Last week, my dad told me a story. He told me a story about a barefoot, sun-browned, low country, Irish, Navy boy, catching crab with his older brother, on Sullivan’s Island. He told me about catching five buckets of crab, about the sunburn that ached for days, and about how many times his brother hit him in the head, just for fun.
I’ve never really understood how that sun-browned, low country boy turned into my father. How did that white, Navy boy of 1957, the one whose father virulently hated faggots, turn into the young, Southern, white boy of 1969, who had never intimately known a person of color, who hated hippies, who desperately wanted to go to Vietnam, but who also couldn’t stand the “prejudice” of the South? How did that low country boy turn into a hard-core, albeit antisocial proponent of queer rights, a relatively educated advocate for the rights of trans women, and a man who is more invested in immigrant and refugee rights than most leftists? I’ve read all of the social science research, and it all says that intimate, close, personal relationships, are what combat racism. But there are always outliers.
My father grew up in the low country of Sullivan’s Island, in a Navy family that lived off base. Until recently, I’d heard two childhood stories, over and over. In one, his mother could backhand him in the backseat, while driving. He tells that story with pride. I never met her, but my father loved his mama, no matter how many times she hit him in the face. She died at 45, from some combination of obesity and alcoholism that culminated in a massive heart attack. He talks of her violence, and clearly loved her strength.
In my dad’s other story, his older brother beat him, regularly. My dad is an angry man, one who lashes out when hurt, but he doesn’t have any real aggression inside of him. If anything, he’s scared, and angry, and gentle, and desperately wants to be safe. He’s never reconciled the violence of his childhood. He talks a good game, and he’ll protect his own, but it costs him. I don’t have that sensitivity, and I recognize real violence when I see it. It’s in me. My dad won’t hesitate to protect those of us whom he loves, but there’s no real violence in him, just a lot of fear. He tells the following story because it’s an exception. It’s the only time he ever really defended himself.
My father’s brother, Dayton, is two years older. When my dad was eleven, during a ‘fight’, he got his hands on a solid stick, and crushed his brothers testicles with it. Dayton spent some time at the VA, getting his balls pulled back out of his insides, and he never fucked with my dad again. As adults, they didn’t talk at all, for thirty years. About ten years ago, they started emailing. They still don’t relate to one another, overall, but shared history is meaningful, and they have a childhood that is uniquely their own. I’m glad they’re sharing it. Somehow, getting older let my dad forgive Dayton for the terror of their childhood. My dad told me that in general, he can tell he’s becoming more empathetic, the older he gets. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.
I only ever met Dayton once. I was seventeen, providing hospice care for my grandmother on my mother’s side, and he was just home from his twenty year station in Scotland. He looked exactly like my dad, except that he rushed at me, and hugged me, and chatted at me, nonstop. It was terrifying. I’m much more genuinely violent than my dad, and all I knew about Dayton was how he’d hurt that sun-browned boy. Nonsensically, hugging him was more difficult than when my uncle on the other side tried to rape me. I expected that asshole to be an asshole. I had never anticipated some dude who looked like my dad trying to hug me. At that time, my dad had only ever hugged me once. I was not super into being hugged by big white dudes with kinda creepy mustaches whom I had never met.
In my dad’s story, that sun-browned, low country, Irish, Navy boy caught five buckets of crab, and also a bunch of flounder. He and his brother brought them home, desperate to please their mother, who never really showed affection. It sucks to clean flounder. Flounder is a flat fish, difficult to clean. It took all evening, and in the end, they put the buckets of crab in the back yard, ate a flounder feast, and planned to deal with the crab in the morning.
In the morning, the boys woke to nearly empty buckets and random crabs on the lawn. The crabs had crawled over one another, out of the buckets, and back to the sea.
For me, there are two metaphors in this story. There’s the sun-browned, Irish, Navy boy, who, for reasons that I’ll never really understand, couldn’t tolerate the racism of the South and struggled his way to Seattle, the furthest corner of the continental U.S., trying to get away. And there’s the crabs, caught, sequestered, and forced to sacrifice a few, the few that they climbed over, to escape back into the sea. I think that in the end, the boy climbed over himself, sacrificing a part of himself to escape his bucket.
At the end of the day, I’ve never met that sun-browned boy. My father closes the shades if it hits 60 degrees. I’ve never seen him fish, or crab, or even spend time in the sun. He hates the South and everything it produces with a great passion. And I love the man he is now. That man who has always had my back. That man who has struggled with his racism and xenophobia, and like all of us white people, not entirely succeeded, but ended up doing his best to advocate for persons of color, and immigrants, and queers, in his own way.
But then, every now and then he tells these stories about that sun-browned, Irish, Navy boy. The one who caught crabs, shirtless and barefoot in the low country. The one who probably never had the words, but saw the Old South for what it was, at least enough that when he could, he moved as far away as possible. The one who loved his mama more than anything, even though she couldn’t love him back. And as much as I love the man who is my father, I also love that low country boy. He deserved better. I wish I could have known him.