Memorial to a Real Man
I wrote this piece about my late father-in-law back in the eighties in response to an article written by Bob Greene in his newspaper column on the then-popular subject of whether real men eat quiche. Parts of this piece were read by the pastor during Grover’s memorial service at the First Baptist Church of McGehee, Arkansas, in 1989.
“The first step to greatness is to be honest.”
—Shaker Manifesto, 1887, quoted on desk calendar
Within the past decade, there has been a great deal of attention focused on the issue of male-female role types. Since 1982, especially, one aspect of this crucial issue seems to be concentrated on the burning question: do “real men” eat quiche?
Being born as I was just prior to World War II in a rural Arkansas that was yet to experience the marvels of post-war prosperity and modernity (i.e., electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, telephones, etc.), at a moment I consider the “tail end” of real-life existence, I feel eminently qualified to recognize a “real-man type” when I meet one.
In those days, a wartime society might be forced to accept the temporary necessity of synthetics in its manufactures, but even then it would never countenance artificiality in its people.
Life was very real back then. In a part of the country just barely emerging (if at all) from a decade of life-or-death struggle for economic survival during the Great Depression, we suddenly found ourselves thrust into a perhaps even more dramatic and crucial conflict, the outcome of which could well determine our very existence, not only as a state and region, but also as a people and a nation.
Even we children were aware that this was no game we were playing. Ours was a very real world, and it was populated by very real people.
Despite the passage of time and the inroads of that most insidious of enemies to all that is truly authentic—creeping modernism—some of those real people still exist today, though their number grows dangerously smaller with each passing year. One of those real people was my father-in-law, a simple, native son-of-the-soil who could say with Abraham Lincoln: “I never knew who my grandfather was; I’m more interested in what his grandson will be.”
A “good ole country boy from Arkinsaw,” he was married one week to the day before Pearl Harbor, sought to enlist in three different branches of the service, but was turned down (flat feet), only to be promptly drafted into the army and sent to the South Pacific to see months of service against the Japanese.
When the war was over, he came back home: unsung, unheralded, undecorated, and unappreciated, to a young wife and a three-year-old daughter (later to become my wife) whom he had never seen.
After his four years or so of military duty, there followed an unbroken and uneventful thirty-five-year, seven-days-a-week, on-call-twenty-four-hours-a-day tour of duty as a brakeman for the Missouri Pacific railroad, for which he was awarded a modest pension (no gold watch, no testimonial dinner, no pat on the back).
Then, having dutifully “fulfilled his obligation” to his country, his company, his community, and his clan, he settled down to spend his retirement years attending to his garden, his VFW membership, his duties as a deacon down at the First Baptist Church of McGehee, his neighbor’s welfare, his aching joints, and (perhaps most important) his own business.
Now, in my estimation, this is a real man: the nameless, fameless, dog-faced GI of “Dub-ya, Dub-ya Two”; the hard-workin’, law-abidin’, tax-payin’, church-goin’, guitar-pickin’ family man whose intentions are honorable, whose gaze is level, whose mind and conscience are clear, whose hand is steady, whose debts are paid, and whose word is bond.
Surely there are some of us left who are old enough to remember (hearing stories, at least) of the old-fashioned, feet-on-the-ground, look-you-dead-in-the-eye-and-tell-you-the-honest-to-God-truth, “No-credit-thanks,-I-pay-cash-for-what-I-buy,” “I-won’t-promise-unless-I-can-deliver,” “Here,-let-me-help” type. Well, if so, I’m happy to say that there are a few of that rare breed still around! My father-in-law was one of them.
This quiet man was the personification of a simpler, nobler, bygone era symbolized by the humble, self-effacing, Gary-Cooper-toe-twisting-in-the-dirt, “Shucks,-ma’m,-it-tweren’t nuthin’,” “I-just-seen-my-duty-and-I-done-it” hero types we all admired and respected and emulated “back in them days.”
Quiche? It’s likely he never heard of it. Even if he did, it was not a part of his vocabulary any more than Gucchi or Pucchi or “fen-TIS-tic!” Neither “quiche,” nor “gauche,” not “God, you guys!” ever issued from his lips. His diet tended much more to cornbread, collard greens, and apple cobbler; his haberdashery to J. C. Penney; and his use of the name of the Almighty to reverence, praise, and thanksgiving.
He knew nothing of “clout,” or “charisma,” and he was certainly not “with it.” But he most assuredly did “have it.” And what he had comprised the three essentials of a real man—grit, gumption, and godliness.
That bit of alliteration seems somehow poetically fitting, since his name was Grover. Grover Williams. A man as solid, and dependable, and unpretentious, and old-fashioned as his name, and his namesake, Grover Cleveland.
Quiche and quiche-eaters? These “ye have with ye always,” I suppose. But there ain’t many Grovers left. It is they, not the whooping crane and the alligator, who have become the real endangered species.
Thank God for the Grovers of this nation—who now, since August 2, 1989, are one less. In the perilous times in which we live, they are as vital as they are scarce.
Hollywood Actress Responds to This Tribute
After writing this piece I sent it to Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenbergen, a native Arkansan whose father also worked on the railroad. She even made a movie filmed in Arkansas based on his life. She wrote me back a gracious note thanking me for the piece and expressing to me how much she enjoyed and appreciated it.
Thank you belatedly for your letter and the article you wrote. I loved it on many levels–my father was just such a man. He died in March, 1989, and my heart still hurts more than anyone knows.
My uncle Grover, of Newport, who was like a grandfather to me, died six months before Daddy. I lost my two biggest fans and two of my heroes in six months. Your article touched me very much.
Thank you again. Your kindness was much appreciated, or as my father always said —
And “much obliged” to Grover Williams and all those like him (including his grandson Keiron Peacock), who sacrifice so much for so many and who receive so little in return. To view a monument to these veterans where Grover’s name is carved in stone along with hundreds of others, click here.