Saturday, November 1, 2008

My Father's Birthday

Today would have been my father's seventy-seventh birthday.

I'm proud to share the name of the smartest man I ever knew; a songwriter who could never get his work recorded, a natural-born teacher who helped inspire my love of history, a parent who no matter how overworked was never too busy not to read us a bedtime story. Some people have trouble imagining their parents or grandparents as young; for me it's hard to imagine what he'd be like in his seventies, now that he's been dead for forty years after only living to the age of thirty-seven.* I do know he'd be deeply interested in the current election: I remember trying to make sense of the tv coverage of the 1968 Chicago convention he was watching, and that he was disappointed by Nixon's defeat of Humphrey just weeks before his first heart attack; my first date-able memory is his deep distress while watching the news (Huntley-Brinkley?) about JFK's assassination.** A war veteran himself (a radio operator in Korea) who hated war and whose best friend in the army was black, he'd be fascinated and proud we'd come so far as to nominate an African-American as one of the two candidates for president. His field was American History, and he was years ahead of the Dee Brown revolution in his admiration for Chief Joseph, and Geronimo, and the other American Indians leaders of the late nineteenth century. His favorite president was Jefferson; having recently come to consider Adams the better man of the two, I wish there were some way to have a conversation with him about the two men's respective merits. His death left a hole in our family that nothing ever filled, but I'm grateful to have been old enough to remember him.

From all of us who still remember you, rest in peace Papaw.

--John D. Rateliff, Jr.

*especially since none of his brothers lived past their sixties, no doubt in part due to heredity (Uncle J.W. had a stroke at 56, Uncle Aubrey an aneurism at 62; Uncle Trig and Uncle Curtis both died in their late sixties), and in part to smoking -- my father smoked three and a half packs of Pall Malls a day, or about ninety cigarettes.

**I was actually taken to see Kennedy when he came to Texarkana in the 1960 campaign, but of course I was too young to remember anything about it. I do remember seeing Johnson speak there when he was running for re-election in 1964 -- the only time I've seen a President while he was in office (I've shaken hands with Clinton, but that was while he was governor, and with Carter, but that was while he was on a book tour as ex-president).

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