April 28th, 2016 was the 111th anniversary of Dad’s birth, in Goodwater, Alabama. I’ve spent much time thinking about him — how close we were; how far apart; how we struggled; how we admired each other; how I picked up some of his worst traits and some of his best; how much more I looked like him last summer when I was 78 (on far left below) than I did when I stood at his left in 1981, when he was 76 and I was 44.
I was born in Anniston, Alabama in 1936. I was an only child and close to both parents, but genuinely a mama’s boy.
By the time I was 12, Dad and I went camping on most weekends from the time school recessed for the summer until it began again in the fall. Sometimes we went to a private lake, but more often we went to the nearby humongous Talladega National Forest, where we routinely encountered more beaver, deer, and water moccasins than we did people. Often we did not see another human being for the whole weekend. We had several lakes from which to choose.
Dad was a superb fly fisherman, but too much a perfectionist for my liking. He was dreadfully impatient with my clumsy techniques, and would sometimes yell if I did not get the rod exactly to 2:30 o’clock and gracefully arc the fly no farther than two inches away from a bream breeding spot that he had identified. The fish don’t know a thing about my anglings, I thought to myself; they will bite when they are hungry! I wondered whether he secretly hoped no fish would take my bait unless I cast the lure exactly as he commanded. He caught so many more fish than I did, I would not have been surprised that they listened to him.
In time, I became expert too but didn’t enjoy fishing nearly as much as I enjoyed being his boatman, using the tiny electric motor to get him quietly to the right spot where he had the best chance of a big catch. His fierce temper subsided as he hauled them in by the bucketful.
I have always loved how Jesus told the disciples exactly where to cast their nets, and the story of him, after the resurrection, preparing the same fish breakfast Dad taught me to cook for us after we had fished from before dawn when he thought the bass would be biting.
When I was in college and even into my teaching career, Dad insisted on taking me to the Rotary Club to try to show me off, even though after I had read Babbitt I balked at going. “Humor him,” Mother would whisper. “He loves you.”
He was proud of me; I would give him that. When the Phi Beta Phi honor society at Auburn University asked me to join during graduate school, I told a classmate that I was going to ignore them. I thought it silly to pay an admission fee to be honored. He thought I was crazy and alerted Grandmother. She paid the fee and ordered a membership pin and chain. Dad surprised me by showing up for the admission ceremony.
“Son,” he said at a fine restaurant afterwards, “I earned only a Bachelor’s. You are earning a Masters with an honor society membership to boot. If you ever have children, you will experience great pleasure when they surpass your achievements. And tell them the same thing! Keep it going generation after generation.”
From the time I was in Junior High, Dad sat on hard benches listening to classical music, not telling me until years later that he did not like classical music but hoped I might be blessed by it. I am, enormously.
By the time I was eight Dad had me teaching Sunday School to the small children of extremely poor mill workers at the Addie Weaver Mission which he had helped build. The mission met after we had finished our own services at Parker Memorial Baptist.
At Parker Memorial, Mother insisted that we sit on the front pew, mainly so that I would behave without the distraction of being able to see other children. At least once a quarter Dad would bring all my Sunday School students from Addie Weaver to sit with us on the second row. They smelled bad. They had no Sunday Best. Dad told me he did it more for the people in Parker Memorial than for the Addie Weaver children: “Millions of God’s children everywhere are not blessed with good clothes, good food, good water. We must never assume that God’s children all look like us or that God loves us more than God loves them.”
Dad taught the men’s bible class every other Sunday, alternating with Col. Ayers, owner of the Anniston Star and Radio Station WHMA. On the Board of Deacons Dad was often the only one who voted against the majority, sometimes even when he agreed with them. “I don’t believe a majority vote proves the Holy Spirit did it the way some believe,” he said. “We are just human beings and are often wrong when we think we are right.”
Dad also told the deacons that he took a drink and that they could kick him off the Board if they wanted. They didn’t. As a “Whiskeypalian,” I still don’t know why they were concerned. He never took more than one jigger, and that only a few times a year.
Dad kept his liquor locked in a cabinet so his mother wouldn’t see it. Both of Dad’s grandfathers had returned from the Civil War fierce alcoholics, and Dad respected why his mother disapproved of drinking. Only after he died did Dad’s sister tell me that she had discovered the liquor cabinet before I was born and had told their mother. She respected her son’s right to choose and never embarrassed him by letting him know she knew.
Dad abhorred gossip; Mother and I loved it. Often he stopped us mid-sentence before we got to the juicy bits. He did not want to know even the names of those we were gossiping about lest we taint his openness to them.
Mother and I wondered why we had to have someone that cantankerous in our family. Once he hid on the floor behind the front seat of the car planning to tease us by scaring us and heard me tell Mother, “You’re more kin to me than he is! You gave birth to me. He’s just my Dad and had nothing to do with it!” Mother loved that and repeated my comment ad nauseum to my chagrin well into my late teens.
Dad deplored the way the church budgeted more for itself than for the poor. It was no surprise to any of the family when he was chosen to run the surplus food program and then the poverty program for Calhoun and Cleburne Counties.
Dad and I had our biggest disagreements about race. Recently I described for Like the Dew how my father enforced segregation when he chaired the Anniston Board of Education. Earlier I described here how Dad rejected my African American husband for six years, asked for forgiveness, and received Ernest as a second son.
In June 1982, Dad was down to skin and bones days away from dying. “Dad, I know I am not the son you wanted, but I love you very much,” I said.
“Louie,” he insisted, “you have never been more wrong! YOU are the son that I wanted, and I love you very much.”
I doubt that I would ever have noticed the Holy Spirit had not Dad throughout his life introduced the two of us.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, and at this very moment very much believe in the Communion of Saints.