“Those people get cold and hungry, too.”  Henry, my father

My father was a young man during the real Great Depression. He was a “hobo” who “rode the rails” all over the western United States, sharing boxcars with other men also in dire circumstances. He drifted from place to place looking for any work he could find and working hard for every penny or food he earned.

He also made life-long friends, both among those who helped him and those he rode the rails with. He and his friends referred to each other in racial terms that are totally unacceptable today and they thought nothing of it. In fact, they were terms of endearment for his group. Dad was known as “that hard-headed Finn”, usually accompanied by some other more colorful expletives, and almost all of those he knew referred to themselves by their pejorative racial identities.

Daddy finally found work in a copper mine, married and settled down a few years before World War II began. Times were still tough but with the beginning of the war the depression officially ended and dad found what was considered a defense job as a night shift switchman for the Denver and Rio Grand Western Railroad. He still loved being around trains and worked for the Railroad until his death.

When I was a child there was only one black family in our community and we children never met them. They were spoken of by the adults we knew in terms that today would be very derogatory. I think we children heard every racial epithet in the book. By today’s standards, daddy and his friends would certainly be considered “racists” by referring to all groups in such language.

Coming from the Depression generation, money was a huge factor in dad’s life. He never wasted a penny if he could help it and he lived by the maxim “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” So when he came home from work one extremely cold winter morning and announced that he had “lost” his winter coat and “broken” his thermos my mother was completely baffled and kept trying to get him to tell her how in the world such a thing had happened. He told her to stick to her own problems and just get a new coat and thermos for him.

The next payday mom took me with her while, as usual, she went to railroad accounting to pick up dad’s paycheck. One of dad’s co-workers was also there and came out to our car laughing and said, “Henry nearly froze to death when he gave that black hobo his coat and thermos and fed him his lunch.” He also said dad brought the man into the switchmen’s shed to “warm up and hide from the railroad dicks until the train left and then he even helped him get aboard a boxcar without being seen.” When mom told daddy what she had learned he looked embarrassed and muttered, “Those people get cold and hungry, too.”

Since I had never met any black person I had assumed daddy didn’t like them. But what I heard that day left me with a very different perspective about my father.

My youngest brother, Dave, told me about our father taking him to the airport when he left for Vietnam. He said that everyone leaving on the flight had family and friends seeing them off except for one young black man from out-of-town. Dave walked around greeting friends when he realized dad was no longer with him. He found him sitting with his arms around the black kid, who was homesick, lonely and scared. Our father and Dave stayed with the boy right up until the boys boarded the plane and daddy hugged and kissed them both goodbye.

So, tell me, did my father’s words make him a racist? If so, what did his actions make him?

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