Mike would be appalled to think I'd write about him at all. Genuine was one of his most attractive characteristics."Haynesy," I can hear him say, "you've got much better material to work on than an old police reporter, and, futhermore, in the worlds of a memorable O'Neill caracter, 'Who the hell cares'?"
The point is, I do.
There was a long period when I couldn't possibly have written about him, but unwillingly or otherwise I found myself thinking more and more about him as this weekend approached. It was just two years ago that he died, and, for that anniversary to turn out be something as falsely saccharine as the commercial "Father's Day, strikes me, as I know it would have him, as both ironic amusing.
Perhaps I was lucky - in fact, I know I was - but I never really could understand the tensions and misunderstandings that are supposed to be the common lot of fathers and son. He was my best friend, as well as my father, and we certainly didn't feel divided by any so-called "generation gap.
Part of that, I now realize, was because of a conscious effort on his part. I was taught to call him by his nickname. Mike, rather than the familiar Dad or Poppa or what have you. His own father had died when Mike was 13, the eldest of seven children in a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia. He worshipped his father, a scholarly but distant lawyer and deacon in the church, but never felt he knew him; that, he was determined, would not be the case with us. Besides. Freud and the progressive period were still much in vogue when I was born in the early '30s in New York.
Mike it was, and Mike it remains
In going through his papers, all the writings and all the letters, and in reading over the transcript of a long tape-recording we did in his final months, an old-fashioned quality emerges that I never associated with him in life. I supect he was more representative of an innocent, vanished America than I realized.
His frist memory, he said, was of the milkman coming up the walk at their house in Gainesville, Ga.: "He had a great, big black moustache and he had wonderfully white teeth and a big broad smile. His name was Mr. Brock. I can see him coming up the walk now with this basket - a metal basket with the milk bottles rattling. It reminds me somewhat of the milkman in Thornton Wilder's play. 'Our Town.' Do you remember that?"
The stories he recalled from childhood were of a part small-town American heritage - his Tom Sawyer trick of hiring other boys to pick peas in a patch while he sat under a tree and pocketed most of the profits until his mother caught him and punished him severely for capitlizing while others did His job: his experiences as a part-time delivery boy, part-time newspaper carrier, part-time soda jerker, and part-time cranker of home-made ice cream in Doc Jacobs' drug store on the square; his memories of playing checkers with his Grandpa Bolding while listening in awe over the little crystal radio set to a dance band from the Blackhawk Hotel is Chaicago; his fears and doubts about God stirred by all the thundered warnings of sin and eternal damnation from the local Baptist preacher.
There was pain and suffering all right. His father's shattering death came just as the family learned that his uncle had been killed in France only days before the armistice and two years late one of his sisters died in a terrible accident near their home.
And certainly there was struggle. His mother took boarders into the big, white-framed house on Prior Street to enable all of her children to go through college. (It is now, so many years later, a sorority house.) Nor were those times easy: race relations reached probably their lowest point, the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing communities and committing atrocities, poverty, ill-health and ignorance still afficted the South.
Yet I think it's fair to say that most people had a sense of optimism about the future, that most parents implicitly believed their children's lives would be better than theirs, that there were no problems that couldn't be solved by common purpose and effort. I smiled when I discovered the old clipping from The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph with the picture of young Mike and the head-line saying:
Off to New York
To Take Position
How perfect: local boy on the way to the big time. He looked so solemn, so earnest. That isn't how I remeber him; he had a marvelous sense of the absurd, and I think of him most as teasing and smiling. He had a self-effacing manner and a wry type of humor that made you feel good to be around him. When be left Macon for New York at the ancient age of 23, the paper said: "Mr. Johnson had a wide circle of friends in middle Georgia." Years later, when he went to the Pacific as a World War II correspondent for The New York Sun, the paper said: "His friends at The Sun and in New York include pratically everyone who has ever met him."
I belive that was literally true.
He could be serious, though, and seethe with indignation at injustice and cruelty. His best work - the writings about the depredations of the Klan in Georgia in the early '20s and the regin of terror by mobsters on the New York waterfront in the '40s - were outgrowhts of those feelings. But in these, too, it seems to me now, he was expressing common values of his period and place. Mike just happened to have the gift of expression, and was probably better able than most to put his emotions on paper.
On the eve of the invasion of Okinawa, on Easter Sunday, 1945, he wrote me an extraordinary long letter from a battle-ship during the pre-invasion bombardment. He was to land at dawn the next morning and, as he said, at risk of embarrassment to us both, he had some things he wanted to say. I was 13 at the time - the same age Mike had been when his own father died - and those facts were obviously on his mind.
"I firmly believe that when it comes to setting a standard of values in life - a code of ethics or whatever you want to call it - that there are certain things each man must discover for himself," he said. "For myself, I believe I have made an important discovery. I believe that the most important thing in life, as far as I am personally concerned, is maintaining one's personal honor and integrity. As a nation that is what we are fighting for now: national honor and integrity. But it goes deeper than that. I am talking now about the individual."
He apologized for preaching, and hoped he didn't sound sanctimonious. Nor was he suggesting I adopt his own standard of values: "You must find and adopt your own and for all I know they may be much higher than mine.I hope they will be." Then he said:
"In a few years you will be grown and setting out of yourself. I don't care what you do, Haynesy, so long as it is honorable and you do your job - whatever it is - to the best of your ability. My own father once told me something I never forgot. I pass it on to you. He said: 'Do whatever you do to the best of your ability but no matter how good you may think you are, remember there is always somebody else who can do it as well, and probably better.' I think that is a good thing to remember. It keeps us from getting too conceited. Humility is a very desirable virtue."
My mother put that letter away, with the others from the war, and I didn't see it again until after Mike had died. He never mentioned it to me: I knew he was self-conscious about it. But then he would have been self-conscious about this entire article - way too long waste of space and effort and all the rest.
I'll take the blame for that. Mike, and not apologize for the subject matter, either.