The week before his ninth birthday, my father realized something terrible, awful, and almost unbearable. The next installment of King of the Texas Rangers, a serial western, would open in his home town movie theater on his birthday. The unbearable part? “I realized,” he told me, “my ninth birthday would fall on a Sunday.”
In the Morgan household of my father’s generation, Sabbath law held an iron grip. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy translated into Thou shalt not do anything fun on Sundays. So, Dad said, “I came up with a plan, a pretty smart plan for a nine-year-old; or so I thought.”
At this point in the story, Dad would open his Bible if it was nearby and point to the verse: “I decided to take Jesus’ advice and ‘count the cost.‘ Seeing the next installment of King of the Texas Rangers on the day it arrived at The Texan Theater was worth getting a whipping. In fact, it would be worth two whippings, and I knew my father well enough to know that’s what I would have to pay in addition to the dime it cost to get into the movie.”
On Monday, with six days to go, Dad popped the question to his father. “After church next Sunday afternoon, since it’s my birthday, could I go to see the movie with my friend Joe?” Joe’s parents were heathens, so there was no question that he could go. Sure enough, my grandfather gave my father a spanking with his belt. “Just a couple of whacks,” Dad said. “Definitely still worth it. It quit stinging by Wednesday.”
And Wednesday, he asked him again. “Dad, I know it’s Sunday, but it’s my birthday, too, and I think God would be O.K. with me going to the movie if I listen real careful in church.” His father narrowed his eyes. “You do, do you?” This time, Dad had to go cut a switch off of the pomegranate tree. “Getting whacked with a switch hurt worse, but I just kept thinking about how great the movie would be and eventually my bottom would quit stinging.”
On Saturday, still having a hard time sitting down because of the last whipping with the pomegranate switch, Dad made his final gambit. He told his father, “I would like to observe the Sabbath on Saturday this week, like Jesus did. I’ll just stay in and rest today, and go to church tomorrow like the first Christians did.” His father narrowed his eyes again and Dad worried for a few seconds that his plan had failed. “And then, I suppose,” Grandfather said, “you’ll want to go see the movie after church. Just like the first Christians did.”
“When he cracked a joke, I knew I had him,” Dad said. “I just had to smile appreciatively and then wait.”
“I guess,” Grandfather said, “if you want to go to the movie on Sunday, it will just have to be between you and God. If you can live with that, I’ll let you go just this once. But you’ll have to walk. Don’t expect me to drive anywhere but church on a Sunday.”
After church on Sunday, Dad turned on the radio in the car, despite the fact that listening to entertainment on the Sabbath was generally frowned upon. But, there was no entertainment on the radio that day, December 7, 1941. “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air,” the radio announcer said.
As the implications sunk in, and the announcement continued, that President Roosevelt would declare war, Grandfather’s words echoed in my father’s nine-year-old mind, “It will just have to be between you and God.”
“I knew,” Dad said, “that I was guilty. God punished the whole country for my intent to break the Sabbath and go to a movie.”
“And that,” Dad said, “is why the attack on Pearl Harbor was all my fault.”
Dad would have turned 81 years old today. I still miss him, I still hear his voice every time I remember one of his stories.