Fathers and Strangers
Best selling author of The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash, reflects on his father’s journey from mill town to middle class, and the tensions of character and politics that emerged // Animation by Jimmy Simpson
My father’s people were farm people, and after that they were mill people. My father was raised in the Esther Mill village in Shelby, North Carolina. He told me only a few stories about his childhood, and most of the stories I remember are stories of struggle.
Like when he was a young child, and he dropped a nickel that slipped through the floor slats on the front porch of his family’s mill-owned house. He and his siblings spent all day trying to reach the nickel without prying up the boards and damaging the mill’s property. My father’s parents eventually moved the family out of the village, and my father later worked his way into the middle class. But he admitted that he never forgot the nickel he’d left behind.
My mother and father met on a blind date in Charlotte, at a pizza place called the Gondola. My mother said she loved his hands, his quiet nature, and the fact that he asked her permission before ordering a beer at dinner. (She told him she didn’t date guys who drank.)
At the time of their first date, my mother was in school to become a licensed practical nurse, and she and my father married quickly, just before he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He served as a medic in Germany, where my mother joined him and worked as a nurse on the base. When they returned home to Shelby, my father attended a junior college on the GI Bill. He was the first person in his family, including his extended family, to attend college.
After my sister was born, my father transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill for pharmacy school. My mother worked at Duke University Hospital to support them. The three of them lived in a trailer park in Carrboro that sat beside train tracks. These were years of struggle, but after my father graduated, he took a job as a pharmacist with Revco, and they moved to a middle-class neighborhood in Gastonia, North Carolina, where they raised my younger brother and me.
My parents had left the mills behind, earned diplomas and degrees, served their country, had kids, and purchased a home in the suburbs. Their American Dream had been realized. And like many American Dreams, it was built on the foundation of progressive policies put in place after the Great Depression.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 had created a 40-hour workweek that allowed my grandparents to spend more time at home—helping with homework, coaching Little League, and raising my parents. That same law established a minimum wage for the first time in American history, ensuring that my grandparents would not have to choose between clothing, food, and shelter. The GI Bill, signed into law in 1944, made it possible for my father to attend college.
These were the years of the Great Society—government was working for the people, and my grandparents and parents benefited.
By the 1980s, as my parents’ family grew, they were no longer looking behind them at their years of struggle. They were, instead, looking ahead to the shining city on the hill promised by Ronald Reagan. While my parents undoubtedly had more in common with Jimmy Carter—who is, to this day, the only president to have lived in subsidized housing and, like my parents, a Baptist to boot!—than with Ronald Reagan, a millionaire actor turned politician, they decided to hitch their dreams to the Gipper in the hopes that he could win one for them too. After all, as Reagan’s television ads would later foretell, it was morning again in America.
My childhood during the Reagan years was governed by a few rules. First, the government had grown too big, and now the only people who benefited from it were Willie Hortons and Welfare Queens. Conservative politicians made sure we remembered that. Second, Sen. Jesse Helms was king, especially in North Carolina. Now, I will mince no words here: Jesse Helms was an unabashed racist. But my parents adored him. If asked why, they would have said that Jesse Helms kept taxes low—but did they ever find themselves in tax brackets that truly benefited from Republican tax cuts? Rarely, if ever.
But economic policy and class distinction didn’t matter in Gastonia—they weren’t allowed to matter. What mattered was being Republican, which was shorthand for being Southern, Southern Baptist, and by extension, American. A city with a middle class created by progressive policies was now—a generation later—fixated on self-reliance and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
My parents believed in these ideals, and they both worked hard to realize them. My father became a district manager for Revco, a salaried position that forced him to leave home early and return home late. After eating a reheated dinner, he would sit at the kitchen table doing paperwork late into the night. My mother raised three kids and worked as a nurse, first at a pediatrician’s office, then at an OB/GYN’s, then for a home healthcare agency. One of the most selfless things she ever did was to take on a second job during the summers at a nearby overnight camp so that my brother and I could go for free, because our friends went to the camp. She didn’t want us to feel left out.
My siblings and I had everything we wanted: toys and clothes and bikes and skateboards and video games. But as we grew older, significant differences emerged between us and our peers.
Most glaringly, all my siblings and I worked, while most of our friends didn’t. We’d bag groceries and wait tables, and during the summers we would work at the country club down the hill. Where we were employees, most of our friends were members. We spent our summer breaks working for our friends and their parents—lifeguarding, cleaning the pool, beautifying the grounds, maintaining the tennis courts, and flipping burgers at the grill.
Another difference between us and our friends were the circles our parents ran in—and didn’t. It seemed that my parents were always dropping me off at a friend’s house, while that friend’s parents were attending a party at a nearby house. I have clear memories of feeling awkward on my parents’ behalf as they pulled into the driveway of a home much nicer than ours, dropping me off on a street filled with cars driven by people who were attending a party to which my parents had not been invited.
My parents were acquaintances of my friends’ parents, but they were not their friends. Perhaps it was because we were Baptist, while my friends were Presbyterians and Episcopalians and members of other denominations. Or perhaps it was because my friends’ parents were the descendants of mill owners, while my parents were the descendants of mill workers. While the innocence of childhood obscured these class distinctions for me, they have become clearer over time. Today, my wife—herself a product of a middle-class home—and I are raising two children, and our own class distinctions are often held in sharp relief against those of our daughters’ friends.
I’ve struggled to understand why my parents would continue to vote for candidates whose policies clearly benefited my friend’s parents more than themselves. While there is no doubt that by the latter half of the 20th century, white Protestantism had coalesced into a unified cultural force that quickly became political, I don’t think that fully explains my parents’ politics. Perhaps in voting like the wealthy and affluent, my parents believed they could gain those people’s social standing, if not their wealth and affluence itself. Perhaps in reaching for a ballot, they were reaching for some distant ideal, their hands held out toward a future that seemed more possible now because their own hard work had allowed their children to enter a higher social stratosphere than the one they had come from. Or maybe they truly believed in some version of the mythical trickle-down economics idea. In truth, I believe they voted for men like Jesse Helms not because of free-market principles, but because of how men like Jesse Helms used race as a political weapon.
Two particular events best explain my parents’ attitudes on race. In 1988, my sister applied to UNC-Chapel Hill—she hoped to follow in my father’s footsteps and attend pharmacy school. When she wasn’t accepted, my parents pointed to affirmative action and speculated that one of my sister’s Black classmates had been accepted to UNC over my sister, despite the fact that my sister had better grades.
Two years later, as if perceiving my family’s racial angst, Jesse Helms released a famous television ad that capitalized on it. In the ad, two white hands tear up a job offer that had to be rescinded because the company was forced by a government-mandated racial quota to give the job to a minority. The ad appeared in the waning days of Helms’ campaign against Harvey Gantt, the first African American mayor of Charlotte. The ad—false, misleading, and openly racist—worked, and Helms won his fourth term in the United States Senate. For my parents, the ad reinforced a suspicion they had long held: Something had been taken from our family, and that something had been given to someone who didn’t deserve it.
I don’t know whether my sister actually had higher grades than her Black classmate, but I do know that her classmate was the daughter of the school superintendent, an incredibly popular and beloved public figure. He was better connected—both politically and socially—than my parents were, and made more money than they did. But the explanation my parents locked onto was race. That’s how they explained my sister’s disappointment to her and to us.
We begrudged that family’s race instead of their class, both because it seemed unlikely that Black people could wield class power over us, and because class power and privilege were things we were taught not to acknowledge. People like my parents believed that Black Americans were taking us for a ride, but we never peered into the front seat to see who was driving the car. We were too distracted by the racially divisive culture wars—wars that soon came to include women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality among their points of contention. Amid these distractions, my parents and others in their social class continued to vote against their own economic self-interest. That strategy still works today.
Fast-forward to 2015. For a born-and-bred middle-class Conservative from Bible Belt North Carolina, where Ronald Reagan proved that wealth and fame can be taken as signifiers of hard work and Jesse Helms proved that racist attitudes can be masked as rugged individualism, Donald Trump—a man who began his political career as a reality-television host who lied about the nationality of our country’s first Black president—must have seemed like a political unicorn to people like my parents, right? I’m not so sure.
By 2015, my father had survived a bout with melanoma, one we feared would take his life. He had retired from a near 40-year career with the same company. He had seen two children get married, and had become a grandfather to two granddaughters he absolutely adored.
When he first saw Donald Trump’s announcement, he called him a “clown” who was running for president “to get attention.” As more Republicans embraced Trump, the divide between how Trump lived and how my father lived became more evident to my father. My father not only believed in hard work and honesty—he worked hard and was honest. He not only believed in treating everyone with respect and dignity—he actually treated everyone with respect and dignity. He not only believed in the truth—he told it.
So when he called Donald Trump a clown, I believed he meant it. Unlike Reagan, Trump could not even feign charismatic charm and modesty. And unlike Helms, Trump lacked the blue-collar background necessary to ground his populist message. And as for Trump’s family values—well.
In the spring of 2016—just as the Republican primary was winding down, and just before our second daughter was born in early April—my father experienced what we all believed was a stroke. He suddenly lost some motor function, and his memory and behavior were greatly affected, as was his ability to find the right words when speaking.
He spent days at a time in the hospital that spring, where scans revealed brain bleeds that looked like hemorrhages. His behavior and language were odd, and sometimes funny. Whenever someone came into his hospital room, he would greet them warmly, sometimes hugging them, just in case he was supposed to know them and had forgotten who they were. One day, while he and I were making a slow loop around the hospital floor, he looked out the window onto a rainy afternoon and told me it was “pretty snickers out there.”
But what I found most remarkable was his willingness to tell the absolute truth as he saw it in the moment. One day, while watching a reality television show on which an overexuberant host was building a treehouse, my father, who had never uttered a violent word to me in his life, turned to me and said, “I believe that man needs to be smacked in the face.” I had to agree.
During a stint at home, where he would regularly tie neckties over his T-shirts and put on dress shoes without pants in an attempt to get ready for work, he removed all the fresh bedding that my mother—who, by this time, was exhausted and overwhelmed—had just replaced. When she scolded him, he told her that she was acting like “a real bitch,” a phrase none of us had ever heard him use. When she cried (and actually agreed with him), he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her.
The most baffling episode happened one day while he and I were sitting in his hospital room in Wilmington. By then, we knew that what we had believed was a stroke was actually a walnut-size melanoma on his brain, and we were awaiting a prognosis. Months earlier, Hillary Clinton had clinched the Democratic nomination, and my father and I were watching something about her on one of the cable news networks. My father shook his head. “People have never liked her,” he said. “They’ve always given her a hard time. I don’t know why.”
My mother took this as a sign that my father was, in fact, very sick. I took it as something else: hope. Hope that the man I admired, and with whom I had long disagreed on nearly every political issue, had finally rejected the Republican lockstep. Had Donald Trump exposed the hollowness of the Republican party’s embrace of family values and Christian conservatism? Had my father’s melanoma revealed the party’s decades-long assault on Hillary Clinton as little more than deep-rooted misogyny? Was there a chance, if he survived and were well enough, that my father would vote for Clinton, or at least against Donald Trump, in November?
On May 12, we learned what we had feared: The melanoma was inoperable, and my father was given six months to live. On the way to the car, my sister, a hospice nurse herself, pulled me aside. She had read between the lines and added her own observation of the changes in my father’s body: She estimated that he had in fact only a month left.
On that same day, Trump again promised to release his taxes, and he met with House Speaker Paul Ryan in an attempt to unite the GOP behind his candidacy. Newspapers reported that in South Carolina, a police officer had been indicted for shooting a fleeing Black man in the back after a traffic stop. And George Zimmerman announced that he would auction off the 9 mm pistol he had used to murder Trayvon Martin.
After several restless, heartrending weeks at home, my father passed on May 27. That day, Trump finally gathered enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination.
My brother delivered the eulogy at my father’s funeral, calling him the Redneck Buddha, a man who had wanted nothing aside from Winston Lights and Sun Drop and who had clung to nothing as “I,” “me,” or “mine.” My brother was right: My father was selfless. He was not greedy or coarse or vulgar or proud. Everyone who attended his funeral—most of whom would go on to vote for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020—would agree. I can only hope that, regardless of who attends my funeral services, they will speak of me in the same reverent tone.
After all, my father showed me how to be a man who believes in and practices kindness, empathy, and decency. That is how I will always remember him, and I am incredibly fortunate to have such an unblemished idea of my father as a man who lived his values, even if he did not always vote for them. That is the best gift he gave me. The second-best gift is that he left this world before he had to step into the voting booth on Nov. 3, 2016, and prove whether he had ever believed a word of it.