Daddy, October Sky, and the Underdog

Everyone has a story, a narrative with twists and turns, and value. This Advent season we think of Jesus’ story and freshly ponder the awe and mystery of the Holy Family. Joseph is a lowly carpenter betrothed to a young woman not much more than a girl who is pregnant not by him. I think about the Magnificat that Mary sings in Luke 2 and think about how God uses the humble and impoverished to confound the rich and exalted. This is our Christian narrative: God uses the weak to accomplish great things:  Simeon, old and near death, patiently waits in the temple to see the Savior; Anna age-old in years but fresh in the Spirit rejoices to see the Baby Jesus; lowly and marginalized shepherds hear the Angels’ chorus before anyone else. The Gospel of Christianity is replete with many such reversals of the ways of the world. We have a widow commended for giving her two small coins, a hated Tax Collector who becomes a Disciple and Gospel writer, unschooled fishermen who spread the Good News; undervalued women who become Jesus’ ardent supporters and first witnesses of his resurrection, a despised racially profiled Samaritan who becomes forever known as Good, and a crucified Christ who is risen from the dead. God pulls for the underdog!

I just watched the movie “October Sky” again while being home with a sore throat. Every time it leaves me in tears. I’m never completely sure why but I think it has to do with my father, Ralph Thomas McClendon. I’ve never tried to put this into words but today I feel compelled to tell his story and try to articulate his narrative and the Gospel through the vehicle of a movie. Daddy, like the Rocket Boys of Coalwood, West Virginia, reached for the stars. He was the youngest son of a family that had been through many tough times – a family raised in the “Dark Corner” of Edgefield County, South Carolina between Modoc and Red Hill. Daddy only got an 8th grade education. As a teenager he enlisted with the CCC’s (Civilian Conservation Corps) to learn a trade and send money home to his family hard-pressed by the Great Depression. In 1937 he ran off with my mother to get married after her father didn’t even turn around from stocking shelves to give him an answer to his question of asking for her hand. Daddy borrowed money from his brother Bruce in 1939 to take a chance and go to Reppert Auction School in Decatur, Indiana to learn how to be an auctioneer and graduated first in his class. In 1940 my oldest brother was born. My middle brother Ralph was born in 1947, and I came along unexpectedly in 1955. Daddy came from a poor family but by the grace of God and his determination made something of himself. At one time he owned five stockyards. He became known as Col. Ralph not because he served in the military and not just as an honorific title often given to auctioneers. He earned the title through accomplishment and respect.

Homer Hickam and the other Rocket Boys escaped their poverty to go to college and make the world a better place. They were at one time or another ostracized, arrested, or pushed into molds they couldn’t or wouldn’t fit. They made it! My Daddy made it. When he was just 48 he was given six weeks to six months to live because he had cancer that had metastasized. Amazingly he lived for 36 more years. At age 80 he lost his legs to diabetes and learned to walk on his prosthetic ones. Every Sunday he drove to church on those artificial legs. In his last days he went to church, came home, and his kidneys failed. In the hospital for his last two weeks of life he came and went in and out of consciousness. I’ll never forget his words to me as he awoke for the last time. He went over his funeral plans, gave some parting sage advice, and then added, “Oh, Son – You don’t have to put my fake legs in the casket. I won’t need them where I’m going.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that at the end of his funeral we sang “Lord of the Dance.” I was fine until that. I burst out in tears because I could see Daddy dancing a jig with Jesus.

He was a man not without foibles but his character was impeccable. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why God more often uses the lowly of the world. They are real, more authentic than beatific. As someone put it, “The branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit.” Daddy thought of others as better than himself, sometimes to a fault. He never forgot where he came from and it pushed him to excel. He was a character that laughed at adversity. Sure he worried sometimes about worrying but his driven nature more often sought solutions than sympathetic solace. He had a way with people that was uncanny. He could talk to the animals, too. My favorite photo of him is one with him standing in an open field with his hand on the hip of a cow and he’s between her and her calf. You just can’t do that, but he could.

Daddy encouraged us and gave us his own proverbs to live by. I can hear them now: “Any fool can make money, but it takes a smart man to save it.” “Give people a horse to ride home on when they’re angry.” “Love everybody.” Daddy lived all three consistently, except he didn’t save his money. He gave it all away. He invested in us, his church, strangers, family, and friends. He and mother were so much in need after their wedding that my mother’s parents took them in. In another reversal of fortune my Dad who could outwork anybody earned enough money so that when my mother’s two oldest brothers and father were desperately in need due to a not-to-be-shared event, he came to the rescue. He could have taken the family’s country store and all their houses but he settled for owning the homeplace and calling it even. That made for interesting dynamics but the ostracized country boy from the “Dark Corner” with an 8th grade education did the right thing. He loved my mother, he loved us, he loved Jesus and overcame the odds.

‘Tis the season for nostalgia for sure and the movie prompted me to think about my Dad’s upbringing and how he survived and thrived through hard times.  I also couldn’t help but shed a couple more tears as Miss Riley, the schoolteacher who inspired the boys, is fighting Hodgkin’s at the close of the film and in the postlude credits it’s stated that she dies at age 31 – the same age of my daughter Narcie who has a brain tumor. All the more reason to cling to our Christian narrative: Through Jesus we will overcome! That’s the message of Advent and Christmas for me this year. Thanks, Dad, for the reminder.