My Dad the Hero

Chuck and Clarence Reece on the bank of Turniptown Creek, Gilmer County, Ga., 1996. Photo by Laura Heath Gary.

Today is Father’s Day.

It’s been a long time — 12 years now — since I’ve had to buy a Father’s Day gift for Clarence Reece. Since then, when the holiday (or whatever it is) rolls around every year, I find myself thinking more about the gifts he gave me.

One of those was tolerance. My dad grew up in the mountains of North Georgia, subject to the same lack of racial understanding common to any Southern white man of his era — he was born in 1919. 

His time in Europe in World War II broadened his view of the world and its people. His unit was among those that liberated the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald. One day in 2000, a young man came into the barber shop in Ellijay, our hometown, and sat down in a chair across from where my dad was getting his “ears lowered.” That’s what he called it. Evidently, the young man began asserting the Holocaust was a myth.

Word came from Ellijay later that day, saying my dad, then 81 years old, had stepped down from the barber chair, grabbed the young man by the collar and delivered the news that he was, in fact, an idiot. I was not there to hear it, but I can imagine what the old man said.

PFC Clarence reece, somewhere in Germany, 1945

PFC Clarence reece, somewhere in Germany, 1945

You’re full of shit. I was there. I saw it.

I’ve written this story before, much more extensively, but this week, it won’t leave my head. Not in a week when we saw old, hateful prejudices result in the assassination of a South Carolina state senator and the killing of eight other African-Americans at a Bible study in the church he pastored.

I think of my dad, and I think of Dylann Roof, and I wonder, Why wasn’t there someone to grab that kid by the shirt collar and tell him he was full of shit?

I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I do know this. Clarence Reece was a hero, not just for his service to his country and not just for the gentle way in which he lived his life, but because he was willing to speak truth to liars.

— Chuck Reece

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