A father's memento; a sense of hope in era of terror

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When the news of the London underground bombings reached us in our small harbor town, I thought of the charred old nail my father kept on the mantel when I was growing up.

The nail came from the ashes of the Birmingham, Ala., church fire-bombed in the early '60s. Four little black girls died in their own Sunday school, victims of white racists.

My father was there as a reporter for this newspaper and pocketed the long antique nail as he worked on the news story. As a reporter, he sought the heart of the event, interviewing those aggrieved and those struggling to restore order and justice. Then he wrote it down and wired it back to the paper.

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His words spread understanding of the forces at work for readers whose lives were remote or unconnected. As any reporter knows, the "who, what, where, when" were easy. The "why" always takes longer.

I always felt that the nail on the mantel was the response of a father, not a reporter, to the "why" of a black church, a community polarized along lines of race, a country convulsed by the struggle for civil rights and freedom.

My brother and I were too young to understand where Dad had been on that trip. We were just glad to have him home, since he usually brought us something in his suitcase.

It was many years before the significance of the nail became apparent. It has been a gift. Its origin finally told, we needed no explanation.

Now that I have my own children, I see the other connection he must have made: Any child snared in the hateful act could have been his child.

The fact that he mounted the nail on a piece of wood and placed it prominently in our home revealed Dad's emotional connection to a professional assignment. He was appalled by the bombing. Reporting the crime was a matter of balancing facts - he could partition writing about horror from the intrusion of personal feelings.

But the memento meant that he needed to editorialize somehow. Which is why that nail has eloquence for me today.

Dad also covered Northern Ireland. I was in high school during his trips to Ulster.

He covered Bloody Sunday. He interviewed the rhetoricians, the protectors, and the enforcers from all sides. He found peacemakers on all sides: people with a simple ache for tolerance and trust in place of worn-out and dangerous ancient hostilities. He mentioned 2 a.m. bomb scares at his Belfast hotel, being told he had five minutes to get out of the building.

I was then old enough to fear for his safety amid reckless, tangled, unfamiliar hatreds. Any father snared in the violence could be my father.

Those hatreds were not unfamiliar to him. Dad said that the two reporting experiences, separated by years and thousands of miles, felt as if he were covering the same story.

The articles he filed from Northern Ireland had different names but many of the same voices - witnesses, sufferers, and aggressors - heard on the trips to the American South during civil-rights marches, sit-ins and strikes, and the bombing of a church.

Which is to say that the latest terrorist attacks in London feel agonizingly local as well as foreign; frighteningly immediate and long ago.

Which is also to say that there is no longer such thing as a remote or unconnected onlooker to such a story. All parents and children rehearse the feelings of loss or anger implicit in tragic events.But if the voices of the sufferers and aggressors are similar in the two stories, so are the voices of the peacemakers. Can we expect to see once again the pride of power, possession, or privilege, and worn-out tradition humbled in favor of unity, equality, brotherhood?

Finally, it is about little children and nails from the ashes, the voices speaking to their neighbors, and the mementos appropriated from the ashes for the future.

Out of any ashes, anywhere, also comes a durable vestige of hope. This, too, has happened before. Any father or any son could also be a peacemaker.

Todd R. Nelson is principal of the Adams School in Castine, Maine. His father, Robert Colby Nelson, was a longtime editor and correspondent for the Monitor.

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