Fred Bailey’s occupation is listed in the 1930 census as “laundryman.” In those times, working in a laundry was a fairly common profession. Men were needed to load huge amounts of clothes into giant washers and then transfer those wet clothes into industrial dryers that were several times larger than those found in today’s Laundromats.
Then the Great Depression hit, and the laundry business plummeted. Fred lost his job, started drinking heavily, and then hit the road. No one was ever clear why he left his wife and five children. Some people said he was trying to better himself and his family’s condition, so he traveled to other states in search of work. Some said he was a no-account bum who abandoned his family in their darkest hour.
About a year later his wife received word that Fred was dead.
Once again, details were sketchy and rumors abounded. Some folks said he was working a job with the phone company in Kansas and died when he fell off a telephone pole. Some whispered he was murdered in a back alley in Memphis for an unpaid gambling debt.
His family, of course, was devastated. His wife got a job and farmed out the kids to neighbors who were kind enough to watch them while she worked. The Bailey family struggled just the same as millions of other families did during that time. Clothes were handed down to younger children, feet went bare in the summer, and every spare penny was treasured.
But then a hero named Pop Wheeler showed up. Wheeler was also a laundryman and was working in a laundry the first time he became a hero. One of his coworkers had been working inside the drum of one of the huge dryers when someone accidentally turned on the machine. The man inside was tossed around like a rag doll while everyone surrounding the machine tried in vain to switch it off. It was clear to everyone that the man’s life was in danger. His neck or spine could easily be snapped if nothing were done. Acting quickly, with no thought for his own safety, Wheeler stepped forward and thrust his arm into the tumbling dryer, temporarily halting the tumbler while his coworkers pulled the repairman out. But arms aren’t made to withstand that kind of force, and the dryer tore it from Wheeler’s body.
The repairman’s life had been saved, but Wheeler had lost his arm and could no longer work at the laundry.
Sometime later, Wheeler met the widow Bailey, and they became romantically involved. They married, and Pop Wheeler raised the widow’s five kids as his own, making him a hero for the second time.
The youngest of the family was a little girl named Gwen who would grow up one day and become my mom. As I grew up, she would occasionally tell the story of her father, his drinking, and his abandoning her family. Like many of her generation, she didn’t talk a lot about how that situation made her feel, but she left no doubt as to how her father’s behavior impacted her family. She also left no doubt about how grateful she was that another man stepped up to become a father and provider for her family.
Back in those times, a man’s career options were severely limited by the loss of an arm, but Pop Wheeler didn’t use that as an excuse not to work. He found work doing whatever he could to provide for his adopted family, and as a result, they made it through one of the darkest economic times in our country’s history. That simple act of caring for his family made Pop Wheeler a hero all over again.
We’ve all been through a few tough times of our own this year. Maybe not Depression-era tough, but still, it hasn’t been a picnic for anyone.
But hard times always produce opportunities for heroism. Sometimes being a hero means losing a limb in order to save someone’s life. More often, though, it means stepping up and doing your best for the people in your community–your family, neighbors, or customers.
Every day, each of us chooses whether or not we’ll be a hero–the kind of person that others can depend on, the kind of person who impacts his or her world, someone who changes lives by simply showing up.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that the kind of hero we all want to be?
Excerpted from The Good Dad Guide © 2016 Charles Marshall.