Taking a body blow at Chatham

Stephen Harris

The radio broadcast is hard to pick up here, but once a year I do what I can to tune in to WBT in Charlotte. Each March a long-time talk-show host there, John Hancock (yes, that’s his real name), presents his annual Father’s Day program.

Hancock observes Father’s Day on or near the anniversary of the passing of his father, who in mid-life became an Episcopalian minister.

The Charlotte radio celebrity dedicates his Father’s Day show to his and others’ memories of their fathers. And listeners flood the phone lines wanting to tell their often-riveting, sometimes tearful stories.

They describe their fathers’ love, heroism, guidance, nurturing. Callers oftentimes tell how they lost their fathers and try to describe how much they miss them.

Hancock says hands-down it’s his best show of the year. I agree.

Yes, I have tried calling but have never gotten through. That’s because I want to tell Hancock about my father.

It’s odd the things that you learn about your parents after they’re gone. It’s been 25 years now since Dad passed and I’m still learning things, understanding more about my folks, about our family. Sometimes what I learn floors me.

Some years after Dad had died I paid a visit to an uncle, one of my mother’s brothers. After my parents died I liked to pump their siblings for stories with an eye towards writing a family history someday.

A few years before he passed my uncle told something that knocked me for a loop.

You see, in the 1960s they had a labor strike at the old Chatham mill here in the hometown. Dad was a union man, and I remember as a little boy him taking me down one day to the picket line, which formed along East Main Street opposite the plant’s main gate.

Dad and other strikers would yell at co-workers driving into the plant and reporting for work, not striking.

During the strike the union tried to help strikers who were missing paychecks by giving a bag or two of groceries. Dad brought a couple home.

Mom looked through the groceries that included unfamiliar products, off-brands. I remember a box that only said “corn flakes.” Mom looked disappointed.

My uncle wasn’t a union man. I don’t know why he told me the story so many decades after the fact. Perhaps he wanted to get something off his chest. Or perhaps he was seeking some form of redemption.

Or maybe he was just being generous. Uncle always seemed to delight in my questions about the olden days and even rode with me one time over to Doughton to show me the site of his grandfather’s farm.

Anyway, uncle told me this story. And it put a charge into my understanding of my father.

The strike petered out and all of the mill hands went back to work. Dad worked in the spinning department and wanted a promotion to fixer, someone who maintained and repaired spinning frames.

A fixer’s job came open some months after the strike. Uncle said a bossman came to him and said they weren’t going to give the job to Dad even though he was in line for it. Instead, they wanted my uncle to have it. Out of spite.

“They said if I didn’t take it they would just give it somebody else,” uncle said. He took the job.

“They knew I was his brother-in-law,” uncle added

I had no idea.

Dad never mentioned it. He never mentioned the slight, never mentioned the spiteful insult. He offered no recriminations against my uncle or anyone else. Though I do remember Dad stopped going with Mom and me for Sunday visits to see her people in Austin.

He took the body blow and moved on. He continued on into work, day in and out. I can only imagine how tough that was. I’ve had seasons of life like that.

Dad got his fixer’s job eventually, got his dream job. And that was the job I saw him working when years later I got to stop by and visit him in the spinning room when I worked in the mill during summer breaks from school. Dad seemed happy as a lark.

But during that low point in Dad’s life he carried himself with dignity, with head unbowed. He never complained, he never showed anger, never expressed discontent.

Instead he showed a strength of character that I covet. And with his memory in my heart and his genes in my bones, I just might be able to try and copy it. I just might.

Maybe I can get through to the Hancock show next March.

Happy Father’s Day.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

comments powered by Disqus