Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Storytelling for the Strong of Spirit

The evening was quite late for this group of four old-timers, the oldest having crossed the 8th decade of his life just a few months ago.  They had reminisced about times together decades ago, stories about their children and grandchildren, health issues, and as the candles flickered lower the conversation turned to the issues of the here and now.

The Octogenarian, whom I will call Jack, twisted his empty wine glass and paused before saying, "Most people today do not understand how it really was years ago and why the atmosphere is so toxic in politics today.  They live in a bubble thinking it is just an angry joke and that it has to do with differences of opinion on how to do something."

The others sat back in their chairs knowing that the eldest of the group was going to begin story telling as he usually did when the energy of the conversation came to a pause.  He looked at each of them with his clear blue eyes and went back to his boyhood years growing up in Florida.

"Years ago when I was about eight my mother had sent me to town for some pickling supplies.  I hopped on my bicycle and headed to the local store.  This store was next door to our local bar, a wooden building that was two stories high.  The ground floor was a 'whites-only' bar and the top was 'blacks-only.'  I was in a hurry and had not put on my shoes when I left the house, and when I skidded to a stop at the bottom of the stairs on the side of the bar and jumped off the bike my foot came down on the sharp edge of the lid of a discarded sardine can.  I was in pain and starting to bleed and focused on what I should do...this day is crystal clear in my memory.   A shiny black top-less jeep with the Sheriff's star on the side pull up to the building near my discarded bike.  The Sheriff got out and reached into the back seat and retrieved a rifle of some sort.  He looked at me and told me to head on home and then walked to the balcony side of the upstairs bar where I had a clear view of three black men that were leaning over the railing and talking.  He raised the rifle and fired, and blew the head off of the black man closest to us.  He then walked back to his jeep and drove off.  I couldn't move for a minute, but soon hopped on my bike and raced home.  When I got home and told my mother what had happened she looked at me and shook her head and said, "Son, you are going to have to realize that things like this happen.'"

To give this story some context, Jack's father was the local physician and his mother was a community leader and a member of the suffragette movement.  What he was saying was that his mother knew what battles to choose to fight and what battles would be dangerous to enter.

Jack took a sip from his water glass and continued with a second story, "When I was a teenager I was riding a bus to visit my Aunt in another city.  We came to small town and a black man and a white woman got on the bus.  They found two seats in the middle of the bus and sat down.  People on the bus murmured and looked around since blacks were supposed to sit in the back of the bus.  We waited for the time for the bus to leave.  In a short time two men boarded the bus, grabbed the black man, who sat across from me, dragged him off the bus and threw him to the ground outside my window and proceeded to kick and beat him mercilessly.  Then the bus driver released the brake and we drove to the next town.  I learned later in the paper that the black man had died the next day, the white woman was his wife, and they were visiting from the Bahamas."  He said all this without emotion in his voice.

Then he turned to his wife and smiled.  "Remember, Meg, that winter when we were walking on the black beach and collecting sea urchin specimens for research?"  Meg nodded with resignation.

"It was a cold and windy day and the beach was bare of people.  Meg and I had been married only a short time.  We were filling a bag when the local park ranger walked up, gun in hand, and asked us what in the hell we were doing and did we not know this was a blacks-only beach?  We explained, as he raised the gun, that we were collecting specimens for science and that no one was beaching due to the cold weather.  He told us to get the hell off the beach and that if we were found on this beach again we would be banned from all beach parks in the State for life!"  Jack smiled wryly.  "Of course, this was an idle threat with no means of enforcement but the gun pointed in our direction made us scurry away apologetically."

Tabor, who had grown up in the mid-west and not seen much discrimination, perhaps because there were few to discriminate against, was having trouble breathing as these vignettes unfolded.

Yet, there was still another story to tell.  "A few years later Meg and I had made friends with this musician from a black college and he had invited us to a concert the college was giving to hear him play.  Meg loves music and so we agreed to go.  When we arrived at the concert hall we were directed to four seats a few rows back and in the center in the auditorium.  The President of this black college greeted us with his wife and sat with us!  We enjoyed the concert tremendously.  A week later we received a letter from OUR university Dean that said we would lose all privileges at our university if we attended any more events at the black college while we were employed at the University.  I still have the letter."

As you read this, you might be thinking...well, times change.  That may be true, but people do not.  One more story to tell.  When Jack and Meg were at a church reception following the funeral of a dear friend a few years ago, one of the grand old dames of the community was holding court from her chair.  When complaints started about this new President Obama and how awful it was that he got elected she raised her cup of punch for emphasis and this church going lady said clearly "Someone should just kill the damn ni**er."

Jack leads a life full of dramatic and interesting events and has no need to make up or enhance stories.  These are all true with the names changed to protect the innocent and may the guilty be forever damned.

11 comments:

  1. First, you are sounding much more like you. And Jack....I grew up quite near the border, and there was prejudice everywhere against brown folks. Wet backs....those sorts of ugly words. Greasers. I never understood why my mother told me not to go spacific places. Now I live in a county that's mostly Mexican Americans. They add spice to my life.

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  2. This is certainly one of your more powerful blogs. I grew up in California at a time when Mexicans were treated poorly. I'm Portuguese not Mexican, but I've been mistaken for being Mexican and have experienced the flavor of prejudice.

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  3. My family heritage gives us an olive complexion that tans easily. When Grandpa was young, and worked outdoors all summer, the bus drivers would tell him to sit at the back of the bus, where the black kids would beat him up because he wasn't really black.

    While i do not agree with everything that any politician does (most do at least one thing i disagree with, and many i think are heading the totally wrong way), under no circumstances should any be targeted. Voted out of office, perhaps, but respectfully told "Your services are no longer needed" by those they respresent.

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  4. That last word should be "represent." my fingers are stuttering today, sorry.

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  5. Racism is at the bottom of all of this. Thanks for sharing these powerful stories.

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  6. Powerful stories that make me pause to consider where we have come from and where we are headed.

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  7. I'm lucky to have not endured any events like that, tho have heard much hate n name calling. I have many non-white relatives, n get so easily offended at folks off-color comments.
    I've broken off relation ships I've discovered were racist or religion intolerant.
    I moved here because folks of all kinds just get along here.

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  8. I don't get it. Never have, never will.

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  9. this struck me, rather to the core...living in the south we still see quite a bit of prejudice...esp now that there is a black man in the white house...it seems like it has torn the scab off wounds that never really healed....which saddens me, considering the love i have of people and willingness to look beyond most things...

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