I am the great-great-great grandson of David Crockett through his daughter Margaret from his first marriage to Polly Finley. Being a child in the 1950s I was caught up the mania created by Walt Disney with his Davy Crockett movies. However, as I grew up I researched the historical Crockett and sadly found him lacking in many of the qualities attributed to him in movie and song. The older I became and the more I read, I realized David Crockett was the best kind of hero, a man of many flaws who ultimately did the right thing.
Each chapter of my novel has three stories—one about young Davy who runs away from home, the second about 50-year-old David who struggles with his life after a final congressional defeat and the third about a modern descendant Dave who must face his troubled family past when he goes home for his brother’s funeral. Each is faced with the challenge that you can’t run away from yourself.
As a work of fiction, my novel does not represent the historical David Crockett but a replication to illustrate dramatic conflict. Any human flaws, such as alcoholism, that are portrayed by my character are not necessarily true of the historic Crockett. Also, the modern Dave is inspired by my own life but does not represent my life entirely. For instance, I have been happily married for forty-four years while the corresponding character in the novel is divorced.
Thirteen-year-old Davy Crockett scampered down a wooded hillside not going anywhere in particular, which was the way he liked it. He wanted to get as far away as he could from home. His family owned a log and stone tavern on the busy route between Knoxville and Abingdon. Davy was supposed to be going to school, but his heart was not into his lessons. Suddenly his large, fluid brown eyes caught sight of a royal walnut butterfly. He smiled at the bright yellow, gray, orange and red colors in the delicate wings. Davy noticed it was smaller than most but speedy and energetic. The butterfly flitted with uncertainty among the rhododendron bushes.
Before Davy realized it, he was more than a mile away and now intrigued by a different animal. He swore he detected a whole family of opossum. If he only had a rifle with him he could shoot a passel of possum for his mother to cook up with sweet potatoes. If the possum stew was exceptionally good perhaps no one would notice Davy had not attended Benjamin Kitchen’s class in four days.
The entire hullabaloo at school began when one of the older boys taunted him: you grin too much and agree with the teacher too much. Who do you think you are, the bully said as he pushed Davy around. What he did not know was that Davy had just returned from a cattle drive. His father had indentured him for thirty dollars. He walked four hundred miles to and from Rockbridge, Virginia. His thin arms were hard and his legs were steel.
Four days ago, Davy decided he had had enough. After the school bell rang, he ran out the door and hid behind bushes until the bully walked by. Davy jumped out and pounced on the boy. He pelted him with hard punches to his face and belly, stopping only when the older boy cried for mercy.
Davy felt triumphant on the trail to school the next morning. Then he considered what might be waiting for him. If the bully had brought his mother to tell old man Kitchens how her innocent little boy was beaten up Davy could be in trouble.
How dare you let that hooligan run roughshod over my little baby, Davy imagined the mother scolding Kitchens. He, after all, was the son of a drunken tavern owner who taught him to be far too proud for his own good. The teacher, Davy suspected, also thought he lied too much and could not be trusted. Which boy would the teacher believe? The bully would be believed, Davy decided. He knew Kitchens would beat him mercilessly in front of the class. And then his father would beat him for getting a beating. He did not want two whippings he did not deserve, so Davy skipped away down another path away from the school house.
He attended a school of his own making, studying wildlife of the surrounding forest. Davy recognized large hand-like hind tracks of opossum and its smaller duplicate fore paw. He could tell the size of the animal by the width of its hind paw. Smaller paw tracks behind them meant a whole family. Before he knew it Davy was crawling along limestone sinks and lichen-covered boulders. By the time he closed in on the opossum family, Davy looked up at the sky and figured it was time for school to be out, and he better be on his way home.
Davy stopped short when he entered the tavern’s heavy timber door and saw his father sitting on the edge of a large old trunk, hunched over and swigging corn liquor from an earthen jug and staring into a glowing open hearth fire.
His father glared at him and tipped the jug again. Davy, with apprehension, glanced at the cudgel stick leaning against his parents’ large bed in the middle of the drafty room. Two of his brothers, Wilson and Joseph, scraped mud from their boots and kept their tousled heads down. Laughter rang from their kitchen on the other side of the stairwell. One set of steps went to the attic where travelers slept on straw mattresses. The other set of stairs went to the basement where Davy’s father repaired broken wagon parts for his customers.
Davy entered the kitchen where his three sisters were snapping beans. Four dirty men sat on benches at the end of a long roughhewn table, drinking ale, and grumbled impatiently for their dinner. His mother, stoop-shouldered and wide at the hip, pulled a pot from the hearth fire with an iron hook. When his sisters saw Davy, they stopped laughing.
“Oh.” Sally tried to smile. “Hello, Davy.”
Before he could reply, he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder, smelled liquor on his breath and heard him whisper, “Kitchens sent a note, says you ain’t been to school.”
Almost a lifetime later, David Crockett remembered the smell of liquor on his father’s breath. He still experienced his urge to wander without direction and purpose as long as it was away from what he really should be doing. He walked through a corn field between Rutherford Fork of the Obion River and his small farmhouse. His eyes, framed by deep tanned creases, focused on a monarch butterfly. Its large wings, silky and graceful, rested on a broad dark green leaf of an alder shrub, which, for some strange reason, made him feel sad, hollow and insignificant. Sharp, loud taps on a large dead elm caused David to glance up at a woodpecker’s digging into a gray tree trunk. Sighing, he decided he was as dead at his core as the elm tree. When he looked back at the alder bush the butterfly was gone, just like his chance to return to Congress.
He did not know for sure if he was going to see Washington again, but he did not sense victory in his bones. Turning, he trudged to his cabin. He had done everything he knew to win a fourth term as West Tennessee’s representative. His former friend President Andrew Jackson did everything in his power to defeat him. David opposed Jackson’s plan to remove Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw from their lands in Tennessee, Alabama and the Carolinas to unknown territory beyond the Mississippi River. He tried to stop Jackson’s abolition of the Bank of the United States. David pushed spending on internal improvements. Foremost, he spent most of his energies during three terms promoting sale of public lands in West Tennessee at low cost to squatters living on them.
Jackson defeated David on every issue and used those failures to label him as a do-nothing congressman. He endorsed Democrat Adam Huntsman, an Indian wars veteran with a peg leg, to challenge David. In addition to labeling him incompetent, Jackson and Huntsman accused him of not responding to letters from people in his district who did not agree with his policies. They accused him of plying voters with whiskey. David’s ultimate sin, Jackson and Huntsman claimed, was his betrayal of the Democratic Party by siding with Whigs on too many issues.
David went from town to town, mounting tree stumps to declare he was proud to defend the rights of common people against King Andrew. If he had not been able to pass his legislation it was because of opposition from the cruel Jackson and not that he had failed to do anything at all. He had no defense to the charge of snubbing people who did not support him. Kicking at clods under his feet, David grumbled at himself for being stubborn about that. He tried to remember when he had become peevish enough to ignore his foes, but at that moment he did not want to think back so far. He laughed out loud about buying votes with liquor, telling folks from the stump that he did not have enough money to sway that many voters. And, yes, he proclaimed before skeptical crowds, he had begun his political career as a stout follower of Jackson. He challenged the voters to question whether his loyalty to West Tennessee was more important than his loyalty to the President and the Democratic Party.
Results of the election, held weeks ago, had not been announced, even by the first week of August. Until the totals came in, David’s hopes and dreams dangled between his personal heaven and hell. Victory would vindicate his record. Another two years in Congress could keep David in the newspapers until the next presidential election. Along with the success of his recently published autobiography and plays written about him, he would surge to the top of the list of potential presidential candidates. President of the United States, David told himself, would be quite an improvement over being the son of a drunken tavern owner. He could take his family to Washington and install his wife Elizabeth as first lady of the land. Perhaps she would even learn to love him again.
But if he lost, David dreaded to consider, his hopes of escaping debt and poverty would end, because no matter how celebrated he was for his hunting prowess, how honored for his bravery during the Indian wars, or how respected he was for his political independence, he never had crawled out of the deep hole of destitution. He could dig a living from his farm here on the Obion River, go with hat in hand back to Lawrenceburg to ask Elizabeth and his three children if he could resume living with them and the Patton clan, or turn his head elsewhere to try once more to make his fortune.
Dusk was falling, and David had to squint to recognize the figure standing on his porch waving at him. He smiled when he saw Abner Burgin, Elizabeth’s brother-in-law who had moved with them when they came to West Tennessee. He had proved to be a good and faithful friend and hunting companion. As David reached the steps he stopped short, his legs incapable of moving. He saw the look on Abner’s usually pleasant round face. He sensed his old friend was pained to tell him news that could ruin his life.
Several generations later in 1980 and in another place far away, David Crockett’s descendant Dave Crockett awoke with a start, coming from the same dark nightmare he had suffered for years. He found himself in his large plush carpeted bedroom with a king-sized bed framed by dark cherry wood. It was on the second floor of his brick house with breath-taking views of Lake Waco. Dave lived a life his great-great-great grandfather could have only hoped to live, yet Dave yearned for something else, something that was just out of his grasp.
His slender young wife stirred a little when Dave touched the butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder. Pulling his hand away he smiled before placing his arm over his eyes and tried to rid his mind of images from his nightmares. His sleep disintegrated with memories of his childhood, with his older brother Allan in the foreground. Allen’s sallow face stared at Dave, lips curling up in a sneer and cigarette smoke slipping from his mouth and flowing up his cheeks and around his nostrils that clouded his dark, threatening eyes. Allan was mentally ill, yet their mother still put him in charge of taking care of his baby brother Dave. Most of his early childhood had retreated into his troubled dreams. Dave remembered Allan grabbing him. Was it by his two feet, a hand and a foot and or his two hands? He could feel Allan swinging him around fasting and faster, fearing he was going to smash into something very hard. Off in the distance, he could see his mother. If he could scream out for her she would save him. Dave opened his mouth but a rasping whisper came out, “Mother!” Was it just a dream or had it really happen? He would never know.
Sometimes Dave dreamed about his other brother Vince who was about six years older and an out-of-control alcoholic. In the dream Vince, with a bottle of beer in his hand and slumped in a worn easy chair, glared at him. His eyelids were heavy with intoxication, and his numbed lips hugged each syllable coming from his mouth.
“You tell people I’m a drunk,” Vince said. “Don’t you. Don’t lie to me, you little punk. I know what you been doin’. You think you’re smart, don’t you, tellin’ everybody I’m a drunk. What goes on inside this house is family business, not nobody else’s business. You think you’re goin’ to make those people like you? Those people ain’t your friends. They think you’re a stupid little punk. You don’t have no friends. Well, I don’t know just what I’m goin’ to do, but I’m goin’ to do just fine. You think you’re goin’ to college and make a lot of money. Well, you ain’t goin’ to make nothin’. Allan, he ain’t never goin’ to amount to nothin’, and you ain’t goin’ to amount to nothin’, but I’m going to do all right. And one of these days you’re goin’ to come knockin’ at my door with your hand out, and I’m goin’ to spit in it. That’s what I’m, goin’ to do, why you stick your hand out for money, I’m goin’ to spit in it.”
Sometimes Dave dreamed about his mother. She died in 1962, but he did not mind having a dead person visit him. Laughing she would pull her legs up under her skirt on the sofa and hug them. Everybody seemed to be having a good time. Most people had a good time around his mother because she always had a story to tell and could tell it with the relish of a seasoned professional actress. What a shame, people said, such a vibrant woman dying in her forties with three boys and one of them only—how old was he when she died, oh yes—only twelve.
At some point in the dream Dave would lean over to someone, he did not know who—it did not really matter after all—and whisper, “She’s dead, isn’t she?”
“Of course she’s dead,” the person would reply. “But it would be rude to remind her she was dead. Besides, she’s having a good time. It’d be a shame to ruin everything with such a minor inconvenience as death.”
Not often did Dave dream of his father. He was a non-entity of sorts. Dave did not have animosity towards him. How could you hate a man who was never there? Long hours on the road in his Royal Crown Cola truck kept him out of family arguments. After Dave’s mother died, his father seemed to be asleep when Vince launched into one of his drunken tirades, like the time Dave paid a local artist to make an oil painting from a photograph of his mother. The Christmas eve Dave brought it home Vince exploded, saying the last thing their father wanted now that he was dating was to be remind of his dead wife. So Dave just hung it on the wall, not bothering to wake his snoring father in front of the television set to present it to him. His father also slept through the times when Allan—well, he did not want to dwell on what Allan did. His father was just dad. He could not help being who he was or, more particularly, who he was not.
Dave remembered when he came to accept his father. It was on a hot Texas summer day when he worked on the truck with his father, slinging wooden cases of Royal Crown Cola around and sweating through his shirt by eight o’clock in the morning. A butterfly flitted through the window and landed on the windshield. Dave grimaced as his father extended his large scarred hand toward the creature because he knew what was coming. His father would smash the butterfly against the windshield just as he smashed cockroaches on the kitchen counter and wiped the guts on his pants leg. But Dave was wrong. His father’s hand caught the butterfly, careful not to harm it, and let it go out the window. He was a man unavailable to his family, but he was a man who saved a butterfly.
“A butterfly,” Dave mumbled as he looked again at his wife’s shoulder. Glancing around the room at the solid oak furniture, the heavy satin drapes, think pile carpeting and designer-label clothing carelessly thrown on a leather lounge chair, he was satisfied that he had proved Vince wrong about making money. Whether he amounted to anything; well, that prophesy was yet fulfilled.
The telephone rang, shaking him from his thoughts. His wife reached out to pick up the receiver.
“Hello?” She paused. “Puppy? Oh. You mean Dave.” She held the phone out to him. “It’s for you.”
Only someone from Gainesville would call him by his childhood nickname. He stiffened as he took it.
“Puppy?” an old woman’s voice said.
“Hello, Mrs. Dody.”