My father often repeated a story from his childhood when I was younger. He grew up in Gert Town in mid-City, New Orleans, in the 1940s. In Gert Town, violence slinked between the broken barrels of shotgun homes, and boys pooled into gangs on narrow boulevards running alongside old-timey streetcars. My father was no different from the other kids in his neighborhood except that the pack he ran with were known for just that: running. They avoided fights like dogs avoid baths, and they became known as some of the biggest fleetfoots in Gert Town.
My father’s favorite story from his childhood was about how he got a scar at the crown of his head. He always began that story with a Once upon a time in District 4…
He and his friends were walking down the Tulane street railroad tracks on the way home from school when a group of boys poured out of an abandoned sugar refinery, hopped the gates along the tracks, and came looking for a fight. As my dad and his gang of fleetfoots were wont to do, they saw those boys rushing towards them, and they, with less than a second’s thought, ran. They turned tail so fast it caught the other gang off guard, and when those boys realized that they wouldn’t be able to cut the distance and catch up, they started pitching white rocks laying on the track at my dad and his crew. One particularly sharp shell caught my father in the back of the head and opened a scarlet gash that later required stitches.
Always at this point of the story, my father would lean forward and touch the scar he insisted was still there under the black curls of his short hair. I probably started hearing that story even before I understood words as he regaled my two older brothers and sister with this tale. As I aged into my teens, I used to wonder why my dad highlighted this story from his childhood to tell his children. In high school, my classmates’ dads didn’t talk about running from fights. A common refrain my classmates repeated from the horse’s mouth was if you got in a fight, even if you lost, always make sure to bloody the other kid as much as possible. And if you did back down, you’d get it worse at home than the other kid could ever give you. No father, except for my own, seemed proud of his acts of cowardice. And of course, I never told any of the guys in my class about those times when my dad was our age, he ran more than fought, dodged and weaved instead of manning up and standing tall.
My father moved from New Orleans to work in Manhattan in his 20s after graduating from university, and while living in Mt. Vernon, he and my mom had their first three kids. When he returned back to New Orleans, he got a job offer to be a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch. At the time, he also had an offer to be a teacher at a local university. When he told other people about the Merrill Lynch offer, they told him to take the professor job instead. A stockbroker was high risk, and my father already had three kids with a fourth on the way. Extended relatives and close friends advised my dad to take the safe job because at Merrill Lynch in the 1970s, my father would have been one of the first black brokers in New Orleans. What person with money would want to invest with a black man from Gert Town?
My dad did eventually take that job, and 40 years later, he’s still a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch, and along with my mom, raised six kids.
My dad often spoke of life in terms of winning or losing. His most repeated tale, that happened all those years ago on the streetcar tracks, framed life as a continuous series of skirmishes. Successfully navigating the battlefield required knowing what battles were worth fighting, and which ones were better left running away from, even if in running you’re left with scars that stick with you over the years.
Like my father, I’ve faced many fights in my 38 years. I was born with a speech impediment, spoke funny the rare times I opened my mouth, and was bullied continuously throughout elementary school. I dropped out of university twice and worked low waged customer service jobs dealing with difficult bosses and high maintenance customers. Failed relationships have plagued me throughout my adulthood. But like my father, I developed the art of knowing when to run and when a skirmish wasn’t worth fighting.
To win the war of life, you have to keep your sights on the conflicts worth engaging. For me, the most important battle has always been becoming a successful writer. I’ve been fleetfooted in many conflicts, but I’ve always kept my sights on that flag of authorship in foreign territory spied through the looking glass.
Like my father, I’ve chosen a high-risk campaign of conquest where the rewards are high but the chances of success are low. And like my father, I’ve been told to take the safe path, the low risk steady job that will allow me to live a low risk steady life. But over the years, I often thought back to those tracks and the gang that poured forth from that abandoned sugar refinery in pursuit of my father 60 years ago. And I eventually came to a revelation about my dad that those boys never realized.
When my father ran from that gang that day, he wasn’t trying to save himself, and he wasn’t being a coward. Instead, he was trying to spare those guys from the ass whipping he would have delivered upon them if he’d stayed. I came to realize that my father is a natural born pugilist. All he’s ever known is fighting to win at life, and no challenge has ever been too great for him to conquer. Some battles, though, simply aren’t worth his time. Even today, at 76 years old, he’s still fighting the good fights, and he’s still winning the important battles.
I inherited my father’s paladin genes, and for that, I want to thank him for the strength he gave me to keep going, round after round, until the match is mine.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. That scar you bear is a crown for a king, always and forever.