June 17, 2011
So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 1 Kings 2:10
I was not a believer and certainly not schooled in the Bible when I first encountered that poetic phrase. As a graduate history student, poring over the writings of President George Washington, I noted the Father of our Country wrote when he passed the age of sixty, the time is not far distant when I must sleep with my fathers.
It referred, the text explained, to Washingtons belief that he, like most of his male ancestors, would not live much longer. How can they say Washington is not eloquent, I asked myself. Thats a beautiful phrase, a memorable image.
Washingtons phrase reminded me of my own father. My dad was a carpenter and he left the house every morning before dawn. The good part of that is that he would often return in the late afternoon. I can remember as a little boy of nine or ten wrestling with Pop on the TV room floor when he came home. He was still sweaty and often had sawdust in his hair and on his clothes. Many a time, after such a hard days work, he and I would fall asleep following our wrestling match. Soon, my mother would come in and yell: Les! Go take your bath; its almost time for dinner! Sweaty as he was, that was a sweet smell. Honest sweat, pungent sawdust. He was proud of his work and there was a lot to be proud of.
One day, Pop came home to find me pale and shaken. I had just gotten back from the fields near our house. My friend Shane and I had been playing forts, running free through the woods and hills. But something bad had happened. Soon, Pop got the story out of me. A man with a shotgun had confronted Shane and me. This was his land, he said. We were illegal trespassers. If he ever caught us on his property again, he said, aiming the gun at us, he would shoot us. Pop sent Shane away but took me in tow. He wanted me to identify the man with the shotgun. I was terrified. That man had said he would shoot me. Would he now shoot Pop, too?
The owner of the vast undeveloped property was well-known in the community. The newspapers referred to him as the Sixteenth Lord of the Manor. In truth, his family had owned that land since King Charles II gave it to them in the 1660s.
Pop wasnt afraid. He held my hand tight and took me right up to the front door of the manor house. Is this the man, he asked? Yes, I answered, with a quavering voice. Pop confronted the Sixteenth Lord. Ill keep my son and his friends off your property, he said, but if I ever hear of you pointing a gun at a little boy, Ill break it over your head.
I thought my father the strongest, bravest man in the world. Still, I breathed easier once we crossed over the Sixteenth Lords property line. Only then did I notice the old, almost unreadable sign on the tree. It said: POSTED.
Much later, I learned that that meant the same thing as No Trespassing. And very much later, I learned what it meant to sleep with your fathers. I read this wonderful phrase in the Bible.
There is a lot of talk about bullying these days. We have a massive outlay in federal funds to address the issue of bullying. Growing up on Long Island, I had a sure defense against bullying my Pop. So did most of the boys I knew. Divorce was rare then and out-of-wedlock birth rarer still. Abortion was against the law.
We kids grew up feeling safe, protected in our tender years. One of George Washingtons great contemporaries, Edmund Burke, wrote of something called the cheap defense of nations. Fathers in the home were surely a part of that cheap defense. Without fathers in the home, there wont be enough money in the U.S. treasury or all the treasuries in the world to guard the young against bullying.
New York State, my home state, is on the verge of abolishing fathers in the home. They say they are only re-defining marriage. Theyre not. They are ending it. And with the end of marriage, will come the dissolution of the state. Gone will be the cheap defense of nations. And no one will know what it means to sleep with my fathers.