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Reaching my father: A tribute-and a warning

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Reaching My Father(A Tribute and A Warning)

I remember his Popeye-sized arms clearly. Years of working on ships had made the dark brown forearms of Steven Concepcíon Tirado (1926-1999) thick and formidable, nothing to mess with. His fingers too were notable - so thick he could retrieve a coin from a table only by pressing down on top of it and sliding it towards the edge nearest him. He cursed like the sailor he was and had an explosive temper, yet sang opera with a lovely lyric tenor’s voice he developed courtesy of the GI Bill, and was a self-taught man who’d read Faulkner, Gurdjieff, Conrad and philosophy despite never having finished 8th grade. He also supported the then very radical idea of gay rights, believing anyone who worked hard should be fairly given a chance to get ahead.

Though a tough guy by reputation, he had a soft heart and an ever-curious nature about the world of learning, frequently telling us that his late mother “loved people who read books;” indicating by intimation just how novel an idea that was for his generation and family. Called the n-word to his face (several painful times in front of me) he was a dark-skinned man, with curly, “kinky” hair. His father was from Puerto Rico and his mother from the Dominican Republic. Growing up in the Bronx of the late 20´s to early 40´s he frequently got into trouble, stealing, fighting, smoking pot, and described himself as a real juvenile delinquent. He eventually worked for over 30 years on ships with men from all around the country and the world so his tolerance for different people and cultures was decidedly NOT academic, yet he often felt ill at ease with men more formally schooled then he.

He was both a quite ordinary and yet, remarkable man, a mystic of the sea, a decent, hard-working father who spent so much time away from his family partly because ambition was stolen from him and he felt hampered by this loss his whole life. He was my father and I take from him a love of story-telling, travel and philosophy, a thirst for adventure and a distrust of political ideas that can’t be explained to and understood by working people. Like so many working class guys from his time, my old man worked hard and knew adversity firsthand (having grown up in the Bronx during the Great Depression in a large, dirt-poor family.) He fought for his country in the Pacific during WWII and had traveled enough around the world to hold suspect the constant propaganda about communism, fearing the paranoiac FBI under Hoover just as much.

He was also a real union man who referred to those he worked with as “brothers.” He was what is now called a “Roosevelt Democrat,” and though he spoke with tearful pride at seeing the great ships assembled to witness the Japanese surrender in 1945, the years of Occupation Duty he did after the war taught him something else as well. He described the awful devastation and terrible poverty, sadly relating tales of “nine year old girls prostituting themselves to GI´s” and never once bragged about his service, always describing war as utterly evil, even if sometimes necessary. He was against the Vietnam War (“If this goddamn war is still going on when you and Stevie [my brother] are of draft age, I’ll send you both to Canada”), and regarded Cuba’s revolution as a boon to the poor there (“No more Mafia gangsters, prostitutes and drugs”) whom he had seen firsthand over many trips to that island. (Another story I heard growing up was his traveling through the Cuban countryside with his friend Phil and their coming across a group of revolutionaries who were initially not all that friendly to these Americans but who warmed up to them quickly once my father sang and whose numbers included Fidel Castro.) Growing up during the 60´s era of hippy freedom and expressiveness, I recall how he seemed to enjoy it - if from a safe distance.

I remember him appreciating melodic Beatles compositions, regarding early David Bowie’s gender bending as “daring,” and actually laughed at Abbie Hoffman’s theatrical rants against the system. He admired Angela Davis as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., and ended up supporting George McGovern for President (his first choice was Shirley Chisholm). That his short, curly hair, baggy khaki work pants, and working class lingo were dismissed (or made fun of) by many on the Left at the time was a disappointment to me when I later understood it. I believe it was to him as well at the time, for I realize now that he was an ally they needed then and yet regularly rejected. I write this all now, because in the discussions many of us have had election after election, questions always arise as to why “progressive” forces lost “this time around”—yet again.

For the Left, I believe it time to reassess our options and redouble our efforts to reclaim our country from those who disrespect the men like my father. It is not that such men remain 100% “progressive”, no, not any more anyway; many have shifted away to the Republican Party because, rightly or wrongly, it made them feel strong and mighty and part of the workings of something truly great. My father was not immune to such appeals; he spoke of the awe at seeing “hundreds of ships in the Tokyo harbor for the surrender and it made me proud to be an American.” And I will not condemn those who desire such pride, though I don’t share in such sentiments. No, what needs to be said is that decent people who are proud of their country can be led into both glorious pursuits or disastrous imperial ones as well. Yes, they can become adversaries, but they are among our most potent allies as well.

For the very notion of imperial adventures, policing the world, blustering our way through friendships and boorishly intimidating the helpless all while giving tax breaks for the rich and cutting social services for the poor, all go against everything he stood for. And there are many men left of his generation and those which followed who have worked hard and honestly while losing the very vocabulary of civic culture to the angry words of thinly-veiled bigotry and hatred. The simplistic solutions I hear our country’s President (and many of those running for that office today) spit out would not have impressed the simple man my father was. But the rousing speeches of Martin Luther King. Jr., or John Kennedy did.

Not particularly the military cockiness of the latter, nor the soundbited-to-death “I Have A Dream” speech of the former, but those other speeches that challenged us to continue expanding the boundaries of our democratic principles and to fight hard against the evils of poverty and racism, militarism and imperialism. America for him meant public libraries with a purpose to educate the common person, government services to assist those who can ´t assist themselves, care for the elderly who once went hungry in their twilight years, respect for the aspirations of anyone who worked for a living no matter what they looked like or did in bed, a belief in the common man, and a policy of doing at home all those great things we regularly heard others overseas talk about us as our best ideals. He knew that you couldn’t cut taxes, raise military spending and cut social services without violating a civil contract that he understood as sacred. But he was a man of his times, he respected his country and its noblest ideals, thought military service an honorable way to serve one’s country while acquiring discipline for later on in life and thought opera represented “class” which he aspired to, for himself and his children.

Still, he respected dissent and when I wore my hair long and regularly participated in political protests he never tried dissuading me, merely saying, “Be careful, Joe.” I realize now that it is not just in reaching my father that I feel lacking in those messages of the Left. It’s the not reaching what is of my father in me that disturbs me also. Writers Joe Bageant, and Paul Street, former military man Stan Goff, and filmmaker Michael Moore are people whose attempts to speak to working-class men and women alike would have engaged my father and who now engage me. Their work at its best makes honest efforts to explain what they feel is unfair or wrong and to document those things in ways that are rousing, humorous and unpatronizing to working class people.

They try to stir up, to inspire and to inform, but to do it in ways people understand. In ways that inspire solidarity amongst people whose education background and cultural “sophistication” are often far different than the “leaders” on the Left. But the sad fact is that many of those who call themselves “leftists” today have rarely, if ever worked alongside men like my father. In fact, it seems that so many of them have never worked as a necessity at all, instead picking jobs for the “experience” of it. Men like my father had no options but to work, (he quit school at 13) and he worked very hard to support his family.

Now we have supporters and writers, activists and “Left speakers” trying to rally a sickened Left wondering why their putative allies like my father are ignoring them. Well here’s one reason: they don’t feel respected. Many feel that all the risks are to be taken by the working class and few of the “activists,” and if things get tough, they know those activists will be the first to return to college, writing about their experiences with the “workers” with faux-wistfulness and condescending accounts of “solidarity.” While men like my father will be left without jobs, in jail, or embittered, yet again. One of the great potentials the US has is to bring together so many different people, of different cultural backgrounds, races, and places of origin. When such solidarity succeeds, it is because a grander notion than the needs of any single group is appealed to and agreed upon. In churches and labor halls, by water coolers and rallies, the issues are discussed and at a certain point the people act.

My father understood this and saw it, and supported it. For Blacks, for gays for women and other minorities. Not because it was the fashion, but because it was fair. When the Left begins to talk fairness and accepts that fairness respects workers who may not be part of the fashion-of-the-day, as allies instead of obstacles, the Left will be resurgent and win with a grand coalition that can unite Americans. That would be a message that would reach my father.
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Josà M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet, and writer living in Hafnarfjorà degreesur, Iceland, known for its elves, "hidden people" and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano -s Journal, The Galway Review, (more...)
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