Sometimes one of the grand kids will ask a tough question. A couple of weeks ago I was driving Audrey somewhere when I waved at a neighbor walking down the street. Audrey wanted to know who he was and where he was going.
“That’s Dr Faith. He’s walking over to his rental house next door to Jill’s.”
“What’s a rental house?”
To this second grader the concept of a rental house was difficult to grasp. Audrey doesn’t live in a rental house, neither does Grandpa. The whole discussion carried us for the rest of the drive to wherever we were going. I loved every minute of it.
When I was nine we lived at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. Louie was serving in the army at the time. There are several stories to tell about that summer. One of the stories involves a question like the one Audrey asked about rental property.
Louie was driving me somewhere, perhaps to swimming lessons at the pool. We lived in enlisted housing, a circle of two bedroom duplexes in the desert. In one sense, it was a homogeneous neighborhood. Everyone worked for the military. Income levels were similar. Enlisted personnel even tended to be of similar ages, Louie would have been about thirty that summer. Just about everyone was married, as the single guys lived in the barracks or in town.
Life was pretty comfortable for me, and probably for the rest of the family, too. Linn, Eric and I shared one bedroom, with Louie and Grace in the front bedroom. There was a living room and kitchen. I don’t recall any other rooms. The whole house would have been under a thousand square feet. The front yard had a nice tree with a swing. Every other house on the circle looked just like ours.
That day in the car with Louie, I, as a nine-year-old, saw something that seemed a little out of the ordinary. So, just like Audrey, I asked the question.
“That couple looks different, Dad. Why?”
I realize now that a discussion at age nine can have a profound influence more than fifty years later. Louie tried to explain that this young couple would have a lot of trouble in life, through no fault of their own. Other than that they had the bad luck to fall in love and get married. A military base was one of the few places they could live in 1959.
The details of the rest of discussion elude me, but the lesson sticks. That couple would have trouble, but not from Louie. He had no issue with them, which made him an outlier in the late fifties. What this couple had done was illegal in dozens of states. Even though it wasn’t illegal in New Mexico, there were probably plenty of people who didn’t like it.
Louie taught me tolerance that morning in the car, and he was just answering a question from an innocent nine-year-old kid. He could have thrown out an off-handed comment which could have poisoned me for life. He could have cursed them and started me down a life course of distrust and hatred. Instead, I learned to accept other people where they’re at.
That summer was not one of Louie’s best, but that one discussion made up for a lot of bad behavior.
The couple’s bad choice? Getting married. One black man and one white woman. Not unlike the conundrum facing the Supreme Court as I write this. I pray that the court has the wisdom and strength to face the future with the right decision.
PS … The tree in the picture is the one I mentioned last week.
PPS … There’s an interesting related infographic at XKCD.