Nana didn’t know Henry.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Voices long silent speak only truth.

Last night, in my dreams

A shadow did appear.

Pure ebony spirit

No reason did I fear.

His voice familiar,

His manner serene.

He spoke with love’s passion,

His peace I did glean.

“We stand with you.” said he.

“There shall come a renewal.”

“Forgotten lessons of our past.”

“Once taught in life’s school.”

“See not with your eyes,

those deceptions vast.

But know with your heart,

Love shall recast.

Hate not another,

For color of skin.

But remember always,

Mitakuye Oyasin

A New Tomorrow

Our fathers died, to free the land

From royal rule and unjust hand

Their blood to water Freedom’s tree.

 

Their sons did rise, to claim the fore,

Daughters strong, generations they bore

New battles fought, peace seldom free.

 

In time united, a nation did rise

A people flawed was freedom’s prize

Yet in their fervor, a truth does deny.

 

As a nation grew new royals arose

Constitution once power endures painful throes,

Will Freedom’s bonds soon die?

 

Corruptors of truth, who sought to lead

Twas cruel jest they played on those in need

Tomorrow’s today to be yesterday’s pain.

 

Came forth a man, no king be he

Brash and bold, he bent not his knee

He cast challenge in words many thought vain

 

No poet be he, this true son of the land

He set to the burden, his promises in hand

To meet false Lords of the nation, who defied his exception

 

They attacked with blunt arrows, demanding his prize

Yet thinking him fool, they blinded their eyes

But true to his promise, he saw through their deception.

 

Day by day to do battle, his goals to set right

Each foray he makes brings their treason to light.

Sins of the royals, no longer lay hidden.

 

To stand with our leader as imperfect as me

Hard tasked with challenge, our battles to be free

To win a united America once harshly forbidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Things I Never Told Nana

I

My father and I never bonded, hell sometimes I wondered if he even knew who I was. From the time I was born until age 15 when he died, he only actually communicated to me twice. Oh yeah, once in a great while he told me to do things, but that’s talking, not communicating. My bad, I forgot, he taught me the difference in spelling lavatory and laboratory when I was about eight, but that was it for father/son bonding. I can remember as a young kid how I wanted to badly for my dad to notice me the way he seemed to notice my two older brothers, especially the older one, Ronnie. But he didn’t: as a matter of fact neither did Ronnie.

I first began to notice this when we moved from our house in Camden, a suburb of Minneapolis to an apartment over the “dairy store” my parents bought at 1119 East Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis. In the front room, which was over the front part of the store, my parents had their bed set up in a closet area. Next was the living room with an inside staircase to the store, then my brothers’ room (I had two brothers) was next to the dining area where the space heater was. At the back wall of the dining area was a door into the kitchen, bathroom and my room sort of behind the refrigerator (a Kelvinator, in case you wanted to know). My room was the darkest as it only had one window which had a large tree overhanging it. I always wanted to climb that tree but never did because I was afraid of heights: the fact is heights still bother me but not as bad as when I was a kid.

The kitchen had a door leading out to a very scary old set of wooden stairs leading down to the dirt parking lot in back of the store. About halfway down, there was a small landing then where they made a left angle (if you were ascending) turn and ran adjacent to the “bottle shed” where we stored all the empty refundable bottles. Everything was refundable back then, well not exactly everything, I wasn’t, but then that was my fate. Almost from the time I could walk, it was my job to sort the empty bottles by make, size and what they were used for. I learned to hate Grain Belt and Hamm’s beer bottles cause their labels were always sticky.

Constructed of corrugated tin panels over the wood frame on a dirt floor, the “bottle shed” had no heat in winter and no air conditioning in summer. Winter wasn’t so bad, but summer was a killer with the heat, humidity, and bugs. Come to think of it, we had those same three problems in the apartment, the bugs especially in my room because it was almost right over the shed. I can remember having a lot of those sticky fly traps things hanging over my window and the doorway. The spiders never had to weave webs in our home, the fly traps provided their meals.

My room was the coldest one in our apartment, but I got used to it. Guess that’s why I can’t sleep well when it gets too warm in my bedroom now. Thank God for central air conditioning, back then we cooled at night by setting a block of ice in a large bucket then having a fan blow over it. If that didn’t work, we soaked our sheets, then got as much water out of them as possible before wrapping ourselves in them to lay down in front of the ice block. I’m surprised I never wet the bed, then or now.

I don’t recall my mother ever coming into my room at bedtime for anything other than to tell me to put the book down and go to sleep. My dad didn’t even come in to do that. Nope, I never heard: “Did you brush your teeth? Did you go to the bathroom? Did you say your prayers? I wasn’t subjected to any of those ridiculous practices. To this day, I don’t know if my brothers were either because they slept near mom and dad; I didn’t have to.

I was lonely at times, but I had my good friend Teddy with me. Yep, you guessed it, I had a real Teddy Bear. Nana gave him to me, and I named him Teddy; I was talented even as a child. Nana told me that Teddy was named after President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt so I should be proud; I was, and still am.

I told Teddy everything – all my hidden stuff and more. Even things I tried talking to Nana about, but they might hurt her to know. I don’t know why I felt that way other than the fact that I never, ever wanted to hurt her in any way. I guess I was afraid of losing her love yet knew Teddy would always love me: he was the brother I never had.

For awhile, I wanted to call Nana and tell her everything, but I didn’t dare. Back in the 1950s, we didn’t have cell phones, and long distances calls were expensive. There was no way I could hide calling on our phone, and I didn’t have money to use the pay phone on the corner. I think I once tried to call her on the police call phone next to the pay phone, but the operator told me to hang up. It was ok though, I probably could not have heard Nana with all the buses and streetcars making noise. I liked the streetcars but the buses always coughed black, smelly smoke when they started to more.

My older (by 3 years) brother David hated Teddy, but I think he hated me even more because he would do things to hurt me. He would think it funny to steal from me, lie about me and even harm Teddy. Once, he even cut Teddy’s neck so bad I had to suture it up. That’s when I learned how to sew, not real well but I did suture my Teddy until Nana could show me how to do it properly. She said I did a good job of basting it then gave me a curved needle and heavier thread to “heal your Teddy.”  I actually enjoyed hand sewing for many years and later in life when I began getting arthritis, I started to do satin stitch embroidery. I figured that is Rosie Greer could do needlepoint, so could I.

“Be sure you sew the cloth, not the fingers!” was Nana’s credo. Funny, even now, some sixty odd years since last we spoke, I can still hear Nana’s voice. She was a born teacher; one that never stood at the head of a class but she was always at the head of my class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nana and Henry

Don’t you love those nostalgic memories that seem to pop up at the oddest times?

When I was in the first grade at Adams Elementary School on Franklin Avenue at Bloomington Avenue, four long city blocks from where we lived above our little store at 1119 East. Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN., I had to walk to school every day.

Now don’t start ragging on me about it being only four blocks from home. It was in Minnesota where winter starts right after Labor day and ends just before Mother’s day (sometimes), and I was only five years old. Between the street cars, the diesel buses, the other cars, and trucks spewing gasses and dust filling my lungs with all kinds of stuff I didn’t need, it was a challenge just walking down the sidewalk. Winter wasn’t so bad because the snowplows piled the snow up on the sidewalk so tall I couldn’t see over them. If the store owners got out early and shoveled, then it was relatively smooth sliding along on the ice because the wall of snow sent the smog above us. The sad part was that we always had black and brown snow because of all the crap in the air.

So, I would walk to school on the South side of Franklin Avenue and return home on the North side so where the Old Dutch Potato Chip company had a plant. Oh my god, if you haven’t smelled fresh potato chips on a cold winter’s day, you haven’t lived. We, my buddy Henry who walked to and from school with me, would stand in front of the big window and watch the chips being bagged by the machine. I think the imprint of our lips and drool are still on that window if it’s there.

Even today, 68 years later, when I smell fresh potato chips I think of Henry, one of the best friends I ever had, but he was a Negro. That seemed to be important to people sometimes cause when we would be walking home from school, they would make nasty comments about a white boy and a nigger walking together.

I once asked my Nana why people, especially my mom didn’t like Henry and she said it was only because he “is a knee-grow” and “those people were wrong because they don’t use the brains God gave them. Your friend is no different than anyone else, in fact, he’s better than most cause he let you be his friend.”

But Nana,  his mom is white, and his dad is black!

“So, what does that prove? Do they take good care of your friend? Do they love him? Are they nice people?”

I think so, yes.

“Then, their skin color makes no difference, does it?

But Nana, how can he be black like that when his momma is white, and his dad is black – shouldn’t he be like a zebra?

I think Nana, and maybe Henry too is still laughing about that one.

I never did see his knee grow, but that’s ok, because he was then, and remains in my heart as Henry, my bestest friend ever.

Nana said I was a gifted little boy because I saw people “through the eyes of a blind man” and heard their words “with deaf ear.”

“When you look at Henry, you don’t see his skin, you know his heart.”

Nana, though you are gone, yet remain. Your words still echo in my mind.

I miss you both.

The Wisdom of My Nana

As a child, I often sat with my grandmother beneath her grape arbor in Mankato, MN, there to talk and listen to her stories of nature. She was not a learned person in the sense of a formal education, but she was a sagacious woman in the ways of the world. Tragically for me, and the world I lost her when I was fifteen.

Before she died, she had to have one of her legs removed because diabetes had shut down the circulation and she was developing gangrene. I lived in Minneapolis, MN, at the time so I went to Mankato, (90 miles) and stayed at the hospital with her from the night before surgery, during surgery and most of the day after, when I had to leave. That was the last time I saw her or heard her voice. Her last words were, “we will share our love of nature under the arbor again one day.” I miss her wisdom.

Starting yesterday, and continuing throughout the night and into today, St. Louis, MO is experiencing severe storms. The thunder rages like the sounds millions of buffalo stomping over the plains in the days that were. Lightning, the arrows of Father Sky, piercing the darkness,   illuminating their way while torrents of rain assail their path. These were the visions my grandmother gave to me. She made me understand that nature is not science, nature is alive.

When I would ask her why storms came, she would tell me about how she had to do the spring cleaning of her house and that Mother Nature was no different.

“Mother Nature’s house is much bigger than ours.”, she would say. “She has more work to do, so she tells Father Sky he has to help her.”

“Make the Sky Buffalo run over the cloud prairies to warn all the creatures that we are going to clean. Wake them with the light of your arrows that they may prepare and seek shelter.”

But Nana, the wind blows so hard it shakes my brain to pieces!

“Child, pay attention, it is rare that the wind begins by blowing that hard but if it should then you best hide down in the root cellar cause a tornado may be coming. You don’t recall cause you were only two, but a big twister came through the town in 1946  killing eleven people and injuring a hundred or so more. They are very dangerous.”

Does Father Sky send tornadoes to hurt people?

“I don’t think so. I’m not sure what causes twisters but, like everything else in nature, they serve a purpose. Perhaps it’s a way for nature to make sure humans know who is really in charge. An old Lakota lady once told me that twisters were nature’s way of cleaning out the weak and cutting new paths for the strong. Heard tell on the radio that cold and warm air crashing together cause them. I just do not know.”

What happens to the animals when a tornado comes?

“Sadly, many animals are killed by twisters because they have nowhere to hide from them. Humans, at least the smart ones know enough to find shelter when they can.”

Nana, does the Sky Father always send twisters when he sends the winds?

“No darling, sometimes he just sends the big winds to clean out the old nests and dead branches from trees so there can be new ones.”

But Nana, if he does that, he might hit me on the head with a big branch or nest!

“That is possible, yes but most of the time the Sky Father will send warnings such as gusts of wind, thunder and many times the temperature will suddenly drop just before the storm to warn us. Course, nowadays, we have the weather guessers who might be able to predict a coming storm.”

So the Sky Father makes the wind blow and the rain fall to help the Earth Mother clean her trees and stuff?

“That’s right hon, he washes out old branches, nests, leaves and even dead animals then rinses the trees to wash away the dust.”

And the Earth Mother likes for him to do this?

“I believe she does for aren’t we all a part of her? Don’t the minerals contained in decaying branches, leaves, and animals return to the soil to help fertilize it?

But Nana, if it rains really, really, really hard all that water will fill up the creeks and rivers to flood stuff!

“Yes, that is true but what happens when there is flooding?”

I dunno know.

“Just like the trees, when Father Sky sends his rain down upon Mother Earth, the water washes away natural debris and vegetations into our streams and rivers. There, the debris-filled water will carry its burden to larger rivers such as the Mankato River which in turn, flows into the Mississippi River. As the rivers fill with water and debris, they will overflow their banks and fill the land. When the water recedes, it leaves the sediment which is a natural fertilizer. I heard that this happens every year in the Nile river in Egypt and it may happen in your lifetime. “ (Nana, if you’re listening, it occurred in 1993 – worst flood in history.)

Nana, does the Earth Mother have a big dumpster or trash can to put stuff in?

“She certainly does, she has seven of them – the Seven Seas.”

But Nana, what happens to all that sediment stuff that goes into the seas?

“That which can be recycled by Mother Nature will be. That which cannot becomes deltas such as we saw down in New Orleans.”

I remember, but we saw stuff like soda bottles, and glass and stuff down in the delta place.

“Sadly, you are right. There are things that even Mother Nature cannot rapidly fix. It is a tragic mistake of human greed and indifference that produces the filth and poisons we see on our Mother Earth every day. Perhaps one day people will wake up before it’s too late and realize what they have done.”

Nana, I miss you and love you more now than ever before.