On this day there were four people waiting their
turn: the white woman, a white man, my dad, and a sweet black lady that everyone knew and
liked. Of course my dad obediently waited while the adults went before him, but was
stunned when after serving the man, the clerk turned to him and said, "Are you
My dad froze. He turned to look at the black woman he knew. She was his elder and
a woman; why wasnt she being waited on first? He pointed at her, his mouth unable to
make the "Ladies first" rule he knew by rote. But the clerk took the small toy
from his hand, completely oblivious to the childish, ignorant faux pas. My dad had never
seen a child waited on before an adult, and he continued to look at the woman. She must
have felt his confusion and seen the red hot shame that was creeping up his neck, because
with the class and decorum of a woman who knows what is wrong with the situation but cared
more for the feelings of an innocent child, she quietly whispered, "Go on ahead
My dad didnt remember how he got out on the sidewalk, but he always remembered
how he felt. This was wrong. The message was loud and clear: woman, then man, then child,
and then colored, and something deep inside a boy not yet a double digit age
churned with the dull ache of a great rudeness. In that one day he had been taught the
double standard, the unspoken hypocrisy of rules for whites and rules for blacks, and he
hated it. So when I would come home from school and ask him about Little Rock or Civil
Rights or Civil War, he would get quiet and teach me in a way I would never forget.
That didnt mean he supported everything blacks did. He recognized the wrongs that
our society had heaped upon a people simply because they looked different, but that went
both ways. Equality, he taught, means you also have the responsibility to accept criticism
when it is warranted, and this was an area where blacks have too often dropped the ball.
Too many want only the good stuff equality provided, but none of the responsibility for
said equality. While he taught me of the evils of enslaving ones fellow man, he also
taught the wrong of the Watts riots, the Black Panthers, Luis Farrakhan, and those who
think its alright to defile whites but blasphemy to call blacks on such duplicity.
He despised bussing because it was a law of force, and as he said, "You cant
legislate love." He felt that forcing people together was more likely a recipe for
contention than cohesion, and while he had friends from just about every race on the
planet, he was quick to point out that it was by choice, not by force. Force, after all,
had been the plan Lucifer put forth before the War in Heaven, and the plan that
Godand the rest of ussoundly rejected. He felt that too many of the hippy
generation of blacks were behaving exactly the same despicable way hed seen too many
southern whites behave. Wrong was wrong in his book, and that book was written in both
black and white.
Dad knew history and loved it. To get to know him and to get him to like me, I spent
multiple Saturdays on our family room floor, watching VICTORY AT SEA and WORLD AT WAR with
him. I knew more about WWII by the age of 12 than I did about Andy Gibb. He was constantly
reading history books, red marking pen in hand, taking notes and writing in the edges, and
the only books he read more than those on WWII were the scriptures. He loved our Father in
Heaven with all his heart, and studied Him with a ravenous hunger. This combination of
knowledge and love made him the best teacher Ive ever known.
When I came home from 11th grade history one day and ranted at him about my
humiliation during our Civil War lesson, he wanted to know why. I pointed to the
Confederate States of America badge hanging on the wall of our family room.
"Kirklands owned slaves and fought for the South. I slide down in my chair in class,
hoping that no one in there knows that your family did that!" It was true; I
had felt shame at being not just white, but southern.
My dad looked hurt, but in classic style taught me again. "Yes, we owned slaves.
Not our finest moment, but not quite the evil its made out to be." He showed me
a will of his great-great-great grandfather. He turned past the section that divided his
land and worldly goods to the pages that referenced his slaves. I read as my ancestor
carefully divvied out his slaves to his children. If this was supposed to make me feel
better, it had failed miserably.
"Look! Dividing up his slaves like pirate booty!" I could feel my Politically
Castrated education rolling to a boil.
"Read more," he said quietly.
I did so. This man was careful with his slaves, stating that they were to be
distributed equally among his children, the only conditions being that they were not to be
separated from parents or children, and that they were to be treated fairly and kindly as
he had always done. I looked at my dad. Wed watched Roots together only a few years
earlier, and the horrible scene of Kizzy being taken from Toby had always disturbed us
"So he kept the families together and didnt whip them. He still treated them
This time he said nothing, pressing the document toward me yet again. I rolled my
teenage eyes and sighed heavily as I read the paragraph before me. "In regard to my
favored slave, Big Black Tom," it began.
"Dad!" I cried out. "Big Black Tom??? For crying out loud!" I
couldnt help it; I just had to smile. It was just such a stereotype. Dad had to
smile too. He usually found a way to make something uncomfortable into something
"Thats how they spoke back then. It wasnt meant to be cruel."
I knew that. I mean, my relatives even referred to me as "boy." It was
just how they spoke.
I read on. Big Black Tom was to go to Grandpas oldest son, and was to be given a
portion of his land for his own inheritance. "He has been my friend all my life, and
has been faithful and true. That is why I leave him to you, son, and expect you to both
treat him as he deserves and seek out his knowledge, for he will run things better than
My face felt red. This man had been more than Grandpas slave; hed been his
friend. It didnt justify slavery in any way, shape, or form, but it did show a side
to the south that I had never, ever seen before. I turned page after page, learning that
unlike other slave owners, the Kirklands did not have separate cemeteries for their
slaves; they were buried together, master and slaveand apparently, friend and
friend. I went to the genealogy box, pulling out papers that showed slaves taking on the
Kirkland name, a name from Scotland and exclusively white until it came to Americato
This was the way my dad often taught me. On one of those documentary Saturdays while
watching about John F. Kennedy, I asked my dad if he had been a good President.
"Some people thought so," he quietly replied, going back to watching and
learning. While I knew that my dad was no fan of the Kennedys, he always allowed me to
choose what I would believe. That meant he would teach me right from wrong, but not
propagandize, so that when my moment of truth came, my choice would be just that: my
He always tried to be fair, and loved a good laugh. When he was Deputy Director for Job
Corps, he dealt with many troubled inner city black youth, for whom the summer spent
fighting fires in Cottonwood, ID was often a last chance. Never once did he refer to them
as anything other than young men. He was delighted in the 1970s when he watched
"Smilin George" Foreman fight. He loved to tell about the summer that
George had spent in Cottonwood, still struggling with who he was and where he was going. I
remember mostly how he would grin and say, "Yep, that name fit him. He had a nice
Dad saw the Trinity
test on July 16, 1945, as he stepped out into his morning paper route. Even from El
Paso, the flash from Alamogordo lit the sky, and was later explained as an
"ammunition explosion." He was thrilled when his love for history caused him to
find out that he had witnessed this all important moment in history in that brief,
Dad loved deep fried food, hated vegetables, was an avid gun collector, always wanted
to be a piloteven after he gave up being a Navy fighter pilot for his familys
sakegave up hunting when he had to kill a deer up close and saw big tears roll down
its eyes, loved America and its warriors, despised hippies, femmies, and commies, and
gladly fought in our first war against communism. He supported the need to hunt so long as
you used what you shot, believed the caribou could handle us drilling oil in Alaska,
cheered when the nation of Israel was restored to the earth, loved our heritage through
Israels son Joseph, lost
his best friend in Korea, suffered from terrible asthma as a child and breathing
problems that dogged him until his death. He hurt me at times, but probably less than I
hurt him. Neither of us deserved it, both of us knew better, and I hope weve both
forgiven and been forgiven. I have no doubt he has.
He cried when he saw the children in Romania, raged at the horror of the Holocaust, and
marveled at the birth of each grandchild. He loved the law but hated lawyers. His head was
bowed in humble prayer as often as it was flung back with a hearty laugh. He loved TV and
reading, spending the bulk of his time in the depths of the History Channel, the Military
Channel, A & E, FOX News, the Discovery Channel, and local news. He never missed a
daily paper, read every magazine that worked its way into the house, and was reading new
books on WWII up until he went into the hospital. He spent his last months waiting on my
mother, who was also in the hospital fighting for her life after a diabetic reaction sent
her falling down the stairs, shattering her leg and putting her in the hospital from the
end of August 2004 until the night before Dads funeral. Every day he would go to her
side, sitting and reading when she was sleeping, talking and praying with her when she was
awake. He did this selflessly as his own health ferociously deteriorated, placing him in
the hospital with my mom for the last six weeks of his life. When he was told on January
4, 2005, that there was no hope for recovery, and that he only had a few months to live,
he was at peace with it, telling me, "I cant hold on much longer, but its
OK; Im not afraid."
He really wasnt. He held on for 12 more days, saying final goodbyes to old
friends and family. On the morning he died, he waited until my brother showed up to say
his goodbyes. Dad waited for the final words from the last of his children to let him go,
then sat up, took his oxygen mask off of his face, and quietly died. Seventy years of an
extraordinary life ended with little fanfare.
And now I am down to the last hours of this final one year anniversary. It has turned
out to be a night like no other. I have smiled and laughed as much as I have cried while
writing this; I guess its kind of like life. We smile, we laugh, we love, we fight,
we pray, we hope, we believe, and eventually, we die. The best we can hope for is that it
wasnt all for naught. Dads best will remain just that: best.
On June 29, 1934, Robert Talmage Kirkland was born. On January 16, 2005, Robert Talmage
Kirkland died. On January 22, 2005, Robert Talmage Kirkland was laid to rest. And on
January 22, 2006, Resa LaRu Kirkland finally let him go. In between all of those dates
were the days that really mattered, the days of sharing and learning. What he taught me
then I now teach to my sons, knowing someday the cycle of parent and child I experienced
with Dad will befall my sons when they say goodbye to me. Teacher to student who becomes
teacher to new students. What a wonderful cycle; what a wonderful teacher.
What a wonderful life.
Keep the faith, bros, and in all things courage.