In this story from October 1964, the beloved actor pays tribute to his father, a man of conviction and devotion.
- Posted on Aug 8, 2013
When I was a boy in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, Stewart’s Hardware Store seemed the center of the universe. It was a three-story structure filled with everything needed to build a house, hunt a deer, plant a garden, repair a car or make a scrapbook.
Even after I moved away and saw larger sights, the store remained with me. But then I realized that what was central to my life was not just the store but the man who presided over it—my father.
Alexander Stewart was a muscular Irishman whose talk was as blunt as his face. The store not only provided his family a living but also was a forum where he pronounced opinions seldom tailored to the popular style.
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If he ever heard the slogan about the customer always being right, he would have scorned it as toadyism as well as a falsehood. And yet his tone was never harsh, and he was never vindictive. If a man failed to follow his advice, Father merely made allowance for human frailty and felt no ill will.
Dad was a Presbyterian, strong in his religion as he was in all beliefs. He sang in the choir with a true but penetrating tenor voice, and someone once described the hymns as “solos by Mr. Stewart, with accompanying voices.”
Strangely, Dad never sang very loudly at home. We lived in a rambling house with a large front porch loaded with wicker furniture. The living room, high ceilinged and trimmed with dark woodwork, held a grand piano, around which we gathered for family sings.
My sister Virginia played the piano, my other sister Mary played the violin and I played the accordion—after a fashion.
During these sessions, Dad sang very softly, so as not to cover up Mother’s clear, sweet voice. Her name was Elizabeth, and he called her Bessie and adored her. Though small and gentle and not given to contention, she frequently had her way over him because she possessed patience and endurance.
Doing things with my father was always fun, for his imagination added a dimension to events. When, at 10, I announced that I was going to Africa to bring back wild animals, my mother and sisters pointed out my age, the problems of transportation and all such mundane and inconsequential facts.
But not Dad. He brought home books about Africa, train and boat schedules for us to study, and even some iron bars which we used to build cages for the animals I was to bring back.
When the departure day approached and I was becoming apprehensive, my father brought home a newspaper that told of a wreck on the railroad that was to take me to Baltimore. This postponed my trip and, by the time the train tracks were repaired, he and I were off on a new and more exciting project.
When President Harding died, the funeral train was scheduled to pass through a town about 20 miles from ours. I wanted desperately to go and see this train, but Mother pointed out that there would be school the next day and that it would be a long trip. That ended the discussion.
But Dad did not forget. When the day arrived, he came to me and, in in a voice as near a whisper as his nature would allow, said, “Jim, boy, it’s time to see the funeral train.”
We drove along without talking much, bound together by the comradeship of our adventure. When we came to the railroad station, a half dozen people were talking in hushed tones and looking down the tracks. Suddenly the tracks gave off a low hum—the funeral train was coming!
Dad shoved two pennies into my hand and said, “Run, put them on the rails. Quick!”
I did as directed and jumped back to hold his hand as the engine thundered past, pulling a glass-windowed observation car in which we saw the flag-draped casket, guarded by two Marines, their glistening bayonets at attention. I could hardly breathe, so overwhelming were the sight and sound.
After the train had roared off, I retrieved the two flattened pennies from the track. Dad put one in his pocket and I kept the other.
As we drove home, I examined mine and found that the two feathers of the Indian headdress had become a great plume. On the other side two slender stalks of wheat had grown and burst, as if the seed had ripened and scattered.
For years, Dad and I carried those coins flattened by the weight of history. And the knowledge of what we shared made me feel very close to him.
With his temperament, it was amazing how patient Dad could be, how subtle his discipline. I don’t recall a time when he stood across my path; he always walked beside, guiding me with his own steps./p>
When a neighbor’s dog killed my dog Bounce, I vowed to kill that dog in revenge. I vowed it day after day in the most bloodthirsty terms, almost making myself ill with my own hate.
“You are determined to kill the dog,” my father stated abruptly one evening after dinner. “All right, let’s get it done. Come on.”
I followed him to the store, to discover that he had tied the dog in the alley. He got a deer rifle out of stock, loaded it, handed it to me, then stepped back for me to do my bloody work.
The dog and I looked at each other. He wagged his tail in a tentative offer of friendship and his large brown eyes were innocent and trusting. Suddenly the gun was too heavy for me to hold and it dropped to the ground. The dog came up and licked my hand.
The three of us walked home together, the dog gamboling in front. No word was ever said about what had happened. None was needed.
During World War II, I enlisted in the Air Corps and became part of a bomber squadron. When we were ready to fly overseas, Dad came to the farewell ceremonies in Sioux City, Iowa.
We were very self-conscious with each other, talking in generalities, trying to conceal our awareness that, starting tomorrow, he could no longer walk with me. At the time of the greatest crisis in my life, he would have to stand aside. We were both afraid.
At the moment of parting, he studied his shoes a moment, then looked at the sky. I knew he was searching for a final word to sustain me, but he couldn’t find it.
He opened his mouth, then shut it hard, almost in anger. We embraced, then he turned and walked quickly away. Only after he had gone did I realize that he had put a small envelope in my pocket.
That night alone in my bunk, I opened it and read, “My dear Jim, soon after you read this letter, you will be on your way to the worst sort of danger. I have had this in mind for a long time and I am very concerned... But Jim, I am banking on the enclosed copy of the 91st Psalm.
"The thing that takes the place of fear and worry is the promise in these words. I am staking my faith in these words. I feel sure that God will lead you through this mad experience ... I can say no more. I only continue to pray. God bless you and keep you. I love you more than I can tell you. Dad.”
Never before had he said he loved me. I always knew he did but he had never said it until now. I wept. In the envelope there was also a small booklet bearing the title The Secret Place—A Key to the 91st Psalm. I began to read it.
From that day, the little booklet was always with me. Before every bombing raid over Europe, I read some of it, and with each reading the meaning deepened for me.
I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress... His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day... For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And I was borne up.
Dad had committed me to God, but I felt the presence of both throughout the war.
When Mother died in 1956, we buried her in the family plot in Indiana, Pennsylvania. With his wife gone, Dad could work up no new enthusiasms. Her quiet strength had sustained him, and with her gone he quickly withered away.
It was a bleak January day when I saw him placed beside his ancestors, men who had lived longer than he had but who were perhaps less demanding of life. Most of the town came to the funeral with respect and grief.
After it was all over, I went to the hardware store and let myself in with a key I hadn’t touched for 30 years. The interior smelled of metal, leather, oil and fertilizer, the odors of my childhood.
I sat at his scarred oak desk and idly pulled open the middle drawer. It held a clutter of pencils and paper clips and bolts and paint samples. Something glinted dully among them. I picked up the funeral-train penny with the flattened Indian face and the burst grain.
For a long time I sat there at his desk, fingering the Indian head penny and thinking. Then I put it in my pocket, took a last look at familiar and loved objects, and walked out of the store, locking the door behind me.
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