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A Judicial Memoir with a Point of View
By Charles A. Shaw
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2013 Charles A. Shaw
All rights reserved.
I am deeply grateful that my parents lived long enough to see me ascend to the federal bench. This was particularly true for Dad, because he had worked in the Federal Court and Custom House (the official name of the old federal courthouse building in St. Louis) as a U.S. Customs Inspector for many years and was familiar with the respect that the judges were accorded. My parents had long, love-filled and meaningful lives and had a huge influence on my life and those of my brothers.
Mother, Sarah Weddle Shaw, who passed away in 2004, was a wonderful mother. Abraham Lincoln said, "All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother." That statement applies to my feelings about my mother. Sarah Shaw molded, taught and fostered a sense of worth in all of her children. She made her boys into men. An old Jewish proverb says, "God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers." Mother raised us with her morals, taught us to love and respect our fellow human beings, and insisted that we take responsibility, have standards and pride, and be understanding and forgiving of others.
God was extremely important in Mother's life. Our family attended church regularly, she sang in the choir for many years, and she made sure that her sons were involved with the church. We sang in the youth choir, attended Sunday school at St. John A.M.E. Church on North Kingshighway Boulevard in the city, and were Boy Scouts. My older brother, Alvis, Jr., and I also took piano lessons from the pastor's wife, Mrs. Hayden, and were frequently in trouble for not practicing. Mother got so many calls from the church about it that she gave Booker, the youngest son, a pass on piano lessons. Ironically, Booker went to college on a music scholarship. Alvis and I did not.
Family was the other important feature of Sarah Shaw's life. Each summer the entire family sojourned to the Weddle homestead in Denmark, Tennessee where Mother's six sisters either lived or likewise brought their families. Like Mother, all of her sisters loved to sing, sang in their church choirs, and many were church pianists.
Out on Grandmother Lela Weddle's 160-acre farm the children laughed, played, worked, prayed and sang together for the entire summer. We were all out of harm's way there in a loving yet disciplined family environment. Although my parents went back and forth to St. Louis, Grandmother who we affectionately called "Mama Lela" was in charge of all activities with the help of three of Mother's sisters who lived nearby.
Mama Lela was the only grandparent my brothers and I knew, as our other three grandparents were deceased. She ruled the roost and made all the final decisions regarding the farm and its welfare. Also, during the summer she was the disciplinarian of all her grandchildren. If you severely misbehaved, you were directed to go and bring a switch, a small branch from a tree about 1/4 inch in diameter and 36 inches in length. This is what she administered your flogging with, all about your arms, legs and body. My goodness, would it sting and leave welts! God forbid you bring back too small a switch, that meant extra strokes for you.
Mama Lela was a devout Christian, as had been our grandfather, Caul Weddle. The seven sisters were all taught music by their father Caul, who was a church pianist and vocalist. Besides church service on Sunday, there was a service on Wednesday evening. We would ride to church on a dirt road in a wagon pulled by mules. My most vivid recollection of those services involves sitting on the "mourning bench" on Wednesday evenings. Around the age of eleven or twelve, the members' children had to sit on a bench pew facing the congregation while the service was in progress, and the service was significantly directed to those on the bench. The children had to continue to sit there each Wednesday night until they physically showed some manifestation of being embraced by the Holy Spirit. I sat on that mourning bench for three consecutive Wednesdays until it became apparent that I had to rise, make a few moves, manifest some tears and acknowledge my acceptance of Jesus Christ. After that, no more mourning bench for "the kid."
On the farm we rose early to go bring in the cows from their grazing to the barnyard. We had to help milk the cows and pump water from the well for drinking, cooking and bathing. After eating a hearty breakfast, hot biscuits with molasses, scrambled eggs and bacon, we were off to school with a packed lunch for the first couple of weeks we were there. In that area of Tennessee, the local school year was somewhat disjointed to accommodate planting and harvesting crops. They held school for part of the summer, and we went too. The school was a segregated, one-room wood building that accommodated grades one through eight. It made me feel that we were privileged to have a classroom for each grade in St. Louis.
Alvis, Booker and I were among the youngest of the cousins, so we never did any physically demanding work on the farm as it was beyond our abilities. I do recall feeding the chickens and hogs, picking and shelling peas, shucking corn, and churning milk to make butter and, on Sunday evenings, ice cream. We watched our older and more farm-experienced cousins do the real hard work. They plowed the crop fields using a mule and a steel plow. Years later, my late cousin Van Weddle of Las Vegas, Nevada, would from time to time derisively declare, "Never again will a mule fart in my face!"
The journeys to and from Tennessee were part of the adventure. As many African Americans of my generation know, when you traveled in the 1950s you had with you that ever-present shoe box stuffed with fried chicken, bread, fruit and cake. Blacks were not welcome in restaurants on the highways and food service was an issue on trains and where buses stopped. When we traveled to Tennessee, Mother would prepare shoe boxes full of scrumptious food and lined with wax paper to keep the grease from seeping through the box and maintain some degree of freshness. The food was indeed finger-licking good.
Back in St. Louis, my parents' home was always open to our friends. They all knew they were welcome. Sarah Shaw was a great cook, as was attested to by all our friends as well as Dad's. The kitchen table was long and shaped like a two-sided bar with stools on each side and one at each end. It seated a dozen. When Dad's buddies weren't occupying it, our friends were there awaiting whatever dish Mother prepared. My favorite was her German chocolate cake. Mmm, mmm, good! Our friends' price for admission, however, was a thorough interrogation by Mother as to what they were doing with their lives. She would also inquire in detail about their families. Make no mistake about it, Sarah Shaw was strictly law and order. Brother Booker was fond of joking that when FBI agents finished their training, they could take graduate classes from Mother, especially on interrogation techniques.
It didn't occur to me until years later that Mother made sure our home was open and inviting to all of our friends, and Dad's friends, in part because she wanted to keep tabs on us and have some control over what we were doing. At the time, we just knew that everyone was welcome, and there was always good food and good times to be had at our house.
Making sure that her sons got a good education was extremely important to Mother. She was always reminding us that we needed to do our homework and get good grades, and urging us to plan to go to college. Her mantra was, "You have to get an education. That is something that no one can take away from you." After I was appointed to the state bench in 1987, Shirley Davis, my paralegal in the United States Attorney's Office, told me she asked my mother how she managed to have three successful sons, including two judges. Shirley said my mother responded, "I kept my foot on their heads at all times." She was not joking. Mother was a strict disciplinarian.
Whenever Mother was verbally chastising one of the brothers or our cousin Edison Mosley, who was raised with us as a brother, you added your two cents about the other's bad behavior at your peril. If she thought you were adding fuel to the fire against the miscreant, Mother immediately turned the table on you. We learned to just spectate.
Mother was also wise as to human nature. Sometimes she would say, "You can learn something from a fool." She was telling us to listen to and consider what everyone has to say. If you think the person is inarticulate or awkward, or even stupid, you shouldn't simply write off as useless anything that person says. Everyone has their own viewpoint and ideas. Sometimes nuggets of truth and wisdom can be found where they are least expected. I've particularly tried to keep this saying in mind when dealing with persons who are representing themselves, and even sometimes with lawyers!
Sarah Shaw did have a great sense of humor and was fond of saying to Dad's friends as they left, "Let the door knob hit you where the good Lord split you." The response was always a chuckle. Mother was also fond of telling us, "You can't tell Jesse James how to rob no train." She was telling us that she was in charge and it didn't matter how sound your suggestion was. Although she never told the full joke, we later overheard it, without their knowledge, from Dad's friends. It goes like this: Jesse James was robbing a train and announced that he was going to rob all the women and rape all the men. In an effort to correct Jesse, one of the passengers said, "Don't you have that backwards?" Jesse James responded, "You can't tell Jesse James how to rob no train."
Many of the stories and jokes that I heard Dad tell when I was a child, I heard only because I was listening outside a door when I shouldn't have been. Adult conversations were just that. My family lived by the rule that "children should be seen and not heard," and sometimes we would be pulled aside and reminded of this rule if we had the temerity to try and join in the adults' conversation.
I am very thankful to my dear mother for loving me and for all that she gave me, asking for nothing in return. I hope that I made her proud.
Dad was a different character than Mother, but equally influential in my life. Life for Alvis Shaw, Sr. was very simple: work hard, take care of your responsibilities, know right from wrong, enjoy life and, as he always cautioned when we boys left the house, "Watch everything." Dad was telling us that things outside the home could be dangerous and you could be harmed, so pay attention to your environment and the people around you. In other words, be careful where you go and who you are with.
Dad gave his sons spirit, pride, fortitude, tenacity and belief in ourselves. He believed that there wasn't anything you couldn't do if you worked hard enough at it with your body and mind. Alvis, Sr. also gave his sons a sense of family pride and strength. He was a man of indomitable will. We had no doubt that we came from a long line of spiritually and mentally strong men: his father Lawrence "the Rock," our uncles, and our older cousins. We did not need fictional heroes. Alvis Shaw, Sr. and his brothers were our real life heroes. They were men's men. They were true to family, friends, community, the nation, and their God.
Like Mother who was one of seven sisters, Dad was one of seven brothers, along with three sisters. The only one of his brothers who also lived in St. Louis was Uncle Booker. Uncle Booker always carried a wad of bills in his pocket (credit cards had not yet come into existence), and as soon as he would see you he would ask, "Do you have any money in your pocket?" If your answer was "no," he would pull out and display his wad and bestow a blessing on you, with the admonition to always keep some money in your pocket. He was very generous to his nephews and was much loved in return. Uncle Booker was a sharp dresser and kept a shining new car. When I was twelve years old, he bought me a red wagon in which I hauled groceries from the neighborhood store on Friday evenings and Saturday. He then had me loaning money to his and Dad's friends at twenty-five cents on the dollar for a week. I now realize they didn't need a loan, they just enjoyed seeing me do a business hustle. Uncle Booker was a legend among the Shaw clan for his gregariousness and generosity.
We felt that we grew up with a hero in our home. My brothers and I thought Dad was the best at everything and there was nothing he couldn't do. To us he was witty, charming, handsome, and strong. Very strong. He was John Wayne and David Niven, Sidney Poitier and Dick Gregory, all rolled into one. A force of nature, and a man to be reckoned with.
A fabled story in my family concerns my brother's Oldsmobile 442 convertible, and it reveals something of who Dad was and what we thought of him. I apologize to law enforcement personnel for the content of this story. Boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen, do not try this at home.
The year was 1967, and I was twenty-two. It was a gorgeous, sunny, Saturday fall afternoon. We were all at home, except for Dad, who had gone hunting with Uncle Booker and two of their hunting buddies. Mother, as usual, was in the kitchen cooking, but she needed some essential ingredient. Brother Booker was sent to the store to get the missing staple, and he asked to borrow Alvis, Jr.'s brand new car, the 442. Why Alvis let him drive it, I'll never know. The 1967 Oldsmobile 442 was a muscle car, a high-performance automobile. At that time it was one of the most beautiful and desirable cars, and today it's a collector's item. Alvis loved cars and he had the prettiest one in St. Louis: black on black, with a black convertible top and chrome wheels. Anyone who knew Alvis, Jr. knew that it was clean, too.
So Booker took the car, went to the store, got the groceries, and when he came out the car was gone, stolen! He made frantic calls home and to the police. Coincidentally, Dad and the other hunters were just arriving back at our house as Booker's call came in. They went to pick up Booker and Dad got the story from him. Dad believed that whoever took the car was probably still joyriding around the neighborhood. I believe he looked at his sons and thought, "I've got to do something about this." So he decided to go looking for the car.
The four hunters jumped back into their station wagon and peeled off. Having just returned from hunting, they were packing some heat. They were armed to the teeth. Somewhere around the intersection of Page Boulevard and Taylor Avenue they saw Alvis's car with four young men in it, joyriding just like Dad thought. Dad pulled up next to them and ordered them to pull over. Perhaps the hunters may have displayed a shotgun or three. It was on! The thieves took off like a jet in the 442, with the station wagon chasing, whipping up and down Page, Taylor, Easton, and west to Aubert. The thieves took a wrong turn down a dead-end alley with the hunters right behind. Those young men must've thought they were being chased by some kind of crazy, camouflaged vigilantes because they stopped the car, jumped out of it and fled. They left the car running and in the ignition was a full ring of close to twenty stolen GM car keys.
Imagine our excitement and delight when Dad pulled up to the house in the 442! We all ran off the front porch to get a good look at the car. It was unscathed, with not a scratch, nick, dent, or cut. Then, around the kitchen table, with a little Jack Daniels Black Label, Dad and the hunters laughingly recounted their adventure. Like so many times before, my brothers and I sat and listened. But we weren't really surprised. We already knew we lived with a hero.
Alvis Shaw, Sr. was really the first lawyer in our family. Many of his friends and neighbors, as well as ours, would come to him for advice, help on getting some project done, and assistance in interpreting legal documents. On the block of Greer Avenue where we lived, he was affectionately called the "Mayor of Greer." He inspired his sons to try to help others and to make a difference. Make no mistake about it though, unlike Mother, Dad was no angel. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Folks who have no vices have very few virtues." Alvis Shaw, Sr. enjoyed a drink or two, a smoke or three, and a joke or so.
Almost twenty years ago, shortly after I had taken the federal bench, unbeknownst to me Dad was visiting my chambers while I was in court conducting a hearing. Without any warning, there he came walking into my courtroom through the swinging gate, almost to the podium where the attorneys were addressing me. I halted the proceedings, explaining to the lawyers that this was my father. Dad pointed his finger at me on the bench and blurted out a question: "What are you doing with all that space back there, wasting the government's money?" I sheepishly explained that the government gave me the space, it wasn't my doing. He seemed to think about it for a moment and then, with apparent satisfaction, turned and walked back to the swinging gate. There he hesitated, turned around and said to me, "Tell Judge Tillman to come over Sunday. Your mother is cooking chitterlings," and then he walked on out of the courtroom. Not only did he put short pants on me, a federal judge, but he "ethnicized" the place as well.
Coco Chanel, the great fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand, once said, "In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different." Dad was such a man, irreplaceable and absolutely different. He was comfortable and forthright no matter where or when, and felt that he was a friend of everyone. We went to the Million Man March on Washington in October 1995. At the time, Dad was a spry eighty-one years old and was difficult to keep up with when the sea of people rolled in. He felt very comfortable and was absolutely positive that he knew many among the million and wanted to say hello to as many of them as he could. If he hadn't had his favorite red cap on we would certainly have lost him in the crowd. We joked that Mother would kill us if we lost him there. Dad was a man who loved people and was loved in return. He made fast friends wherever he ventured.
Excerpted from Watch Everything by Charles A. Shaw. Copyright © 2013 Charles A. Shaw. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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