Every morning, Douthitt, 61, rolls out of his fold-away bed promptly at 7 a.m. He emails his son in Afghanistan, irons his pants and shines his shoes. He folds his bed into a sofa and straightens up the magazines on the side tables. And when he steps outside, he’s open for business.
Since the April 27 tornado outbreak, Douthitt has been living in the back room of his auto-detailing shop off U.S. 431 in Wellington. An old soldier, Douthitt says he doesn’t mind sleeping in a room that, during the day, doubles as the waiting room for D & D Detail Shop. He doesn’t mind washing up in a back room with a shower, racks of clothes, a toilet and washing machine.
But he does miss his wife, in a way that’s hard to talk about.
“I don’t even know how to say it,” Douthitt said. “She was my angel.”
‘Something to enjoy life’
A year ago, Johnny and Ruby Douthitt had a home in the country. Ruby, a homebody, liked to spend her time sprucing up the house off Gilbert’s Ferry Road. Johnny, a fisherman, had a lake out back, stocked with fish.
He was twice retired -– from the National Guard and from Anniston Army Depot, where he inspected other people’s work -– and was getting ready to open a car-detailing shop in a prefabricated metal building off 431. She was still working, as a home health nurse, known for her pleasant bedside manner.
They lived among Johnny’s people. Gilbert’s Ferry Road was dotted with houses belonging to Johnny’s brothers and cousins. You could call it Douthittville, if you could figure out how to spell it. Some of Johnny’s kinfolk spell the name with one “t,” Douthit, and some go by Douthard.
Johnny wasn’t home much on April 27, 2011. He was out visiting friends and relatives, and working on his new detailing shop.
“I built the shop so we could have a little something to enjoy life,” he said. “A little money to go where we want to go and do what we want to do.”
He saw some video of a tornado in western Alabama that morning. In the afternoon, as the storms grew closer, he headed home.
“My wife was watching the TV,” he said. “She said it looked pretty bad.”
When the folks on TV announced a tornado was headed right their way, Johnny got up to the door, then the towindow, to look out, he said, but he couldn’t see a funnel cloud.
But Ruby knew. When Johnny returned from the window, he found that Ruby had run to the bedroom, and was on her knees, praying.
“She held out her hand,” he said. “I don’t know whether I grabbed her hand or not. I heard a noise and looked over my shoulder and the window just … popped.”
‘It wasn’t like that between us’
Johnny Douthitt is the first to admit that he and his wife didn’t have much in common except romantic chemistry.
Chemistry was enough.
Johnny described himself as a “people person.” Ruby preferred being at home, or interacting with patients one-on-one. Johnny liked to take day trips up to Weiss Lake, and bring back a mess of fish. Ruby didn’t care to watch her husband clean a writhing pile of catfish.
But relations between Johnny and Ruby were always pretty smooth, to hear Johnny tell it.
“It was just easy, easy going,” he said.
They met in a Laundromat in Ohio in the 1970s. It started when they began teasing each other about clothes.
“She was washing these bell-bottom pants and I said, ‘Who is this country girl with the bell-bottoms?’ ” Johnny re-calls. “And I was wearing these African-colored sandals -– you know, red, black and green -– and short pants, and she started making fun of what I was wearing.”
He convinced her to marry him, and brought her back to Gilbert’s Ferry Road. They were married in 1975, though Johnny often refers to Ruby as “my wife of 30 years,” a subtle note that the marriage was long enough to count only the decades.
They had three kids. Theron Douthitt now lives in Georgia, Jarrod Douthitt in Texas. Kourtstin Douthitt, a civilian defense contractor, is in Afghanistan.
Johnny says he brought his sons up with the discipline he learned in the military. It didn’t matter what other people did – his sons were going to look and act like professionals
“There’s nothing wrong with having dreadlocks,” he said. “But not if you live at my house.”
Ruby was more gentle, Johnny said, more supportive.
Johnny was gone a lot, traveling to Kuwait, to Korea or to Germany with the Guard or with his day job. Ruby enjoyed traveling back to Sylvester, Ga., where her family was from. Johnny thinks she felt an attachment to that place that Gilbert’s Ferry Road could never match.
“I’ve already got it arranged that I’m going to be buried here,” he said. “And she always said she wanted to be buried down there with her family. My sons used to tease her and say, ‘Once you’re gone, you aren’t going to know where we put you.’”
But Johnny told her not to worry. He’d do what she wanted.
“We didn’t have a lot of quarrels,” he said. “It wasn’t like that between us.”
25 days of messages
The sight of the bedroom window, and the loud POP when in it shattered, are the last memories Johnny has of his house.
When he came to, Johnny was lying in a field of broken trees, in the twilight, 500 feet from the house.
“It looked like the forest was burned,” he said. “There were no tops on the trees. It looked like it had all burned down.”
Ruby was not far away. “She was laying behind me, about 20 feet away,” Johnny said, motioning over his shoulder as if he were there again.
The military training took over. He checked Ruby’s pulse and breathing, and quickly discovered she was dead.
Then he started making his way out of the rubble, stumbling through the debris in the dark in search of someone who could help.
All of the little community along Gilbert’s Ferry Road was destroyed. The homes of Douthitts and Douthits, all wrecked, in a landscape that was hard to recognize. Soon Johnny was safe in the care of relatives, in-side the undamaged portion of a little blue house on the hill, the house where he and his brothers grew up.
Johnny knows he did the right thing, in going for help. But he can’t get over the weirdness of that moment.
“I was in trauma,” he said. “Here I am, and my wife of 30 years is out there in the woods.”
Twenty-five days later, Johnny Douthitt picked up his cell phone and listened to his messages.
People who’d called on the day of the storm, or just after. Even his sons had called.
Johnny, still in shock, had just let it ring.
Heartaches and memories
It’s not the first time Johnny Douthitt has lived the painfully simple life. In the Army, he said, you live where they send you, and where they send you often isn’t good.
“I’m used to it being rugged,” he said. “Some people complain if they don’t have air conditioning or hot water. But you don’t have to have that. A lot of us didn’t have that when we were young.”
At least his current home has these comforts -- air conditioning and hot water.
So he sleeps in the waiting room, and watches the TV mounted high on the far wall. He lines his shoes up neatly by the wall in the back room where he showers. He does the books for his business in a small room to the side, where the wall and floor are covered with rugs he bought in Kuwait, then dug out of the rubble.
“Sometimes people see my car here late at night and they think I’m open, so they come and knock on the door,” he said. “That’s OK though.”
Ask him what he misses about his wife, though, and Johnny Douthitt steps back. He walks toward the back of his shop, blinking back tears. He doesn’t speak for a long, long time.
“I miss my wife, man,” he said. “We were married for 30 years. When you’ve been with some-one that long, it’s hard to be without them.”
He kept his promise to Ruby. She’s buried in Sylvester, near her relatives. He intends to go back regularly, and visit her grave, when he can bear to.
And one day, he said, he’ll live at the old place on Gilbert’s Ferry Road again. A new house, a little smaller than the old. A re-stocked lake.
Right now, he said, the lake is filled with downed trees, trees full of sap that seeps into the water and poisons the fish. The land debris is poisoned, too, in a different way. In every pile of branches is a tangle of household junk –- clothes, dishes, trinkets from the mantelpiece.
“I want to get all the debris up, but it’s hard to stay out there too long,” he said. “It’s too much heartache. Too many memories. You find different things in the debris, and you remember how it used to be.”
Maybe by next year he’ll have it done, he said.
When he’s ready.
Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star