By Bill King
With the horror of Charlottesville fresh in mind - white nationalists/supremacists on the ground, a resurgence of the KKK, communities under siege – an open dialogue is beginning to take shape. Words are still hate-filled and coded, but for the most part, there’s push-back – folks coming forth and confronting evil. Statues to Confederate war lords are falling, as are those of slave owners and plantation barons. Those are positive signs we may be replacing bandages with healing surgery.
With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a look at our family to better understand the roots of modern day bigotry and how my brother Wayne and I dealt with it.
All you should do is turn back the clocks and gather around a kitchen table during the late fifties and early sixties down south and listen in on adult conversations. It was the blame game – it was always about the outsider – a face, a name that either prospered or endured hardship more than you. I’m talking about family. Family history.
There was always a family member, aunt or uncle who ripped on those less fortunate and those who acquired a comfortable amount of wealth. Ours was no different - the key factor still in play – southern history – one rooted in class, prejudice, and racism.
Dad’s side of the family were dirt-poor tobacco farmers who lost everything from gambling, drinking and the Great Depression. Pops' father was a hard man who put the farm and family in jeopardy. Pops never spoke kind words about him other than to remind us he was frequently beaten with a razor strop. I know from those who knew dad as a boy and maturing man, he was wild as hell. Dad ran the Kentucky foothills without a care in the world until the Great Depression. He made it as far as grade ten schooling and then, out of necessity, was sentenced to picking tobacco – back-breaking work for a child or adult. Once old enough to drive, dad ran moonshine through the Kentucky/Tennessee back country in an amped-up Ford.
Family vacations, dad would point out roadside hideaways. Places where ‘copper stills’ were once hidden from the sight of revenuers.
Pops railed against big government; blacks, unions, alcoholics, Catholics, fat people, liberals, communists; whoever challenged his sense of what America was meant to be.
Dad loved history. He’d cram us into his prized Ford Fairlane station wagon and travel to historic Mt. Vernon N.Y, - George Washington’s home; Hopkinsville, KY to observe Lincoln’s log cabin, Washington D.C. – colonial Williamsburg, VA. If there was a statue or symbol of America – the family arrived to witness and remember.
Across the river in Louisville, Olympic heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay was quickly dispensing with opponents and rising in the pro ranks. Pops was there for every fight pleading for an opponent to smash Clay’s mouth shut. ‘No negro should ever talk to a white man this way’, he’d say. Pops was a Rocky Marciano guy. He’d huddle front of his bedside radio - draw curtains and battle Cassius and fight personal demons.
Dad was wounded on four different occasions during World War 11, and it wasn’t until he was well into his ‘70s that he began treatment for PTSD. Recalling the amphibious landing and assault on Utah Beach, D-Day June 6, 1944 – Normandy, he suffered sleepless nightmares. Pops would interrogate himself – ask why he survived and close friends drowned or perished from enemy fire. It haunted him till death at age 89. War rarely took a day off in our home. Twelve operations, hundreds of trips to the VA hospital, long bouts of anger, pain and frustration followed him most hours of the day.
What gave Pops relief was music. He played rhythm guitar through his late teens and twenties and travelled the south in minstrel shows with singer Jackie DeShannon’s(Sharon Meyers) dad, ‘Tink’ Meyers. As told to us – they sang poor-house songs scripted during the depression. He also worked with magician Harry Blackstone setting up and packing props. All before war changed him.
As kids, we tiptoed through the house and sidestepped as if avoiding minefields. Occasionally, the guitar would come out, and pops would place his trembling hands on the fret board and shape a chord then strum. This was when he came to life - loosened up, revealing what he yearned to do with his life. Play like Oscar Peterson’s guitarist – Herb Ellis!
The Elvis ‘three-chord wonder’ recitations, those idiot rock n’ rollers declarations – only jazz musicians had it together in his head. Buddy Rich, Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman – even country man Roy Clark, honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle of the Lawrence Welk Show, fared better.
Dad worked a good thirty years as a security guard at Colgate Palmolive Company until retirement. The next twenty-five were invested in his passion – fishing. That fishing habit brought him to the Everglades where he spent nearly every waking hour trolling for bass. When not in Florida, he could be found at his campsite on Cumberland Lake, in Kentucky – fishing.
At Colgate, he battled with the black community which bordered the plant. Poverty was a ‘fact of life’, and the grounds of the plant were fair game and a small income for those most in need. There were tubes of discarded toothpaste, bars of soap, detergent – products tossed aside for one small infraction or another. At night, folks would jump the fence and dad would give chase. The game played out until the old man was ambushed and whacked with a shovel, fracturing a leg. This did little to dissipate the hostility he bore for the opposite race.
Throughout high school, brother Wayne and I endured his lectures on race and equality. It was all about class and where you stood on the economic ground. He was sure blacks would always reside a few steps below whites; that’s just the way it was. Then along came Martin Luther King and all hell busts loose.
For old southerner’s, these were racial issues sorted out long ago by whites, and everyone knew their place. Integration was on the doorstep; sit-ins, civil rights marches, laws guaranteeing equality were on the books or on the legislative horizon and dad, like those of his heritage, had no control or say in these matters.
The coming years were unpleasant. Us boys saw the future and didn’t buy into the bigotry and hatred. Music demanded humility, compromise, associations, and friendships. At nineteen, I left home and never returned as a resident. Dad and I fought and argued for years – going three to five years without a conversation between us until we met on common ground at my Italian grandmother’s farm in Pennsylvania. It was there, after a year’s absent during a conversation I asked him to take a walk in the woods.
Pops stood 6’6” – a lanky, at times fierce man, but on this occasion, he was with his first son. I finally had a chance to speak openly without fear, and ask why he carried so much animosity for the poor and blacks he’d grown up alongside. He responded, “it’s all about survival. There are those that have, and the have nots. It’s the laws of survival. I have, and that’s that – the planet’s overcrowded and the weak die”. Astounding! I prod him further – he then explains this is the way he was raised and he can’t change.
I didn’t buy that.
Through the next decade, until death, I make an effort to change him; not hate him. Each month or two, I’d send him a book to read. He was a voracious reader. P.J. O’Rourke, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson – music biographies, history, war, travel - anyone I thought who could expand his horizons and move him away from those John Birch Society and Jerry Falwell pamphlets.
Visits, he’d be locked and loaded in his recliner with FOX News blasting on eleven – wound tight and ready for a fight! We knew to keep him far away from his prized gun rack. Brother Wayne and I would teas, toy and keep him laughing. Pops did learn from our long-distance relationship, never speak to me in racist terms or language. Never demean those less fortunate, - at best, be civil.
During his last decade, we grew close, speaking every week or so on the phone. It was always about music and photography and what was in those books. Throughout our lives, I never asked him for a penny, then in the last three years of life, $1,000 arrived consecutive Christmases; a check each, addressed to my wife Kris and I, with instructions scribbled in trembling ink, ‘put this towards the best digital cameras you can buy’.
Pops and I looked at the same photo books; Henri Cartier-Bresson, his favourite, war photographer Robert Capra – my favourite – Eugene Smith. He understood what made a great image. Dad listened to music and could recognize a finely crafted solo. Pops savoured the landscape and beauty and time spent hiking and fishing – he was no ordinary man – far better than the class battles poor southerners carried as open wounds.
Leading to my fiftieth high school class reunion, my dear classmate, Jan Stratton Cooksey, prods me a good year before to attend – saying something special was occurring. Kris and I make the trip, and I find myself accepting an award for the work I’d done in music outside our community of Jeffersonville, Indiana – Commodore of the Port. We are a shipbuilding community.
The person driving this – Jimmy Gales, a black man who I shared many a day and friendship in classes throughout my school years. We hadn’t seen or spoken through the years, but Jimmy took this upon himself to make happen. I had no idea how this would play out in that Indiana has a checkered past and connection to the Klan. It’s a diehard right-wing Republican state, and me – a well-known war resister who fled to Canada. The night was exceptional and the past, for most, was the past.
Late evening, Jimmy and I speak, and he reveals to me something I’d never imagined; how much he loved my dad. Their fishing adventures and friendship. I was bowled over. It was like rumours of someone having two families or at least relationships with a muse.
I walked away with a smile in my heart. Truthfully, I always suspected dad wasn’t the shallow man yodeling epitaphs from the recliner. A far better man than the hurtful words that crippled our relationship. Jimmy spoke the words I needed to hear.
I always suspected Pops would have given up all his possessions if he could have sat five minutes on a coveted bandstand alongside Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, Lionel Hampton and his super hero, Wes Montgomery - the giants of jazz, whose artistry and intellect demolished all delusions of superiority. Pops heard the music, and the music touched him. It was Jimmy, the family angel, who righted his soul.