I can still hear the squeaky sound of the hand pump in my grandmother’s kitchen as she filled the pot for boiling the cabbage. Then would come poking the old wood cookstove to get the fire just right. Cabbage seems to be my main memory of her. Standing on the back porch watching her pick cabbage from her expansive garden. Mostly I remember her expansive backside looking forever like two giant cabbages clothed in a denim skirt.
The “poker” I would watch grandma use on her wood cookstove wasn’t a poker at all. It was my great grandfather’s bayonet from the Civil war. Hating slavery he joined the union army to fight against it. As I rummaged through some family heirlooms, I found his wallet containing some Confederate money. And the poker, his bayonet, which long ago lost any edge thanks to my grandmother, now hangs in our living room.
My grandfather, who died the year I was born at age 80, owned a small general mercantile in the township. He sold just about anything a person needed around the house, especially in the kitchen. From food to shoe polish. He was a single-minded kind of fellow who lived pretty much the way he saw fit.
When my dad was still a kid, Packard built an automobile plant in the area. While the townspeople were excited about what it would mean for the region they were not ready for what followed. The great migration from Europe brought people from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy. These folks were not at all like the protestant residents of their old community. They were Catholic. A far cry from what they had been expecting. The township fathers told grandad, in no uncertain term, to stop trading with these foreigners because of their foreign religion.
Grandad ignored them. They were good customers and needed a place to trade for goods. My dad well remembered what followed. On a Saturday night, as they sat listening to the radio, he looked out the window to see a fiery cross burning in their front yard. The Klan, which had always been big in Ohio and staunchly antiCatholic, decided they would teach grandad a lesson. They continued Sunday morning by marching into church in full white hoods and robes. But that never stopped grandad. I still try to envision my dad, as a young boy, looking out the window to see a cross burning on his front lawn.
My father was the best storyteller I have ever known. When I was a kid, I would listen intently as dad retold the story every time I asked. He loved telling it as much as I loved listening to it. And for me, it had become part of the Shipley legacy, one in which we still take great pride. “Way to go grandpa” I would think.
Eventually, we moved to Bedford Ohio where dad became a history teacher and basketball coach. Here is where another part of the legacy kicks in. Dad had some firsts as coach one season. He had his first player who was six feet tall and African American. This player, Gilly Grooms, was responsible for dad winning his first conference basketball championship. It was a very big year around the Shipley household.
Then the time came to hold the banquet where the players received their letter. Dad went to the local restaurant where the banquet had always been held to make arrangements. When the owner, who he had dealt with for years, told him Gilly would have to eat in the kitchen dad blew his top. He was livid and said he was never going to have one of his players put up with that kind of stuff. We lived right down the street from the high school and, with mom’s help, the letter banquet consisted of a spaghetti dinner at our house. And it continued from that point on. “Way to go, dad,” I thought.
As I approached my thirties I found myself in a fight for my own rights. In my case it was a battle with the President of the United States, Richard Nixon. It seems he didn’t like one of our songs “One Toke Over The Line” and tried very hard to have it banned from the radio. He even called out Michael and I by name referring to us “miscreants” and “dangers to American youth.” Readers probably know how that one turned out. We won and had a hit. He lost and eventually resigned. Still, personally going up against a President is pretty heady stuff. Something most folks never have an opportunity to do. So I can’t help but wonder if my grandads and my father would have said “Way To Go Tom” back when the fight was on. Had I lived up to the family tradition?
So these days, with all the fussin’ and fumin I see on the news, I remember the lessons I learned from my dad, my granddad, and my great grandad. I think about how they spent their lives in battles against those who hate and try to take away people’s rights. And I’m reminded of an old Dino Valenti song that became a hit for The Youngbloods.
“Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now”.