A long look back at dad
By Walter Jowers
DECEMBER 28, 1998: Some years back, when I was stuck between my guitar-player career and my freelance-writer career, I went to see a psychologist. On the first visit, he handed me a test. My job was to answer each question yes or no. I remember three of the questions. One was, "My hands sometimes feel as if they are not part of my body."
I had to think about this one. I suspect that most guitar players would answer yes, because we know that even if we've been playing "Soul Man" for 20 years, there have been a few nights when our hands just couldn't remember that opening lick. But I didn't really want to tell my shrink that I had disembodied hands. I answered "no."
Another question was, "I am a Special Agent of God." I figured this is the one that triggers an immediate call for the butterfly-net squad. I'm sure the Special Agents get special jackets, a load of IV Thorazine, and a van ride straight to electroshock therapy. I answered "no."
Then came the toughest yes-or-no question: "My father was a good man." Up until then, I had been going through the test at about an answer a second. I put down my pencil, shifted around in my chair, and tried to think of all the possible meanings of the word "good." I skipped that question and decided to come back to it. And, y'know, I've come back to it every day since. Around Christmastime, I might just spend all day on it.
It's hard to pin down Jabo Jowers' goodness to a simple yes or no. On the one hand, he was a reckless Friday-night drunk. One of those Friday nights, Jabo ignored a stop sign. The result was the death of his drinking buddy, Frank Baker, while Jabo himself was given up for dead, pushed into a corner of the hospital basement. He rallied, though, and came home in a couple of weeks.
Some years later, on another Friday night, Jabo stopped home, picked up his shotgun, then blasted out all the windows in my brother's house.
Shortly after that, my mother died, and the Jowers house was down to just me and Jabo. Jabo kept drinking, and I didn't like it. So when he went out one Friday night, I told him, "If you come home drunk, I will lock your sorry ass outside." Jabo came home drunk, and he by-God had to sleep on the porch.
So Jabo's a bad guy, right? But what if we give him credit for turning me into a completely responsible, drunk-defying man at age 13? Seeing as how Jabo was destined to drop dead himself four years later, it was a good thing that he put me on the fast track to adulthood.
And how about this: Jabo always treated me much better than he treated himself. For Christmas 1966, he bought me my first guitarnot some lame Kay, but a fully useful Gibson ES-330TDC, which I would soon need to make a living.
How about the day Jabo rode into our driveway astride a new Harley and handed me the keys? He did that because he liked to ride, and he thought it would be fun if we rode together. It was.
How about Jabo making sure I had every tool, every book, and every possible opportunity to learn new things? How about him emptying my toy box every November and giving my previous year's Christmas toys to needier kids?
How about him giving up drinking after I locked him out of the house?
So Jabo's a good guy, right?
Well, there was the matter of him building bootleg liquor stills, which got us a visit from the FBI. During that visit, Jabo lied big-time, telling the agents he'd never heard of the bootleggers who were at our house two or three times a week. Jabo also coached me to say I was at school or band rehearsals all day, so I knew nothing about the stills that I had helped him build.
And then there was Jabo's side business of soldering new vehicle identification numbers into the frames of stolen cars, which led to another side business: fitting new serial numbers into the hulls of stolen boats.
No doubt, Jabo was a fine craftsman, an artful liar, and up until his surprise heart attack he was quite a survivor. He was the absolute best at what he did. Considering that Jabo's own father was a gutter-wallowing drunk, and that Jabo had to drop out of school at age 10, I'd have to say he was a successful man.
I give Jabo much credit for never hiding his shady activities from me. That helped me make up my own mind about how I wanted to live. Change Jabo, and everything downstream of Jabo changes. Take away that red Gibson guitar, and I never meet wife Brenda. That means no daughter Jess.
Lately, I've been thinking that I ought to mark Jabo's goodness or badness not on how he lived, but on what's happened because of him. For example, just to the left of my office chair, there's a drawing that Jess made when she was in kindergarten. Her assignment was to draw a picture of someone she admired greatly. She drew a picture of me. I'm proud and flattered that Jess admires me, but whatever admirable qualities I have, I got a lot of them because of Jabo.
In case you were wondering: On the shrink test, I answered "no." I said Jabo was not a good man. I need to find that shrink and ask him if I can change just that one answer.
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