All of us have family stories that have been passed down through the generations. Many of these tales contain half-truths but they are packed full of life lessons. These stories tell us about another time, a time when being a white Southerner was worn as a badge of honor. A time when a man could be a man and could stand up for what was right. A gentleman could speak his mind without having to hide behind an anonymous sock account on Facebook to protect his family and livelihood. All of us long to live in a society like our grandparents.
I was never fortunate enough to know my grandpa Walter. As a child, my father would tell me numerous stories of that great man’s exploits. He was a Southern man through and through, with a selfless nature that cared more for the well being of others than his own individualistic pursuits. Raised on a farm in Western North Carolina, he played three sports in high school and was offered a scholarship to play football in college. Due to the age of his parents, he opted out of college, where he had always wanted to be a dentist. Instead, he stayed home and helped to keep the farm running.
When he was in his twenties a terrible flu spread through the small town. Several people died or were hospitalized as a result of the epidemic. One family in particular had a 2 year old son. Over the course of a week both parents tragically passed away, leaving the 2 year old boy all alone. No one in the town was willing to enter the home due to the contagious nature of this flu bug. Grandpa Walter, being young and healthy, volunteered and rescued the boy. The boy was eventually adopted and grew up to be a very successful lawyer.
Grandpa Walter was a hard worker who, after marrying my grandmother in his early twenties, took on odd jobs around town to make a living for his new family. In addition to farm work, he worked as a road worker, pumping gas, selling chewing tobacco, and running a hotel at night. These jobs may not have been as personally fulfilling as his childhood dream of being a dentist or athlete but he cared more about providing for his new family and being there for his aging parents.
Although the odd jobs he worked provided little excitement, there was one incident during his stint working a hotel front desk that is worth mentioning: He was working the night shift and around 11:00 PM a stranger entered the lobby. The man requested a room for the night and as Grandpa turned to get the room key he felt a heavy blow to the back of his head. The stranger had bashed him with a crowbar, intending to rob him. Grandpa knew he couldn’t fall over or he could potentially lose his life. He somehow maintained his composure, turned around, and called the man a son of a bitch. The stranger was clearly startled that Grandpa was still conscious and took off running. Grandpa Walter grabbed a pistol and took after him. Unfortunately, he got away but Grandpa had prevented a robbery and perhaps even saved his own life. That’s toughness.
Speaking of toughness, Grandpa Walter valued honor and decency above all. As a good Southern Christian, he always showed ladies the ultimate respect and he didn’t tolerate any disrespect or rude behavior from others. During WWII, Grandpa was working in Baltimore for the armaments industry. One day, he was out for a stroll with his teenage daughter. As they walked down the street a young black man made a vulgar remark to his beautiful daughter. Before she could even turn around, the Negro was flat on his back and standing over him was Grandpa Walter with a clinched fist. There is some dispute of what was actually said but from what I gather Grandpa told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever even looked at his daughter again, he would be hanging from the nearest oak tree. The Negro wisely got up and ran in the other direction.
When Grandpa was in his early 40’s, he ran into hard times. The farm had failed and there was no other work in the town he had been born and raised in. Having a wife, 3 children, and a widowed father at home, he had to find work. It was a difficult decision but he was forced to leave his beloved North Carolina. He borrowed 50 bucks and bought a bus ticket to Flint, Michigan. He got a job at General Motors catching hot steel off of an assembly line. All those years working on the farm served him well and he excelled in what was a very dangerous job. He was eventually able to retire to Florida in his late 60’s. Instead of retiring to play golf all day, he decided to keep working. He got a job as a golf caddy, carrying clubs and cleaning carts. The man didn’t believe in “retirement.” He worked until he had a heart attack, shortly after the passing of his beloved wife. His final years were spent sitting on the deck, whacking chameleons with his smoking pipe.
In his final days, he had my father take him on a pilgrimage back to his hometown in North Carolina. He visited his childhood home, the old farm, and the graves of his wife and his parents. He lived a full life, a life that may have not been successful by the measurements our modern society has set up but it was successful in the things that truly mattered. Although he never did anything monumental, he stood for the Southern values all of us are seeking to revive and defend. He left behind a treasure trove of stories, stories that I can look back on and learn from. These stories give us something to strive for.
I fear what our grandchildren will say about us. Will they have stories like this? Will they hear of bravery, courage, strength, selflessness, sacrifice, hard work, and honor? Or will they simply look back on us as the ones who played video games all day and watched internet porn? We were the fat, old loser who died sitting in a cubicle while we cashed in our 401K. We should not only honor our ancestors, we should seek out the best examples and strive to be what they were. We must build a society where men like my grandfather are the norm and leave our grandchildren with an example they can be proud of and aspire to.
~ T.J. Dabney