A friend recently asked, “Has anyone ever done a study to determine what causes the type of thinking that claims the only people with value are pretty much like me? If we knew this, could we use the knowledge to raise more caring, accepting children in the years ahead?”
I can speak only for how hard I have found it to learn that lesson. My father carefully, painstakingly educated me to have great expectations of people not like me, yet that education took a long time to take hold and become part of my character.
“Mister Crier wants to take you fishing,” Dad said, but I knew better than to say I’d go.
“He’s living with a woman and they’re not married, and he swears a lot,” I pouted.
As a Baptist 8-year-old in Alabama in 1944 I guessed those facts would carry weight for deacon Dad.
Dad said only, “You’ve been listening to gossips, son.”
Actually on my own I had heard Mister Crier laughing and swearing when he and other house painters loaded the new paint cans, brushes, and turpentine into their old rattle-traps parked in the alley behind Dad’s hardware store.
True, I learned about the woman – who was really no woman, but a 16-year-old girl – when I eavesdropped on women playing canasta with Mother.
“And Crier is at least 40!” they’d hissed.
“Jim Crier is a good man,” Dad said, “and he puts on no airs. When a poor widow’s roof needs fixing, Jim Crier fixes it for free, and when he’s fixed all he can afford, he goes to other house painters and carpenters and tells them ‘It’s your turn.’
“Mister Crier is a good friend to me, I can’t be a good friend back if I insist that he try to be like me.
“He wants to be nice to you, son, and I hope you will go fishing with him. You will enjoy it”
I wanted to complain some more, “Mister Crier has a beat-up old Dodge!” or “Mister Crier lives in the last house on the good side of town!” But I realized I’d used up my bigger thunder, and it had gotten me nowhere.
As a proper little sissy boy in the making, I wondered what to do.
And I went.
Not wholeheartedly, but I went.
I liked Mister Crier’s beat-up old Dodge. It had a radio in it and ours didn’t.
Mister Crier brought a huge thermos of hot chocolate, some deviled eggs, and several kinds of sandwiches. Maybe his girlfriend made them. I didn’t ask. I didn’t really want to know.
He took me to a lake I had never seen, in a state park.
I caught several bream, and he cheered me each time.
Mister Crier didn’t say much about himself, but seemed interested in what I had to say.
I probably talked forever, especially about school and the war.
I remember little else, except Dad. He knew that he could show me a much bigger world without having to leave the county.
From as far back as I can remember, until I reached 12, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, after he’d delivered groceries to the people on his part of the Sunday School’s list, Dad took me with him to see his “unofficial friend.”
We drove down an alley far behind the foundry to Shorty’s, bearing four bulging bags from the local Jitney Jungle.
Mrs. Shorty, two heads taller, had the shadow of a dark mustache.
Smiling as for a family portrait, the Shorties stood stiffly under soiled Christmas cards strung four ways across the room.
“They get them from trash cans a year ahead of time,” Dad explained to me later, “and put them up to make us feel welcome.”
“That shore is a pretty child,” Shorty would say as he reached to pat my head.
Dad beamed, and dug into the paper sacks, proudly.
The Shorties had built their home of cardboard tacked to scraps of wood and tin.
The earth floored them.
“Whenever it rains,” Dad continued later, “I know I’ll see Shorty and his wife plundering behind my store to get the fresh, big boxes.”
Most dry days Shorty preached on the Court House lawn.
The summer I was 18, I went back, tried to find him there.
Others concatenated the despair, preached “jedgement”; but Mrs. Shorty and Shorty had died.
Sweating with the crowd in the Alabama sun I remembered the soiled Christmas cards, my tight belt, and waiting for the over-seasoned turkey to bite back.
Visiting home from my first job teaching I read an ad in The Anniston Star.
“Want to go, Dad? Isaac Stern is here tonight for the Knox Music Club.”
From 7th grade onward, Dad had sat with me on the hard seats at the high school for all recitals in the Club’s season.
Dad’s closest classmate in college was Knox S., named ‘Knox’ for his mother’s people, who for three generations had brought “culture” to our mill and foundry town.
Mother begged off to play bridge during our adventures.
“Want me to call for tickets?” I asked, excited. Stern was better fare than the Club used to draw.
“I hope you’ll go, but I have a confession that only now is it the time to make,” Dad said; “I don’t really like classical.”
“But all those times, and you said you liked it!” He smiled.
“Knox liked it. Other classmates liked it. They had a treasure that would not open for me. I knew you might close your ears too soon if I helped you to.”
Almost I mistook it for hypocrisy, but Stern’s recording covers me six decades later with Dad’s love.
Different is different. Bad is bad. Different is not bad.
I rejoice that I was able to tell Dad before he died how much his spiritual DNA helps me survive. How diminished my life would be had I not been introduced to the wonders of creation by all sorts and conditions of persons. Scripture bears witness to how hard it has been for God’s people to hear Jesus: “Other sheep I have who are not of this fold: them I also love.”