All-American Radical

I never thought of my father as Atticus Finch.

In fact, there was a time when I was so certain that he was a hyperconformist, party-pooping fuddy-duddy that I hardly spoke to him at all, or at least hardly listened to him.

But, like Mark Twain's father, mine managed to learn a lot in just a few years, so much so that he quickly made up for how far he fell behind while I was in college.

As I push on toward my mid-50s and he, closer to 90, I thought I'd try to take stock of a few things I've learned from my father, something everybody should do at some point.

These are in addition to the thousands of ways that he has modeled gentlemanly behavior and compassion in our small town (until the last year or so he spent every Wednesday morning driving meals around to, as he said, “the old folks” — shut-ins, most of whom were a decade or two younger than he was).

Instead, these things I want to mention are radical ideas that came from a guy in a gray flannel suit.

“America: Love It or Leave It.” “That's about the most un-American statement I can imagine,” my father told me once when we were driving behind somebody with this on his car bumper. “The whole point of being in America is that you don't have to go along if you don't want to.”

Prayer in schools. “That might be fine if you're a Baptist and everybody else is, too, but what if you live in Utah and you're not a Mormon?”

Confederate flag on the South Carolina statehouse. When he was in his 70s, still working as associate editor of a local paper in South Carolina, Daddy wrote a column saying that if honoring our state's history meant we were offending nearly half of our population, we needed to find another way to do it. Some people weren't happy. It's weird when your septuagenarian parent gets hate mail.

Driver's licenses. “It's probably not workable, but you ought to have 24 hours to produce a driver's license. The way it is — with policemen being able to ask any driver for identification on the spot — is too much like having the government keeping track of people.”

Flag-burning. “I don't like it one bit, but I guess it's a way that people show their disagreement with their government, and that's more important than how I feel about the way they do it.” This came from a man who, without fail, mounted the Stars and Stripes over the front porch every Fourth of July .

Publishing the crime log in the local newspaper. Once, a family friend got in trouble with the law. My mother badly wanted my father to try to keep the man's name out of the paper, which he probably could have done with a tap on a typesetter's shoulder. My father wouldn't go along. His rationale: If newspapers don't make a regular practice of publishing arrest records, then there's always the possibility that someday, the authorities will decide they can arrest somebody without cause and without any of the person's friends or family knowing what happened.

Looking back on this kind of thinking, I'm amazed that it all came from a fellow who never listened to Bob Dylan, never grew his hair more than about a half-inch long, and has never worn blue jeans.

Instead, he never misses a Sunday at church, never fails to hold a door open for a lady (or anybody else, for that matter), and is never impolite, even to telemarketers (“They've got to earn a living, too”). He was president of the YMCA in college, flew on a B-17 crew in World War II, served 25 years in the Air Force Reserve, was one of the few men to attend my elementary school's PTA meetings, always washed the pots and pans after supper, and drove a Buick. Still does.

My dad, the radical.