By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The winding footpath that once connected the next-door homes of the two men is now overgrown, lost in a tangle of waist-high weeds and the shadows of the ancient oaks that green this serene Cedar Creek Lake area. Tom Cherry, wandering his back yard with his dogs, points toward the property he had helped clear in preparation for the home where his aging and notorious father, Bobby Frank Cherry, used to live. He takes a long drag on one of the Kools he chain-smokes and shakes his head. The dogs rush to his side, barking in concert, as if recognizing some hidden torment Tom Cherry is feeling.
The old man's house is vacant, sold a few years ago to help defray legal expenses. Tom's father--a man with whom he has endured a love-hate relationship for most of his 49 years; the person he once called his "hero" yet has not spoken to since an angry estrangement in 1997--now sits in an Alabama prison, convicted last month of a horrendous crime he was accused of committing 39 years ago.
Bobby Frank Cherry, jurors agreed, was one of four Ku Klux Klansmen who, at the height of the civil rights movement, bombed an all-black church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four young girls and injuring 20 others.
Now, on this clear, bright blue summer weekend, the eldest of the seven Cherry children is alone, reflecting on the doubt and confusion that has haunted him and his family for decades.
"Dad and I always had a rocky, off-and-on relationship," the husky-voiced long-haul truck driver says. "If you agreed with him, you were his buddy. If you didn't, you weren't. There was never any in-between. It wasn't until I was a grown man that I finally figured out that he wasn't ever going to change."
He admits his father's prejudice did not prevent Tom Cherry's lifelong attempt to forge a bond between them. That, he explains, is just what sons do, even if their father was mean and abusive, even if he abandoned his children to an orphanage soon after their mother died, even if he was a man who spewed racial slurs, wore his Klan robe proudly and held to the belief that violence was the answer to the world's social ills.
So, after years of going his separate way, Tom Cherry followed his father to Texas and became his next-door neighbor.
"If I told you how I feel about my dad right now," he says after a quick burst of laughter, "you'd think I'm crazy."
He continues pensively: "There hasn't been an hour go by since the trial that I haven't thought about him sitting in jail, wondering what he's going through. It's an awful feeling, knowing there's nothing you can do about it. I feel so sorry for him.
"I love him. And I hate him. There's one part of me that wishes I'd killed him 30 years ago. There's another that feels that all of what's happened to him is a result of the government plotting against him. And there's another that feels he got what he deserved."
It is difficult to determine which Bobby Frank Cherry his conflicted son is remembering: the one who worked long, hard hours to provide for his family; the man he once wanted to grow up to be like; the one who, his son says, had a great sense of humor; or the one who would rage and physically abuse his mother, who died when he was 15.
"I never knew what it was that set him off," Tom says. "Actually, I don't think it was ever anything in particular." He recalls a Sunday morning in the Cherry family kitchen. "All my mother did was ask him to go to church with us," he says, "and Dad jumped up and cleared the breakfast table, throwing things and knocking stuff onto the floor. That's just the way he was."
It was such tantrums that motivated a 9-year-old Tom Cherry to first run away from home. "I got to where I'd do it just about every time Mama and Dad would start fighting," he recalls. Watching his father punch and slap his mother, Tom would pack his clothes and--except the time he pointed a shotgun at his father to make him stop--walk away. "I never got very far, though," he says.
Indeed, try as he would over the years to distance himself from his father and his murderous legacy, Tom Cherry could never get far enough away. He was with his father through a childhood that, with a few exceptions, was draped in hate. He was pulled into his world of Klan meetings and random violence. Even as an adult, Tom Cherry had to face investigators, divided family members and numerous ghosts, all of whom wanted to know what he knew--about his father, about the bombing, about his lifetime of accusations and unanswered questions.
There was, he says, one occasion that typified his futile efforts to flee his father. One evening when he had run away, a friend of the family stopped him a short distance from home and persuaded him to call his mother and tell her where he was. When he phoned, it was his father who angrily instructed him to stay where he was so he might come get him. "I was so nervous by the time he got there," Tom says, "that my stomach was hurting." When he told his father of this, Bobby Frank Cherry doubled his fist and punched his son in his belly.