I don’t think it would be fair to blame my father for his distrust of authority. Growing up in 1960s Jim Crow Alabama, in a hardscrabble, blue-collar family that aspired for white-collar status, he didn’t have particularly good influences. He was what we would now call hyper-active, and my grandfather’s solution to his son’s distractibility and disorderliness was corporal punishment, and lots of it. Nevertheless, my dad succeeded as a student and an athlete, playing on Huntsville High School’s baseball team. My grandfather never came to a single game.
My father entered Auburn University in 1967 to study math. Without any family financial support, he joined the university’s ROTC program, and worked multiple jobs. Still too poor to afford regular meals, he supplemented his diet with squirrels he shot off campus. He resented his ROTC officers, whom he found cruel and callous. Eventually the stress proved too much, and he failed one of his courses during fall semester of sophomore year. When my grandfather learned the news over Christmas break, he tried to force my dad to eat his report card. My dad resisted, and threw my grandfather through a wall. He walked out, and dropped out of college.
He wandered the South looking for work. He was often homeless, and often physically assaulted. He worked as a traveling encyclopedia salesman — ill-advised work, since many Southern towns had laws against soliciting. Local police would arrest and detain him until his boss posted bail. One sheriff refused my father his phone call, and put him on a chain gang. He worked on it for over a week before he cleverly scratched a penny down to the size of a dime (the price of a payphone call) and persuaded someone at the jail to let him ring his employer.
In October 1969, my father, a budding hippy activist, made his way to Chicago, and was a witness to the anti-war “Days of Rage” protests that coincided with the Democratic National Convention. Not long after, he called his mother back in Huntsville to check in. She told him that his draft number had been called. For four years, my father served as a medic in the U.S. Army, often providing care for combat veterans from Vietnam. He was stationed for two years in South Korea, including at the “121” hospital made famous by the show M*A*S*H. I don’t know a lot about his experiences in the Army, but I know he saw a lot of death, and that it changed him.
After Korea my father returned to Virginia, where his parents had moved, and enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University to study physical therapy. His years in the Jim Crow South — Huntsville High School desegregated when he was a junior, and some of his best friends were black — gave him a heart for Arican-Americans. His time as a vagrant gave him sympathy for the poor and dispossessed. His service as a medic gave him a passion to spend his life serving others. Yet he was in for more rude awakenings.
Taking a job as a medic at the Montgomery County, Maryland jail, my father once walked too close to the bars of one of the cells. An inmate grabbed him from behind and placed a shiv against his neck. He somehow broke free unscathed, likely a result of the black belt in Tae Kwon Do he received in Korea, perhaps coupled with the street-sense he acquired while wandering the country and fighting off petty criminals.
After graduation, my father’s first physical therapy job was making home visits in Anacostia, the poorest and most violent part of Washington, D.C (as it remains today). Other therapists refused to go there because of the crime. He kept a concealed iron bar with him (handguns were at the time illegal in the District), and wore his white lab coat with a stethoscope, no matter the heat. His “white flag of truce” seemed to work. Locals called him “therapy man” and left him alone.
It was also about this time that my father got religion. He had been raised Catholic, and even served as an altar boy, but came to spurn the Church. It was another authority, he surmised, of dubious legitimacy. Growing up in the Bible Belt and serving in the Army he had however known some admirable evangelicals, and was ultimately persuaded to say the sinner’s prayer and ask Jesus into his heart as his “Lord and Savior.” When I was born, I was baptized Catholic as an appeasement to my grandparents. My parents stayed until I received First Communion, and then headed for the doors, eventually finding a home in the thriving evangelicalism of the 1990s.
I presume it was my dad’s deepening evangelical faith — including its emphasis on “Honor thy father and mother” — that led him to try and make amends with his own father. Not that my grandfather expressed much interest in the overtures for reconciliation. Nevertheless, throughout my childhood my father cared for his parents, especially as dementia-like symptoms began to surface. He dutifully visited them many weekends, even as his own health deteriorated after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012. He died on 29 April, 2013, at the age of 63. My grandfather, though he could still drive, didn’t attend, because my father didn’t have a Catholic funeral. He didn’t know until later that I, by that time a reverted Catholic, had ensured that my father got Last Rites from a priest who had been one of his patients.
I’ve thought about my father quite a bit since the death of George Floyd in 25 May and the ensuing race-related protests and riots. He was someone who had once exhibited the same kind of anti-authority impulses common among young activists. He was someone who had both witnessed racism first-hand and passionately sought to combat it, including by putting his life in danger. And he was someone who in his latter years revised much of his thinking, even as it pertained to how to treat a father who abused him, indeed, never truly loved him.
For my father, three principles animated his post-conversion life, and, I suspect, would inform how he would interpret the distemper of 2020. The first was his faith, understood not just in reference to God and religious belief, but the recognition of objective, eternal principles. As a hippy, he witnessed first-hand the consequences of the moral relativism of the sexual revolution. People need moral and rational objectivity and to develop virtue my dad concluded.
The second was family. Though his own upbringing had been marred by abuse and neglect, my father came to recognize that much of his own youthful rebellion stemmed from a lack of a loving, merciful father. Certainly that yearning finds its telos in God, but also, in a natural sense, in a family that exemplifies warmth and love. My father learned to humbly appreciate his indebtedness even to his own imperfect patrimony. He in turn sought to model, admittedly imperfectly, the fatherly qualities of God. He missed few, if any, of my baseball games.
The last principle was friendship, oriented not only towards one’s close associates, but the broader civic community, regardless of race, faith, or sex. Over the course of a career in Virginia spanning more than thirty years, my father cared for thousands of patients. He was also the kind of man who would drop everything if he knew someone was in need, no matter the hour or the inconvenience. He was just in the Aristotelian/Thomistic sense, giving everyone their fair due, and patient and forgiving to a fault. His longsuffering had its effect — at his funeral, a diverse crowd in the several hundreds, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and atheists; whites, blacks, latinos, and Asians, came to pay their respects to Dan, the therapy man.
Perhaps you could say that my father came to terms with authority, even manifested in the very forms that beat, bruised, and abused him. For a time, he sought to throw off what he viewed as an oppressive, hypocritical authority that forcibly sent him to serve in a war that elicited only sneers and jeers when he returned home. Though he was always reluctant to discuss it, he was proud of his military service, because he believed the American flag and his uniform represented something good that was greater than himself. He even spoke proudly of his father, who served as a pilot in World War II. My dad is buried now at Arlington National Cemetery.
I remember my father telling me that the radical, anti-authority autonomy peddled in the modern age was a chimera. The communist North Vietnamese government that anti-war protestors adoringly panegyrized was, in truth, a brutal, oppressive regime that murdered dissidents. The libertinism of the sexual revolution was a dead-end that left a lot of aborted babies, broken marriages, and shell shocked children in its disastrous wake. Many who wax eloquently about liberty have no problem using the levers of social or political power to demonize, marginalize, and eradicate their enemies. Successful protest movements — even well-intentioned ones — will beget new forms of power that are then exercised over both the willing and unwilling.
According to my father, this meant the best thing to do was to find the authority that seemed most legitimate and most benevolent, and submit to that. A God who descends to a shattered world, lives among its broken inhabitants, and willingly dies on the cross for them seemed a far better option than 1960s Leftist activists selling utopias and aspiring to be apparatchiks. The former forgave the very people who brutalized and murdered him. What about the latter? Look at how an ideological movement treats its enemies, and you know everything you need to know.
I once asked my father why I had never seen him cry, even when intimate loved ones perished. He told me that he had seen too much death in his day. That changed when he got cancer. One of my last memories of him is in his bedroom, receiving hospice care, barely able to move, and surrounded by members from my former Presbyterian Church, several of whom had been his patients. He cried out in a pain that seemed to originate both in body and soul. “Oh, if I had more time, I would try to love more people,” he moaned. One of the Presbyterian elders, a former patient, grasped his hand and stared him in the eyes. “We know Dan, we know.”
If my father were alive today, he would have mourned the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and any other black American, for that matter, who needlessly dies at the hands of the police. I presume he knew a lot of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s in his day. My mother recently wrote to me: “Your dad had a particular affinity for African-Americans. He loved the blues and felt that he could relate to what the lyrics expressed. He felt a special kinship with black people, and he was a very fair man. He always wanted all people to be treated fairly.”
Would my father support the Black Lives Matter protests, labeling them the legitimate fruits of the Civil Rights Movement? I don’t know. I know he would express suspicion at any ideology that seems anti-God and anti-family. I think he would ask the activists whose ideologies now define our politics, our public school curricula, and the tenor of our public discourse, how they treat their enemies.
Taking his cue from his “Lord and Savior,” my father learned to forgive anyone, including errant authorities. Christ, he believed, was an authority worth living and dying for, and that meant following in his footsteps of mercy. When I ponder my father, I return to the question I posed at his funeral service, one I think he would have asked. Who’s your authority?