Category Archives: True Stories

The Bo Dollar Kid

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.”

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True stories behind the story of “Weekends, Wisdoms and Wonders.”

As a young ad agency Copywriter – which made me a member of the “Mad Men” fraternity depicted in the long-running hit TV show which just ended, I worked for a US-based advertising agency with international branches and subsidiaries.  It was near the end of a 3-day corporate meeting being held in Omaha, Nebraska when the “Big Deal” was dropped in my lap. I was part of the team that put together the total presentation program: full multi-screen visuals, all the printed documents – every detail produced to showcase for the attendees the prior year’s successes. The kudos were hot and heavy (meaning it was well-received by the Corporate Suits.) It was at the close of the conference when the “offer” was extended to me. Totally unsolicited and unexpected.

Although the event was primarily for our US offices; many of our world-wide affiliates made the trek to cold, blustery Omaha. It made good sense from many points of view.  One of those overseas offices was in Hong Kong.  And it was this office that tendered the invitation to me to join their creative staff.  Before I get in to details, I must tell you about another opportunity that come my way before the Hong Kong debacle. It dovetailed with the China offer in spectacular fashion..

My primary mentor, a “giant” in opening up job opportunities in the advertising agency business for African-Americans in Chicago, was part of the famous (or infamous) class of “Mad Men” from the Windy City who became close advisors to the Nixon Administration. He became head of a major section of the Department of Education; and as such extended an offer to me to join his management team.  I went so far as to fly to Washington to discuss the particulars.  I loved (and still do) Washington, D.C.  I have visited numerous times over the years.  In the end, I turned down the offer.  Over time, I have surmised that my decision was taken as an affront by my mentor. It shouldn’t have been. But from his perspective, considering all he had done to get me  established in the ad business, I understand his reaction.  In actuality, other things ultimately played a decisive role and trumped my personal success goals at the time – as I will explain later. Be that as it may, my relationship with my friend was never the same.  From my vantage point, however, I never stopped admiring and singing his praise to any and all who would listen when it came to giving credit to how I got into the ad agency business.

Back to Hong Kong. In fact, I have to go back even further to my freshman year in college to provide more background for my decision regarding that China job offer.

I attended a small Midwestern religious-based Liberal Arts college where the student body was basically 100% White (it has since attained University status and is more integrated; though the enrollment is still overwhelmingly White.) This is important because during my time in attendance, there were only about a dozen Black students on campus; but only five were African-Americans.  The other minority students were recruited from the Caribbean and Africa through the church affiliation’s missionary work. In fact, in previous years there were no African-American students enrolled at all. White students were not accustomed to Black Americans from any perspective; and especially one from Chicago (me), who shattered all types of comfort zones, myths, anecdotal homilies and other stereotypes.

It was during new student orientation week, when an English professor encouraged us to share a secret educational “dream.” Being who I am, I boldly proclaimed my desire to learn Chinese and visit that country. What ensured was dead silence. Then there slowly arose snickers, muffled non-syllable words and snorts.  The professor uttered some comment like, “admirable” or “interesting” or some such bland inanity; but the way in which it was done served the purpose of dismissing my statement completely.  Within days, it was all over the campus that the Black guy from Chicago was deemed to be certifiable nuts for  wanting to learn the Chinese language.  Where did he get that idea? I would bet my worse enemy’s reputation that what was unspoken was: what nerve! And that’s putting it nicely. No, I never learned to speak Chinese, and when the chance to work in China was offered; well – I passed on the opportunity.

That made it two in a row. Two chances to gain wisdom and knowledge.  Insofar as China was concerned, to explore the wonders of a 5,000 year old society that few African-Americans have ever seen up close and personal was the stuff of dreams.  And I muffed it. Badly. Even worse than terribly; possibly it could be labeled as unforgivable. I would not dispute any of those descriptions.

How had I reached my China decision?  What in the world could have held me back from leaping at the opportunity to change my life and that of my family?  To make a career move that would have opened up future job possibilities that I could not even have imagined.  What indeed?  Quite simply, it was good old-fashioned fear; not having the self-confidence to believe in myself – even when others obviously saw talents worthy of their investment in me.  I also believe, subconsciously of course, that the reception to my “China statement” back during my freshman orientation, stuck with me; resurfacing and adding fuel to the fire leading to my ultimate decision. Taken together, these things formed the bedrock of my saying “no” to accepting that job in China.  I rationalized it by telling myself that I was not ready – whatever that meant; and in the case of Washington, D.C., family issues were piled on top of those shortcomings, and they trumped the Nixon Administration and my mentor.

The other reason I rejected the China offer, and this was quite legitimate: was the geo-politics of race. It was well-known at the time that the prevailing view among the Chinese toward Africans, as well as Black Americans was one of utter disdain; total disrespect. They looked upon folk like me as inferior – period.  I just couldn’t see taking my family into another racially hostile system; which in all probability was an even worse discriminatory environment than the one we lived in at home. Rightly or not, the prospect of facing the pain of hate living in China, overruled the incredible learning experience of living in a country full of natural and man-made wonders; while gaining wisdoms that would surely have influenced me and my family forever; be they good or bad.

Despite those real and perceived obstacles, I should have found the strength, the will – yes, the backbone to welcome China with an open heart and mind. In the words of Author, Stephen Kaggwa, “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.”  Thus, the idea of “Weekends, Wisdoms & Wonders” was born. But there’s still more to the story of its conception.

My wife and I made every effort to expose our three sons to the many fine museums, cultural locations; all the sites, sights and sounds that a vibrant city like Chicago had to offer.  We spent many summer days along the shores and beaches of Lake Michigan, visiting zoos, marveling at the water show of the famous Buckingham Fountain – anywhere we thought our boys would like, appreciate and hold fond memories for them in years to come. When we could afford a vacation – off we went: road trip, road trip.  One year I suggested we go spelunking (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky was the destination); you should have heard the groans and moans.  But your know what? It turned out to be one of our most incredible, memorable and unforgettable experiences ever. Ever!

After many years of adventures, one day our sons told us that some of their friends had never seen or experienced any of the things they had; never seen Lake Michigan or been in the world-famous Chicago Loop; let alone visited a museum.  We were stunned! In disbelief. Because all the things I have mentioned about our Chicago trips were, in many instances, less than an hour or so from our neighborhood.  Later, out of earshot of the kids, as we discussed their bombshell of a comment, it humbled us. Because none of the reasons those kids had missed out on these so-called “normal” activities – were good: lack of funds, no transportation, a sick or disabled parent or guardian; and yes, even the lack of parental involvement. We would find out nearly twenty years later(we had relocated out of Chicago by then); many of those children succumbed to life’s challenges. Some of the boys ended up dead or in prison.. A few of the girls were stuck in hard lives with a bleak future.  But most emerged as solid, hardworking, morally responsible citizens; but a doctor, several teachers, a few top-tier business persons, as well as two military officers also sprang from that so-called deprived bunch of kids. So all was not lost. Yes, our sons turned out just fine.

Now you have the full and complete backstories behind “Weekends, Wisdoms & Wonders.”

For the record, no posts were or are intended to lecture, poke a finger in someone’s eye, berate or criticize  a lifestyle – or otherwise cause negative feelings for anyone. Quite the contrary. I remembered those children of that long ago neighborhood; and of my unforgiving, unforgettable failings of courage to step through two doors of incredible opportunities presented to me. So I thought why not occasionally blog about all the wonderful people, places and things one can see and do in a weekend – and the wisdoms to be gained from those experiences. I then decided to add some “words of wisdoms” to sweeten the pot – to prod my blog visitors to take a step toward getting out of the ordinary habitual things we humans are comfortable doing week end and week out.  And to attempt to do it in a light, fun and non-critical manner.

By the way, what’s on your agenda this weekend?  Drat! I couldn’t resist.

“He is able who thinks he is able”  —-Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, Founder of Buddhism, 563-483 BC

Copyright(c) 2015. Roads, Paths & Trails. “Weekends, Wisdoms & Wonders.” All Rights Reserved.

16 candles and two years of night.

I struggled through the small ground-level window that opened to the alley that was behind the casket company; scrapping knuckles, scratching my face – then crawling on hands and knees until I was able to gain my footing, then bolting into a full-flight run hoping I could make it to the street and get away before the police got there. Why would she call the cops on me – her own son, when he was the one beating the crap out of her; Hell! I tried to stop it! I didn’t understand it. I didn’t get it!

Run, fool, run!

I stayed away from home that night roaming the streets, coming back the next afternoon to find her packing a couple of suitcases.  “Your Aunt Josie (not her real name) will make sure you get something to eat,” she said. By this time, the cab had rolled up (you could see the wheels in the windows), and it started honking its horn.  There was no goodbye or hug; not even a peck on the cheek – the worst hurt, though, was no “I love you, son.”  She just walked out the door.  I heard the squeal of the tires. then quiet – and the dead hollowness of nothing overcame me while the silent flow of tears scalded my cheeks. Deep down sobs racked my body as I slumped to the floor.

And so it began: my sixteenth birthday was barely two months old.

This is a story that’s not unique. It happens every day. It’s been going on forever: young folk,  kids really – abandon, pushed out of their homes, forced to fend for themselves. The streets of small towns, big cities – every place in between are littered with those too weak to survive. They write books; make movies about the destruction that comes from tossing children into the streets, away from the care and love of a family.  Even those of us who survive are damaged in ways large and small; but as different as night and day.

Meet my heart of stone.

My Aunt Josie did indeed feed my body, but hatred fueled by rage fed my mind and soul.  The streets of Chicago became my teacher; seeing things low-down and dirty bent me ugly, uncaring and hard-to-the bone, mean.  When you don’t see love, feel love – know for a fact you are not worth love; you become a danger. You grow a wall from within that’s studded with knives, minefields, hatchets ready to strike at the tiniest inkling of rejection. Stopping the hurt before it gets out of the cage. No way in hell could you find love in your broken heart.  Your face to the world said, “Don’t even bring it to me! I’m doomed.”   When deep, and I mean really, really deep inside my existence; I would have killed myself to be loved by a family, friend, a sweet young lover who would love me “true blue,” (I read those words somewhere back then; they stayed with me) who could understand the love in my heart; knew I could be made better.  Though, probably never be fully dipped and cleansed in the holy water of purity, but the parts that were good, though buried in the back, in the dark could be rescued; salvages, scraped of muck and mire; made presentable to her loving eyes. She would know I was in there somewhere.

As it happened, the friend came first.

This has always struck me as weird: I did not drop out of school; didn’t miss a cotton-picking day. I will never be able to tell you why I didn’t.  I was mad as a pistol because the Chicago School District would not accept my transcript noting my status as a High School Junior (set to become a senior that June. They gave me the run-around that because I was an out-of-state transfer student, I would have to repeat my sophomore and junior school years. Plus, I was too young to be graduating from high school at 16.)  I stayed pissed off the rest of my time in high school. Bored out of my brain. I shut down and settled in and didn’t pick up steam again until the semester before graduation.  Looking back at that time in history, just two years after school desegregation, Black kids and their education was still second-rate, even the best and brightest were discouraged in all ways possible.

I met my that friend, in September after a brutal hard, dismal summer.  Our friendship lasted nearly 30 years – I moved to several different states and he passed on during my traveling years.  Good guy.  Together we blended in; cliqued with others like ourselves.  My Aunt Josie got me a job at Woolworth’s, I found a better one – more money; moved into an apartment, found a make-shift family made up of two families.  I worked nights; went to school during the day.  It was a two year labor of love in the “key of me.”  My one room home bore the brunt of my anguish; contained my screams of cleansing tears, while nourishing my phoenix of strength and resolve.  I began to slowly change.  A settling of the war within me revealed a way out of my madness.  And one summer night, with friends from my blended families, I discovered music. What a wonderful world it could be.

I began to sing for my soul.

I took pen to paper to write songs, but my heart wrote of torment and storm; of sorrow and wrong.  As fate would decree, my writings would one day lead me to college and a ground-breaking job as an advertising agency Copywriter; a Michigan Avenue “Mad Man.”  The music would send me to the woman destined to love me “true blue” – to make me better, and give me an heir and double-spare.  Years later, we would discover that we never lived more than a mile from one another during the five years before we met.

Those long two years of night inched to a close at Christmas time; it was also graduation time ( I was in the last class to ever graduate in January.)  It was my “mother in my life” again time, too.  It would end the same as last time.  No goodbye, no kiss on the cheek – not even “I love you.”

Only this time, I would be the one to leave.

Copyright (c) Roads, Paths & Trails – “Glimpses of a Memoir #3 – “Songs I could not sing For My Sons.” 2015.  All Rights Reserved.

Mississippi Burning

Everyone comes from somewhere. Their “roots” home, if you will.  People have settled in their “some places” for all sorts of reasons: money, fame, dreams, love, vice – or just plain “…that’s it!  I’m not going any further!”  And let’s not forget God Almighty!  The Lord, it seems, has always directed folk to plop down somewhere off the beaten path and spread his gospel.  No disrespect intended, mind you.  But you know it’s the truth.

Once settled, years go by. Generations are born and die in that place.  Many times the “how and why” a family’s roots came to be in a particular location becomes lost in the dust of space and time.  Sheer indifference plays a role. Hard luck or deep-pain stories passed on to succeeding generations can make it easy to bury the idea of being from a town you wouldn’t want people to know that’s where you grew up.

The place of my birth is a perfect example.  I used to tell folk I was born in a city nearly 200 miles away from where I actually drew my first breath.  That town’s name just sounded better.  It was a “big” city by comparison.  It wasn’t New York, Chicago, or LA, but at the time I thought telling this lie would make me appear more sophisticated. (Ha!)  I found out that wasn’t the case because this “big city” was thought of as a country bumpkin town in a backwater state by most everyone else except people living in other country bumpkin towns in backwater states. (No offense meant to anyone.)  So I didn’t really do myself any favors. I still “got no respect” as that comedian used to wail to anybody who would listen.

So I got on with my life.  I finally started telling the truth about where I was born; defiantly writing in that dreaded name on official forms and joined in the fun when everybody would laugh their heads off at the name of my birthplace. I guess I kind of knew that would be the reaction, so in a way, I felt okay about lying about it in the first place. After a while, I began thinking about how my family ended  up digging and planting deep roots in a small Indiana town known for two things (at least as far as I know): a lynching and the actor James Dean.  Yep, “that” James Dean – the one who was headed for Hollywood superstardom but was taken from us too soon in that horrific accident.  But what’s even more remarkable is how this little town became my family’s homestead. It was nothing grandiose like doing God’s work. And, no, vice nor fame were the culprits.  Money certainly played a role – the Great Depression still had a stranglehold on large chunks of the population; especially on my family, and especially in Mississippi.

Four years ago, my cousins and I were planning a reunion celebrating “100 Hundred Years of Family” -1911 to 2011 – the year our grandparents got married and the hundred year anniversary of that event.  As you might expect, it was decided to have it at the family homestead; in that small Indiana town no bigger than a minute.  Once we were all accounted for ( it turned out that our six generations and nearly 600 descendants were scattered over 12 states, in Great Britain, and on an Aircraft Carrier in the Atlantic ocean; location unknown at the time for security reasons); the subject  of why our elders settled in Indiana; in this very small, very, very White town was a family mystery.

That’s when the pork chops hit the skillet.  It seemed that love was the answer.

Her name was Zadie.  Aunt Zadie to me.  She’s the one who started it all. The story begins with the fact that for years she had worked for a White family in Mississippi – cooking, some light cleaning, taking care of their kids. But her main job was to cook.  And Lord have mercy did she ever. (I enjoyed countless Sunday dinners at her house, so I can vouch for her working those pots ‘n pans and skillets.) Seriously, her cooking was legendary in our family. You would stuff yourself, fall out on the floor or couch – wherever, and roll around moaning like someone was beating you with a stick and all you could do was ask for a third or fourth helping of Aunt Zadie’s whatever.

None of our elders knew why the family Aunt Zadie worked for had to move – to leave Mississippi; but they obviously made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.  She had to move with them; just had to. And she did.

Thus began a nearly 80-year journey; an odyssey, if you will of my family settling in and establishing ourselves in a state that had the highest Ku Klux Klan membership of any state outside the Deep South.  But also a state that integrated an elementary school three years before the famous Brown v Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in America’s public schools. Ironic, but true. Incredibly, the school was named after President Lincoln. And this “Negro” child (me) did not even warrant a picket line, nasty shouts – and nary a brick or bottle was thrown; nor was one White kid withdrawn from that school when I enrolled.  Yet, this was the same very small; very, very White town that lynched two Black men and a third barely surviving the same fate.

We’re Hoosiers ( that’s the Indiana state nickname) through and through because of my Aunt Zadie’s cooking. Her pot roast, collard, turnip and mustard greens seasoned to perfection; her sweet potato pie, BBQ ribs, succulent smothered chicken, peach cobbler – oh, and her pork chops drowning in rich spicy gravy; and I never will forget her meatloaf: lord, lord, lord!  She cooked “Soul” food as its called.  This is the cooking her Mississippi family obviously loved; loved so much that Indiana became Aunt Zadie’s home, too.  All because she could (as we say in Black families): “throw down!”  She could “burn!”

I know you are probably wondering about the name of the town where I was born.  Why I didn’t mention it earlier.  I’ll bet you thought it couldn’t be that bad; or strange.  As I said, I’m okay with it now. But back then, well, how would you feel if you were born in a place named Marked Tree, and had to let the world know it.

Go ahead. Let it out. Laugh all you want. I CAN’T HER YOU!  nananananan!!!!

Copyright (c) 2015, Roads, Paths & Trails – “Glimpses of a Memoir #1 – “80 years a Hoosier.” All Rights Reserved.

Note:  In his award-winning book: “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” author Adrian Miller was asked by Pop South ( a website reflecting on Southern Pop Culture), where Southern food ends and Soul food begins.  He said, “Inside the South, the distinction between the two is so subtle that it’s almost meaningless. That said, I find Soul food tends to have more intensity…sweeter, more highly spiced; a bit higher fat content, more bone in meat (neck bones, smothered chicken, and meaty soups) dishes than Southern food.”

A welcome-wagon story that left me feeling unwelcomed.

It was very difficult to see, feel, and understand at the time.  It was also downright frightening to tell you the truth. And I am all about truth. So here is: over the course of a week or so, within a month after moving to Chicago, there were three robberies, a rape (viciously brutal, out-loud and public), and a savage beat-down of a guy in my new 100-sqare yard neighborhood.

A grocery store was hit twice, a delivery guy coming out of an apartment building was next; the rape occurred in front of a house across the street from where we lived, and the poor guy who got beat to hell was found on the sidewalk less than a quarter-block away. That was not the kind of welcome I would have wished for anybody. I know none of these things were what I wanted to see and hear.

Time has dimmed the exactness of the day it happened, but soon after these horrific and barbaric crimes occurred, I had a visitor while I sat on my family’s front porch. (For a long time, that porch was the extent of my exploration when we first arrived in the Windy City.)  It was a one-way conversation spoken in a low, guttural tone. Slow and carefully I was told that, “I had seen nothing, heard nothing, and didn’t know nothing.”  He then eased down the steps, gangsta-walked to the corner, turned right and that was that. Out of sight, but definitely not out of mind.

Imagine someone speaking to you like that; cold, hard, deadly – and get this; we lived next door to a casket company (only a narrow alley separated us), and that’s the god-honest truth. The irony was not lost on me.  And maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Anyway, I later came to the conclusion that this guy figured I had seen or heard some parts of those low-down dirty despicable things I just described. In short, the warning was; “open my mouth and I was dead meat!”  Obviously, I am still here – thank goodness. But to this day, I don’t know why I escaped “pushing up daisies” instead of just being threatened. The thing that I am most grateful for is that he and his criminal-dog buddies were caught and jailed soon after his ominous visit.

I can’t lie to you: I did not “drop a dime” on him.  (Being young, new to the city; I had no idea how to report a crime – and there was my long-standing distrust of police still in my head from Ferguson.)  More importantly, though, my family gave me the fearful eye (I had to tell them what happened on the porch), and they let me know loud and clear that we would be targeted if I “ran off at the mouth.”  They needn’t have worried.  Abject fear paralyzed my bones – especially my spine, and my mouth stayed glued shut.  The fact of the matter is that I never clearly saw the faces of those guys.  I couldn’t have identified them with a magnifying glass as big as a building.

It was late spring when that shadowy figure had scared the crap out of me.  Things were just heating up – literally and figuratively.  A fateful birthday rolled around and from that day forward I was not going to fare well in my new hometown when all was said and done. Two year after this “welcome,” combined with all the dire events in between (I need to think about whether of not to share those experiences; we’re talking some pretty raw, down and dirty stuff), I would find myself flying west to the beauty of California and a stint in the US Navy.  As life so often plays out, that January Pan Am flight from a minus 30-degree below zero night in Chicago, into an 80-degree sunny “Bay Watch” morning in LA, was a game changer.

My “welcome” to the military, though not as dramatic as my arrival in the Windy City, was nonetheless – difficult, and I hadn’t even left the airport terminal when it happened. That unwelcomed encounter caused me to end up sleeping on the concrete floor in the brig for a few nights.  It was “touch and go” after that. So after a short time serving Uncle Sam; honorably, I might add – the welcome mat was withdrawn and it was back to “Sweet Home Chicago” for me.

As you probably guessed already, it was an unwelcome homecoming.

Copyright (c) 2015. Roads, Paths, & Trails.  Excerpt from “Glimpses of a Memoir.”  All rights reserved.

An accident of residence

You could see it from the street between the houses when you walked or were driving along Carson Road.  It was built on the back side of the alley.  It was about a quarter-mile long, or so, running north from Vernon elementary school where it started, south to a wooded area next to a small farm.  I think it was a farm. I remember cows grazing in a big yard so that’s what it was in my mind. The field and fence all met up where the alley stopped at those woods where I would go get kindling for the fire when it was wash day – usually on a Saturday.  I hated those days with a passion.  I was the only “hard leg” busting my knuckles on a wash board washing my clothes (underwear, t-shirts and socks.) All my play buds had sisters, so they didn’t have to wash clothes. No woman’s work (that’s how it was thought of in those days) for them. So I had to take a lot of crap from them.  It was tough being the butt of jokes and put-downs. I couldn’t whip nobody (though I tried), and so it was what it was.

But I was smart as a whip.

It wasn’t a high fence – 6 feet or so. I was a little kid, nine or 10 at the time, so it towered over me. It was one of those chain linked Cyclone fences with the slanted square openings. Thinking about it now, I wonder why it didn’t have barbed wire on top of it. For some reason, I think the people who lived on the over side of that fence knew that there was no fear of us ever being crazy enough to climb over it. To be honest, it never even occurred to me. And I don’t ever remember my mom talking to me about that fence.  It was just there.  Something you just lived with, accepted.

Only White people lived on the other side of that fence.

We had moved to our apartment on Carson Road so my mother would be closer to work.  She had just got a job at a laundry/cleaning business. It might have been a mile or so walk for her when she didn’t catch a ride. She worked as a “shirt presser” operating 3-4 machines that steamed pressed the collar, sleeves – and the front and backs of the shirts. You had to be quick on your feet and fast with your hands so the shirts wouldn’t burn. The owner used to let me wait for her sometimes until quitting time and we would walk home together. She was his best shirt presser and every now and then he would let her do our laundry and press them. I was the only ten-year old on the block wearing professionally cleaned and laundered pants and shirts. It was another reason I kept getting my ass kicked.

Did I mention I was smart as a whip?

Carson Road was the main street (it was really a road with some parts of it paved) that twisted and turned through a small town named Kinloch.  It was an all-Black community when I lived there. It was an all-White city before that; in the 1920s and 30s – maybe even before then.  It bordered an airport and military base – Lambert Field – I think that was the name of it.  I used to love to watch from behind the fence (another one boxing us in) at the back of the runway when F-86 Sabre jets got ready to take off.  Blue-yellow fire mixed with flaming red gushing from the engine exhaust; those swept-back wings (looking like rockets headed to Mars in the Sci-FI books I read); gleaming and vibrating; and then whoosh – down the runway it would move – roaring, screaming, thundering and then lifting into the blue Missouri sky. I wanted to fly one of those suckers like nobody’s business.  But watching from the other side of that burnt-black fence was the closest I ever got to one. The closest any Black man ever got to flying an F-86 or any other fighter plane for another 20 years or so. I nearly got killed one day because I was so mesmerized by an F-86  that a man had to grab me and yank me out of the way of that deadly tail exhaust. For me, though, it would have been a glorious ending.  Burnt to a crisp because of idol-worshipping.

Lambert Field wasn’t too far away from where we lived at the time.  I could get their on my bike in 10-15 minutes or so.  It was our second apartment since we have moved from Indiana to be near family. To tell you the truth, I was sick and tired of living somewhere for a “hot minute” and being uprooted again.  But to be fair, my mom was always, always trying to put us (me really) in a better situation. Life was hard, difficult – bordering on drastic hell at times. There were no jobs in Kinloch. Going to work meant catching the one bus that came to town twice day. Or, paying a jitney cab by the week.  Kinloch, you see, was stuck out in the middle of nowhere at the time; surrounded by all-White cities and towns. You have heard their names blasted all over CNN recently. They have become famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) in the past year.  All enjoying (ha!) their fifteen minutes of fame, so to speak.

I will say this about the police in those days: what cop in his right mind uses 10-12 year old kids as target practice? Their behavior was actually worse than that; and I am still angry and embarrassed to the point of being unable to talk about it.

Anyway, the move to that apartment near Vernon elementary school turned out to have destiny written all over it; though my Mom, and certainly not me, knew it at the time.  Vernon was the proverbial 2-room school-house (it was really built of brick); a third section was under construction when I enrolled that fall.  For the next two years, I was a kid being a kid, a Black boy living in the Black town of Kinloch, Missouri. Then one spring day, it was all about practice and preparations for graduation. As valedictorian of my class (told you I was smart as a whip), I had to prepare a speech. At some point during those hectic weeks before he big day, the world of America shifted on its axis without us kids understanding what had happened: we (our parents and us) were told that we would not be attending the all-Black Kinloch high school across town once we graduated.

Our shock and awe would be putting it mildly.  I remember my Mom being in a state of controlled panic. The reason for this momentous decision, as it was explained to us, is that we lived in the wrong school district.  Wrong school district? How could that be?  We lived in a Black town. We were Black, everybody in town was Black. We attended a Black school. Needless to say, things got a little boisterous. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, it was explained to us that because we all lived on the west side of Carson Road, we actually lived in Ferguson, Missouri. Surprise, surprise!

Yes, THAT Ferguson. The city that recently made headlines around the world.  It seems that narrow, less than a quarter-mile strip of land, separated by the “fence” at the back of the alley meant that we (I) had actually been living in the all-White city of Ferguson.  Ferguson, it seemed, wasn’t “lily White” after all.  Our ignorance was indeed bliss; or just plain ignorance. It didn’t matter. According to Mr. Johnson, the principal (not his real name), “we would be attending the all-White Ferguson High school in the fall come hell or high water,” or something to that effect. “The first to do so. We had to get ready. We had to be ready, it would not be easy,” he said.

No one knew what to expect.  All of us were about to make history by accident of residence.

We were nine before the storm.

Copyright(c) 2015. Roads, Paths, & Trails. All rights reserved.