My childhood was apolitical. Stories around the dinner table were about a guy named Sparks. Occasionally we heard there was margarine on our table because dad did not support the farm policy of the administration. Whoever or whatever that was. The only political discussion that ever happened around the table concerned the election of John Kennedy. I was not old enough to vote, but tested my fledgling political savvy in supporting him. My dad said that if he were elected, within two weeks there would be soldiers marching in the street. The more he insisted the angrier I became. Kennedy was elected president and within two weeks there were Veteran’s Day parades all over America. That fostered some analytical thinking, but I never became an expert.
I learned about prejudicial attitudes at school. I was curious enough to ask my mother why the fellow who lockered next to me was called a homo. I cannot remember her exact explanation, but I remember I was quite relieved to know there was no reason to stop being Larry’s friend and the best answer if the taunt floated over my head again was to say I didn’t care.
Race was a puzzling matter. I didn’t recognize that attitudes shifted because of color. When I couldn’t make the nurses in the hospital understand someone should give gloves to the man catching bricks I was incapable of understanding his race was probably a factor in the scene I witnessed. When I was in kindergarten I didn’t understand the problem everyone had with Harry Wheeler. When we joined hands in a circle I was always by him because no one else would stand there. I held his hand; teacher had said “Let’s all join hands.” No one ever held his other hand. I never questioned it. Five may have been too young to sort through those kinds of thoughts.
Race came crashing in when I was starting high school. My little brother came home bloody from a fight in which he called a neighbor boy the too familiar epithet. Mom was appalled. Mel got a lecture that must have instilled some wisdom. He was marched back up the street to explain himself to the other boy’s parents and apologize to the boy. Yes, they became friends. Eventually in our neighborhood you had to specify if you were going to black Wagner’s for the afternoon, or white Wagner’s.
When I was in high school I learned that tolerance didn’t extend more than half a mile. I took a black girlfriend to church and she was shunned. I was mortified. I didn’t know how to handle it. Johnnie had more grace than I, got me through and got me out. We were both seventeen and she was so much wiser than I. I left that church, but I failed to tell them why. I’m sorry about that.
When I was in college my dorm was on a tree lined street, Juniper. Toward the end of my time there the administration decided traffic could be improved by clearing the trees and widening the street. This was 1964, for crying out loud. We didn’t have cars. We petitioned to keep things the same. All winter long it seemed we were being listened to. Come spring there were bulldozers at the end of the street. We were rather the mob and stood in front of a buldozer on the first day. The second day. The third day. At the end of the week the equipment left. I don’t recall any more of that incident; but the trees on Juniper are forty seven years older.
I had learned I could take a stand, and got bolder with my opinions. And opinions went all three hundred sixty degrees around Vietnam. When Kennedy sent in the first batch of advisory troups a young Vietnamese student told me it was a good thing; her homeland would be liberated. As the conflict went on I made new opinions. My dad and I discussed the situation often. He was an old Army man; my brother was in the service. After the Kent State shootings Dad told me the students had disobeyed orders. I said they didn’t do anything they deserved to die for. I felt like I had slapped him in the face. But I’d learned you can agree to disagree.
I used to tell my girls they probably would never find themselves in Africa, eradicating disease and starvation, so look around where they were and see where they could lend a hand, pitch in, say a kind word, do the right thing. Or agree to disagree and let it go. I mostly took my own advice, but I did stand in front of a bulldozer once.
Mom and Dad, 1955