Who Wrote the Book of Love?
By Terry Barr
“Hey sonny, whatta ya think of this?”
He’s holding a book, in itself an unusual act. The last piece of fiction my father read was “The Leatherstocking Tales,” back at Ramsey High, or the “Twig and Leaf series,” as he referred to Cooper’s work. Now he reads The Birmingham News or nothing, scoping the afternoon daily from front-page headlines to backpage classifieds. Sometimes I wonder if he’s the author of the main editorial each day, so completely does it fit his way of thinking, his political views on crime, corruption, communism. But here, in 1985, the communist menace threatens only those old enough to remember Khrushchev banging his shoe on the UN floor.
I’m sure my father wonders how he turned out a son who not only loves to read but who is also pursuing his Ph.D. in literature. I can’t count the number of 19th and 20th century classic novels I’ve read, yet before now, the only book I remember my father holding was the one he grabbed in the Books-A-Million line while he was waiting on me to browse the bargain tables.
“Dad, you’re not buying that?”
“Why not? He’s a best-seller, and he’s right. More people should listen to him.”
“I think enough are already!”
Since that time, I have successfully blocked the name of Rush Limbaugh’s first tome, but not this experience, and certainly not my father’s spending his disposable income on such an unlovable conservative. Back then, Dad enjoyed listening to Rush, the G-Man and The Black Avenger as he drove the highways in the latter stages of his life. Maybe doing so reminded him of listening to radio when he was a boy, back in the ’30s and ’40s: “The Green Hornet,” “The Shadow,” “The Fighting Bickersons.” Maybe it’s the call names in the Reagan era of radio talk that make my father nostalgic, and maybe that’s his subconscious point: keep to what’s familiar; trust the past or your own history of it. It was certainly Reagan’s philosophy. Too much change hurts the culture. Life was better way back when, or then, depending upon what past you have in mind.
Nostalgically speaking, as Reagan led to Bush, in a strange way I think my father was kind of sorry to see the USSR go down. At least they were a threat he understood, one he learned to live with.
Life is changing for him in so many ways here in the late 1980s. My father is 62, and the book he’s holding on this day, the one he’s asking me about, is by someone named Zig Ziglar. A part of me automatically distrusts anyone whose first name derives from his last, but I take the book from my father. “See You at the Top,” it’s called.
“What is this, Dad?”
“Oh, he’s a positive thinker, a self-promoter. We had a seminar at work led by one of his agents. I think this could help me out. Whadda you think?”
My Dad has worked in a Birmingham wholesale jewelry store owned by his first cousin for 35 years now, from the days before he married my mother. Now the store is on its last legs, a victim of discount jewelry chains and Wal-Mart. In another year, the store will close for good, my father hanging on until the last fixture is sold, even the dusty shelves on which the boxes of Foster bracelets, Forstner watchbands and Oneida stainless once lived.
The only thing, seemingly, in the store that wasn’t for sale at the end was my father. Dad has an IRA, but started it just 10 years ago. He has to keep working, but where, and how can Zig Ziglar help him find a job?
“Dad, this guy is just trying to get money from you by selling a bunch of books.”
“Oh.” And to say his face fell a little bit at this point is like saying that Krakatoa is a little bit east of Java.
I don’t know if Dad ever read any of Zig’s opus. I remember seeing it for a few days back on his desk, but the next time I visited, it was gone.
And so was my Dad.
Through friends in the business, he had gotten a traveling job, showing jewelry lines to retailers throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. On the road, a travelling salesman: It was not the life any of us foresaw for him, or expected. But it was the only opportunity left to him. His only chance to matter and not become another unemployed statistic or Wal-Mart greeter.
“I enjoy it,” he told me after a few weeks plying his new trade. “I get to see all these little towns like Altoona and Eastaboga, and meet people I’ve only spoken to before over long distance.”
He usually left early on Monday morning and would return late Thursday or midday Friday, depending on the calls, the sales. His success.
“I stay in Motel 6’s,” he told me. “You know, the place where they ‘leave the light on for you’? They’re cheap and clean, and what else do I need but a bed and TV? Sometimes I have to stay in other places, though. The worst are Super-8’s. Don’t ever stay there. And you know, a lot of these places are run by Indians.”
At first, I thought he meant “Native Americans,” because in Mississippi particularly, Indian casinos were first surfacing then.
“But they all have funny smells, so I try not to stay there.”
Cumin smells. Curry. But then Dad wouldn’t touch Chinese food, much less Indian. If he couldn’t figure out where to pour the ketchup, he was done with that dish. A man of his age, my Dad was strictly meat and potatoes, his one deviation being fresh spinach because it “puts hair on your chest,” he said.
“Yeah, it’s fun out there on the road, but whenever I re-enter Jefferson County, I relax a little because I know I’m almost home.”
I realize that he hasn’t been away from home this often and regularly since he attended the University of Alabama on the GI Bill, after serving his country in World War II. He told me that while at school, he rode the bus home every weekend, through Bessemer, where he’s lived ever since he married my mother, to his various houses in Birmingham enclaves, for his parents changed locations with the regularity of a traveling tent show, moving at least 10 times before Dad turned 17. He said that whenever he passed through Bessemer, he vowed, “I’ll never live there.” Bessemer was too small, too unpolished for my father.
But now our house in Bessemer has been his home longer than any place he’s ever lived. He commuted all those years to Birmingham and back, riding buses, sharing rides with neighbors, until he finally bought a second car.
“You never know what you’ll end up doing,” my father says now. “You just shouldn’t count out anything in life.” Not particularly a conservative line of thinking, but then my father was more of a paradox than I gave him credit for being back then.
My father traveled for 10 years in his last job. He kept listening to Rush, too, and sometimes he’d bombard me with conspiracy theories related to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster. When I’d hear the paranoia, I’d sometimes rethink what I said about Zig Ziglar. Maybe he would have been better for Dad. If success was all he was preaching, then what would have been the harm?
Admittedly, I knew little about Ziglar; what I did know was that my father had been taken in once before by a Florida land salesman. He bought a one-acre tract somewhere near St. Petersburg, I think: a place called “Long Boat Key.” None of us ever saw the land after Dad wrote his check to a salesman named Artie while we were on a “free” vacation that Dad had won in some contest sponsored by our local Ford dealership. Artie wore white patent leather shoes, a powder blue double-knit suit with open neck and medallions gracing a hairy upper chest. And like my father, Artie was Jewish. He called my father “Al.” No one called my father Al, though. He was always Alvin.
Though it seemed so at the time, this wasn’t the only gamble Alvin had ever taken. After all, he married my mother, the shiksa, back in the days of racially segregated Alabama. While Jews weren’t kept out of public schools, diners, department stores (especially since they owned many of these), public pools and bus stations, I don’t suppose you could say they were entirely welcomed by all either.
My father didn’t wear his religion on any part of his clothing. He went to Temple on the High Holy Days, ate matzo for Passover and vaguely supported Israel. Once, he asked me, “We all believe in the same God, don’t we?”
“I’d like to think so, Dad,” but even then, in my mid-30s, I wasn’t sure.
My mother had raised my brother and me in the Methodist church, and even as an adolescent, I was never sure which God I believed in: Old Testament, New Testament, the one to come. God only interested me when he got jealous or angry. Poor Cain. Poor Israelites. Poor Job and Jonah and Joseph. Lot and his wife. I didn’t listen much to the good stuff, whatever that was. I liked Jesus well enough, especially the loaves and fishes story, though in some circles that act could make both Jesus and me communists.
But like many kids whose parents “practice” different religions, I saw trouble in crosses; I heard pain and anger in words, like one of my friends calling another “a Jew” for not giving up his football. They were words typical to the 1960s, though the Jewish slurs couldn’t come close to those hurled at the Civil Rights Movement participants. My parents didn’t utter such things, but at the very least, such views seeped in through the ubiquity of George Wallace.
Once, a Sunday school teacher of mine told our junior high class that most Jews now accept Jesus as Savior. Why I reported this statement to my mother rather than my father, I don’t know. Maybe because we were in church together and she had given me my first Bible. Maybe because Dad almost never discussed religion of any sort, his reverence emerging only at our Thanksgiving and Christmas Day mealtime prayer.
When I told my mother what my teacher said, she turned to me as we descended the steps of the church:
“Well, some people think they know it all. Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Even at such a young age I thought to myself: If you can’t believe what you hear in church, then why bother going?
I kept this exchange from my quiet father, who stayed home these Sundays reading his news. Most of our good friends never asked him about his religion. Most, but certainly not all, said nothing to us about religion at all.
For a time in the late ’80s, just when my Dad started traveling, my mother began selling carpet for Monsanto. She liked her immediate boss: a single woman who adored cats. My mother invited this woman, Lynn, to spend the weekend with them. Midway through the visit, Lynn handed my Dad a Jews for Jesus tract and asked him to read and consider it.
Dad went back to his den and returned with his Temple Prayer book.
“I have something here that you can read too. You can borrow it if you’d like.”
This woman, this welcomed friend, politely passed.
My mother reported all this to me:
“Your Daddy was so gracious, but I felt bad for him. I can tell you, I’ll never invite that woman back. Imagine the gall!”
When my Dad’s mother was dying later that year, Lynn asked my mother if she thought Dad would want to convert my grandmother.
“Couldn’t you just see us all,” my mother said, “heading to the nursing home to ‘save’ your grandmother? Lord have mercy, I had to stop her from giving you a Bris when you were born!”
I wonder sometimes what a Bris might have achieved for me. I was circumcised by a doctor, and not a rabbi. I was only a few days old, but I know that every nuance affects a life. In any case, my grandmother died a Jew and is buried in Jewish ground.
During my father’s final travels, he overcame prostate cancer, and finally, in 1999, he retired. He was forced to. Parkinson’s disease. He died in 2000, on Christmas Eve, but his rabbi was out of town, so Dad’s service was conducted by my mother’s preacher, a man my father trusted if for no other reason than they both worshiped Alabama football. We buried my father in a non-denominational cemetery in my mother’s family plot. He had left us no instructions, and so I chose the place where my parents would lie underground together. It’s a strange comfort.
Last week on the anniversary of my father’s birth, I began thinking about our other strange encounters, and I remembered Zig Ziglar’s book. How would things have changed had I received it positively? I know I shouldn’t relive troubling times, but that’s what I do. So I Googled Zig, and sure enough Wikipedia knows him.
Zig Ziglar was born in Coffee County, Alabama. His family moved to Mississippi when he was still a boy, and when he was 17, he married a 16-year-old girl. Zig served in the Navy 1943-45, the same period my father served in Gen. George S. Patton’s army. Afterward, he attended and graduated from the University of South Carolina (my adopted state), while my Dad attended Alabama. I don’t know if Zig became a fraternity man, but I do know that my father was rushed for a short period of time.
“One day these guys from a fraternity came by my door room. They were holding a smoker and were inviting all the freshmen on the hall. I talked to them a minute, then asked if they minded that I was Jewish. They left then, and I never got another offer.”
Both Dad and Zig earned business degrees, both went into sales, only Ziglar — maybe because he wasn’t working for family — became a vice president and training director for a major automotive company in Dallas.
Zig lived a long life, dying in 2012 from pneumonia. He wrote many books including “Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale,” “Raising Positive Kids in a Negative World” and “Success for Dummies.”
He also wrote “Confessions of a Happy Christian,” incorporating his born-again beliefs into his promotional self-improvement work. In 2008, Zig openly supported Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential bid.
Ziglar wrote his Christian confessions back in 1978. I don’t know if my father knew about this turn, or if it would have mattered to him. I wonder, though, whether, if my father and I had given him the chance, Zig would have attempted to bring Dad into the fold, or perhaps abandoned him for his faith.
Once, I asked Dad if he thought Rush or the G-Man would take up for the Jews in the event of a modern pogrom, and Dad looked at me like I was crazy. Who knows? Maybe I was. But I think about these things regularly in place of listening to others’ schizoid beliefs.
For the most part, my father was a reasonable man. He loved his family, his home, his country, and he worked hard all his life. His military insurance policy paid the entirety of his death benefits, but aside from that, he didn’t leave much, other than that IRA, and a certificate of deposit, which sustained my mother for almost 10 years.
Sometimes now I’m tempted to find one of Ziglar’s books and see what it holds, what it could have meant or promised to my father. What if Ziglar had persuaded my father to work for him? To become a Christian zealot? But then, I don’t believe in revisionist history. There’s too much reality to sort through; too many other books to help me see what success is and how we continue trying to define it. Too many memories to hold and value and face: like a father asking his grown son for advice, and the son scoffing at such a simple request. And like a prayer uttered by a faithful man on a holiday that should have meant nothing to him:
We Give Thanks for this food and our many blessings.
Please watch over us, guide our leaders, and grant us health, happiness,
And Thy most precious gift,
Spoken in a baritone voice that quieted itself as it progressed, until by the end even those of us sitting right next to him could only barely make out that last word, it was a sentiment, a deeply held conviction, that my father didn’t try to promote or sell to anybody. Which I see now was always his way, the tenets of his truth.
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