I grew up watching my dad fill out a military uniform like Captain America, hit towering home runs like Dave Parker, kill snakes with his pistol like Clint Eastwood and, after our house was broken into, hunt down a burglar like Charles Bronson.
But the tough guy in my family is my mama.
My dad, Leroy Chapman Sr., taught me how to be a man.
My mama taught me how to fight.
Last week, she turned 70. My family is celebrating her, as we live by her example.
From birth, Carolyn Regina Vernon Chapman had to fight. It was a matter of survival.
She is the oldest daughter of nine children raised by a single mother in segregated South Carolina. Extreme poverty was neither kind nor fair to kids weighed down by its burdens. Their poverty was one where meat was sporadically on the menu. But hunger pangs between what might be two meals in a day were constant. Work for black women was limited then, wages below livable.
That meant my mother couldn’t be a child for long. She had to contribute.
My grandmother had to work. And work. And work. So as a child, my mother had to keep house, raise children and work odd jobs.
Through my mother, I’ve learned that having to take on adult responsibilities ahead of schedule in life alters your perspective and sharpens your survival instincts. You take nothing for granted. You scrap, you claw, you work.
It’s funny, my dad is the Marine. But during my childhood, it was my mother who often showed me, as the Marine slogan goes, how to improvise, adapt and overcome.
She taught me that when the odds tilt against you, it’s your duty to tilt them back.
The most memorable example of this for me was after I tussled with the neighborhood bully and came home beaten and dispirited. He was older and bigger. Even so, I needed to fight back, my parents explained. It’s how you handled bullies in the ’70s.
So my father taught me how to throw a punch. Afterward, I remember swinging as hard as I could into his giant hands. He reacted as if those punches hurt him. “If you hurt me, think about what you might do to him.” I was trained and irrationally confident. I was headed out the door, ready to fight back.
But my mother stopped me on the way out.
She told me to grab a rock. He was bigger and meaner. I needed to even the odds. She knew fraudulent confidence wouldn’t help me.
I knocked on the bully’s door and invited him outside and … opted for the rock.
Improvise, adapt, overcome.
Then there was the time I was entering fourth grade, zoned for what was one of the worst-performing schools in Greenville County. My mother wanted better for me. I had spent my first years of elementary school in a mission Catholic school. But even the almost-free tuition became too much for a growing family.
So her solution: Enroll me at the highest-performing public elementary school in Greenville County. To do that she had to use a friend’s address. Things went well until they didn’t. We got exposed.
Improvise, adapt, overcome.
My mother pulled together a few dollars and hired a lawyer. She handed over legal custody to her friend, making my enrollment legal.
I matriculated through a terrific school where I sat side-by-side with the governor’s nephew, an heir to an oil and gas fortune and a bunch of kids who use summer as a verb. That early exposure taught me a few things. First, my family was, by comparison, peasants. Two, all of that advantage didn’t necessarily make you smarter. It changed my life.
And it wouldn’t have happened if my mother had not been willing to go to extremes. To fight. To refuse to accept “no” for an answer.
Over the course of my life, my mother has spared no effort nor expense in fighting for her children. Today, it’s her fight to get my sister, who has a chronic illness, great health care. Growing up, it was getting each of her three children the best education her money and sweat could acquire. It was providing us exposure to life-altering experiences. It was making sure we got inclusion and recognition when we deserved it.
Now, the debt I owe my dad is beyond repayment. He taught me everything I needed to know about being a father, a husband, a provider.
I was following in his footsteps when three days after high school graduation I raised my hand, swore an oath and officially enlisted in the United States Navy. My dad did the same thing 23 years earlier. Except, he enlisted in the Marines, knowing he would soon after head to Vietnam.
And when I was in college working three jobs, I was following an example he set. For most of my childhood, my dad had at least two jobs. Still, he always managed to show up, something I’ve always tried to do for my children because he always did it for me.
Looking back, the Chapman children had it pretty good growing up in a no-excuses household.
We had a Marine setting the tone for discipline. And fortunately for us, he married a “tough guy,” who enforced the rules and taught us what it means to fight.
Happy birthday, Ma.
E-mail Deputy Managing Editor Leroy Chapman Jr. at Leroy.Chapman @ajc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AJCLeroyChapman.
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