“Your mother is upset that you’re spending so much time with that Catholic girl. It’s good to have friends, but you shouldn’t get serious with her. She’s Catholic you know, and you can’t change them.”
Those were the words my father said to me that day, though I remember none of the circumstances that led up to our brief discussion.
Maybe he said something more, maybe he pushed me a little too hard, maybe I was feeling my independence at seventeen years of age, maybe one of those reasons, or all of them together, caused me to bow up.
“By God, I’ll be friends with anybody I choose,” I said, or words to that effect. The only words I specifically recall uttering were “By God….”
We were standing outside the back door in the sparse grass and gravel, very close and face-to-face. We were the same height, he and I, and we were eye to eye. My father’s eyes were large and round and a vivid blue, level and steady and unblinking in that instant, flashing with rage and certitude, even as he tensed all over, his muscles and ligaments and bone suddenly contracting as a preface to some violent release I could feel coming before it happened.
The thing that fascinated me in that moment so long ago was the red lightning bolts within those deep blue eyes that leaped from nowhere as I uttered those words. I say fascinated, but I think I mean terrified. The instant I said what I said in all my independence, I knew I had overstepped my bounds. Lightning snapped in his eyes, his body tensed, and I flinched. My father was a man of action.
I was so focused on and paralyzed by his eyes in that moment that I never until the last instant saw it coming, the right cross that hammered the left side of my face. Then his eyes, his face, everything disappeared.
I came to myself a few seconds later, or many seconds later for all I know, on my knees in the gravel where I had sunk. He was standing before me, and all I could see were his legs as he shifted from foot to foot like a boxer, itching to hit me again. Yet I could somehow feel that he was fighting that larger battle within himself to hold back.
I struggled to my feet and stood there before him, my arms at my side, now declining to look into his eyes. This was no time to consider any further challenge to my father.
At last, he recovered control of himself and said, “Boy, don’t ever sass me again.”
I heard myself say, “Yes sir.”
And that was the end of that conversation, but it was decidedly not the end of my relation with the good Italian Catholic girl, though it did mark the fact that my parents would not willingly approve my romantic relation with the girl from the Roman Catholic Church.
My parents, like so many Protestants from the fundamental wing of Protestantism in which I grew up, thought the Roman Catholic Church was not only some cult and not really Christian, but was also anti-American, and that Catholics would be loyal to the Vatican over our own country. That strange attitude toward the Roman Catholic Church was virulent in our country from the early Twentieth Century when so many Catholics immigrated to our country from Southern and Eastern Europe, until John Kennedy, our first Catholic president, was assassinated on November 22, 1963. After that, it seems to have gradually faded until it is now a non-issue politically, though it may continue to be a personal issue for some Protestants who fear a mixed marriage with a Catholic for their son or daughter.
This event with my father occurred in late 1956, when prejudice against Catholics was still high. Only a short time later, John Kennedy campaigned for the presidency against a wave of anti-Catholic invective, which continued during his presidency.
Now, more than a half-century has passed. I think back to my days as a teenage boy when a single pretty Italian Catholic girl changed forever my view of Catholics and the Catholic religion. I am reminded of an event a few years later in November 1963 when I read a letter to the editor of The Birmingham News from Abe Berkowitz, a brave Jewish lawyer in Birmingham who eloquently defended President Kennedy against the published invective of that time. For several years, the President had suffered vast abuse from letter writers whose published letters saw in his presidency the “end times,” often suggesting the our country was “going to hell in a handbasket,” and predicting that ultimately the Pope would rule our country.
Mr. Berkowitz’s letter was published on November 14, 1963, and I took great comfort in that letter, although for only a few days, for on November 22, 1963, only eight days later, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Mr. Berkowitz’s letter so inspired me that eighteen months later, in the spring of 1965, as a first year law student, I sat in Mr. Berkowitz’s law office in an interview for a job as a summer law clerk, a job I did not get, although ultimately two years later he hired me as a lawyer and became my mentor, and my life was changed forever.
I wrote about that interview in my memoir, The Newspaper Boy, but I failed in my memoir to write about this incident with my father. It is a painful memory and one that I wish I had written about in my book. I think that I simply chose not to place my father in a poor light. Loyalty. It is a particularly strong bond between father and son regardless of the natural strains such a relation bears, for, after all, a young man must establish his own independence. Though I’m sure I received some spankings as a young boy, that singular event was the only time my father ever struck me.
We never spoke of that event again, my father and I. I never apologized for sassing my Dad and he never apologized for striking me with his fist. I wonder sometimes if that event played itself out before his eyes over the years as it played itself out before mine, and I wonder if an apology dropped between us somewhere down the line might have shaded the sharpness of the image. While it was I who received the blow, my dad was a man of conscience and I wonder if his memory of the event did not cause him more pain and regret than did mine.
Isn’t it strange – and wonderful – that our lives can change and seek new directions because of an encounter with someone who at first seems so different from us. In my own case, I was a kid whose parents came to Birmingham from Northwest Alabama bringing little more with them than their xenophobia, and I, their son, carried seeds of those same fears of people different than us. And then an Italian Catholic girl opened a gate for me to a world of ethnicity, proving to me that those who may seem so different are not in fact that different at all−and to the extent they are different, those differences are interesting and charming and matters to be respected and honored. That view into an ethnic world of my Catholic friend proved to me that the anti-Catholic propaganda of the day was not only misplaced, it was ignorant and evil. And that experience with her opened for me a larger world and thus the opportunity and the way a few years later to seek a job with a Jewish lawyer whom I did not know but who, through that letter he bravely published, had become a hero to me.
Chervis Isom, 2016