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My first memory of my father is seeing him in a white dress military uniform, standing at the pulpit in his church, parishioners fanned out before him and looking up in adoration, as he spoke of sin, Jesus, and love. I was four, perhaps five years old.
War frames my earliest memories, and war was a major force that lifted my extended family from the poverty and ignorance of the Deep South in the years surrounding the Great Depression. By the time I began school all the men in my extended family had “gone to war.” I would follow them. Service in the military was the single event we all shared that determined the future course of our lives.
My mother’s father was an itinerant farmer in Tennessee, and although he never served, during World War I he left the farm to work at a munitions plant in Spring Hill, just south of Nashville. There he learned a trade, becoming a brick mason, and earned a steady wage for the first time in his life. Soon after the war ended, so did his job. In 1923, during the Florida building boom, he hitchhiked to West Palm Beach to look for work. A year later, he sent for his wife and four children: the identical twins, Jack and Earl, age ten; Claude, age six; and my mother, Lucile, who was still an infant.
They took the train to Florida and arrived with no possessions except the clothes they wore and moved in with my grandfather in one room of a boardinghouse. The three boys slept in the attic, and my mother slept with her parents. My mother’s strong-willed mother, my grandmother Mama Blair, worked as laundress, secretary, bookkeeper, or housekeeper, raised four children, and saw that they went to church. Staying just ahead of bill collectors, the family moved a dozen times over the next five or six years. The day after they fled one apartment to avoid overdue rent payments, the building was destroyed by the 1928 hurricane. My mother’s father did not often have steady work. When he did, he usually left most of his paycheck in a bar.
The twins never enrolled in school in Florida. Instead, they worked various odd jobs to help the family. Handsome, charismatic, and athletic, they became motorcycle policemen in the winter and in the summer played semipro baseball. In 1942, when the twins were in their late twenties, both boys and their younger brother, Claude, were drafted. Soon afterward my grandfather got drunk and left home for good.
Claude was the good boy. He joined the Boy Scouts, helped rescue victims of the 1928 hurricane, got involved in the church, and stayed in school. He graduated from high school as president of the student body and valedictorian and lettered in four sports despite working twenty hours a week with AT&T, first as a lineman and then in an office job. Even though he had no military experience, AT&T arranged for him to be an officer in the Army Signal Corps. He thrived in the military, eventually becoming an intelligence officer. In between military stints he returned to AT&T and simultaneously earned a law degree. Recalled to the service during the Korean War, he left active duty in 1953 as a major and rejoined AT&T. In rapid sequence he became vice president in charge of the Telstar Satellite Program, then president of Ohio Bell, president of Pacific Northwest Bell, and finally president and chairman of the National City Bank Corporation. He died at age ninety-seven. The headline of his obituary in the Palm Beach Daily News referred to him as “bank chairman and veteran.”
The twins, Jack and Earl, received formal training as military policemen and, although both had stateside assignments, were separated for the first time in their lives. After the war, they returned to the Palm Beach police force and reunited, their reputations enhanced and burnished by their service for their country. They always worked together and provided security for the growing number of extremely wealthy and powerful residents with winter homes in Palm Beach, families like the Woolworths, Rockefellers, Astors, and Kennedys. The Blair twins were very close to the Kennedys, especially Joe Sr. and, before he was killed in World War II, Joe Jr. On more than one occasion they acted as “watch-out” or helped provide cover for a Kennedy when he cavorted with a married woman.
To show real class, one could display the twins as “security” for very small dinner parties, and the rich and famous often planned social events around the availability of the Blair brothers. Standing next to their shiny giant motorcycles on either side of a mansion’s front entrance, they were treated more like guests than workers. Increasingly, however, they acted as private detectives and personal secret agents, cultivating contacts to arrange anything legal or illegal for a growing list of clients.
Eventually they bought a large hotel and started a rental car business as a legitimate front for one of Palm Beach’s largest gambling and prostitution rings. For decades the twins were powerful enough to keep major rental car companies and organized crime out of Palm Beach. A small band of men without last names was always around when needed, and Mama Blair was hired as a bookkeeper for a gas station they operated on the rental car lot. Executives from all over the United States and Europe could place discreet phone calls to one of the twins and by the time they arrived at the West Palm Beach airport whatever they wanted would be waiting: a car, a driver, women, hotel rooms, drugs, other entertainment, and gambling options. When clients were returned to the airport, their bill would be scrubbed to simulate a business trip, or there would be no paperwork at all showing that the client had ever been in Palm Beach.
My father, James Parrish, grew up in the poverty, ignorance, and bigotry of the Deep South in Sylvester, Georgia. His mother bled to death when she delivered her third child. As was the custom in his clan, his father, also named James, an alcoholic who occasionally worked as a fireman, actor, salesman, or barber, married the sister of his deceased wife. As the oldest (age five) child, my father assumed responsibility for the care and feeding of his family and tried to protect his two younger siblings from their genuinely evil stepmother. Doing odd jobs and stealing, my father provided the only steady source of food. He worshipped his father, who was most generous, attentive, and loving when he was sober and working and was dramatic, entertaining, and demonstrably affectionate when he was drinking. His frequent binges lasted days or weeks.
Crawling under porches and going through trash to find cigarette butts, my father began smoking at age six. He also joined his father, and further bonded with him, in binge drinking by the time he was ten years old. Because Prohibition started when my father was six years old, the liquor he made or stole was not only illegal but sometimes downright poisonous. During binges he would sometimes be deathly ill.
He went to school just enough to keep the truant officers at bay but forced his siblings to attend regularly and do their schoolwork. He swept streets or cleaned buildings before school, stocked groceries after school, and worked in a drugstore in the evenings. Although he was tough and easily provoked, his strong work ethic endeared him to his growing list of employers.
His father died when he was thirteen, and he became the official head of the household.
After school one day, to defend his brother from harassment, my father took on the school bully, who was two or three years his senior and considerably bigger. He beat him so severely that classmates pulled him away. For money or any reason, he could fight anyone anytime and most often won by sheer will. At 130 pounds, five feet nine inches, he was the starting offensive center and defensive nose guard on the high school football team. His teammates called him “pissant.” After his siblings’ needs were met, my father spent his time drinking, smoking, moving with a tough gang, and chasing girls. Secretly he was sleeping with at least one older married woman.
The summer after he finally graduated from high school, he had his first serious depression and suicidal thoughts. He was awarded a football scholarship to a small college but was too drunk to matriculate.
To get closer to one particular girl, he attended a Southern Baptist church and was soon “adopted” by a deacon who took particular interest and, by overpaying him for odd jobs, provided enough money for my father’s siblings and stepmother. My father had long talks with this man, began to attend church regularly, and became close to the fire-and-brimstone preacher. After a powerful conversion experience, my father was “saved from sin” by the grace of Jesus Christ and committed his life to God’s will. He stopped drinking completely, stopped volunteering for fistfights, and left his gang to be in the church community. His church mentors and hard work made it possible for my father to become the first of his generation to go to college, attending Stetson University, a Baptist school in DeLand, Florida. He was elected president of the student body, not because of his athletic prowess or classroom performance but because he was an effective orator, giving speeches at school events, civic organizations, churches, and anywhere else he was invited. He met and fell in love with my mother, a gentle, quiet, attractive classmate who had a part-time job playing saxophone in a local dance band. She gave up her music because my father associated it with sin—dancing and alcohol.
They married, and after graduation he earned a doctor of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, studying and practicing oratory by preaching at local churches. My older brother, James, was born while my father was in college; I was born during his years in the seminary; and my sister, Mary Blair, was born while he was the minister of a small church in Florida. He claimed to be in ecstasy when he was preaching. He was loved by his flock, who provided housing, a small salary, and a black maid to do housework and child care. The local car dealer gave him a car, and all the storekeepers gave him special deals on groceries, clothing, appliances, haircuts, and baseball tickets.
An American dream was launched. Every two or three years my father was “called” by bigger churches and Jesus to move us to different cities in the Deep South. He began to travel all over the South to conduct revivals—a week of daily evening services designed for the already saved to celebrate with singing, testimonials, and a powerful, emotional fire-and-brimstone sermon designed to bring new converts into the church. My father was apparently very good at creating the emotion and energy required to bring people to accept Jesus as their personal savior. When Jesus concurred, in 1940 my father accepted the invitation to become pastor at a small church in Plant City, Florida.
He proudly never helped with household chores or family care—we were there to care for him and serve as decoration, brought out for “show and tell” before my father’s friends and acquaintances from church, but otherwise left alone. If I happened to be around, to demonstrate what a great parent he was he would pull me close to him and pinch my cheek and say, “This is my little Bubba, this is my little John Albert.” Prefaced by “Gimme some sugar,” my father was always kissing the preschool children of his congregation, signs of affection that were withheld from the rest of us.
Except for my older brother, James W. Parrish Jr., the firstborn child, called “Little Jimmie.” Even when it seemed inappropriate, my father took Little Jimmie with him to civic meetings and adult gatherings, publicly smothered him with kisses, and wore him as a badge of family and fatherly love.
In 1942, when I was three years old, with great drama and patriotic virtue, my father announced to his congregation that when a certain number of church members joined the war effort, he, too, would go. He did. My mother was stunned. My father had never discussed this with her, but in our household, all decisions were his alone to make.
After attending chaplain school at William and Mary in Virginia, my father became a navy officer on active duty from early 1942 until V-J Day in 1945. As chaplain, he served aboard the USS Hampton troop transport ship, was temporarily assigned to the Seabees in Iwo Jima, and was stationed at bases in Hawaii and the Great Lakes Naval Base. He was once assigned as the chaplain to a black military unit stationed at Norfolk, Virginia, and founded a black Southern Baptist church in the community. His love of preaching was stronger than his strong racism.
Jimmie and Lucile Parrish, 1943.
While my father was caring for “our boys overseas,” his home billet frequently changed. Although my father was never with us, my mother faithfully moved us by car to five different military bases in five different states. California, New England, Michigan, and other places I cannot remember.
I loved being in the crowded car with my mother, my younger sister, my older brother, and all of our possessions. We had an old car, and my mother drove very slowly. If it was a long trip, we would sleep together in one room in a cheap motel. Usually, when the manager discovered my father was in the military he lowered the rate or gave us the night for free.
On these trips we had a tire malfunction almost every day—a gradual flat, a large blister, or a blowout. My mother would pull over, stand passively next to the car, and wait for someone to stop. She was stately, almost regal—tall and thin, very beautiful, with dark hair that was always perfectly in place. Inevitably some nice man would stop and change the tire, and then we would find a gas station and wait again while the torn tire was resealed or replaced.
One day while she was driving, a cow walking alongside the highway suddenly decided to cross the road. We struck the cow broadside, and I was thrown against the back of the front seat and cut my lip. I liked the salty taste of my blood.
Although I always thought of my mother as fragile, on this occasion she took total charge. She told us to stay in the car while she talked to people who had stopped in the road. Apart from my split lip no one was hurt, although the car was badly damaged. She finally let us out of the car to see what was going on. The cow made terrible groaning moos as it lay injured on the road, unable to stand. When a policeman arrived, my mother ushered us back into the car so we could not see what happened next.
The policeman stood next to the cow, took out his gun, and fired it. The blast hurt my ears, and I could feel a shudder in my chest. Sudden death dealt by the gun of a uniformed man branded me. I had never known such violence before, and it made a strong impression. Men in uniform had the authority to kill.
A farmer attached heavy chains to our car and towed us with his truck. My mother had to steer and brake to keep the car from rolling into the back of the truck, but she couldn’t quite get the timing right. The ride was very jerky; if the truck went too fast our heads would jerk back, and if my mother got too close to the truck she would put on the brakes and we would bolt forward. She started laughing, and I can still hear her laugh punctuated by our high-pitched squeals. I wanted the ride to last forever.
After several cross-country moves, my father returned briefly and moved us to Albany, Georgia to be near his brother and sister. Then he left my mother with three small children living through two winters in a tiny old house heated only by a single potbellied furnace. My dad’s brother was a soldier stationed nearby, and he came home most nights and weekends to be with his wife and two infant boys. My father’s sister had a small child, and her socially challenged husband repaired tires. He was the only male member of my family who did not join the military. My father never considered allowing my mother to live in West Palm Beach, Florida, where her mother and three brothers could provide support and comfortable living conditions.
In our one-room house my mother cooked on an electric hot plate and maintained a coal-burning fire in the stove. One day my little sister was severely burned when she sat on the hot plate thinking it was a potty. For days, she lay on her stomach with her butt uncovered. When my mother let me apply the ointment, it was the only time my sister didn’t cry. I had the job from that point on.
When the adults were together, my mother was very quiet as the others spoke nonstop about food, the past and all its people, or the weaknesses and sins of others. At these times, children were ignored, and we learned about the world by listening. Even the often repeated jokes contained lessons. I learned that blacks were stupid, dirty, and smelly and would eat anything and that the “white-only” water fountains and bathrooms were to keep us safe from social and biological contamination. By nature, women were inferior to men and boys, and their purpose was to raise children and serve men. Divorce was a major sin that ruined all members of a family forever. The men constantly made references to my aunt’s enormous breasts. The comments made them laugh and caused me to feel a forbidden pleasure when she hugged me.
We were taught that Jews had a highly unfounded sense of entitlement, a relentless work ethic, and a selfish and manipulative gift for making money at the expense of others—it was no wonder the Germans were killing most of them. Otherwise, Germans and the “Japs” were the embodiment of evil and found great pleasure in torturing and killing Americans. Catholics were to be distantly tolerated even though they were pagan worshippers of Jesus’s mother. Africans and Asians, if they did really exist, were pitiful, weird, ignorant people who were doomed to hell. Missionaries tried to save a few by telling them about Jesus, but it was a pretty hopeless task. Even though we were poor, our white, Christian privileged status was obvious to all, and only we had the comfort of being in God’s grace.
I learned that God knew everything and was all-powerful and that America was history’s most impressive combination of might and right. America sometimes had to go to war to protect innocents, free the oppressed, and defeat evil. In death and in life, American soldiers were heroic and honorable, even though they sometimes drank or cursed or touched girls in private places. Touching one’s own private parts was evil, and God knew when one did it—one was physically and mentally compromised for the remainder of the day after playing with genitals. Romantic love with only one predetermined special person could lead to fulfillment on this earth, and death, through temporary and dramatic grief, transitioned into an everlasting life of peace and joy in heaven.
Some truths were not taught directly but had to be figured out through observation and trial and error. For instance, parental approval and love was earned by being quiet, good, industrious, and reliable and rubbing adults’ feet whenever asked to do so. One way to manipulate others and to take a break from the boring routines and monotonous conversations was to act wounded by some phrase uttered by a family member. Dramatic pouting and poorly disguised anger could last for hours.
Except to my mother, belching and farting were always funny, the loudest ones getting the best and longest laugh and commentary. All the adults, except my mother, smoked, and prolonged laughing-coughing spells were frequent, with the best entertainment being farting caused by coughing. Even when it made them cringe inside, children and women were to appear to be sweetly tolerant of physical displays of affection from adult males. On the other hand, women should never willingly initiate public displays of affection. My mother never touched me except to rub my back at bedtime. Yet we had an unspoken deep bond that required little verbal or physical demonstration or reinforcement.
While still in the navy, my father was recruited by the First Baptist Church of Laurel, Mississippi. Offered a bigger salary and a free place for us to live in the “pastorium,” next to a stately new church, he left the church members of Plant City, Florida, who had patiently awaited his return, without hesitation. My father came home for a few weeks when we moved into what I thought was an enormous house. For five dollars a week and leftover food, a black woman prepared all meals, cleaned house, washed and ironed, and took care of my older brother, my younger sister, and me.
When Little Jimmie was seven or eight he began to lose his vision. For weeks he suffered from severe headaches, pain that would leave him alternately screaming and whimpering. My mother took him to a military hospital, where the eye doctor explained that there was swelling in the back of both eyes. I would learn later that he had a brain tumor and was losing his vision due to swelling of the brain and pressure on his optic nerves.
Over the next year or two, as my brother’s vision continued to deteriorate, I became his caretaker, darkening the lines in his coloring book with a black crayon and holding his hand when we ventured outside the house. When his vision was almost gone, I pulled him around the neighborhood in our red wagon. Within a few months, probably due to increases in growth hormone caused by the influence of the tumor on his pituitary gland, my brother grew to be bigger than most adults. He was taller and much heavier than my parents, and his head became disproportionately large. He could barely fit into the wagon, and pulling him became hard work.
Little Jimmie began to vomit every night. After sleeping for a while, he would suddenly sit up and spew vomit into his bed and mine and onto the wall and floor. Sometimes it seemed a long time before my mother would come to clean up. I usually pretended to be asleep so she would give Little Jimmie all of her attention. In order to fall asleep again I would focus on protecting three dolls: Boy, Dog, and my teddy bear Goody. They needed me very much. I always made sure I was touching all three of them when I went to sleep. I needed them to feel safe. I needed them to need me.
In late 1945, Little Jimmie’s head started to enlarge. Here he is with me and our sister, Mary Blair.
As Jimmie’s health deteriorated, my father suddenly returned from war to take him to a military hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. Wearing his military khakis, my father drove away with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on my brother, who lay in the backseat writhing in pain and having seizures.
The next day, three older couples, wealthy, loyal parishioners who were big donors to the church and thought my father was wonderful, arrived at our home. One couple drove my mother to the hospital in Jacksonville. Without explanation my sister and I were each taken by one of the other couples. I was taken to an enormous house with expansive, manicured lawns. The next morning the old woman informed me that my brother had gone to be with Jesus and was to be planted in the ground. She asked me if I wanted to pray or go out in the yard and play. I elected to go outside, and as I tried to sort through what was happening, I wrapped myself in a protective fog.
My mother and father did not contact me for days, and I did not go to school. The quiet old couple sat and read most of the time, so I was essentially alone. I did not know where my sister was. I spent my days wandering about in the biggest backyard I had ever seen. It had no boundaries and blended into a golf course. There were no balls, toys, swing set, sandbox, or children’s books. When I asked questions about my brother and sister and parents, I only got empty comforting answers and invitations to pray. I soon stopped asking. I overheard phone conversations about flowers and church services and “viewings.” The old woman repeatedly shared with callers that my nine-year-old brother was so large he required an adult casket. He was to be buried on his tenth birthday.
These events and concepts were difficult to comprehend and made me afraid and angry. How could I be out of my mother’s thoughts for such a long time? Why would all-powerful, loving Jesus, who owned the whole world, want my brother? Why would my brother choose to be with Jesus? Why put my brother under the ground? Why was I in a stranger’s house while all this was happening?
After what seemed an eternity, my father returned. Instead of his uniform he now wore a suit and tie, and he invited me and the older couple to kneel and pray. The prayer was about his sadness and unfailing faith and the love the couple had provided me. He told me I should be happy because I would see my brother again in heaven. Then he put me in the car and sobbed without speaking while we drove to pick up my sister at another house.
Suddenly, I was back in the room I had shared with Little Jimmie. I had never seen the room so clean, and it smelled like a disinfected bathroom. I could not find any of Little Jimmie’s clothes or belongings. When I returned to school the teachers and students seemed extra nice to me but kept their distance. At home, my father and sister often cried. I never saw my mother cry, so neither did I. I was a quiet, good boy, and I sought no attention.
At night, before going to bed, I would kneel and say my bedtime prayer, “If I should die before I wake, I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.” Then I would lie awake, paralyzed by fear. Maybe if I didn’t fall asleep I wouldn’t die. Boy, Dog, and Goody needed me.
Although I never saw Little Jimmie again, for the next few weeks daily trips to the grave with my father reinforced the notion that he was in the ground. My father stood or knelt by my brother’s grave. I stood next to him not knowing what to say or what to do when he started sobbing. We would then walk the main streets of Laurel, stopping in stores or places of business as my father greeted, told jokes, prayed, and chatted. He would often introduce me as “Bubba,” “Little Bubba,” or “John Albert” and then add that I was his “second son” or his “oldest living son.”
I would stand in silence. I felt pressure to perform, and my bashfulness upset him, but I had no talents, no clever quips or practiced phrases to deliver. He would then ask me to pray. In a panic, and with great difficulty, I would stumble through the few phrases I could remember from his public prayers. I grew to dislike the main street of Laurel, and I felt my father grew to dislike me. I felt I was being unfairly compared to my saintly older brother, whose virtues became more remarkable with the passage of time. I was constantly reminded in private and public that Little Jimmie lived and died.
A few weeks after Little Jimmie went into the ground, I was carried flailing and screaming into a local hospital for “elective” removal of my tonsils and adenoids. My older brother had gone into a hospital and ended up both in the ground and in heaven with Jesus. I fought and screamed from the car to the waiting room, and when my time came I fought and screamed some more. I was convinced that I was actually fighting for my life, protecting my body from a planned invasion, an intrusion to cut out a part of me. The nurses asked three soldiers who happened to be nearby to carry me into a room. They took me from my mother, lifted me by the arms and legs as I kicked and twisted, then pinned me down on a table while ether was dripped onto a cloth covering my nose and mouth.
When I awoke, the pain from having living tissues of my throat ripped out through my mouth and nose quickly gave way to bigger trauma. The tip of my penis had been cut, rolled back, and sewn into the shaft. It looked distorted and disfigured. I felt invaded, insulted, betrayed, and brutalized. My mother must have been in collusion with my father and the doctors. She had failed to protect me or at least to warn me. How could I ever trust my parents again, or trust anyone? Even doctors and soldiers threatened my life, made me unconscious, and cut off the end of my penis. I couldn’t even trust Little Jimmie—he had left me to be with Jesus.
Two days later on my first day back at home, in the room previously shared with my missing brother, I began to bleed profusely from deep within the back of my nose. I thought I was simultaneously bleeding to death and choking. Wearing his formal white military dress uniform, my father was at church stroking the meek and saving the wicked. My mother waited for what seemed like hours until a neighbor came to be with my younger sister, and then she took me to a doctor. After many failed attempts to pack my nose with gauze, a doctor shoved a giant instrument up my nose and cooked the back of my throat. I tried to be still but made the uncontrollable frenzied movements of a drowning boy.
Then my father went back to war, to be with “our boys overseas.” My mother told me there was a baby inside her.
Shortly after my little brother, Gil, was born, my mother began to bleed and was taken to the hospital. Her femaleness, the organs of her fertility and my origin, was removed, and she returned a pale, sickly, weak, exhausted woman who clearly needed my protection. I was determined to protect us both but did not know if I could. Jimmie was in the ground, my father was at war, and my penis was partially gone. I had only my little sister, and she stayed in her own world of dolls and dresses.
There was an enormous weeping willow tree with a trunk three or four feet across that stood in the center of our backyard. Its branches hung in a protective shroud over virtually the entire yard. Walking or playing beneath it in the shade and mottled sunlight, I felt safe and secure.
One day a crew of men showed up in a truck with chain saws and other equipment. I watched as they began to hack the tree to pieces. I ran to my mother, screaming and crying, pleading with her to make them stop, but she explained to me that my father had ordered it be done for safety reasons and I was never to openly challenge his reasoning or authority.
I watched from the back steps in tears as piece by piece the limbs were cut off, and then finally the trunk was cut down and removed. The backyard was flooded by sunlight. My little sister and I sat crying near the stump for hours. I could not protect anything I loved.
My father, doctors, soldiers, and Jesus had all the power.
Copyright © 2012 by John A. Parrish, M.D.