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.
To say that my dad 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 figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment. The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm and cynicism to a whole new level. And was kind of hilarious in the process. Most of the time.
My dad was an equal opportunity critic. 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 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 Jim Balog. Jim Balog, apparently, ate like a pig; ergo, the name ‘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 the ill-mannered Jim Balog. That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had any degree of 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 my father’s rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that JRA 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 loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor plowing the crap out of a field 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 school activity , maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church simply more time spent away from his tractor, I don’t know. I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired, he wanted to relax, and he wanted to watch his programs.
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 looked forward to Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. After a hard day of herding adolescents, Dad just wanted some Burr.
That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers trumped Burr.
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 Mr. Graham. With a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, found the phone book, and surprisingly was able to locate the long distance number to Erie, Pennsylvania’s NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12. Making long distant phone calls in those days was an expense usually reserved for Grandma in Florida, but Dad considered the station’s preemption 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 time I want to sit down and watch a show you have to interrupt my program with that insufferable preacher?”
“Of course I believe in God!”
“Well just because I can’t stand his 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. He actually began to enjoy the man’s quiet and dignified approach to the Gospel and revered his message once Mr. Graham’s esteem and popularity had evolved to such a degree that his telecasts never again encroached upon Dad’s nighttime television lineup.
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.