Like a lot of guys, I look in a mirror, and see my father. Sure, some of that is because I’ve filled out some (okay, a LOT!), I’m getting a widow’s peak, and I’ve already got a good bit of grey. But there’s another image there, too. In the eyes, in the wrinkles, even in the smile, I find subtle similarities to my father. Genetics has a part in it, of course, but more importantly, my father was responsible for shaping me, in terms of philosophy, mannerisms, habits and more. These are the things that are important, I think. Some lessons, he presented with a lecture, most by example. My earliest recollection of such a lesson is this:
It was in 1958 in Deep Creek, VA … I was 6 years old, and my father was, like most fathers are to their sons, a super-hero. It never occurred to me that he had any reason to fear anything, because he never showed any. My sister had come running into the house, hollering that a bunch of men with guns were gathering in our front yard. My dad took a look outside, and his face darkened a bit. He stuffed his .38 in his back pocket, and as he went out the door, he told us to go to the kitchen, and stay there.
My mom and my sister looked scared, and kept pulling me back as I tried to get to the window to watch. Although I never got a very good look, I remember seeing a lot of men, with rifles, shotguns and torches, and some of them wearing white robes with hoods. There was a lot of shouting, and a fair amount of cussing (my dad was a sailor, so I recognized some of that). Finally, I heard my dad tell them that if they didn’t get off his property right then, and never come back, he’d guarantee that at least six of them would never see their families again.
It had started when my father had intervened when a group of young bullies were roughing up a much younger black kid from down the road. These men were telling my dad that he was forgetting his place, and he’d better remember the way things were.
My dad was white, raised in Meridian, Mississippi, during the depression, and he knew very well how things were. But he had also shared foxholes in Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Korea, with other soldiers, scared, just like him, missing their families, just like him, and sick of killing, just like him. Some of them were white, just like him, and some of them were black, brown or yellow. But they all bled red, just like him, and they all got cold, hungry, sick and sad, just like him.
He never took his gun out of his pocket that day. But apparently, they believed him, because they left, grumbling and waving their guns. And they never came back. I wasn’t old enough to know how dangerous the situation was that day, but of course, my folks did.
Dad was raised in a bigoted culture, by bigots, and taught how to act like a bigot. Everything about Mississippi in those Depression years screamed of racism. He was taught to believe in only one race. Well, I guess all those foxhole buddies of his helped confirm that, in a sense, because to the day he died, he only believed in one race … the Human Race.
I remember asking my dad about those men, since I really didn’t understand what had happened. He deflected my questions, trying to shelter me from such ugliness, I suppose, until I was old enough to understand. I didn’t recognize any of them, but sometimes, in town, I’d notice someone giving my dad a hard look, when he wasn’t looking. And I remember, too, a black woman coming up to him once, in a store, and taking his hand, and tearfully thanking him for being a good man. He never talked about that incident, but I know it bothered him a lot. My mom told me years later that they had been afraid that my sister or I would end up paying for his actions that day.
My father always taught me that all you really had to do, was what you knew was right, and that then things would pretty much take care of themselves. He proved it that day, and on many other occasions.
One day, a few weeks later, my sister came home from the school bus crying, with her blouse and her sweater torn. She had been roughed up on the bus by a couple of boys, her books thrown out the window, and was called a “nigger lover” because she was friendly with a black girl at school. I remember my mother crying, and trying to stop my father, when he stomped out of the house, and was climbing into the family car. She was afraid of what he would do.
It was years later, before I ever found out exactly what he did.
One of the three boys was the son of the County Sheriff, and my dad went to his office, and called him out to the front office, and in front of several deputies, told him that he had better make his son understand that if anybody ever did something like that again, or said anything to her like that, that he was going to assume that his son was the one that had done it. If something happened to her, or his house, car or animals, if she so much as broke a fingernail, that he would know who was responsible, and he would ensure that it could never happen again! He also told him that he would then go looking for him, and that he wouldn’t be able to hide behind a white robe!
My dad told me that he watched his back for a long time after that, because he figured that eventually, the sheriff would screw up enough courage to try something, but he never did.