Thursday, June 22, 2017

Tears of a Father

Scars. They travel with us through life as reminders of experiences, both wonderful and terrifying. Scars are forever things, and some people have more than most.

My father once told me of his family’s trip from Florida to his father’s new duty station in Washington State. He was a child, and I wasn’t even a twinkle in his eye. They drove the long miles in the family car. There were many stops over many days to refuel both themselves and their Buick.  At one particular stop, they decided to catch a bite to eat after filling up at a gas station.  My dad was young, and doesn’t quite remember where the stop was, but what he does remember, he remembers well. Everyone got out of the car after pulling into a restaurant’s parking lot, and my dad headed to the front door.  He didn’t know what the sign on the side meant, and continued skipping in.  It read, “No Blacks Allowed Through The Front.  Go Around Back.” He was stopped by my grandfather’s strong hand on his shoulder, and carefully directed around the building. My father, being a kid, did what kids do… “Dad?  The front door’s back there?”  My grandfather ignored him. “Dad, I don’t understand where we’re going.  Dad, why can’t we go in the front door?”

My grandfather stopped. It didn’t take my dad long to see the tears welling in his father’s eyes. And for the first of only two times in his life, my father saw his father cry.  My grandfather wept. He later told my dad he was overcome with shame. An overwhelming shame at having come back from fighting for America in the Korean war, and yet there he was, having to explain to his child why they weren’t deserving enough to walk through the front door.

And my father cried.  


[Mom & Dad.  I want to be like him when I grow up.]

When Dad graduated from high school, he knew the rule. “You either go to college, join the military, or get a job,” my grandfather always said.  Since he was dating the woman he would eventually marry and have a child with, Dad intended to be the man they both needed him to be.  He picked up the newspaper and began his quest to find that perfect job, ink staining his thumb and forefinger. After days of searching through the classified ads, he found it. This job would be his! Phone interviews went better than expected, and the company invited him down for a final interview, which was more of a formality, and to sign the papers making him a “valued member of their team.”

Dad dressed the part and made his way down to Miami Beach. They call it “walking on air” when you have that spring in your step. The confidence in knowing you’re doing the right thing, and with a little hard work, the effort will be rewarded.  Dad reached the third floor and walked up to the receptionist knowing he, the 18 year old king of his domain, would soon have the world by its tail.  “Hi, I’m David Sheppard and I’m here for the job we talked about,” my father said with his baritone confidence and easy smile.  After an extended pause, the woman said, “You look different than what you sound like on the phone.”

An Army recruiter watched my dad as he slowly descended the steps to the second floor.  “Well,” he said with a nod to my dad, “You look like someone just killed your favorite dog.”  With a little effort, my father was able to whisper, “They didn’t want me.”

“Son, Uncle Sam wants you.  He’ll never turn you away.”

Scars. They’re lasting impressions created in an instant, and they can change you. Affect you.

My father’s first duty station was in Berlin, Germany, the city in which I would eventually be born.  He’d just flown in and reported to the First Sergeant.  

First Sergeant - “Which side d’you want?”
Dad - “I’m not sure what you mean, First Sergeant.”
First Sergeant - “There’s a barracks for the white soldiers and one for the blacks.  Which Side do you want?”
Dad - “I’m tired, First Sergeant.  I just want somewhere to lay my head down.”

The First Sergeant directed my dad to his new bunk in the white barracks.  His roommate was a white Sergeant who, upon seeing my dad, curtly told him room inspections were every morning. The Sergeant then went to his wallet and pulled out a card, which he handed to my dad.  After a quick glance my father saw that it identified the owner as a clansman in good standing with the Ku Klux Klan.  The Sergeant said, “If the race riots happen, I’m coming for you.” He didn’t say another word to my dad for weeks.

Those several weeks went by when, out of the blue, the Sergeant asked my dad, “Why is it I only see you guys dating white women, and how is it that at the end of the night, you black fellas always walk out of the clubs with the best lookin ones?”
“Well,” Dad replied, “How many black women do you see around here?  Who’re we suppose to date?  You?  And let me ask you this.  When you go out to the clubs, what’s the first thing you do?”
“Order a drink,” the Sergeant replied.
“Exactly. And then more drinks after that. What woman wants to be with a drunk man who smells like alcohol?”  The Sergeant sat in contemplation.  “I tell you what,” my dad continued, “get dressed. You’re going to the club with me.  There’s only one rule, and that’s ‘No Alcohol’.”

The Sergeant did get dressed and off to the club they went.  The two had a good time.  They had a great time, actually.  The next morning Dad and the Sergeant were sitting quietly when the Sergeant slowly reached over for his wallet.  He pulled out his card and looked at my dad.  Then, very deliberately, the Sergeant ripped his KKK card into tiny little pieces.

[The first picture of my wife and I together]

Years ago, after the birth of our daughter, my wife and I decided to drive to Central Oregon for a few days. If a short, mini vacation is what you need, Central/Eastern Oregon won’t steer you wrong! Several times since we’d met, Shellie told me of her relatives in Eastern Oregon.  When she was young, they’d have family trips out that way and she’d spend magical days frolicking amongst the sagebrush. Shellie’s relatives adored her red poof of hair, and constantly lavished her with hugs and smooches. So, when Shellie asked if I’d mind her driving the hour or two to their house, I was delighted she’d get the chance even though I was stuck elsewhere.  She and our toddler, Clara, took off for an adventure within an adventure.

They drove and drove, finally reaching their destination. With butterflies in her stomach flying figure eights, Shellie walked to the door. She couldn’t contain her smile. How fun was it going to be to see these people she made so many memories with again!  After a few knocks on the door, it creaked open.

A number of hours later, the sun long set, Shellie pulled into the driveway of the house we were renting. She walked into the door and was oddly quiet. I scrunched my face into a quizzical expression and asked, “What’s the matter, hon?”  “They wouldn’t see me,” she said. “They wouldn’t let me in the house because my daughter is black.”  Shellie later told me the incident devastated her spirit beyond even her own comprehension.

Every member of my family bears the scars of racism.

[Big sister Clara with little brother Quincy]

When we first moved to Lake Oswego seven and a half years ago, my daughter attended Forest Hills Elementary School. Some might say the schools in Lake Oswego are equivalent to private schools, and some would argue they’re even better. I couldn’t agree more. Clara received an education in both academics and life.

Cinnamon Roll.

That’s the name some of the other students gave her because she wasn’t white. It’s not a scary or harsh word. Not at all. But it was their way of marking her as different. As an outsider. As “the other.” Clara came home several times, sobbing, after the kids in school singled her out and called her names for being black. I tried to downplay her “nickname” of cinnamon roll because I knew she’d be called much much worse as she got older.


Quincy, my youngest, got to go to his first sleep-away camp last year.  A week at the coast full of fishing, singing, campfires and fun! And as if the pot wasn’t already sweet enough, his cousin, Shellie’s sister’s son, was going too. Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails, there was about to be a whole lot of shenanigans on the Oregon Coast!

One afternoon, as the wind whispered through the pines and dragonflies skimmed the nearby lake, the boys in their cabin were deep in conversation.  You know, the kind of deep conversations eight year olds have.  Quincy mentioned how he and his cousin are related.  One of the other boys wasn’t having any of it because Quincy was black, and his cousin was white.  “You guys can’t be related.  And besides, black people are weird.”

I can talk for a hundred hours, and write a hundred-thousand words, and still not convey the ache in my heart upon hearing Quincy tell me one of his most memorable experiences of camp was being told, “Besides, black people are weird.”

Race is a fact of life in my household. Racism has affected our pasts, it's affecting our present, and it will most definitely shape our futures. It's not an idea we focus on, or a state of mind we wallow in. Race is, however, an idea thrust upon us. Sometimes daily. I wish it weren't. I crave the luxury of living a life where the color of our skin is just... a color. Ah, what a luxury that would be. Many people actually enjoy such luxury. Some might even call it a privilege...

A little less than a week ago, I wrote about an unpleasant interaction I had with a gentleman in Lake Oswego. I described it in a blog post which I called, “We Found Our Heart In Lake Oswego.”  You can read it [here] if you’d like. I thought to myself, “People really seem to be into this piece. I bet a couple hundred people might read it. What a great chance to spur a deep, heartfelt conversation.” It’s now been viewed more than 25,000 times. The community is talking about how they, as individuals, view and treat others. They’re discussing ideas such as fairness, and equity, and brainstorming ways to, as a society, evolve forward.

[Quincy, Clara, me and my father enjoying the Oregon Coast]

I’ve also had many contemplative conversations this past week. One of the more meaningful ones was with a coworker I respect on many different levels. I especially appreciated his candor as we discussed the post. He described to me having been born in the Midwest and spending the majority of his adult life in Portland. He’s several years older than I am, but told me he’d just recently, for the first time, traveled east of the Rockies. In describing his experience on the East Coast, he said, “There were black people working everywhere! They were in every store you went in. Here in Portland I can go to the Starbucks and not see a black person.  I can walk down the street and go to the grocery store, and never see a single black person!  Oregon is so different than it was there.”

We talked for quite a while, and the conversation drifted to what’s been reported in the media. “You hear about racist this and racism that, but can it really that bad?” my coworker asked. He continued, “I mean, if you believe the media, we’re surrounded by racism, but I don’t see it. I’ve been around for a long time, and I’m just not seeing that stuff.”

And there you have it… My coworker unwittingly stumbled on my definition of "White Privilege." I don’t view white privilege as some sort of club with a secret handshake that gets you better jobs, bigger houses or a seat at the big boy’s table, although it might… To me, white privilege is being able to go through life without thinking twice that your race in any way affects the direction of your path forward. It doesn't exclude one from working this job, or living in that neighborhood. White privilege is being able to question whether racism really is that big of a problem, because it’s not happening to you.

White privilege is never being a father who cried because his father was denied a job, or because your wife was shunned by her own flesh and blood. It’s never having an inexpressible ache in your heart for a sobbing daughter, or son who’s been told “black people are weird.”

If you’ve read this far, you now know a lot of personal things about my life experiences. You’ve been able to glimpse, if just briefly, the living, breathing monster of racism as it affects life, love, and growth of the human spirit. Keep the conversation going.

My dad once met a man who walked up to him, and with a defiant, angry stance declared, “I hate all black people.”
“Wow!” my father replied.  “That must have taken a really long time!”
“What d’ya mean?” the man questioned.
“Well, you said you hate all black people.  It must have taken a long time to meet them all.  How many have you met?”
“You’re the first one,” was the man’s reply.

Remember that receptionist who told my father he looked differently than he sounded on the phone? His reply to her... “That’s what education does for you.”


  1. Sadly I experienced reverse racism. My foxhole buddy in Viet Nam was Black. We were best friends. Sadly he was KIA and I still miss him looking out for my wild ways as a young private (24 at the time). However, that does not negate the treatment I received b
    from a Black SGM. I was put in for promotion to SFC and he told me that as long as he was SGM I would never receive a promotion. I was number one on the promotion list back then and my stripe went to a Black friend of his that had come to the unit as an SP4. I later ran in to his friend still wearing my stripe but I was a MSG then. He would not even speak to me. Racism works both ways methinks. Depends on who is in charge.

    1. Loren, you really thought that this was the forum to post this in? It's tone deaf as heck and shows a fundamental lack of understanding of what structural racism is.

  2. Nathan, my heart breaks as I read your words. All I know to say and do is to let you know that you and your family will always be welcome to enter my house should we ever meet. I stand with you in your struggle for equality and justice.

  3. Thank you Nathan...these words need to be said, and spread. Bless you and your beautiful family.

  4. Nathan -- Seriously, you need to start moonlighting as a writer. Thanks so much for sharing your heart and life with all of us out here. Like your work friend, I think the 'good' people out here who are not racist are shocked when they learn or hear how prevalent it actually is -- like your story with BMW-boy. For most of us, it's just not remotely who we are and therefore we struggle to believe/accept how pervasive it actually is. And sadly, it's all around us - our neighbors, acquaintances, family.
    And we need to shine the Light on it every time we see it. Cockroaches scatter when Light is shined on them.
    Love & blessings to you and your family.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story here and with The Lake Oswego Review. My hope is that your story spurs the kind of conversation that leads the community to a better place.

  6. You have a lovely family.
    (My kids, who are half-Asian, have on occasion encountered stupid whites saying stupid things. So, I can relate somewhat to your situation...)

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  8. Such skilled and eloquent writing...

    I am horrified that humans like BMW-boy even exist in our world but thank you for exposing that they, sadly, still do. I have never had the term "white privilege" illuminated for me in the way that you did. I don't "think twice" and I am heartbroken that anyone ever has to.

    I hope you continue to speak out.

  9. Thank you for sharing your very personal story it is both powerful and moving.

    If only everyone in this country could find the empathy to care about and understand people who are different from themselves. None of us are perfect, but hopefully we can all learn and improve everyday. -Bru