Lessons in Courage From My Father
Last year I delivered a sermon honoring my mother on Mother’s Day called “Honoring My Mother, who Raised Me in the Shadow of Segregation.” When I told Carol, my wife, that I intended to write another sermon for Father’s Day about his courage, she remarked that it would probably sound like the previous one about my mother. I told her there were similarities, but I learned different things from my parents. The courage my mother exhibited in raising me during that long terrible night of segregation was different from that of my father’s.
While my mother faced prejudice with a measure of indifference (much like the way a teenager dismisses an adult with a shrug of the shoulder and an icy “whatever”), my father carried a somewhat heavier burden. He came into a world far less friendly to black men than the one I live in, and the lessons he learned molded his behavior and outlook on life.
My father, Clovice A. Lewis, Sr., was one of eleven children growing up in a too-small house in Mobile, Alabama. He has been described to me by all of his siblings as “the tinkerer.” He was infamous from a young age as the person you go to first when you’ve lost a watch. If he had it, the watch was likely to have been carefully dismantled and examined, along with other pieces of 1940’s technology that miraculously made their way into the shoebox he kept under his bed. It is not surprising that I have developed a life-long love affair with technology. My father infused his six children with a passion for gadgets. We all suffer from the disease to one degree or another. My brother and I exhibit the most pronounced symptoms, but our sisters are also keen technologists.
He went to Catholic seminary to study for the priesthood during ninth grade. Although he is a deeply spiritual and contemplative man, my father realized that marriage more suited his vision of the future. Soon after he left the seminary and met my mother at the Most Sacred Heart High School, she became the central figure in that vision. My mother says she didn’t like the young Clovice because he was a little arrogant. She changed her mind, which is something I am most happy about.
After high school, my father began what was to be a 20-year long career in the Air Force by way of volunteering in the Army in 1953. He and my mother married in 1954 and moved away from Mobile. The Armed Forces offered him opportunities he could not easily take advantage of had he stayed there. He always wanted to get into electronics. His test scores in the Army indicated strong aptitude for administration, mechanics, and electronics, in that order. The Army placed him in the motor pool, which he thought would be fine. He was under the impression that he’d work on engines, rebuilding and repairing various motor vehicles. He discovered that the Army only allowed white soldiers to do such work. He and other black men were permitted to pull batteries and change the oil. My father had enough after ruining fatigues with battery acid for 18 months. The base drum and bugle corps were looking for a few good men, so he auditioned and got assigned to play double B flat bass horn, but it disbanded before he could join the band. Temporary duty in personnel turned into a more permanent position, and that’s where he got stuck until he joined the Air Force.
When he was in the Air Force, my father was known as the “Singing Sergeant” because of his gorgeous voice. I did not appreciate his gift as I was growing up. I recently heard a recording of his performance on the very last nationwide Ted Mack Amateur Hour show, which brought me to tears. “I left My Heart In San Francisco” was sung by my then 32-year-old father with a voice that was as elegant as Johnny Mathis with phrasing as sophisticated as anything Nat King Cole ever sang. My father was phenomenal. I often wonder what his life would have been like if the Ted Mack show had not gone off the air immediately after. What if all those postcards that were never tallied could tell who won the competition that night? What if my father could have been signed to a record contract?
So far, he doesn’t sound extraordinarily courageous, does he? There are millions of men in the world like my father. They wake up every morning and work hard for their families. These men struggle against benevolent oppression, men who sacrifice their dreams so that their children can live their own, and men who endure hardships so the future can dawn on new vistas of possibilities. Well, the story of my father’s courage, indeed most men’s courage, is not best told by recounting significant events. It is measured by telling almost insignificant events that form a larger picture. It is described by character, integrity, grit, strength, experience, and stamina. These are the things that tell you about a man, and if he’s a good man like my father, you will learn about them long after the fact. In fact, I did not truly understand the sacrifices and hardships my father endured as a black man in the Air Force of the 1960s and 70s. He faced racism and humiliations in the service of his country. Click here for an interview I did with him as he described a horrific racist incident at his workplace at Dyess Air Force Base.
I told you that my father grew up in what I described as a “too-small-house” as one of eleven children. His father, John Lewis, finished eighth grade and worked the rest of his life as a carpenter, handyman, and janitor for the Catholic diocese in Mobile. He met and married my grandmother, Anna Mary Lewis, and started on that large family right away. They and their children lived in three separate houses before settling down on Spruce street in Mobile. The other three houses burned down because of substandard construction. My father’s family had to start from nothing each time. He says that his father’s Catholic rectories and convents helped them tremendously. He says that Catholics in the deep south at that time were treated better than non-Catholic blacks by the white priests and nuns who worked with them and lived in their parishes. They were simply better educated and provided with more opportunities. My father says they didn’t know they were poor because Catholic charities always provided them with work, clothing, and toys. At times, 15 people lived in the four-bedroom house on Spruce Street. There were three beds in a room with three kids in each bed, sleeping head to toe. So my father’s shoe box had a lot of company.
I told you my father desperately wanted to get into electronics from when he first joined the Army. After entering the Air Force, he got stuck in personnel for years. He wanted electronics training so badly that he lost rank by switching. Still in personnel after returning from assignment to England in 1961, my father was stationed at Hamilton field near Vallejo, California. My father described personnel as a closed field, meaning there was no possibility of promotion or transfer. His commanding officer forbade him from putting in for transfers. He repeatedly pleaded to be let go but was always denied. In the early 1960s, the Strategic Air Command of the Air Force was developing a new, ultra-sophisticated command and control system using computers. Because he worked in personnel, my father knew about the requests and orders going out all over the Air Force for training on the new system. He asked his Commanding Officer (CO) again for a transfer and was denied. It was then that my father decided to apply to SAC despite his orders to the contrary. He knew he could be demoted for doing so, but he tested for and passed the preliminary exams. He then got a friend of his at the base headquarters to submit the paperwork for him. SAC cut orders for my father to report to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, to train on the new computer system in early 1963. He describes his meeting with the commanding officer as not pleasant. The CO had no choice but to let my father go... the orders were signed and irrevocable. As a result, my father spent the next few months doing unpleasant guard and kitchen patrol duty. But he was happy to do this because he was finally on the way towards his dream.
Much later, when my father was the NCO in charge of maintaining that ultra-sophisticated computer system for the Strategic Air Command at Dyess Air Force base in Abilene, Texas, he faced another career-ending decision. For several days he heard a noise coming from the communications equipment where he worked on the upper floor of the base headquarters building. He recognized the sound coming from the crucial air conditioning that kept the huge vacuum tubes, capacitors, and other electronic equipment cool enough to operate. Anyone who’s been to Texas in the summer can attest to how scorching it can get long before noon. The temperature rose more with each passing day. My father had called for several days to have air conditioning engineers fix the problem, but no one would come. Finally, one morning he got to the site at 7:00 A.M. and found the air conditioners completely inoperable. He immediately called his commanding officer to appraise him of the situation and told him that the system might need to be shut down.
The CO gave my father a direct order not to do so. My father made calls to other Air Force bases, air conditioning engineers, and other officers in the network. At 8:30, my father warned that he would need to shut down by 10:00 A.M. Again, his CO told him not to power down the equipment under any circumstances because he did not yet have permission and could not reach people authorized to give consent. My father told him it would take six months and millions of dollars to repair the potential damage, but the officer would not budge. So, at 10:00 on a blistering Texas morning, my father shut down the Dyess Air Force base node of the international SAC command and control system and refused to turn it back on until the air conditioners were repaired enough to allow proper operation. The fate of the free world rested in the hands of an Air Force technical sergeant from Mobile, Alabama, but not one newspaper picked up the story! My father stood his ground for an hour and a half until the repairs were made. He said the engineers miraculously appeared shortly after he pulled the plug.
I heard this story before, but not in the detail my father offered this time while I was preparing for this sermon. I asked him why he didn’t simply follow the officer’s orders. I thought he could not be blamed for any damage that might have occurred. I asked him if he was afraid to do what he did and about the repercussion of his action. He told me he was responsible for that system and would not permit it to be damaged, no matter what happened. He said that he never thought what it might cost him because it was the right thing to do. It turns out that the commanding officer never said a word about the incident to him afterward. He did not hear from anyone about his potential court martial-able actions. It’s as if the incident never happened.
My father was a member of the Air Force, but that did not make him a warrior. While he served during the Vietnam war era, he did not go to Vietnam. He was against the war from the beginning. He agreed with Muhammad Ali when he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” I did not know how dangerous it was for my father to hold these views until later when I won a Veterans of Foreign Wars speech contest for the state of Mississippi in 1973. The very proud leader of the post that sponsored me assumed that my father favored the war and against any pullout from Vietnam that was being discussed at the time. I remember the man became enraged when my father told him the war was wrong and we should have never been in Vietnam in the first place. The VFW post leader almost came to blows with my father. I watched in amazement how my father handled the situation. He simply asserted his right to speak his mind in a respectful but firm way. The situation was diffused, but I learned a valuable lesson about my father and how to stand up for myself that day.
My father taught me, by his example, to stand up for myself in any situation I find myself in. Visitors to our household are sometimes taken aback by how my family members debate with each other. We have raging discussions that, others tell me, would be the fuel for weeks of resentment and hurt feelings. Those visitors will look on with amazement when we all hug each other at three o’clock in the morning good night, and go to bed with the same satisfaction derived from a good fight with your pet cat. There have been times when I am on the verge of intimidation or self-doubt in my professional and personal life.
There have been times when I have dreaded going into an abusive manager’s office. There are times when I need to marshal my courage and defend my rights, even when it costs me to do so. At those times, I think about my father. Forget about “What would Jesus do?”... I ask, “What would my father do?”. Then, suddenly I always realize that the only man who has ever had the right to intimidate me is my father and that he gracefully relinquished that right years ago. As I walk down corporate corridors towards paneled board rooms, I am aware of the powerful gifts of validation and self-worth my father has given me. The man who wishes to intimidate me from behind a big desk is often surprised as hell to find out that it cannot be done. That man cannot know that the son of Technical Sergeant Clovice Lewis, the keeper of the keys to the Strategic Air Command and the devourer of commanding officers, is in the house.
Like other proud sons, I can go on and on about such stories about my father. However, the most fantastic thing about Clovice A. Lewis, Sr., is that he is even with us at all. I have just recounted a few stories from what I consider a courageous man’s life. However, over the past 25 years, I have come to understand that his courage is tested every day in ways that most of us can scarcely begin to phantom. Since then, he has been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. His choices are to endure major surgery that has only a 30% chance of success, which may leave him unable to walk or endure a life of intense pain. Over the years, I have watched a man with the sharpest mind — a skilled writer, an incredible vocalist, a brilliant organizer, and a leader become someone barely capable of writing a cohesive paragraph. Even more potent drugs are used to combat his pain, to no real or lasting effect. His neurological system has been impaired to the point where he sometimes falls and hurts himself. Extremely violent myoclonic seizures, the worst seen by anyone at the UCLA Pain Center, did not allow my father to sleep for more than a few minutes for years. Thankfully now, newer medicines lower the constant pain enough so that he can sleep, but they leave him unable to function. He is now officially disabled but still must battle ineptitude and indifference at the VA hospitals he must go to.
I have had frightening and heart-breaking talks with him about his desire to end his life because the pain is so great. He and my mother have suffered tremendous financial and emotional setbacks. I have watched him fail to deal with challenges from dishonest automobile dealers to hospital administrators that would have been easy for him to overcome in the past. I have watched my father, now in his mid-sixties, become swallowed by life like the biblical Jonah, but unlike Jonah, my father is not likely to emerge from the great fish’s belly.
Yet, if you were to meet my father on his good days, you would probably not recognize anything too out of the ordinary. You would not know that for every day of escaping his bed, he must pay with another three days in it. He will appear alert and present, but that is at tremendous cost, which he will inevitably and dearly pay.
You would not know these things about the singing sergeant. But I do. I see a man whose body suffers tremendously every day, but whose spirit is dancing and singing in the belly of the great fish, thanking God for every precious moment of life, thanking God for his wife, and thanking God for his children; even the ones who have betrayed him the most. When I recently asked him what he considers his life’s greatest challenge, he surprised me. I thought he would talk about his pain. He told me, instead, that it was being an entrepreneur! He said that the pinnacle of his career was when he was called back to consult with a company that made printers for the Army. His technical skills allowed them to meet requirements and sell their products. He reminded me that our name is on the plaque attached to the Voyager spacecraft that is now hurtling through the vastness of deep space because he was on the team of people who helped create it at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.
Every time I get into the cockpit of an airplane, I think about the fact that my father would have been prohibited from doing what I can now do when he was a young man. I am amazed that he did not infect my siblings and me with resentment and distrust of white people. When I practice my consultation business specializing in multimedia, I often think of my father, who started me down this path so many years ago. I think about the many people he so selflessly gave his time and energies to help over the years. I believe, like my father before me, and his father before him, that a man must improve the world by his progeny and his works... that each generation is not beholden to the previous one, but is expected to stand on their backs to achieve greater things. It is men like my father — proud, capable, committed, intelligent, devoted, and fierce — who will stop an advancing army in its tracks and say, “Nuts, I will not surrender, and you will not pass.” It is men like my father, who have no desire for accolades, who will not be praised for the greatness within them, who are both gentle and strong, who raise sons and daughters of integrity and intelligence, who are just and wise, those are the men who are makers of worlds. So, on behalf of my father, whom I consider to be the finest of all men on this planet, I honor all men who are fathers today and thank God for them.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!