By Francine Mathews
As the country has gone through a deep chasm of soul-searching this August, I’ve cast my thoughts back to a childhood I never knew, only heard about in stories: my father’s early years in rural Western Pennsylvania.
Why? Because he watched a cross burn in front of a good friend’s house one winter night, and decided to do something about it. He was probably ten years old.
We tend to think of the Ku Klux Klan as a Southern oddity these days–an outgrowth of Reconstruction and the Civil War that spawned it. We know that its targets have been African-Americans and Jews from its inception. But in 1920s America, when the Klan was nascent and powerful, it sprang up all over northern states as well. In places like Colorado and Ohio and Pennsylvania, white Protestants resentful of immigrants and ethnic minorities–Irish, Italians, Poles and Germans who practiced the Catholic faith–used horses and white hoods to intimidate their neighbors. In my dad’s small town of Tremont, where his family had lived for three generations, this meant him.
Joe Barron was born in 1915. On his father’s side, the Barrons had emigrated from County Waterford, Ireland, as so many others did–to flee the potato famine of 1848. On his mother’s side, the Lorenzes had left Alsace-Lorraine to avoid the frequent wars between France and Germany that made the two provinces perennial bargaining chips. Joe was a classic Northern European, blond-haired and blue-eyed, born during the First World War. His father ran the Tremont General Store. His grandfather Lorenz was a mining engineer who died in an underground explosion before he was born.
His childhood nights were lit by burning crosses, left on the lawns of Catholic neighbors by mounted horsemen disguised in white hoods. He found them terrifying, and because he was afraid he hated the crosses and the robed figures who torched them.
In the winter of 1925, the Grand Wizard of the local Klan suddenly died. All of Tremont knew who he was–and that his faithful followers intended to stage a public funeral procession through the main street of town. The Klansmen would go mounted on horses, robed in white, following the Grand Wizard’s hearse.
My father made some plans, too. Heavy snows had recently fallen, and he knew of a hillside not far from the funeral procession’s end point that would make a perfect tactical redoubt. He gathered his friends together well before the ominous parade started and built fortifications. Stockpiled arms. When the Grand Wizard’s hearse hove into sight, they were ready.
The funeral procession was ambushed by a fusillade of snowballs.
Horses reared and broke from their ranks. Hoods were pelted. Men ducked and swore, and confusion reigned. The ground was trampled and the hearse veered into a ditch.
My dad and his friends fired the last of their ammunition and took off pell-mell down the back of the hillside before any of the mounted Klansmen could pursue them.
Sometimes, as the Duke of Wellington noted, retreat is a means to fight another day.
What matters about this story, however, is the aftermath–the reason my father bothered to tell it at all.
When he returned home triumphantly to explain what he’d done, his mother was breathtakingly angry.
It’s possible she was afraid he’d been seen and identified by one of the Klansmen, along with his friends, and that next time the cross–or worse–would burn on the Barron house’s front lawn. Or maybe she was terrifed one of the boys, or one of their fathers, would be strung up from a tree one dark winter’s night, in retribution.
She ordered my father to change into his best suit, buy a bouquet of flowers with his pocket money, and walk alone to the Grand Wizard’s doorstep.
There, he was required to apologize in person to the man’s widow, for having added to her grief.
My father never forgot his mother’s lesson. She was determined that he learn forgiveness–and learn to ask for it in turn from those who made a hobby of terrorizing their neighbors. She was determined that he turn the other cheek, as his Catholic faith urged. Only then would he defeat the men who rode with torches, in darkness and in hoods.
Joe went on to fight against the Nazis, of course, as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II. There was no question in anyone’s mind, in 1941, what purity of race–and the violence that drove it–meant. But as my father’s generation has aged and passed from this earth, so has that absolute sense of moral certainty in the face of evil.
Except, perhaps, in the minds and hearts of those who have heard such stories–recognize their truths–and pass them on.
Tell us, fellow readers–what childhood lessons have marked you indelibly?
Happy end of summer–