He was born February 20, 1914 and died August 16, 1969 when he was 55 and I was 15. He was my closest friend and remains the greatest gift life has ever given me.
While I know there will be more missives like this one about him, I also know that any words of mine will fail in their attempt to tell you what a truly special human being he was. There are things I can tell you that may, I hope, give you a glimpse. For example, there was not an iota of bigotry in him. He comfortably accepted people for who they were. It didn’t matter to him, and I mean, it didn’t matter to him if someone was gay or straight, if someone was black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Muslim and so forth.
My father experienced people as individuals, and was not adverse to stinging back when confronted by bigotry. When we moved from Pearl River, New York to Nyack, New York somewhere around 1967, the house in Pearl River had not yet sold. While Nyack was a truly integrated community Pearl River was, for all intents and purposes, snowflake white. We were known as a civil rights family. Our minister marched with Dr. King and all of us were very open about our commitment to civil rights – for all people.
One day my father returned to check on the Pearl River house to discover someone had written the words Nigger Lovers on the front window. My father either lost sight of the fact selling the house might be a tad easier if he removed the words or he simply didn’t care because, rather than remove the words, he added some of his own. When he drove away, the words Nigger Lovers were still on the front window, however, they were now followed by the words, And Proud of It.
Staying with this theme, my father let me fight my own fights but would, at times, be nearby in case things got out of hand. Soon after we moved to Nyack I became enamored with a beautiful girl who happened to be black. Anyway, some kids found out. One day me and about three or four boys my own age were hanging out in our garage when one of them told me they weren’t going to let me out of the garage unless I said the word nigger. Now, while I supported Dr. King’s non-violent movement I must admit I wasn’t very good at it. I punched the kid right in the face and next thing I knew I was in a fight with all of them. Suddenly one of the boys saw my father approaching the garage. Everybody froze. I went out to see father. I was disheveled and may have had a bloody nose.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I told him what they wanted me to say in order to get out of the garage.
“You want some help?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Okay. I’ll be nearby if you need me.”
And so I went back into the garage and ended things when, after more punches were thrown, I picked up a long-handled shovel and begin swinging for the fences which caused my opponents to flee.
When I went back into the house my father ran a bath for his bruised-up son. I sat in the bath and my father sat in the bathroom with me and we talked. In a tone that told me he knew the answer he asked, “Did you say it?”
“Good for you. I’m proud of you.” He stood up, leaned over, kissed me on top of my head, and said, “I’ll get you some aspirin.”
I miss my father.