The story began two – maybe three years after World War II. My father (he was actually my step-father; and just a few years ago, I found out he would best be described as my “common-law stepfather” – if there is such a thing) had been home a couple of years after having served in the Army. This would have made me about five or six years old. I remember I hadn’t started kindergarten yet because I was born in March but couldn’t enrolled until September.
We lived on Caldwell Street. I even remember the address; I would share it with you, but there’s nothing there now but a vacant lot. Our home was a small caretaker house which was split in to two apartments. The three of us lived in the front half. It was a huge room with a tiny kitchen that had a cooking stove, ice box, a few cabinets for dishes, pots ‘n pans and stuff. Set off to the side, sitting in between the living room/bedroom area – and our kitchen, was a fair-sized black iron pot-belly stove used to heat the place. I slept on a couch that sat beneath a big picture window which looked out on to Caldwell street. At twilight time or a bit later (my bedtime was pretty early) I could hear people walking by talking, shooting the breeze; I’m guessing they were headed to the juke-joint – a tavern that sat on the corner. Our little caretaker house belonged to the owner. There was a kind of beer garden that separated the two buildings.
I don’t know how or when this whole thing started; my earliest memory about it began with me being shaken awake one night and taken to a strange place; a tavern is how I’ve come to think of it. Inside there was a long counter and some tables; there must have been eight or ten of them – maybe more, set up in this huge room. There were spittoons sitting by the tables and next to the high stools along the length of that dark wooden bar. It looked just like the inside of the tavern next to our house (there’s a funny story that happened there; perhaps I will get a chance to share it with you.) The difference between the two was like night and day. Like Black and White. Which of course, they were.
So there I was, roused out of a sound sleep; barely a year or so away from “toddler town,” standing in this loud, raucous, smoked-choked place filled with a bunch of drunken, leering White men yelling and screaming their heads off, and I’m trying to come to grips with why I was there. Not only was I confused, I was scared. Really scared. The first time this “incident” happened, it was my father who took me to this place. I remember other times when my mom would take me. I could sense that neither of them was happy about what they were doing; and what they told me I had to do.
It turned out that I was there to scramble, push, shove, and fight with other kids like me (my age and color) to grab as many Bo dollars that I could get my hands on. Bo dollars that would be thrown all over the floor by those…….White men. Years later, I would assume that bets were placed on us. I’m only guessing, mind you – but it seems logical now that I think about it because of all the shouting going on.
It was ugly, brutal! Little kids colliding, knocking each other over, pushing, shoving – clawing trying to get to those silver dollars. There was hurt, pain and crying for all of us. God forgive me, but I was good at it. I was the best at it. I’m sure that’s why I was shaken awake many more times to do it. Those Bo dollars were heavy; and they seemed huge in my little hands. But I always managed to grab five or six of them before the melee ended. How and why this disgusting, humiliating and demeaning practice came to be, is known only to those men who started the whole ugly spectacle. To be honest with you, this is only the second time in my life that I have talked openly about what happened back then. I have thought about it more times than I care to remember; sometimes fleetingly, always with shame – for me and my parents. It had to be low-down, gut-wrenching hard for them to live with themselves, having had to put me through that ordeal. I was a grown man when I finally asked my mom about it; even then she was still very uncomfortable talking about the subject. Who could blame her? But I pressed her and asked why – why did they make me scramble around on that filthy tavern floor in front of those White men hustling, fighting and grabbing to get a few measly silver dollars?
Henry would have lost his job, Frank, Jr.,” That was all she said. And there wasn’t much I could say to that.
I would put it into context later in life because Louisville, Kentucky can certainly be considered “in the South” – some say even part of the South. In the years after the WWII, not much had changed for Black folk like my parents – despite their contribution to the war effort. Old Jim Crow still had a stranglehold on their lives and livelihood. Somewhere along the way, my trips to that awful place ended; and then the only thing that would frighten me at night was peeking out from under my bed covers and seeing our black Felix the Cat clock with the swinging tail and swiveling eyes that glowed in the dark. It’s amazing that things that scare the bejesus out of a child.
There were several more years living in that carriage house apartment next to a park with the swings,teeter-totters, sandboxes and a view of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory where my mom worked. Life would be a mixture of good and bad for us during that time. At one point, the house nearly burned down with me trapped inside. Ugly domestic collisions between my parents were not “Leave it to Beaver Time.” And a case of child abuse brought on by anger and frustration will forever be a memory on my heart; but I forgave that parent many, many – many years ago.
There are several unusually good things I remember about life in that Caldwell street house: one I have only discussed with my wife. Another was about a different bunch of White men. They always dressed in white and would only come out at night and march through the neighborhood. My mom would wake me when you could hear them in the distance. We would kneel on the couch (that was my bed) in front of that big picture window and wait for them.
They were an US Navy Drum & Bugle Corp. band. The music was thunderous, soul-stirring; magical in its sound and fury as these men marched in harmony right outside that Caldwell Street window. After the sound of their songs and thump of their boots had faded into the darkness, my mother would close the curtains, kiss and hug me and tuck me back in to bed. Sleep would come easily and deeply once I had covered my head and turned my back on that damned Felix the Cat clock with its swiveling glow-in-the-dark eyes.
I have never forgotten those times when I was shaken awake in the middle of the night either.
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” —-Unknown.
Copyright(C) 2015. Roads, Paths and Trails. – Glimpses of a Memoir #1. “Songs I could not sing for my Sons.” All Rights Reserved.
NOTE: BO dollar is a term many coin enthusiasts think refers to a standard silver dollar. Many believe it to be the Morgan silver dollar. The “Morgan” was a heavier-minted silver dollar than those commonly circulated after the 1950’s.
Bo dollar was the “slang” description used among poor Black Americans when talking about a silver dollar in the rural South in the 1930’s and 40’s. Anecdotal and some written references confirm the usage of that term by African-Americans in western Tennessee and west-central Georgia during those same time periods.
On a personal note: Bo Dollar was the term I was most familiar with growing up in the 40’s and 50’s in Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana. To this day, I refer to silver dollars as “Bo Dollars.”