My Grandpa Sharpton was the kind of mythological creature who could only exist pre-video cameras. There may be some 16 mm film out there somewhere in a cousin's attic rotting that holds the moving image of my paternal grandfather, but I doubt it, and I definitely haven't seen it.
He died in 1981, months before my 1st birthday. I met him, but I don't remember him. So, why I am telling you stories about him? Because the myth of the man, is as foundational to me as any biological imperative thrust upon me by my father's father and his father before him. The stories of the man are not only an imperfect reflection of who he really was (as distilled by those family members with more actual exposure to him and more grey in their temples than me to show for it), but more accurately, those stories tell me what my family wants us to be about and made of it. The story of where we hope we came from (or of what we hope we can do in a lifetime, perhaps).
My grandfather was born, Hershel Sharpton, he has another name but he liked it so little that he begged my father to keep it from his headstone, so I'll keep it out of this podcast too. The world of Alabama in the 1890's is about as hard for me to imagine as the world of Columbus or Aristotle for that matter. Nevermind the computers on which I am sending this message to you and earn my daily bread, but space travel, planes even automobiles weren't a reality when my father's father reckoned first what his place in the world might be.
His place, was that of a sharecropper, or so I'm told. Eventually rising to foreman and running other sharecroppers (mostly poor white farmers like Hershel, but also the occasional African-American farmer and family making their way in the post-reconstruction, Jim Crow era south). Imagining the relationship between the sons of former slave owners (my family doesn't have any record of slave ownership, but Al Sharpton's last name suggests some branch likely was involved in the illicit trade somewhere), and the sons of former slaves (or former slaves themselves) to be anything other than contentious is pretty hard. The historical records and reports I've read from the time, suggest "contentious" would be the kindest and gentlest way you could describe this era.
What kind of a man was Grandpa? A son of a bitch, to hear just about anyone tell it. An alcoholic, a fighter, a woman abuser when he had the chance (my grandmother held her own more often than not and prevented what would have surely been more serious incidents). Grandpa Sharpton was a hard man in a hard time.
A story for illustration, to make you laugh probably, but also to ensure that we don't think too highly of Grandpa, at least for the here and now.
Hershel had spent a night carousing and filling his liver when he was literally carried through the door of his home by his slightly less inebriated companion and long-time friend. Grandma Sharpton, Bertha Jewel McWaters Sharpton, all 5'2" of her stood there just inside the doorway in the dim light of the kitchen.
"Bertha, is that you?" the friend asked, struggling now under Hershel's weight. "Let me in the house. I'm gonna put Hershel in his bed for you."
"No, you're not." comes the answer from Bertha. "He's drunk and he'll piss the bed. I'm not gonna have it. You can let him sleep it off right there on the floor." She stood her ground.
The friend, now flabbergasted (and increasingly exhausted) shouts, "Bertha, this is Hershel's house, and that's his bed. Now I'm gonna put him in it and you're gonna get out my way."
Bertha raised what was now clearly a shotgun in her hands, pointing at the friend and answered, "No you're not. You're gonna lay him right there on the floor or I'm gonna shoot your balls off."
And, as Grandma confirmed to me many times in the years since when family would tell the story, she would have too.
That's the kind of woman it took to be married to Hershel in those years. She gave him two daughters early, and a daughter and son later, my father being the baby boy.
Alright, while we're all chuckling about Grandpa pissing the bed, and the friend pissing his pants thanks to Grandma's reserve and steady aim. The most important thing in my telling you that story isn't that it happened or not. I don't know to be honest. but it's a part of the myth that a family tells about a man. The "before" to the eventual "after".
So, what came after the booze, and the bumbling and the beast that was my grandfather once he hit the ripe old age of 40? A no-foolin' Damascus Road full-on conversion experience. Hershel Sharpton found Jesus, or more accurately, Jesus found him. And the only reason it happened, I remain convinced, is because my Grandmother was standing beside him shining the world's biggest lighthouse to ensure her Lord found her husband, and vice versa.
And, seemingly, it took. Not only did he stop drinking and fighting and beating on whoever might earn his wrath, but Hershel even surrendered himself to the call of the ministry and spent the rest of his life, building churches physically and from the pulpit.
A carpenter, a preacher and a hard-nosed man even in redemption, Grandpa left a big family and a bigger legacy. But he left enough broken memories and bad habits to cause complications for generations to come too. Thus is the way of father's, and thus our curse extends.
If there is Karma and the above story of the sharecropper is true, Grandpa paid his share, however late. In 1981, he and my grandmother were living in their retirement atop Chandler Mountain. Helping hang gliders was a common past-time of grandpas and one of his greatest joys in life. The activity itself was beyond his physical capacity, but watching humans take flight was still something that fascinated the man born before the airplane.
He was helping that day, as a group of hang gliders went off the cliff to the valley below. Finishing preparation for the next flight, he just ducked down instead of moving away completely as the glider went off. But it was windy. Unusually windy. Too windy to fly, probably but fly they did.
The glider went off the cliff but dipped to the side first, snagging my grandfather’s shirt, dragging him off the cliff as well. He was aware though, and actually grabbed a hold of the glider frame, balancing with the man strapped in and they actually might have succeeded in making it to the ground, but there was a tree in their path 20 or 30 feet from the cliff’s edge. They hit it, my grandfather came loose. The glider crash landed, breaking the pilot’s legs. Hershel Sharpton fell to his death.
I never knew the man. Which is strange as I carry on his name, give it to my children and dream of theirs someday far off in the future carrying that same simple name. Thus is the way of families, I suppose. Branded with our families deeds and misdeeds both culturally and genetically.
Frankly, I don't know how much the man that died in 1982 would have liked the man I am 36 years later, but I do imagine he'd have been impressed with the grinding wheels of time on his own tendencies and traits. What would he see that had lasted through the generational cycles? And what would be totally foreign? How much of my “myth” would he see in the man he’d meet in me?
I didn’t promise you answers, or neatly wrapped drops of knowledge in this series. I just promised you me. So for now, I’m Joel, this is my story or one of them anyway, thanks for listening.