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An American prayer: In conversation with my dead father

My father’s been gone almost 10 years.

On the Fourth of July, I cannot decide whether I want to wake him up to tell him all about the national calamity, or let him sleep, and spare him the pain.

I think I’m going to wake him up.

My spirituality is like a lot of people’s, I think: The closest touch we have with God is the memory of our beloved dead, after we have washed them and groomed them and dressed them and arranged their quiet hands. And the closest thing to prayer is the conversations we have with them, still.

And I feel like praying today.

***

The first moment I heard about making America great again, I knew it was my dad’s America we were hearing about. No one believed more than my dad in that America. No one benefited more from that America. And no one saw it disappear more clearly, mourned its passing more acutely, and accepted the finality more fully.

Thomas Murray was born in 1923, and his earliest memories were on a single theme that would define the entire first half of his life: progress.

He was four when Charles Lindbergh flew an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean in 33 perilous hours. By the time he was 40, he could be in Paris in a long evening with a book in his lap, to considerably less fanfare. But why go to musty old Paris, when you live in the nation where they set a new land-speed record every day?

Progress was a seemingly inexhaustible spring that money flowed out of — money that made life better for most people, and dramatically better for some. Dad’s father Charles Murray, born out of wedlock to a working-class German family, became vice president of public relations and personnel at Armco Steel, in Middletown, Ohio. An illegitimate child from a broken family to become the father of a town.

Dad remembered a summer evening sometime in the early 1930s — not as an extraordinary occasion in his father’s life, but as a typical annoyance in his mother’s: After another long day at the office, my grandfather is finally sitting down for dinner. There is a knock on the side door of the large house, and the African-American family maid, Mamie, answers it. It’s an Armco factory worker, also black. He is carrying a basket full of fried chicken, and he wants to see Mr. Murray. Over the strenuous objection of my grandmother, whose entire day had been organized to culminate in a peaceful family meal, my grandfather obliges. He spends an hour in the yard, sharing the man’s chicken and promising that of course Armco would do something to help pay for treatment for his wife’s cancer. Just as Armco had built the public library, sponsored all the sports teams and provided the George M. Verity Scholarship, named after its founder (and my grandfather’s boss; and my young dad’s sometime horseback-riding companion).

If a black steel worker knew his place in that world, a white son of privilege also had to learn is. My young dad was fascinated by motorcycles, and the exotic ruffians who rode them seemed out of comic books, roaring past him on their Indians and Harleys on his long “bike hikes” into the countryside. What kind of men were these? Once, my dad was nosing around in the local Harley dealership and the salesman asked him what he was doing there. He said he was thinking of buying one. The salesman didn’t chuckle because he was 12 years old. He chuckled because he knew who my dad’s father was. “Ain’t no Murray,” the salesman said, “gonna buy no sickle.”

If being dive-bombed by German Stukas on the bridge at Remagen was the most harrowing experience my dad had in World War II, the most lasting one was being thrown into barracks with all classes of Americans, beginning with the drill sergeant who woke him up his first morning at basic training by shouting, “Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” All the swearing and crude talk about women intimidated him and scared him and made him feel like an effeminate prude — not the way a 19-year-old man wants to see himself.

Dad came to a fascination and a fondness for capable working-class guys — especially mechanics, upon whom he relied to repair his boats and cars, and maintain his Piper Tripacer. “Take and getcha boys,” Dad would later describe them in an essay for an antique automobile magazine. As for his own tool collection, it consisted of a pair of tin snips, a hammer, a rusty wood saw and few wrenches that fit into the Pringles potato chip can that served as his toolbox. Beyond that, his solution was the same as his father’s, when something went on the blink: “Call the man.”

And Dad could afford to outsource his repairs, because his postwar career coincided with the American economic era made golden by the fact that all other advanced nations had been bombed flat in the war. So the fifties and sixties were flush years at Frigidaire and General Motors and Firestone, the firms that funded most of Dad’s advertising career. “What’s good for General Motors is good for America,” the slogan went. It sure was good for my dad, who had a new car every year. And it was good for GM factory workers, some of whom had summer cabins in northern Michigan.

Dad was able to control his exposure to different cultures, too. He didn’t deal with a lot of black people in his life, because he lived most of his life in an age when most white people didn’t have to. In the Pullman sleeping cars he rode to military school, all the porters were black, each called “George” by all the passengers including my teenage dad, who come to shudder about that later in life. When I was a kid, Dad would with suspicious frequency refer to Everett and Coleman, the two black mechanics down at the local Marathon station, as “good friends of mine.” Dad quietly believed that white people had a natural physical revulsion to brown skin — did he believe the revulsion went both ways? — and was not optimistic about racial reconciliation anytime soon. Yet, after voting for every Republican president from Dewey through George W. Bush — the word “Roosevelt” had been a forbidden curse word in his father’s house — Dad voted for Barack Obama two months before he died. Afterwards, he cried in wonder at how much had changed in his lifetime.

The working-class person he knew best was my mother, and she had a degree in English from the University of Michigan. But she’d grown up in a middle-class family in Detroit, she’d worked in a summer camp with poor black kids, and she’d dated a black man briefly (who was once arrested for being with her). She worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency where Dad was the creative director, in Detroit, which was still, in the early 1960s, the epicenter and the symbol of American progress. But not for long. My mother wrote a pro-bono ad in 1964 for an unspecified client. “If you feel sure civil rights is moving fast enough,” began the headline over a grainy black-and-white photograph of a racially ambiguous child in a crib, “try to imagine your children waking up Negro tomorrow morning.”

By 1969, Detroit and many other cities had burned. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. But America did put a man on the moon. For a client, Apollo contractor North American Rockwell, Dad wrote an ad headlined, “America is about to put men on the moon,” the headline said. “Please read this before they go.”

The text read:

Perhaps the best way for anyone to try to understand the size of such an undertaking is not for us to list the thousands of problems that had to be overcome, but for you to simply go out in your backyard some night, look up, and try to imagine how you’d begin, if it were up to you.
But our reason here is not to talk about the technicalities of the Apollo project. Rather, it is simply to ask you to think, for at least one brief moment, about the men and women who have applied their heads and their hearts and their hands — and a good many years of their lives — to putting a man on the moon.
Many of these people have worked for less money than they could have made in other places, and it is safe to say they have worked through more nights and weekends and lunch and dinner hours than they would anywhere else.
And the astronauts, these brave men who will fly again down that long, dark and dustless corridor of space, this time to set foot — to walk upon the surface of the moon — they know the price that’s often paid in setting out for lands uncharted. They know the price their fathers’ grandfathers paid just to walk across the wilderness of America for the first fifty years.
For a long time now, we have been involved with the people who are the thinkers and the designers and the builders and the pilots of America’s man-to-the-moon dream, of America’s man-to-the-moon determination. We have worked with them, eaten with them, lived with them.
Yet our appreciation for them continues each day — for their energy, for their imagination, their confidence, for their patience, for their courage.
We ask you, in the days ahead as we wait for the big one to begin, to understand this fantastic feat for what it is and to put it in proper perspective, a triumph of man, of individuals, of truly great human beings. For our touchdown on the moon will not be the product of magic, but the gift of men.
In James A. Michener’s novel, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” an American admiral stands on the deck of his carrier early one morning and ponders the subject of his brave men. And thinking to himself, he asks a question of the wind which we believe all of us should ask as we think of the men who will finally make it to the moon and of the men who got them there: “Why is America lucky enough to have such men? … Where did we get such men?”

The ad got a lot of attention and wound up being read into the Congressional Record after the mission was complete. Dad got a note from former President Lyndon Johnson. It was the high point of his advertising career.

And it was just about the end of the America that many Americans think of when they hear, “great again.”

It was the year I was born.

***

For the last 40 years of my dad’s life and the first 40 years of mine, America converted sluggishly, sleepily, resentfully — from miles-per-hour to miles-per-gallon. The steel rusted out. We were always fighting a dumb war, and losing it. Dad was commissioned by the chairman of General Motors to research and write a book about the future that concluded that automation and the global economy had probably licked American manufacturing for good. In his retirement, Dad moved back to a depressed, gloomy Middletown, where Armco Steel, now owned by a Japanese company, was no longer building libraries or offering college scholarships. He felt sorry for the unemployed steelworkers, who blamed the local management for the collapse of everything. And he felt sorry for their old bosses, who blamed national politicians. They were all “too goddamn mad” to see what my dad saw: That the good old days were as long and irrevocably gone as their own youth.

It would have been churlish of him to interrupt the bitter conversations on the clubhouse porch at Brown’s Run Country Club to point out to Middletown and the rest of midcentury middle America that the whole era they lived in, and raised their children in, had always been a fleeting mirage: mostly, a miraculous meeting of national circumstances with natural resources and advantageous geography and geopolitical good luck.

But every time a school tax levy came up, he wrote an op-ed in the Middletown Journalurging aging Middletonians to vote for it even though they no longer had kids of their own in the schools. Did they still not believe in America’s future?

Dad wasn’t immune to an old man’s resentment. Though he may have understood the changes in America better than some in his generation — and even agreed with many of them — he frequently advised me in a factual tone that America had become “a real half-assed country.” He groused that people wore tank tops and flip-flops to the airport, adding, “There was a time when not just anybody could fly.” He even found modern advertising wanting. Dying of pancreatic cancer in the same fall of 2008 that the stock market plunged and wiped out half his life savings, Dad looked absentmindedly out the car window at a Bud Light billboard boasting, “Drinkability.” To himself, he muttered, “You’d think that would be a bare minimum claim for a beer.”

But he knew better than to wish he or his country could bring the past back again.

He accepted with humor the indignity of a boy who grew up with a full-time maid growing into an old man whose once-a-week cleaning woman — a white Kentucky woman, who would have been called a “briar-hopper” in the Middletown Dad grew up in. She broke every fragile thing in his house and for some reason called him, “Murray.” (“Murray?” she said, startling him at his computer. “How many books you wrote?”) Under his breath, he called her “Big Stoop.”

He objected to being referred to as part of “The Greatest Generation” because he, he said with a wink, he worried it would be embarrassing to be introduced that way in heaven, and then have to walk sheepishly past Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln.

And though he wrote monthly articles for an antique automobile magazine on the subject of nostalgia, he objected quite strongly to unearned nostalgia expressed by young people like me — nostalgia for a time we never knew. In a little newsletter that I published 26 years ago — just after President Clinton was elected — Dad wrote that what was wrong with America was precisely that it was looking back, and not forward:

I guess I can understand why younger Americans who go to the theater to see revivals of “Guys and Dolls” and to TV for “Homefront” and “I’ll Fly Away” might think that their generations and mine are on the same wavelength. But they’re not. There is a totaldifference in orientation. My generation couldn’t wait to get out of bed in the morning to see what might be coming down the street or flying over the house that we’d never seen before. We couldn’t wait until the newspaper arrived or the voice of Lowell Thomas came on the radio to tell us what wonders had happened that day or were on the way. We wanted to fly with Buck Rogers to the 25thcentury, but we would settle for large silver airliners that would one day take us where the trains did, for superhighways on which we could travel in glass-domed cars, and bridges and tunnels and buildings, the likes of which one had never seen.
And for the record, we had not been spoon fed only good news and prosperity — World War II right on top of the Great Depression gave us fifteen fairly bleak years in which to adapt a dim view and long for the roaring twenties or earlier. But we didn’t. We never looked back longingly, or took our eyes off the future. And the dreams we had for it came true for us, finally.
We can hope that our new president [Clinton] understands that Americans everywhere need to see evidence that the country’s economic and social problems are solvable, and need to believe that the good life is a possible dream for them, too. Maybe then we’ll see more heads facing forward and more younger people who understand that their elders, who may celebrate the past from time to time, in no sense mean to lead a parade to yesterday, but are simply celebrating their own beginning, when all was possible for them, as it is for young people now.
Besides, no one can understand the “old days” simply by restoring an era’s cars or playing the music it danced to. One must study the words and ideas it truly lived by. Today’s young seekers of “a simpler time” who are searching somewhere back in mid-century for their nirvana will likely discover — if they’re really searching right — a battle cry on its portals diametrically opposed to their own direction, no more simply said perhaps than by scientist Charles “Boss” Kettering in the late 1930s: “We should all be interested in the future because that’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives.”

You and I don’t probably don’t share spring-out-of-bed sunny American outlook that my dead father ascribes to his generation. But the future is our home too — and the home of our children. And every Americanwould be better spending less time gazing backwards, whether to the Eisenhower years or the Obama ones.

Culturally, and individually, we’ve spent quite enough time doing that.

It seems to me the questions we should be trying to contemplate after the din of the fireworks fades this year are not the familiar questions of our fathers, but more like the more original, more daring questions of our founding fathers: What kind of a country do we want to have? And what are we, each of us and all of us, willing to do make it happen?

In other words: Drop your cocks and grab your socks.

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