Linda Ellis’s poem, The Dash, crossed my mind last week. Surely you’ve read it or heard it used in eulogies, the one about the dash that separates the dates of one’s birth and death on a tombstone, and ponders the question of what “that little line is worth.”
I was thinking about that during the occasion of celebrating the worth of that dash in the life of Oscar Elliott.
My family moved to Mount Pleasant in March of 1959 where I finished the last few weeks of fifth grade at South Ward Elementary School. It was during that time, while wrangling my bicycle from the rack in front of the school building one day at lunch, someone asked, “You new here?” I looked his way and said, “Yes,” guiding my bike toward the street. “Where you live,” he asked falling in beside me to ride along. “Redbud,” I said. “I live on Stella, I’ll ride as far as Redbud with you,” he replied.
Time has blurred anything else we may have talked about in that two-block trip, but the first date separated by the dash in my friendship with Oscar was that Spring day at lunch within days of exactly 57 years ago. I smiled last week after the second date was added, recalling that day as well as another one some years later when Oscar and I were again riding together. We were both employed at Sandlin Chevrolet and Olds in Mount Pleasant—me in the body shop earning money to stay in college and Oscar earning a paycheck to help support his mother and sisters. He had just reassembled a perfectly good, practically brand new car that we had disassembled in order to make it go faster. Making things run better and go faster was one of many things that seemed to come naturally for Oscar.
The car in this story was as fast as any he ever built for me. And it was fast before he took it apart and put it back together, but it was now ready to go faster. On that Sunday afternoon, it was also ready for a test drive. Sans exhaust and in full race trim with me behind the steering wheel and Oscar in the passenger seat, I guided the loud, rumbling car slowly out of Sandlin’s service department and onto highway 67 headed east. I shouted at Oscar above the sound of the car’s motor, “How far down the street you want me to go?” He leaned toward me and shouted back, “Just stab it and steer it, I’ll ride it 50 feet farther than you can drive it.”
Oscar was also good at responses deftly delivered with humor and wisdom rolled into one line. Last summer as I sat at home contemplating retirement, I snapped a photo of a new rescue cat at the Aldridge household, a yellow tom I called B.C. Knowing that Oscar was a cat person, I sent him the photo of B.C. sprawled across my laptop, demonstrating one of his best free style naps. Oscar’s reply was swift and was not disappointing. “It appears BC certainly knows how to relax. Your B.C. is a good looking guy. My complements to whoever does his hair. Just a little free advice from an old friend…NEVER, NEVER, NEVER let your cat balance your check book or do your taxes. –ome”
The ‘ome’ signature was only one of many names by which Oscar was well known. Born Oscar Milton Elliott III, ‘ome’ was what everyone at Sandlin’s called him because it was his standard signature on service tickets. He also answered to OME 3, as well as Moe. His sisters called him Bubba and Bub was what most of his family knew him as. Family was a dedication with Oscar from the time we were both in high school when I spent time at his house where his mother made me feel like I was family, throughout his life with the family he and Jeanette shared when they married.
On yet another riding occasion, Oscar and I were going somewhere…I’m not sure where at the moment, but I do remember he was driving. What I also remember is that I was about to start teaching communication classes at Stephen F. Austin State University and Oscar was about 15 years into his career at Texas Utilities Mining Company. He said, “I want you to tell your communication students something. Tell them your good friend who never went to college a day in his life has a pretty good office job working for a big company in Dallas because of communication skills he was blessed with. Tell them your friend can walk into the biggest state of confusion imaginable, high-dollar machinery down and people standing around trying to figure out what to do next. Tell them that because your friend is a communicator, he can assess the situation, tell everyone from the suits to the mechanics what to do next, have everything back up and running in short order and file a report that every one of them can read and understand. You tell your students that communication skills are one of the most important skill sets they can learn.”
Oscar blended his ability to communicate with his ability to analyze and simplify the mysteries of life and made everything run better and go faster for all who knew him by giving back more than he received. I don’t know of anyone whose dash is worth more and was better spent than Oscar’s. I will miss him dearly although I’m sure he would tell me the same thing he’s told me many times before, “Everything’s gonna be all right. And even if it’s not, it’s still gonna be all right.”