Railey on walking by the water with his father

Published 9:54 am Wednesday, June 19, 2013

by John Railey

‘All the rivers run into the sea …’
— Ecclesiastes 1:7

We always walked by the water, my father and I.

Going on nine years after my father’s death, that’s the image I like best.

Our walks started with my boyhood river, the Nottoway, a narrow and wonderful body that snakes through my home county of Southampton, in Virginia.

My father, Dick Railey, worked incessantly, but Sunday afternoons were for me. My three older siblings were growing up. After church, my father would crank up his Mustang and drive me to a different spot on the Nottoway for a walk. He was bigger than life, a barrel-chested, side-burned figure wearing his old fatigue jacket from World War II. We’d stand on a river bank crisscrossed with prints of raccoons and deer and listen to blue herons belt out hoarse honks. My father would smoke his cigar and tell me about his heroes: FDR, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King.

He’d answer my questions, such as ones about why his black clients often had three pictures on their walls: Jesus, JFK and Martin King. I understood why Jesus was there. It was the Christ-soaked South. And King, well, he was black like the clients my dad took me along to visit. But what about JFK?

My father would patiently explain that Kennedy stood up for blacks. He’d tell me about the speech Kennedy made 50 years ago last week, the one in which he said civil rights was a moral issue as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the Constitution. Years later, a friend of my father’s, Doug Wilder, would tell me about Dick Railey’s tenacity along those lines. My father was one of Wilder’s earliest supporters, and played a small role in helping to get him elected governor of Virginia in 1989 – the first black to be elected governor in American history. Wilder said that when people told my father to back off integration, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire.

My father and I had other walks by the water, ones at Nags Head, where he’d bought our family a cottage, the man raised in the Depression flush with his earnings as a lawyer. Our walks would come during breaks from bodysurfing. I’d hustle to match his stride, trying to beat him at finding the best shell. We’d watch the waves and talk, politics and all the rest.

The walks ended as I entered adolescence. Who wants to walk with their dad?

His heroic image receded as I entered a prolonged adolescence, one that lasted until my mid-20s.

Finally, I came around. By the time I was in my late 20s, I was speeding down to the beach on Friday afternoons to make it in time to walk with my father before dinner. He never asked me where I had been all those years. He was just happy to walk with me again.

And to resume answering my questions.

We’d walk and talk, drinking Corona Lights and mulling it all over. We’d admire the ocean for all its wild power, majesty and mystery. He’d tell me about falling in love with the sea when he was in the Navy in the South Pacific. We’d talk about working hard and playing hard. “Let the good times, roll,” my father would say.

We’d shift to other issues. I’d challenge him: Didn’t JFK have to be dragged into the civil rights fight?

He’d answer: Well, maybe so, son, but once he got into it, he sure fought.

We’d laugh about the idiosyncrasies of family and friends. He’d tell me I was being a good father to my daughter, but gently nudge me on fatherhood skills I needed to improve. We talked about editorial pages and columnists and my fight for compensation for the victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program. My father supported my work, and never made me feel like a black sheep for not joining the family law firm he’d started.

By the early 2000s, my father would have to bundle up for our summer walks by the sea, sweaters with his faded swimming trunks. His heart was weak and his blood was thin. A body surfer of legend among family and friends, he couldn’t go in the ocean anymore.

I knew that was killing him.

He didn’t talk about it. He just wanted to know what was going on with me. I’d slow my stride to match his, wanting our walks to go on forever.

John Railey is a Southampton County native and is the editorial page editor and a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal.  His email is jrailey@wsjournal.com