It was the early 1970’s. The civil rights movement was still finding its legs. I think I was 10 or 11 years old. My dad had the idea that a pop bottle drive might be a good way for our church to raise money for a Men’s Society scholarship. Glass pop bottles were worth a nickel or a dime apiece back in the day. Our church was good sized and ran four Sunday morning services. I remember waking up early to go help him set up in the parking lot before the 7:00 AM service. It was always a treat to ride in my dad’s old manual transmission Dodge pickup truck. There was something soothing about the sound of the truck as he put it through its gears. I also loved the way he would say, “Whooooa horse.” nearly every time he applied the brakes. The pop bottle drive was a huge success and we nearly overflowed the bed of the truck with donations from the congregation. My dad was pleased. I had helped. It was a good day.
The pop bottle drive became a monthly thing through the summer and as fall approached it was time to announce the scholarship winners. It was still largely an effort by my Dad and I but some of the other Men’s Society members would come relieve us so we could go in for mass when my mother arrived. When they announced the scholarship winners from the alter I felt a great deal of pride in my father. Knowing that I had helped by lifting a lot of heavy bags and wood cases of soda bottles felt pretty good too. This was what being a Christian felt like to me in the innocence of my youth.
As we left church that morning I could see something was wrong. There were several unhappy looking men hovering around my Dad’s truck. The man who had relieved us looked apologetic. As we approached, one of the hovering men, a man who had worshiped with us for years and considered a family friend, turned to face my father with rage in his eyes. Our church, of over 600 families at the time, had one, yes one, black family. One of the scholarships had gone to the daughter of that family. She wanted to study nursing so she could help other people.
“We would have put a stop to this had we known you are a ni**er lover Wilcox.” The man spat out.
My dad remained calm but I could tell by the look in his eyes that he had never been more angry. It was fury. He stared at the man until the he and his friends who had been nodding in agreement backed away. No more words were said. Some of the hovering men were now looking down. On the ride home my dad told me to always do right and never let other men stand in the way of doing good. It was a huge day for me where I became aware that if I could be half the man my father was that I would live a good life. The next summer we were back out there collecting pop bottles.
That nursing student went on to become a doctor. In 1989 as my dad lay in hospice she came by every day to comfort my mother and father. She thanked my father for believing in her when others may not have. God I miss that man. I think he would encourage me to resist if her were still alive. I got you dad. You raised me right.