By Charlie Johnston
In Massachusetts there is a relatively short river that has played an over-sized role in popular culture. Only seven miles long, it is the river that abolitionist Lydia Maria Child speaks of in her classic Thanksgiving song, “Over the River and Through the Wood.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s popular poem about Paul Revere’s midnight ride has Revere galloping along the banks of this river to alert the colonists that, “the redcoats are coming.” It is neither the physical characteristics nor the cultural significance of the river that captured my imagination long ago. It is its name, the Mystic River.
In my mind I have often imagined humanity as a great river running through time and space, always in the same direction. The water at its source is intimately connected to the water at its estuary, though it is simultaneously remote. Each of us are dollops of water in that river, contributing to its rush and roar before we empty into the eternal sea, sometimes branching off into a tributary and other times evaporating before finishing our journey. The water before us is dependent on the water behind us to keep up the rushing flow. A view from high above will reveal the entire course of the river, while those of us who must navigate its surface are confined to that small section of it to which we contribute and are on right now – and are limited to seeing it as it unfolds rather than the whole course of it.
My father died yesterday, joining my mother in the sea of eternity.
As I drove yesterday to join the family in this difficult time, remembrances of my dad and his role in our lives flooded through my memory. Dad was a plain man with a big, garrulous, engaging personality. There are many things about him which helped chart my course through these rapids, but I focus today on three.
Though a prankster, a provocateur, and often a jokester, the concept of honor was central to Dad’s definition of what it means to be a man. He always sought and did the most right thing he could think of. No amount of intimidation or temptation could sway him from that course. He considered a man who could be intimidated or tempted away from a moral course on a weighty matter to be utterly contemptible.
In my senior year in high school I had already managed the public campaigns of three incumbents in a contested race and was a volunteer aide, driver, and speechwriter for my congressman. Dad and I took delight in each other, but he worried that my already substantial influence on the local political scene might turn my head. So he sat me down and very solemnly told me that he did not much care what direction my career path took, but was very concerned that I always be honorable and true, that when I failed I get up again and keep going, and that I never let either fear or vanity take hold of me and guide my decisions – that if I remained honorable and true, he would be proud of me. I can relive that conversation at our dining room table right now.
Once I hit my mid-teens, Dad’s and my favorite past-time was verbal sparring. Poor Mom often feared we were angry at each other – but we were having delightful fun. I don’t know if Dad ever said he was wrong about anything – but he had his way of making it clear. When I had won a debate with him, he would never concede defeat. What he would do, instead, was revisit the same discussion a few days later, taking the position I had prevailed on as if it had been his position all along. It was a charming method – a little obtuse, but effective, nonetheless.
The thing was, for all his occasional histrionics, Dad wanted to be on the side of actual right far more than he was to have whatever he said be considered right. You could not coerce or bribe him into changing his mind. The only way to convince him to change his mind was to convince him that it was better and more right.
Dad was an old-time union Democrat. It amused him to no end that we bore the same name but were of different parties. We were able, for several years, to easily find the right ‘Charlie Johnston’ at the polling place by telling them to pull either Charlie Johnston the Democrat or Charlie Johnston the Republican. My Mom told me that once, at work, while Dad was talking about this, a co-worker told him, “I wouldn’t have a son who didn’t vote the way I told him.” Mom giggled as she said Dad retorted hotly that, “I wouldn’t have a son who would let anybody, including me, tell him how to vote.” In 1976 my great grandmother died just before election and it was too late for Dad to get an absentee ballot. We checked with the County Clerk (who was a friend of mine) to see if I could vote both my ballot and his. I would, of course, have voted his ballot the way he instructed me. Alas, it could not be done – but that became a source of great amusement to Dad, too. As it became clear that Jimmy Carter was WAY out of his depth, it tickled my Dad to gleefully tell people that he hadn’t voted for Carter. And his grin would only get broader when I would interject that it was not for a lack of trying. In the 90’s Dad drifted away from the Democratic Party and started identifying mainly as an Independent with Democratic leanings. God forbid he should ever become a Republican! He was a Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy Democrat through and through. Once we were talking and he told me, ruefully, that he had been a ‘yellow dog Democrat’ and still would be if they hadn’t have insisted that he vote for so many dadgum yellow dogs.
Dad was a fundamentalist Christian – and eventually became the pastor of their little Church. But Dad was not about to teach things that some wanted to believe that were contrary to the plain meaning of Scripture. Some fundamentalists are so against alcohol that they insist the wine referred to in the Bible was actually just grape juice. Dad would not have it. He pointed out that at the Wedding at Cana, some of the guests noted that the hosts usually gave the best wine first and, after the guests were well drunk, then gave the second rate stuff out – but here they had saved the best for last. “Who ever got “well drunk” on grape juice?” Dad would sarcastically ask. He had no use for the doctrine of the rapture, even though he did not know it had been invented barely 200 years ago. He took his job as pastor seriously and found it profoundly Scripturally unsound.
When I converted to Catholicism it became a blessing for both Dad and me. The first thing he did after hearing the news was go buy a Catholic Bible. He read it cover to cover – and proclaimed with some astonishment and much delight that it was the same as their Bible, just with some extra books. It triggered in him a desire to do a lot more research into Christian history. This became a rich source of discussion between us – not the wrestling match we had in politics, but a mutual search for what is true. It deepened and enriched our already vibrant relationship. In fact, when his church asked him to take over as pastor, we talked extensively about it. I came to think it was an authentic calling – and told him so. The first time I visited after he had taken on the role I chuckled and said, “Imagine this…a good Catholic boy like me recruiting a good Fundamentalist minister like you.” We both found it amusing.
Once when I visited, I told him I was going to come to worship service at his church that Sunday. On the Tuesday afterward he told me that if I ever did that again, I should not tell him in advance. When I asked why he said he discovered we all have more than a touch of vanity: that he had never fretted or worked so hard on a sermon in his life because he wanted to impress me. I patted him on the shoulder, told him, “Mission accomplished,” and how deeply touched I was that he fretted over it.
People think that, for a garrulous fellow, I hold a lot of things close to the vest. My Dad was the master. When his mother died several decades ago, Dad was in great anguish. As we often did when we were both younger, we sat up talking until after three in the morning. He asked me, in anguish, if there really was a heaven. I gave him a theologically clinical argument. He looked at me with renewed anguish and tears and asked, again, “But is there really a heaven?” I gave him a more personal, emotional argument. Again, he looked at me with anguished tears and asked, “But is there really a heaven?” I was astounded to realize that what he wanted, maybe what he needed, was for me to tell him from personal knowledge. So I said, “Yes, Dad, there is heaven – and it is good.” The relief that spread over his face amazed me – and then we were both able to sleep. I had never spoken of my mystical situation, but that was the first clue I had that Dad had picked up on more than he had ever let on, apparently leaving it alone since I didn’t speak of it. I later found out that, in critical times, he had sometimes advised people to speak to me because he believed me to be a “seer,” while noting that such people existed for good in the Bible. But he never gave me a hint that he knew anything was up until that night when his need was so great.
Dad was loyal to his team, always, but never so loyal that he would knowingly spout patent nonsense. Though a union Democrat who opposed Clarence Thomas’ judicial philosophy, Dad was infuriated by the smear job on him – and so loudly supported his confirmation. As Dad put it to me at the time, “When you boil the story down, he asked that woman out once, she declined, and he never bothered her again – but she chased him all over Washington trying to get a job wherever he worked. This is not the rage of a woman assaulted, but of a woman scorned.”
He was up for president of his local union at Goodyear in North Chicago. He told the members he thought Goodyear was going to be shutting a plant or two down in the next decade – and that the spec quotas for each shift were dangerously low (line workers could complete their quota in just a few hours) and he intended to open those up to new negotiation because he believed the North Chicago plant was very vulnerable to closing. Well, he was defeated, as who wants to negotiate to work harder? Sadly, Dad was a little bitter about that loss. But, sure enough, a few years later, the North Chicago plant was shuttered. The union officials who defeated him were paralyzed and mealy-mouthed about the whole thing. Dad, despite his bitterness at his defeat, rose to the occasion and vigorously defended the union and private unionism in word and in print. I was never so proud of him: rejected by his team for telling them true and then loyally rising to the defense of that team after what he said might happen actually happened. That was when Mom and Dad moved back ta Alabama and he finished out his career at the Gadsden plant.
As you may know, some southern fundamentalists are death on Catholics. Dad wouldn’t have it. When any fellow minister criticized Catholics, Dad would gleefully tell them that Catholics were the first Christians – and that if he were not Pentecostal, he would be Catholic.
What magnificent formation we got from my Dad – and my Mom. He never said it, but he sure lived, “Acknowledge God, take the next right step, and be a sign of hope to those around you,” with joyful vigor and resolve.
When my mother died 10 years ago, my Dad’s anguish was nearly inconsolable. While a bunch of us were sitting around the fire pit a few days after she passed, Dad said, “I know she is in a better place…” and then he looked up with the most forlorn, pleading bafflement I have ever seen and added, “…but this is a pretty good place.” I often say that the family is the first Church. My family started off with a very good one.
It hurts to lose your parents. It consoles me to know, though, that now Dad knows, of his own personal knowledge, that there is heaven – and it is good.
And the mystic river rolls on.
I am deeply touched by all the condolences so many of you have offered and the Masses so many of you are having said for Dad. Shoot, a dozen Priests have let me know that they are saying Masses for him. I don’t know if Dad will have the most Masses said affectionately for him of any deceased Fundamentalist minister ever, but by gum, he’s in the running. It is a great consolation to me.
At Dad’s request, there will be no formal, public service. Many of you have already asked where you can send a card. I’m going to give you a brother’s address who will make sure all the family sees them:
1210 Old Ridge Rd.
Prattville, Alabama 36067
If communication goes out for any length of time, meet outside your local Church at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings. Tell friends at Church now in case you can’t then. CORAC teams will be out looking for people to gather in and work with.
Find me on Gab at Charliej373 or at the CORAC group.
Find me on Twitter at @Charlie62394802
The Corps of Renewal and Charity (CORAC)
18208 Preston Rd., Ste. D9-552
Dallas, Texas 75252