Laurie perched on the sitting rock behind the big old house, watching the sun rise through the notch in South Mountain ahead of him. Looking at the first rays glinting in the gray sky, he thought of something Dr. King liked to say: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The arc of his own life was not as clear to him.
He’d taken responsibility for the people around him for as long as he could remember. But looking back now to when Dad came home from sea duty, he could see he’d needed to relinquish the premature responsibility and learn to be a son in order to find himself as a true leader.
Then, when he’d met his birth mother, his visceral need to “save her” from the condescension of self-satisfied medical people had helped him process the equally bitter tastes of the South’s “you can come close but don’t rise up” and the North’s “you can rise but don’t come close” flavors of racism. First Roscoe and then Julia had helped him see that both attitudes nourished the paternalism of the early years of the Movement and made the shift to community activity necessary.
Laurie rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. And somehow I’m supposed to be a leader there.
It had been three years since Henry had proposed that plan in Julia’s living room. They’d all come a long way since then. They’d been on freedom rides and more sit-ins all over the South. They’d been arrested more times than Laurie could easily count.
Laurie’s family had been active in their ways, too. Jamie and Beth in Boston, Celia and Joy with little Rory in New York, were deeply involved in local organizing. Mom and Dad and Ruby made lobbying trips to Washington and spoke at political meetings in Cumberland County. Jimmy Hodge was a local leader now. Tommy Thumma had gone down to Mississippi from Chicago to register black voters. Steve had used his growing popularity as a singer to bring attention to the cause, with Rob as his manager finding the most effective venues.
Still, sometimes it seemed they were all endlessly repeating the same futile gestures, never making real progress. But they couldn’t stop trying.
Laurie’s last visit home had been the closest to a honeymoon he and Julia’d had funds or time for. They’d spent a pleasant week, then there had been a family sing. Steve was leading them in “Eyes on the Prize” when Julia had caught Laurie’s eye; it was time for them to get on the road again.
Dad had hugged him hard and slipped him money earlier. Ruby had knitted him a pair of socks that now lived in the green satin lingerie case with the booties his birth mother gave him; it went everywhere he did, in his backpack. But leaving the sing that day with his new bride, Laurie had turned back to the living room for a farewell look. Mom’s face had turned toward him from across the room. There was love in her expression, of course, and worry, but also valor and strength and pride.
That look had been with him, riding in his heart, every day. And his wife had been beside him, or behind him, or in front of him, guiding and guarding, inspiring and goading. But Julia and Mom and the others were asleep in the house behind him now, and doubt and uncertainty gnawed him. Their little band of friends had cemented firm bonds among them; he felt almost as close to them as to his brothers and sisters. But he could feel a change coming, a shift in their relationship that worried him.
He wished he knew what he needed; he only knew it was something different from what Mom or Julia or Ruby could give him, different from the support he got from Rob and Jamie and Henry and Roscoe and the rest. Sean, he thought. I need Sean… no, Dad. It’s Dad I need, the way I did that time when I was thirteen and sat out here in the rain, and he really became my father.
Long narrow clouds speared across the sky, stained orange and pink and gold. The trees in the woods in front of him tossed and rustled in the dawn breeze, and the birds made such a racket it seemed they were competing to see who could sing the soonest and the loudest to greet the day.
So this time Laurie heard no footsteps behind him; still, when the warm hand came down on his shoulder he was not startled. “You’re a mind-reader,” he said. “I was just thinking I needed to talk with you.”
Sean—Dad—swung around the rock and settled next to Laurie, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. They both sat and looked at the sky for a few minutes, then Dad said, “Tell me.”
Laurie leaned back on hands propped against the rock behind him so he could see the sunrise and Dad’s profile at the same time.
“These couple of weeks since Julia and I got back from Washington have been great, being here with all of you. And seeing President Kennedy talking about his legislation with James Baldwin—James Baldwin, Dad! I never thought, when I used to read him as a kid… But I keep thinking about Medgar Evers,” he said. “Killed in his own driveway, with his family in the house.”
Dad raised his hands palm to palm in front of his own nose and mouth and bent his head as if praying. “We’re all thinking about him,” Dad said. “And about what that kind of thing means for you and for Julia and the others. We’re all afraid, son. It’s natural to be afraid; it’s even necessary for—”
“No,” Laurie interrupted him. “That’s not it.” Dad leaned back on one elbow to look at his face as he went on, “Sure I’m scared, but I’m not afraid of being scared, if you know what I mean. Not for myself. It’s the others—Henry and Roscoe and, oh God, Julia. Dad, they all say I’m their leader, and they look to me to decide what we should do. Should we go back down to Birmingham, where they put Dr. King in jail? Bull Connor set dogs on us, and knocked down children with fire hoses. And yeah, we resisted him, and we keep on with the struggle. Maybe it’s working, maybe it’s not.”
Laurie sat upright, staring down at the grass between his feet; Dad stayed leaning back. Probably watching me the way I was watching him. “The big wheels in the Movement,” Laurie went on, “King and Reverend Shuttlesworth and John Lewis and some of the SCLC people, don’t even agree about what we should do next. Now that President Kennedy’s put up this civil rights bill, some people think we should be focusing on the legislature, getting that passed. But getting it passed is only a start; it still would have to be implemented, it still would have to be enforced. And meanwhile, every day, people are getting killed and kids are being kept out of school and folks are going hungry because they can’t get work. Should we just do safe things in Washington, or go where the suffering is?”
Laurie rubbed his temples. “God, I feel like a rat in a cage with a wheel in it, just running around and around, thinking over the same old arguments. I know I can’t make decisions for other people, I can’t run their lives: that business with Linda and Sidney taught me that. But they do look to me, Henry and Jeff and the others. They’ll listen to what I think best. So say we get back into it? And then one of them gets hurt, or killed? And I told them to go? That’s what really scares me. I can live with the idea of me dying; I can’t live with the idea of me causing someone to die. What should I do?”
Dad sat up and looked into Laurie’s eyes. “‘Be sure you’re right, then go ahead,’” he said.
Laurie, who had started to get tearful, snorted at that. “Really, Dad? Davy Crockett? You’re giving me cornpone wisdom courtesy of Walt Disney?”
Dad smiled and nodded. “He was a real person, after all, and he made a real difference. You will, too—though without the desperate last stand, please. It’s just good advice for any leader, and for going beyond leadership. You’re becoming a commander: you’re learning not only to marshal your allies and encourage them and inspire them—those skills will serve you well into the future, when this current madness has been defeated and you go on in politics.”
“You sound like Henry. Kind of bloodless, actually. I think I liked the cornpone better.”
Dad chuckled, then took Laurie’s hand and looked down at it, rubbing it with his thumb as he spoke. “I don’t think I have to tell you that emotion is not weakness. But right now you’re in a war, and there are times when, after weighing all the factors and listening to advice from those you trust, you’re simply going to have to make a decision and deploy them to the best advantage.”
Dad cleared his throat and went on, “My first ship’s command, two of my officers were guys I’d gone through the Academy with. But I’d also had those few years after I enlisted, before I went to Annapolis. That experience as a non-commissioned seaman gave me a practical edge but made me suspect to those who’d gone the traditional route. I knew I’d have to come down hard on them to be an effective commander. Then we saw our first serious action.”
He took a deep breath and gripped Laurie’s hand. “We were on U-boat surveillance, not even officially at war with Germany yet. They used what they called wolfpacks, submarines banded together, hunting Allied shipping. We hardly knew how to counter them then; the Nazis called it ‘the happy time.’ Their torpedoes were straight runners, they hadn’t developed homing devices yet. And those early subs were faster above than they were underwater. So we came on one of these packs and I knew they’d surface to attack. My first officer, a man I’d been a cadet with—Jim Axe, his name was—wanted to take evasive action, but I ordered him to stay on course.”
He raised Laurie’s hand to his own cheek and held it there, closing his eyes. Then he let their joined hands drop to the rock and tilted his head back, as though he were looking at the sky, but his eyes stayed closed. “They launched a torpedo but it ran shallow and bounced off our hull—that happened a lot in those days. We weren’t hurt, but the impact jolted us. Jim went overside and disappeared like a stone. Between our wake and the torpedo impact, there was white water all around us. He never came back to the surface. And we were running hard in front of the pack; there was no way, no possibility of retrieving him.” He opened his eyes and looked at Laurie. “I made the right decision. I saved the ship. And outside of formal reports and putting in for a posthumous commendation, I never told a soul about Jim Axe. It hurt too much. Not till after the war, when your mother and Ruby dragged it out of me and saved my soul.”
He shook his head, then turned to Laurie. “I was a good leader, Laurie, and I became a good commander. You’re a good leader. That group of yours, they follow where you go. They’re your brothers and your friends, but I’ve seen them with you—when you command, they will obey. You’ll make mistakes, just as I made mistakes. But you won’t let that fear stop you from making the decisions you need to make, and it won’t stop them from trusting you. And yes, it may well be that some of them will die.”
Now it was Dad’s eyes that were swimming with tears. Laurie dropped his forehead onto his shoulder. “Oh, Daddy,” he said.
Dad pulled him closer, arms wrapped around Laurie’s back. “I know. Believe me, son, I know. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. And I am so, so proud of you.”
It was full day now. The clouds were white again, the sky cerulean blue. The breeze had stilled and the birdcalls had quieted from frantic cacophony to familiar, comforting song. In the midst of the morning the two men clung to each other on the big rock, weeping quietly together till, finally, they rose and made their way home.