When I was a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1960s and ’70s, life had a whole lot more – and a whole lot less – structure.
The rules were clear: Don’t lie; Don’t steal; Don’t cheat; Don’t back-talk; Don’t want for things; Respect elders; Be home by 5:30; and Clean your plate. That about sums it up. Otherwise, a vast network of friends and their siblings were the heartbeat of the neighborhoods known as The Highlands, which stretched for miles in all directions. Large Catholic families seemed the norm. My seven siblings and I were more or less free to explore the world as we found it, relatively safe from the dangers children face today. We were free to make mistakes; free to get hurt; free to find small and not-so-small adventures in ordinary living; free to discover how we measure up to the world, and who we might someday become. Violate the rules, and there was real punishment—swift, unwavering punishment. But hold those few truths to be self-evident, that the rules were inviolate, and all the rest could be as pleasant as fresh-cut grass at dusk, or a leafy whirlwind moving in the street.
I believe my parents gave me everything I ever needed. They taught me to respect others, and myself. They taught me that living in a large family meant putting others first. They taught me to take care of my own emotions…by not coddling me…or pandering to me. I believe what they taught me mostly was empathy, and forgiveness. Because nobody’s perfect.
Of all the families…of all the kids for miles around, one stood out as a leader among men and boys. Chuck was a leader’s leader; he had energy and passion for organizing people. Chuck organized a tournament for every season – football, baseball, and basketball tournaments…a foot-race in conjunction with the Kentucky Derby…a bicycle race in conjunction with the Indianapolis 500…a wiffle-ball World Series…and every year the families convened – parents and kids alike – for an annual potluck (so-called) “banquet” complete with trophy presentations and 8-mm film highlights and music soundtrack!
Chuck was a natural-born leader. He was ruggedly athletic…tough as nails in word and action. He could diminish you with a look or accusation, or toss you a compliment couched in a laugh that rang right and true, and everyone suddenly concurred. He was never mean – just assertive.
This Summer I saw Chuck’s brother Rick at my brother’s wedding, and we talked about Chuck. We were lucky to have the childhood we did, and we owe so much of that deep pool of memories to Chuck…memories that were organized and lived with the passion that he inspired in each of us…and we owe those memories to his parents, who modeled tolerance…and who maintained relative order through enforcement of their own rules, which were after all the same rules our own parents applied to us.
Rules, I believe, should be few and inviolate. Memories, I believe, should be like a leafy whirlwind…
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