To say that my dad James Raymond Abercrombie was a contrarian is like saying that the Pope is from Argentina. The principal JRA, known as “Mr. A.” to the high school students he shepherded, was an avuncular father figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment. The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm, cynicism, and bigotry to a whole new level. And he made all three funny as hell in the process. Most of the time.
My dad was an equal opportunity bigot. I don’t apologize for this particular attribute of his—it was what it was. Any man, woman, or child who happened to irritate him was fodder for his misanthropy. He would find one particular aspect of a person—be it ethnicity, religion, one’s countenance, social class, suspect parentage, or peculiarity–and run with it. Usually he had names for people that somehow related to one or more of the aforementioned characteristics, like his college acquaintance Hunky Jim Balog. Hunky Jim Balog was synonymous with having bad table manners. If, at the dinner table, we failed to hold our knife correctly or forgot to place our napkin on our lap properly, we were compared to Hunky Jim Balog. That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had disdain.
Take my father’s relationship with Billy Graham. Today when we think of Billy Graham, we place him in the same category as Mother Teresa. Billy Graham represents the best of Christianity, and he is revered and honored, just as he should be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Billy Graham was often featured on television preaching to his enraptured followers in packed revivals, delivering the Gospel to stadiums full of Christians eager to hear his interpretation of the Word. His popularity among believers was and remains steadfast. Few would dispute his ability to incite a crowd of the faithful to rise to their feet in adoration. Who among us could find fault with that?
Before I describe this rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that my father was a devout Believer; however, his attendance at Sunday services—any Sunday services—were non-existent. He blamed his failure to attend Church on his upbringing. It seems as if his parents’ lives revolved around the Church, and, being a contrarian, little Raymond had to be dragged there each week under extreme duress. Once he became an adult, he claimed that he attended Church while he was riding his tractor plowing a field to prepare it for a crop he would plant but never harvest. Though he wasn’t technically a farmer, he really loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor was his Church, far be it for us to keep him from his worship.
Dad worked long hours as a high school principal, and he faithfully attended every basketball game, every baseball game, every band concert (such as they were), and chaperoned every dance and prom. Since he so faithfully attended each activity at Linesville High School, maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church rather superfluous, I don’t know. I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired.
It was a Thursday night after my dad had enjoyed a few pulls from a recently purchased fifth of Seagram’s 7 (only top shelf for the Old Boy), that the unspeakable occurred. All week my dad had waited for Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. Our mum was out that evening, no doubt having already consulted the TV Guide. After a hard day of principal-ing kids, Dad just wanted some Burr. That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers apparently trumped Dad’s need to watch his favorite show.
Upon hearing the words, “Tonight’s episode of Ironside will be pre-empted so that we may bring you this special program,” followed by the text ‘The Billy Graham Crusade’ crawling across the screen, my dad lost his shit. He called Billy Graham names I’m not going to print here, out of respect for my dad and for Billy Graham, but I will tell you that for awhile there, I thought the man’s first name was ‘That-g*d-damn-son-of-a-bitch’, or something like that.
So with a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, grabbed the phone book, flung open the yellow pages, and found the long distance number to the Erie television station. Making long distant phone calls in those days was a rarity, but Dad considered Mr. Graham’s pre-emption of Ironside such an egregious breach of contract between him and Channel 12, it wouldn’t have mattered if the station had been located in Bangladesh, he was going to let them have it. We could only hear his side of the conversation, of course, and it went something like this:
“Why is it that every g*d-damn Thursday night you have to interrupt my program to show that g*d-damn preacher Billy Graham?”
“Of course I believe in God!”
“Well just because I can’t stand the son-of-a-bitch and his insufferable, excruciating, ingratiating preaching does not mean that I’m not a good Christian!”
“How dare you ask me if I go to church! That’s none of your g*d-damn business!”
“No. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinking!”
I cannot recall just how many Billy Graham crusades I had to suffer through—not necessarily because I disliked altar calls or group hymns, but because we knew Dad would come unglued and it would be up to us to put Humpty back together again. What we wouldn’t have given for cable TV, a DVD player, or even the Internet to placate him, but that technology was a few years down the road.
In later years, my dad’s relationship with Billy Graham softened somewhat, and a kind of one-sided rapprochement occurred. Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad. Hopefully he’ll be able to find him.