Nana didn’t know Henry.
Henry, who was to become my best friend in elementary school was a chubby black kid with a heat of pure gold. We met in the fall of 1950 when we began first grade and remained friends until he died at age eighteen from a congenital heart defect,
It’s funny, how when looking back at friendships many people cannot recall precisely what it was that triggered your liking for each other. I know Henry and I were in the same first-grade class, but he, being black had to sit in the back of the class. Yep, I grew up in that era when segregation was still alive but in its death throes. Hell, even at recess, Henry would be with the other black kids in their corner of the playground.
Racism you say, sure it was, it was early 1950s Minneapolis, Minnesota and I went to an integrated public school where black kids sat in the back rows of everything and had their own play area outside. We were making progress in the cafeteria though, at least there, everyone could get into the same line, course there was only one line for everything. I loved chocolate milk too (not important to this story, but thought you’d like to know ). I didn’t usually eat the cafeteria food, my mother had me on a strict diet; took me awhile to adjust to Peter Pan peanut butter with my grape jelly over Skippy’s but PB&J was the menu of the day, almost every day.
We had a great teacher for first grade. She was smart, fun and didn’t believe in using brass knuckles or a wooden ruler to get our attention. What she did have was a shrill voice that was louder than a claxon when she got upset. But, we liked her.
We had a class project just before Thanksgiving that year. It involved caring for a pair of white mice Why? Damned if I know now but we did. Each Friday after school, one student would take the mice home in their cage to care for them. My turn came Thanksgiving weekend, and I was thrilled to be involved because it made me feel like I was a part of something. So, when school let out on Wednesday the day before Thanksgiving, I picked up the cage, put the cover over it and trudged home in the midst of a massive snowfall.
When I got home, no one was in the apartment we lived in over our little dairy store, so I took my two small charges in their cage into my bedroom which was kind of hidden behind the refrigerator, and I put them in the corner. At last, I thought, I have my own little family.
On Thanksgiving day, we all piled into dad’s 1950 Oldsmobile 88 Sedan and drove down to Mankato, Minnesota to share dinner with my paternal grandparents. It was the typical non-earthshattering event, but I did get to tell Nana about my mice. I remember her saying it was a huge and very significant responsibility for so young a man as me, but she was proud of me. She knew how to say the things I needed to hear and wasn’t hearing at home.
When we returned to Minneapolis later that day, I was exhausted and went right to bed. In the morning, my mother came into my room and demanded to know where I got the “rats” and cage. I explained it was part of a school project. Of course, she also demanded to know why I didn’t ask her permission before bringing them home. Apparently, she had forgotten signing a permission slip at the start of the project. Whatever the case, “take those rats back to school now!” was all I heard.
I was destroyed! How was I going to get them back into the school when it was closed for the holiday? Even if I did, who would care for them until school on Monday? It made no difference, I had to “take those rats back to school, now!”
Following my usual breakfast of somewhat lumpy oatmeal, I bundled up and trudged my way along the five snow-covered city blocks to Adams Elementary School at Bloomington and Franklin Avenues only to find it covered in snow with no signs of recent activity. I didn’t know what to do, so I went over to the swing set, brushed the snow off and sat down with the cage on my lap to think. I was upset. No, I was terrified, I didn’t know what to do except sit there crying.
I don’t know how long I sat there before the local cop stopped to ask me what I was doing. Luckily, at least for me, he knew me from our family dairy store which was open from seven AM to midnight, seven days a week. Guess he could come in late at night when I was already in bed asleep.
When I told him what had happened, he took me to his squad car, put me and the cage in the back seat then turned up the heater. He said he thought he could help and to relax, then started talking on his police radio to some woman. When he finished, we drove a few blocks to a house where a man I recognized as a janitor at my school came out and got into the front seat. We then drove back to school where the janitor let us into my classroom where I left my little charges after giving them fresh water and food. We then took the janitor back home, and the officer drove me back to our store where the policeman talked to my dad. I went to my room where I think I cried myself to sleep.
I was a mess the remainder of the weekend because I knew my classmates would make fun of me for having to bring the mice back to school. Come Monday morning, I was up early, skipped breakfast and was about to rush out the door when my brother David told me school was closed due to the snowstorm the night before. Not only were the schools closed but the streets were blocked with knee-deep piles of snow; I’m not talking my knees, I’m talking Paul Bunyan’s.
All I could think about was “are the mice ok” Are they safe?” I didn’t know, and it was tearing at me.
Tuesday morning wasn’t much better; schools were still closed but the roads were getting plowed, and I knew there would be school on Wednesday. There just had to me!
I got up extra early Wednesday morning, did my usual morning stuff, including not brushing my teeth, but then no one else in my family did, and no one encouraged me to. I ate my oatmeal, put on my overboots, you know those old black rubber boots we put on over our shoes, my jacket, gloves, and hat then out the door, down the stairs and around the corner I went. I think I ran, and slid all the way to school, desperate to know.
When I arrived at school, I found the front doors closed and locked. I couldn’t get in. It seemed as though the world were conspiring to hurt me, but I was not about to let it happen. I sat my butt down on the pile of snow next to the steps and waited. I know I had to have waited for 10,000 hours before the principal finally opened the doors and let us in. The winter morning ritual of entering school had begun. Boots off, at the door, hat and gloves next then your coat and snow pants if you had them. I always had a pair of my older brothers worn out jeans I put on over my pants. Then you carried everything up to your class where there was a cloak closet across the back of the room the room to hang them up.
As I was hanging my things up, my teacher came into the cloak closet and said she needed to talk to me. We went out into the hallway where she asked me why I allowed one of the mice to eat the other one. If that wasn’t piss down your leg moment, there never has been one.
What happened? I screamed.
She said the when she got to school there was only one mouse in the cage along with remnants of the other one; remnants meaning fur, and a bone or two.
I put my coat, hat, boots, and gloves back on and ran crying out of school right into Henry who was just entering. I bounced off him like a tennis ball off a racket and fell flat on my butt. Still crying my head off.
Henry sat down next to me, put his arm around my shoulder not saying a word until I stopped crying, then he asked me if I want him to walk me home. Up to that time, I hadn’t realized who was sitting next to me, I just knew I felt safe and protected.
I turned to look, and there he was, his smile about the size of Alaska, aglow in the midst of a face as black and shiny as the finest ebony. “Hi, I’m Henry, your classmate.” That did it for me; someone cared inclusively – I lost it and started crying again. By the time I calmed down some, our teacher, along with the principal had arrived by us telling Henry to walk me home, and so he did.
In that 30 -minute walk from school to our store, I made a friend. A real friend who, I sincerely hope remains my friend even though he has passed into another realm so very long ago.
During our walk, we discovered that we lived within a block of one another, left for school at approximately the same time but that he walked along the north side of Franklin Avenue, and I along with the south. We probably missed seeing each other because of the streetcars, buses with plumes of black diesel smoke or mounds of snow plowed to the curbs. Whatever the reason it ended; we were instant friends and planned to walk together on the north side of Franklin because that’s where the Old Dutch Potato Chip factory was and sometimes we got free samples.
That first year, Henry and I got very close. I could tell him anything, and he never shamed me, nor did I ever shame him. But, there was one thing that really bothered me, and I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t want to hurt Henry, nor drive him away because to me, he was a real brother, not just a name like my biological brothers. I was only six, and I was alone a lot, I was scared I’d lose him cause he was my bestest-of-all friend, but I was also curious. Henry’s mother was a white lady, and his father was a black man. .
Why didn’t Henry have stripes like a Zebra or squares like a checkboard?