Earl grew up tough and, he says, "on relief in St. Louis, the son of a man not often on the scene. Earl has done a lot of physical things: During his 28 years in the Army, he was Airborne and a Green Beret and a sprinter; he was blinded in his right eye by a hand grenade and landed a plane in Vietnam after the pilot was shot. He once tried selling air conditioners door to door but didn't do well because people would say, "What's wrong with using my fan?" Earl, being an honest sort, would say, "Nothing. Actually. I prefer a fan myself." After leaving the sales job, he began looking for another job through the unemployment office; instead, he was offered an unemployment check, which made him furious. "I want to work," he stormed. "I don't want no handouts." Today he is a clerk at the Groton, Mass. post office and taking a business course at night at Mt. Wachusett Community College. "I think it will help me in the future," he says. "Besides, I can't get no dumber, and knowledge is power."
He constantly gets after his sons, telling them, "If you can make a B, you can make an A." In truth, the Morrises aren't strong students. They are pluggers. As Owen Kilcoyne, a former Ayer football coach who has coached all the Morrises, says, "They work very hard to be average in the classroom." Sitting at the dining room table (the same kind of yellow tablecloth with white polka dots that Rockwell used to love), Earl says to one of the boys, "The shortest pencil is better than the longest memory." He says, "None of these boys is my favorite. Or maybe I should say, they all are. The point is, I have always told them that if they want to be as good as anybody else, get an education and go prove it. Don't just sit around talking about it." Not one of the boys had a driver's license while growing up in Ayer, a scruffy little town 25 miles northwest of Boston that does considerable damage to the storybook image of New England villages. Why no license? "Well," says Joe, "there was no place I wanted to go." Jamie shakes his head and says, "Joe walked, Larry walked, Mike walked, I walk." Unspoken is the feeling that Wanda, one of two older sisters, squandered an athletic career on the rise when she decided to get a car, then went to work to pay for it. Last month Joe became the first of the brothers to get a license.
Larry and Mike didn't go to a graduation dinner last spring because they had a track meet the next day. The boys take turns doing dishes and, mercy sakes, don't argue about whose turn it is.
And, most of all, they don't get in trouble. Oh, well, there was the time, Larry recalls, when his friends got some plywood out of a garage when they lived in Fort Devens (the military post which is the reason for Ayer's existence) to build a tree house. But Larry said, "No, that's Mr. Johnson's plywood. We're putting it back in his garage." As they were returning it, Mr. Johnson appeared and could not ascertain the direction of flow of his plywood. Well, anyway, that's what Larry says and if you believe that, you'll believe water runs uphill. Unfortunately, Mr. Johnson believed water runs downhill. And once Joe belted a classmate in the cafeteria because the fellow put a fly in Joe's hamburger. But really it amounted to nothing.
Jamie, what if you got arrested?
"Whether I had done it or not. I'd say, 'I'm guilty, handcuff me, put me in jail, I'll serve my time. But don't tell my father.' "
But what would happen when you didn't show up at home?
"I would just tell the police to report me as a missing person—but don't tell my father."
As Norman Parker, a local resident, was saying over coffee in downtown Ayer, "The Morrises don't hang out, they work out. They're not like all the other kids."
That's because Earl and Addie didn't want them to be like the other kids. While Earl served in Texas and Germany and Vietnam, Addie stayed home in North Carolina. Then, in 1972, they all got together at Fort Devens. Says Joe: "I remember my dad getting up at 5:30 a.m. and polishing his boots, and I asked him why he spent so much time on that. He said, 'Because I want to be the best soldier I can be.' " That lesson wasn't lost on the always observant Joe, who says, "When you're a Morris, you know second is never good enough."