Land of our fathers

Where are the men and women unafraid to stand up for themselves?

America could use an Atticus Finch right about now.

America could use an Atticus Finch right about now.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

When I was born, my father was in the brig at the naval base on Treasure Island, some 2,000 miles from the hospital where my mother was undergoing the discomfort of issuing me into the world. Though not yet born, I was indirectly part of the reason my dad was behind bars. As a young seaman, about to ship out to the war in the Pacific, he had asked his immediate superior for a brief leave to return home so as to be present at the birth of his first child. The superior, a chief petty officer, replied: “Just ’cause you were there for the laying of the keel don’t mean you have to be there for the launching of the boat.”

My dad took exception to the remark and decked the guy. A big no-no. Striking a superior officer in wartime is severely frowned upon, so my dad was sent to the brig, where he cooled his heels for much of the summer of my birth.

Dad died three years ago, and I cannot say we were ever particularly close. He was a taciturn man with his family—though he could be quite garrulous when drinking with friends. Dad also shared that quality so many men of his generation seemed to have, that tight self-possession that made them emotionally inaccessible and closed off. It was a trait they shared, perhaps, because so many of them had been exposed to great dangers so early in their lives. Being shot at rather frequently in early adulthood is probably not the most direct pathway to trust and openness.

The story of my dad decking that chief petty officer is a story I tell with pride. There are a handful of stories about my father doing things like that, and I love every one of them. In the words of the vulgar phrase, Dad never had a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, but despite the fact that he was hard-pressed all of his life, a working stiff without clout or connections, he was never anyone’s boy. Though he was not a troublemaker, a complainer or a malcontent, he was constitutionally incapable of taking shit from anyone.

There’s a price to be paid for that, of course, and Dad always paid, as did those of us in his family. He paid the price in the brig on Treasure Island, but then so did my mother who bore me alone. And later, after the war, he paid the price in job losses or in the times he was passed over for promotions in favor of a more compliant and subservient choice.

Once, as a union shop steward in one of the miserable factories where he earned our daily bread, Dad led a hard fight for raises. After a bitter strike, the best concession that could be gained from the wealthy plant owner was a nickel-an-hour raise. Some weeks after the employees went back to work, my dad found himself on an elevator with the plant owner. Dad reached in his pocket, found a nickel and gave it to the well-dressed boss. “Guess you need this more than I do,” he said, as he stepped off the elevator.

I heard neither of these stories from my father, of course. Though he had a normal-sized ego, and though his social status had always kept him hungry for the respect usually denied to poor working people, Dad was never one to talk about himself much.

So, when I talk about him here, I hope the praise I offer reaches him somewhere in the cosmos, hope he hears the respect I mostly withheld from him when he was alive.

Men like my father seem to be a dying breed—men with courage and a spirit of independence they are willing to pay for. Such men are, in my mind, the essence of what it means to be American. All my boyhood heroes, fictional or historical, had such qualities: Davy Crockett, Hopalong Cassidy and Daniel Boone. My teenage heroes had those qualities, too: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. They were men who had no choice but to follow the dictates of their consciences, men who stood up against all the forces that would have them fall in line. In many respects, my dad was such a man, though I never saw those qualities in him until after he was gone.

Perhaps such men have always been rare, but in the world dominated by George W. Bush and a legion of entirely too powerful corporate CEOs, men of courage and independent spirit seem harder than ever to find. Ass kissers and yes men rule the day. Stand-up guys are few and far between.

But we’ve probably never needed them more than we need them now.

We need men and women willing to stand up to that band of increasingly noxious Christian fundamentalists who would impose their vision of things on the rest of the country, who brag about their clout and the threat they pose to other people’s freedoms. Led by weasels like Senator Bill Frist, these people would wipe out the delicate barrier so carefully constructed between church and state, a barrier the Founding Fathers constructed to protect them, a barrier that serves to keep government from imposing itself on religious beliefs and a barrier these fundamentalists weaken at their own peril.

We need men and women willing to just say no to the oil and drug companies and their obscene profits that have bought them an obscene hold on American politics.

We need men and women in the workplace who are willing to stand up to bosses and managers who have forgotten that the people who generate the profits are, in fact, people, not “units,” not replaceable cogs in the corporate machine.

We need people with the independence of spirit to forgo SUVs and other status vehicles that keep the nation gulping oil at greater and greater levels of consumption, and that keep George W. Bush walking hand in hand, literally, with Saudi princes who help fund terrorists.

We need people whose concern for their children transcends buying the next toy or video game and extends to a willingness to speak up against our government’s inaction on global warming, a threat to those children’s futures.

We need people who are not afraid of the brown-shirt bully boys like Tom DeLay and his ilk in every city and town in the nation, men whose only concern is for their own wealth and power, men who will approve every plan for suburban sprawl and urban blight so long as they are in on the profits.

We need people who will not tolerate bad schools, bad roads and self-serving politicians, people willing to get mad and get involved, people who prize the country enough to get off their asses and commit themselves to bettering things.

We need people like my dad, people willing to knock a man down when he crosses a line that should not be crossed. We need people willing to stand up to bosses who would cheat or exploit them. We need more people unwilling to quietly settle for whatever shit Wal-Mart or the other corporations choose to dole out to them. We need more people who simply will not eat it anymore, people who will not go gentle into the good night that awaits us all.

We need people who are willing to do more than festoon their vehicles with flags and yellow ribbons, Americans who will question the expenditure of nearly a trillion dollars and yet-to-be counted lives in exchange for higher oil profits for a few American companies doing business in Iraq.

We need working people who will turn off Toby Keith, Howard Stern, the NASCAR races and The Jerry Springer Show, and we need those people to spend just a bit of time informing themselves with something other than Rush Limbaugh and the other handmaidens of those who are exploiting them.

What we need is Americans.

Like my dad.