been there, always sitting at the head of the table, always wearing those long sleeves, always reading that old Bible, and always telling stories. And then, all of a sudden, he wasn’t. I miss him. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since I last saw him. He’s not here with us physically but Mac lives on in all 5 generations of Daltons – through our stories, in our stubbornness (or our “curiousness”, also known as pickiness) and in our faith. He plowed a furrow in this world with his life and I’m just one of the many lives that sprouted up from the work.
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