Authority is the power one exercises to direct or encourage the actions of another. This ability to command can be conferred by statute, custom, tradition, or usurped and enforced by a greater power. Authority also flows from respect and trust, like that earned by my Uncle Maud.
Even when his older brothers and sisters were still alive, Uncle Maud’s authority in the family seemed preeminent. He was the son from whom his mother and father sought advice. They gestured to him as their surrogate. Uncle Maud was my mother’s brother, her favorite sibling. His very presence signaled manhood. He was what we boys saw as our future, when our time would come to do mannish things and to work and take care of our families, as he did for his wife Lucile and their six children. Even his non-verbal gestures confirmed experience that could be relied on, and authority that should be respected.
In the spring of 1939, shortly after the anniversary of my fifth birthday, my grandmother wrote a letter to each of her children and suggested that they arrange their calendars and schedules to reunite in her presence in Valdosta Georgia each Fourth of July. Her children and most grandchildren called her Mama. Mama appreciated basic math. She was the mother of 13 children, and at that time the grandmother of 25 grandchildren and an emerging generation of great-grand-children. Mama had reason to believe her progeny would be as fertile as herself. In her letter to her children she warned, “If your children, and their children’s children don’t meet regularly and get to know each other, sooner or later they won’t know their own kin folks.” Even though at least half a dozen of her children lived in Valdosta, Mama had spoken, and Uncle Maud understood her intentions and expectations — that he assume the leadership for planning and supervising the family picnic. Even his position during the gathering signaled his silent authority — sitting comfortably next to the large container of homemade Kool Aid, with ladle in hand, greeting and dispensing.
Uncle Maud’s oldest children were Herbert and Hildred; the first of eight twins in the Alexander family. Someone nicknamed Herbert, “Bay.”
When Bay became a man he went off to the Navy, and later transferred to the Marine Corps for a total of 28 years of service. I chose the Air Force for my military career. Both of us attained the rank of senior non-commissioned officer. When our military assignments permitted we attended the annual family reunion, just as Mama had hoped, even though her calendar had run out of years.
On one July 3rd, Uncle Maud strolled about his back yard where we would gather the next day. Bay and I observed his manner, which signaled making a mental list of things to be done very early tomorrow. Then he looked at us and asked: “Where will you boys be at about five o’clock tomorrow morning?” Bay and I shared glances, but did not speak. We had lived long enough with the man who was our “first basic trainer” to understand his intentions and expectations. At exactly 5 a.m., my telephone rang. The authority of the caller out-ranked that of any general to command the presence of two senior military veterans. I simply lifted the receiver and said, “Yes sir, Uncle Maud, I’m on the way.” When I reached his back yard ten minutes later, Bay handed me a cup of coffee.