Sunday, June 15, 2008
I have no choice but to imagine what life would have been like for a black boy born in Mississippi in 1923. Born with a name intended to be a description, but which would become an obstacle to be overcome: Purtie Lee Drake was born February 23rd, 1923—the youngest child of Solomon Drake and Beulah Grimm. This boy would have weathered the teeth of the Depression—an event that began when he was six years old. The 1930 census only lists his mother and his two siblings—a brother and a sister—as an Arkansas household then. His mother was fortunate enough to be a restaurant cook. And at the very moment I write this, I realize the source of one of his strongest character traits: food as an expression of love. He lived in a time where food and clothing and everything else were hard to get. He loved food and he loved restaurants. My father ate everything. He gloried in food. And one of his bitterest disappointments was his oldest son’s finicky appetite.
He refused to believe that I was allergic to shellfish. It took my mother’s intercession and a doctor’s opinion to get him to believe it. But he abided the evidence once he was convinced.
I write about my father with some difficulty. It is only now that I have lived to be older than he was when he died that I’m beginning to get a handle on him.
Let me start over…
I love my father.
My father’s most prominent trait was his sense of humor. My father and a boyhood friend named Bobby Woodard are the two funniest people I’ve ever known. Richard Pryor is the funniest person I’ve ever heard. The three of them had this in common: they saw clearly and spoke clearly. The truth didn’t scare them. Unexpected truth is the wellspring of laughter. My dad would tell the truth and his friends would laugh. Our house was filled with laughter at times. His Army buddies would come and reminisce. They’d play cards and dominoes and drink and forget their troubles for a while. My father would harangue them about the state of their cars or how badly they practiced the Sacred Art of the Bones. He'd recall embarrassing stories about them. And they would laugh about stories that were told about him. My father was the funniest person I ever met. But he was also a fathomless repository of pain and rage.
Let me start over…
I didn’t just respect my father; I feared him. The pressures of raising two black sons to manhood is something I couldn’t understand until I became a father myself. Don’t doubt for a second the truth of the old saying that the sins of the father are visited on the sons. I had rage visited on me. My anger at him was something I could only fathom after my mother had died and I had wandered in the valley of the shadow for a while. Sallie’s death brought me face-to-face with Purtie and his death and with the appointment that I have coming some day. I began that encounter in rage—just as I had left it. Just as we had left it. Except…
Let me start over…
I visited my father in the hospital on October 12th, 1975. We talked for a while. Can’t remember for the life of me what we talked about. I had seen him in a hospital bed before. He’d gone to work on a construction site and walked off the edge of a three-story apartment building. The doctors at Stanford put him back together and nursed him back to health and sent him home to us. My father had a disease that I—an aspiring doctor—knew nothing about. I thought leukemia was something that cats got and got over. I fully expected him to pull through and come back to us despite all the doctor visits and the medicines and the hospitals stays and the pain and the rage. I wish to God I could remember what we talked about that day. What I remember about leaving him that day was that he had the sweetest smile on his face as he waved goodbye to me
“See you tomorrow!”
It’s my last memory of him alive.
He died the next day and I didn’t expect him to die and I didn’t want to believe that he was dead and I didn’t want him to be dead but dead he was. And the funeral came. As the oldest son, I was dutifully somber. They carried him in in his coffin and words were said and praises given and the chapel full of friends and family began to file by to pay their last respects. Something strange, though. I noticed my mother sitting next to me convulsed with laughter. In the limousine on the way to the internment, everybody was in on the joke but me.
“You didn’t see it?!”
“The elastic on Mrs. W’s panties gave out just as she got to the coffin! She was crying like nobody’s business, but she just pulled them up and kept on going!”
You can’t convince anyone who was there that my father’s spirit wasn’t responsible for that.
We buried Purtie Lee Drake in a plot overlooking the Pacific Ocean in one of the veteran’s sections of the cemetery. His Sallie C. joined him near there almost fifteen years later. They met at Hamilton Field Army Air Force Base around 1949. I have a friend from Kentucky who’s older than me—old enough to know post-World War II military conditions in the Air Corps. I told him my father was stationed at Hamilton.
“Hamilton Field?! How the hell did your dad pull a duty like that?!” he drawled.
“By hook or by crook,” I said.
Knowing my dad, it was probably both. Purtie Lee Drake admired “hustle” above all else. That meant taking advantage. That meant getting there early. That meant winning. My father was an excellent coach. He taught my brother and me to play baseball. He taught us everything we needed to know. But he couldn’t make us love the Dodgers. We were San Francisco boys and the Giants could do no wrong. I realize now that he was an excellent athlete—a swimmer, a baseball player, and an excellent tactician. But he couldn’t aspire to the major leagues. He couldn’t even aspire to bus driver when we were born.
My father was a very intelligent man, even though he barely cleared elementary school. I’ve always thought that that deprivation might have been a blessing in his case. He liked lawyers. He liked slick, conniving, hustling lawyers. My dad would either have become a judge or an inmate if he’d been allowed to go to law school.
I realize now that I’ve been rambling. It’s Father’s Day and I wish my father could be here now. I wish my mother could be here with him. One day, after she had died, I was brought by the kindness of a counselor to the realization that I contained a repository of rage against my father. That smart, funny, sweet man. That occasional monster. That man who clothed and fed and taught and loved us. That man who cried inconsolably as they poured him off the plane from burying his sister. That man who couldn't save a brother executed by the state of Mississippi for a crime that would get him a well-deserved life sentence now. That man who fought through sickness. The man to whose grave I drove as fast as I could when I had a few choice words for the things he did that I didn't understand. I was going to tell him off. I was going to set things straight. And all I could do when I got there was tell him that I knew he was doing his best. That he did what he thought was right. I began to understand him better then.
We started over...
Barack Obama’s candidacy would be so fulfilling to my parents. The forces arrayed against Obama are attacking him on his status as a family man. They’re relying on the stereotype of black men as indifferent fathers. They’re relying on a lie. My father lived for my brother and me as his sons. He lived for our mother as his wife. He did so until he could do it no longer. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that any color, race, or creed has the corner on fidelity. Don’t ever let anyone convince you that love and tenderness and caring and nurturing are the province of some self-identified group.
I’m living proof that that’s wrong. Here’s to Purtie Lee Drake! Aloha, Papa!