THE HOUSE OF JOSHUA
A book by Mindy Thompson Fullilove gives rise to recollections of growing up between black and white.

Occasioned by Mindy's meditations, these are one man's thoughts on appreciation for all people, not just tolerance, and thoughts on intolerance of institutionalized ignorance, indeed, a memoir in its own right...


Through the friendship of our daughters, my Ruth and her Molly, I became acquainted with Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, author of The House of Joshua: Meditations on Family and Place (University of Nebraska Press, 1999). I wrote most of this rambling reminiscence and reflection in 2000, as I read her book. Then I sent it to her as a piece of “fan” mail. I do not purport that this represents her views. Her book was written to stimulate the reader to think. I did a lot of thinking. From my subsequent conversations with her, I learned that she did not hold anything against me in what I had written her.

(Mindy Thomson Fullilove is also the author of Homeboy Came to Orange, a tribute to her father, Ernest Thompson)

Dr. Fullilove, a psychiatrist and faculty member at Columbia University, is (officially) black. While The House of Joshua is autobiographical and takes a compassionate but honest look at the author’s experience as the child of a black father and a white mother, its theme is the role of place in the human psychological experience. Like niche, place is not only location, but also encompasses family or community, routine, possessions, culture and all its beauty and prejudices, superstitions, and limitations, time and history, and any combination of all of these. Place, however secure or fleeting it may be, is reassuring, and each person’s development is closely affected by how we identify with and rely on place – our home, our neighborhood, our path to and from school or work. When such place is disrupted, or when we’re torn from it, we attempt to recapture or recreate it elsewhere. Or we adapt to new surroundings, some of us better than others.

I was born in Florida in 1950.   (I was born nine days after Dr. Fullilove.)  I left Florida at about the age of two, the older of two children.  Our little family lived briefly in Maine, my father’s home state, then moved to Lima, Ohio, my mother’s home town.  (If you’re not familiar with it, you wouldn’t know that Lima is pronounced with the long ‘i’ that most people say when they pronounce lima beans.)  We lived there until I was almost 17 and the eldest of six kids.  We moved back to Maine then, where I finished the last two years of high school in the idyllic town of Farmington.  Lima, though, from 1952 - 1967, is where I grew up.  Lima holds the roots of my cultural development, and where I lived in and around Lima determined how I ever after define place.  Each of my parents earned a bachelor’s degree – my mother before she went to Florida on vacation and met my dad in 1950, my father during the 11 years from 1956 - 1966.  Both were teachers in Ohio, then in Maine.

As Mindy shows in House, for most of us, place also includes the people around us.  And place, for me, was profoundly linked with the black neighborhoods that abutted mine.  After a couple of parents’ weekends at our daughters’ college and the accompanying social interaction, and after reading Mindy’s book, I reflected on the years that I spent as a white among blacks.

Social engineers will argue that blacks were forced into the segregated neighborhoods such as I knew in Lima.  I don’t disagree with that and make no apology for it either.  It was simply the world that I was born into.  I wasn’t very old before I understood the ugliness and stupidity of racism.  As a child I had no influence on the forces of society or politics, but I did have nearly full control over my individual response to them.  Then, and ever since, I have let my interactions with people determine my attitude about them as individuals, not what I’m told to think based on some arbitrary distinction, such as skin tone, birth order, gender, taste in vegetables, or accident of native language.

Because I am interested in each person as an individual, I also have a very difficult time lumping people into groups, whether based on skin tone, career, religion, neighborhood, nationality, income, and so on.  I think my reluctance to group people arises from my own refusal to be grouped.  To most blacks I am white, but that’s their grouping, not mine.  To some of my acquaintances (and relatives) I am rich, again, their grouping, not mine.  For the most part, I refuse to be identified with a group, especially one that requires membership dues, because that gives people the right to regard me apart from my individuality.  If I were in the NRA I would invite the scorn of certain people who are avowed to hate all NRA members.  If I were in a labor union I would pay dues only to have someone else’s political views promoted at my expense.  (That already happens of course, when my tax money is used to support public broadcasting and to fund someone else’s definition of “art.”)

The blacks I knew in the 1950s did identify with their blackness.  But most were proud to say Negro, with a capital ‘N’ that you could hear even in the pronunciation.  It was a dignified term.  Where I use it in writing I mean it as respectfully as those people did.

I lack sympathy for the politics of blackness, though – the politics that insist I am an outsider unable to comprehend.  I do not recognize race in my personal dealings with individuals.  And it is with individuals that I carry on the activities of life.  When an individual forces me to take a position about anything on the basis of his race, I am affronted.  I want no part of it.  I want my race to be irrelevant to him as well.  That’s the respect I want and the respect I will show sincerely.  If he confronts me with a challenge to recognize his race before I consider him as an individual, I will disappoint him, even rebel against the challenge at the risk of making him angry.  I will be classified as a bigot, even though I am not, simply because I reject the relevance and politics of race.

I must point out a few things about Lima.  It was and still is a small city – an industrial city – on Interstate 75 halfway between Toledo and Dayton, halfway between Columbus and Fort Wayne.  Lima peaked at about 50,000 (1960 census) but has since shrunk nearer 40,000, about the size of Bangor, Maine, near where I now live.  When I lived there the town bustled with seven railroads and was the home of the former Lima Locomotive Works, by then dependent on the manufacture of diesels and shovels and cranes, also home of a Sohio oil refinery, Superior Coach Corporation (a school bus and ambulance body plant), a limestone quarry, a Ford engine plant, and a steel mill, not to mention the vast surrounding landscape busy with agriculture.

Lima also provided an exceptional opportunity for an education in music.  The public schools employed outstanding teachers of music, the Lima Symphony Orchestra performed a regular series of classical concerts each year, and the Friends of Music of Northwestern Ohio supported an outstanding annual series of performances by world-renowned classical and popular musicians.

For me, culture and its beauty strongly influence the idea of place.  In about 1956, my parents asked me whether I would like to take piano lessons.  I must have assented, because I still vividly recall standing before a stranger in  her strange living room and being presented to Bernadette Goes, a teacher of imposing proportions to a five- or six-year-old.  She was also someone of impressive influence in Lima’s music community.  I also clearly recall my earliest days of piano instruction over a set of lessons featuring “Trudy Treble and Tom.”

When I was about ten, I heard a single piece of classical music that wrapped itself around my soul.  I can say that it grips and, indeed, defines my soul even now.  Little did I suspect then that the composer had died just seven years before I was born.  The long piece was on a set of 78rpm records that my father had acquired.  I used to beg to have the piece played for me, which a chaotic household like ours would not often indulge (one parent going to college, both parents working while trending toward bringing up six children, an elderly German babysitter commanding the scene during the after-school hours), and when I finally discovered where the records and record player were kept, and had watched how to start it, I sneaked into the room (a large closet) myself as often as I thought I could get away with it and put the opening disk on at low volume.  My sneaking was readily discovered, of course, but not greatly discouraged, and I immersed myself in listening to that piece repeatedly over the next several years.

It is remarkable to me even today, but as poor as our family was, when I was about 14 my parents bought a seven-foot Chickering grand piano.  I was doing remarkably well in the piano lessons, and the purchase of that piano was an enormous incentive to keep practicing.

The piece that held me so spellbound was Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.  All through my years of piano lessons my ambition was to play that concerto.  I know every note of it, inasmuch as I could now conduct an orchestra in its performance, but I no longer have illusions about playing it myself.

Mrs. A. T. Goes, (a widow, I assume), taught me piano for ten years, also promoted me to her fellow Friends of Music as a promising student and unofficial junior member of that organization, and was initially responsible for cultivating my appreciation for classical music.

Through the Friends of Music, I not only saw but also met performers such as Roger Williams, Peter Nero, José Iturbi, Montovani, and Louis Armstrong.  In addition, the choral music director at Lima Senior High School was somehow acquainted with Norman Luboff, and during my sophomore year at LSH, Luboff directed the school’s choirs in a concert.  When I was a sophomore I was accepted into the Ohio All-state Orchestra (on the string bass).  I followed that by playing in the Maine All-state Orchestra during my last two years of high school.

In the summer of 1967, when my parents were making the first of two trips to move our household to Maine, I attended the summer music camp at the University of Cincinnati.  By the time I was a high school senior in Farmington a little over a year later, there was no question in my mind or anyone else’s that I would enroll in the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.  In the fall of my senior high school year I signed up to repeat the summer camp in 1969, and began practicing my audition piece to accompany my application for admission as a piano performance major in the fall of 1969.  In December 1968, while working after school at Peter Webber’s ski shop in Farmington, I was using a bayonet-shaped butcher knife to prepare a set of rubbery-soled ski boots for Marker Rotomat bindings and, (being left-handed), jammed the point of the knife into the knuckle at the base of my right index finger, where it glanced off the bone and sliced a swath from my palm to the back of my hand.

Since I hadn’t performed or taped my audition piece by then, (a compilation of themes from Liszt), I was now out of the running for admission, or so I thought.  In the spring of 1969, with the hand partially healed, I made a tape of myself playing string bass, and I remained enrolled for the summer program.  On the strength of that commitment, the director of admissions, Edward Shelhaus, admitted me to UC anyway with a piano “concentration” and a major in composition.  By summer, the hand was not healed, though.  When I arrived in Cincinnati in June I still hadn’t regained adequate use of the index finger, (doctors didn’t think in terms of physical therapy in those days), and I also arrived in Cincinnati with stitches in my chin from a nasty fall during my senior party.  The knuckle had to be re-opened for further repair in the late summer, during the month or so that I was home in Maine before returning to college in the fall.

After the hand injury, two more events literally shattered my assumption of a career in music.  The combination of the three seemed part of a cosmic, almost divine conspiracy to crush my ambition, and makes the somber beauty of Rachmaninoff’s music all the more poignant.  When I was about 15 I had bought my own string bass.  I had not only paid for it myself but had refinished it as well, since it had been thrown out the front window of a music store during a fire and needed some cosmetic restoration.  As a freshman at the UC conservatory, I was a member of the orchestra in Corbett Auditorium accompanying the United States premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s operetta “Help, Help!  The Globolinks!” (a seriously unfortunate title).  Menotti sat in the front row during the performance.  A Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was to follow the intermission.

When “Globolinks” ended, the orchestra pit started to rise as the audience applauded and the house lights gradually came on.  As the pit rose and I rested on a stool on its rear edge, I felt a growing pressure on my left shoulder.  Too late I realized that the scroll of my bass was caught under the edge of the stage while the end-pin was being driven into the floor of the rising pit.  An un-guarded black hole lay behind me, so I quickly ducked out from under the neck of the instrument.  Cramped as I was between other bass players, there was no room to swing a six-foot tall wooden cudgel.  I let go, thinking, I suppose, that it might fall into the empty space behind, but it did not.  It stood on its own, already caught.  The neck snapped, the strings broke, the bridge flew off toward the audience, and I stood before a high-brow audience and a famous composer in a lighted auditorium , holding only the bow.  The remnants lay on the floor of the orchestra pit, and I left them there as I walked out into the parking garage.  When I wandered back inside a short while later, the orchestra conductor was clearly angry with me and insisted that I go get another string bass for the second part of the show.  I went to the storage room where the privately-owned instruments were kept and borrowed the one belonging to my friend, Dwight Shambley, about whom more follows.

The last straw, as it were, came a couple years later.  When the family moved from Ohio to Maine, we took the Chickering grand piano with us.  (We loaded it ourselves onto the Wiedemann’s Beer truck that my father had converted first to a camper and then to a moving van.)  We used the piano in the first house we occupied in Farmington at 58 Perham Street, but after I left for college and the Army, the family moved from that house to one my father was building on Voter Hill.  With no place to put the piano in a house under construction and since I was away, my parents thought it a good idea to loan the piano to Mount Blue High School, newly constructed in Farmington.  The school did use it, but within a few months, while it was being moved across the stage, its front legs (apparently not properly attached) collapsed and the keyboard end of the piano crashed to the floor.  It was demolished.  My parents received a pittance of an insurance settlement from the school which they passed on to me – a couple hundred dollars, I recall.  Consequently, from the age of 18 to about 20, enough happened to force me to redefine my own sense of place in the world.  Music had been the outline of my place.  I had dabbled in other things.  Now, at least in the realm of career choices, one of those other things would have to define me.

When I think about my earliest cognizance of a geographical setting for place, South Lima, broadly speaking the area south of the Ottawa River, comes first to mind.  (South Lima was a local reference, not the name of a separate town.)  Here was the neighborhood I lived in when I started school.  Here were the streets where I rode my first bike, first ventured beyond my approved boundaries, found a neighborhood store, walked to other kids’ houses to play.  The part of the district that lay south of the Erie Railroad tracks was written up in the 1960’s (Life magazine, among others) as one of the worst ghettoes in America outside a major metropolitan area.  I attended kindergarten and first grade at Lincoln School, a little beyond the perimeter of the ghetto but much affected by its population, and I lived two blocks from the school.

I didn’t yet comprehend geography in terms of a state of Ohio or USA or North America; rather in terms of a space three or four lower-class residential city blocks on a side.  Beyond my school to the east, beyond Metcalf Street to the west, beyond the river to the north, which I couldn’t go near, lay more neighborhoods, but I was content to claim my own.  Before the Erie RR to the south, a block beyond my school, lay the start of the industrial district, where I was forbidden to play but did, (in the gravel and grass and puddles around Duff Truck Lines).

My first recollection of being aware of what I now know as poverty came in the first grade when one very quiet black girl peed in her seat and chose to sit in it, fearing the discovery that beneath her skirt she didn’t have – didn’t own – any underpants.  All was discovered by the teacher, of course.  Far from facing ridicule, though, she earned – not pity – but rather the solicitude of the kids and the teacher.  I understood she was poor.  In fact, so was my family.  To paraphrase P. J. O'Rourke, we didn’t think of ourselves as living in poverty, though; we just knew we didn’t have much.  Other people, such as our landlord, whose nearby home impressed me at the time but which was really quite modest, we thought were rich, not us.  We were regular.

From the edge of South Lima my family moved to an area midway between downtown and the ritzy “west end.”  But midway wasn’t the “west end” by any stretch of the imagination.  We bought a house at 1165 West High Street, two doors from the one my mother grew up in at number 1149, which was six doors up from the house Phyllis Diller, née Phyllis Driver, grew up in.  (No big deal, but I find it interesting to see what the high and mighty once claimed as place.  And no, my mother was not well acquainted with her but was well aware that the Driver family lived there.)  From the corner of our block, stretching westward for three blocks, was an area three city blocks on a side that was an almost all-black neighborhood of mostly individual family homes.  At the age of eleven, I took over a daily afternoon paper route that had from 70 to 80 customers, set exclusively in that neighborhood.  I delivered the Lima News there until we moved to Maine six years later.

This was a decidedly up-scale black neighborhood, as black neighborhoods go in industrial cities.  Yet, these weren’t management types, professional people, or merchants.  They were the elderly, a few teachers, a few others with no visible means, etc.  But the homes were up on foundations with gardens and mown grass and sidewalks and curbs.  Among my customers those six years was the elderly Mrs. Gamble, who lived at 1419 Oakland Parkway.  Mrs. Gamble, like several other kindly, old black women, would sometimes offer me something hot out of the oven or would discuss something happening in the neighborhood or would show me something she was sewing on.

I arrived on her porch one time and found her sitting there with a middle-aged woman whom she introduced as her daughter, a college professor.  I was impressed.  When I saw Mrs. Gamble a few days later and the daughter was gone, Mrs. Gamble asked me whether I knew who her daughter was.  I said I didn’t.  She’s Maidie Norman, Mrs. Gamble told me, an actress who had been a regular on the “Loretta Young Show,” who was also the maid in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” and who had made more than 200 other films.  Among her credentials, she had a master's degree in Theater Arts from Columbia University and, when I met her, she was teaching at Stanford University, where she was also artist-in-residence.

On another occasion a year or so later, I met Miss Norman again.  Miss Norman then asked me to keep an eye on her mother in the sense of making sure the paper was always taken in and making sure Mrs. Gamble always seemed healthy.  So I talked with Mrs. Gamble a lot when I delivered or went to collect.  I ate a lot of homemade stuff there that I had never tasted before.

I made a little study of Maidie Norman in the time since then.  Maidie Norman wasn’t a stage name, it was her real name; she spent her childhood and teen years in Lima and had attended the same schools as I; she earned a B.A. in Literature and Theater Arts from Bennett College; she had an immense knowledge of black theater and literature and, taking a stand against stereotyping in her roles, was very instrumental in developing one of the first Afro-American culture classes at UCLA.  I knew none of this then, and when I moved from Lima in 1967 I gave no more thought to the acquaintance for many years.

I went back once to that neighborhood the summer after my first year of college, thinking to visit with some of my former newspaper customers who had been so welcoming only three years before, when I was a boy.  I must have looked quite different, because when the resident of the first house I stopped at opened the inside door to peer out at me through the storm door window, she suddenly grasped the shoulders of the two children standing beside her and whisked them away as she slammed the door on me.  I was stupid to think she’d recognize me, and when I realized the problem was that simple I abandoned the idea of visiting any others.

Across the street from Mrs. Gamble lived a frail, old man in a sinking house which held, to the best of my recollection, a bare ceiling bulb, a bare table with one chair angled slightly away, and an upright piano littered with manuscript paper covered with scrawled notes of music.  Often, as I approached this house, I heard ragtime music coming from the barroom-tuned piano, but only until the alert occupant – I’ve forgotten his name! – realized that there was someone approaching his door.  He was arthritically bent, yet a disarmingly warm individual with a glistening, wrinkled medium-brown face and a wide smile.  He always wore a sleeveless undershirt over a sunken chest, and the house was always steamy hot inside.  The bulb lit a central portion of one room, and beyond it there was only darkness.  I was always awe-struck by this man and regret that I never tried to become better acquainted.

Cleo Vaughn also lived in this neighborhood.  Cleo would be just a few – maybe six or seven – years older than I.  He was one of two young black men who had a profound influence on my life.  Cleo Vaughn was a newspaper customer of mine for probably less than a year before he moved on.  He was a busy, engaging, energetic activist determined to eradicate not the ghetto of South Lima but the forces that made it a ghetto.  (No doubt he was a proponent of “coalition politics to build safe places for people,” Mindy Fullilove’s term.)  He was regularly in the newspaper, and he too was written up in Life magazine about that time, (I think just in a photo caption).  I remember going home one day after helping him wash his car, a red 1958 Chevy Impala convertible, and telling my parents that I wanted to be like him – to go out there and tell the people in power that they had to do something about the ghettoes.  My parents kept it to themselves at the time, but no doubt realized I didn’t have the proper – call it – credentials for that kind of work.  They may have trusted that I had the perspective, but they had the grace to let me revel in my ambition of the moment.

The other young black man whose influence on me was incalculable was Eugene B. Jefferson, my 7th- to 9th-grade choral music teacher.  A couple of years before we moved away from Lima, about the time I was entering 9th grade, he married and bought a house around the corner from ours, near enough that our back yards nearly came together.  He was not on my paper route, but I visited on any excuse.  And yet, as a teacher, he was intensely unforthcoming about his private life.  But he had the mix of authority and compassion that made him a magnet for adolescents.  He was a new teacher, I think hailing from Columbus, and at my junior high school he had two 7th-grade choirs, each with roughly a hundred kids, not to mention an 8th- and a 9th-grade choir, each also as big.  He selected me as accompanist for my choir for all three years.

He also organized and directed the Lima Rotary Boys Choir, and I joined that as well, as its accompanist.

EBJ, or Mister J, as we called him, was certainly one of the two or three greatest unsung human beings I have ever met.  He left Lima a few years after I did, to teach in Mansfield.  I visited him there once, briefly, after my first year of college.  And it was his influence that erased all doubt in me about starting college in music at the University of Cincinnati.  (I completed one year, couldn’t afford to go back, joined the Army in 1970, returned to Maine, and in 1974 resumed college in Maine with majors in Russian and wildlife management.)

I wonder what ever became of Cleo Vaughn and EBJ.  I can find nothing about either of them on the Internet.

There was another black family on my paper route named White.  They lived in a house that had once belonged to my mother’s uncle.  In fact, my mother’s roots were very strong in that part of Lima, and it’s a wonder that we ever left.  When we did move to Maine, I seriously considered staying behind to live with my mother’s sister and her husband, Irene and Charlie Bay, so that I wouldn’t have to re-establish myself in music somewhere else.  Everyone involved supported my decision either way.  Irene and Charlie were a childless couple and comfortably-situated on Charlie’s fireman’s wage.  In the end, and largely because I had been to Maine every year since our brief stay in 1952 and was in love with the forests and mountains and cold, clear waters, I chose to take my place in music with me.  (It was after that when the series of disasters occurred.)

Around the corner from our house on High Street lived Mike Stewart, my best friend for about the same period that I ran the paper route.  Mike and I had been in school together from the fourth grade.  He was my substitute paper carrier.  I lived across the street from the Evangelical United Brethren Church, where I had been baptized in 1952, and Mike lived right behind the church, with his father and his grandfather.  His mother was a nurse, divorced from Mike’s dad, and she was an old friend of my mother’s.  For reasons I didn’t think to wonder then and will never know now, Mike didn’t live with his mom, but maybe that’s because she worked shifts and his dad was chronically unemployed and with his dad and grandfather in the house there was always an adult, albeit of dubious influence, at home.

Grandpa Stewart, his ankles swollen and bleeding, always sat in a darkened living room soaking his feet in a pan and watching a very old television.  He was ever-pleasant and entertaining, and he was a sharp old man.  I’d have listened to his stories and ideas a lot more, but Mike continually snubbed him and dragged me away.  Grandpa smoked constantly and sometimes sent me to the drugstore down the street to get cigarettes or a prescription.  The drugstore always permitted this when it was for Grandpa Stewart.  He even sent me once for some kind of liquor from the store around the corner from the drugstore, and they too let me deliver it.

My mother recalls that, when she was a girl in the 1930s, people of the neighborhood voted at her family’s home at 1149 West High Street on election day.  She also recalls that Grandpa Stewart was the first black man to vote in Lima, and that would have taken place at their house.  (Did I forget to mention Mike was black?)

My friend Mike Stewart had a record player for 45s.  I didn’t.  We bought “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” by Gene Pitney and wore it out.  It was our favorite song, and we somehow contrived to act it out over and over.  We also formed a club consisting of just the two of us.  We considered including Claude Sturgill, but I think Claude thought it was hokey.  Claude was a big white boy recently moved from West Virginia into a house across the street from Mike’s.  Our club needed a secret code, so we devised the DAWMAS alphabet.  A mere eight years later I would become a military cryptanalyst.

When we were in our mid-teens, Mike started talking about one girl, Wilma Mize, with whom he had fallen in love.  She was black, a classmate of ours, and he talked about her in ways that made me feel completely awkward when I’d see her myself.  Once Mike bragged about getting a hand on her knee.  Another time he talked about her breath.  (He liked it.)  Wilma lived somewhere near Sherri Burwell, who was a year behind me in school and a friend of my sister, Ann.  Sherri’s family was also my newspaper customer, so I had the excuse to get inside her house occasionally.  Her intellectual and athletic older brother Larry was also a friend.  For a while anyway, and at a very impressionable period of my youth, Sherri was the prettiest girl I knew, an impression enhanced by her medium brownness and energetic, cheerful innocence.  But at 13 or 14, when I knew her well enough to notice her, she was also too young to get very interested in.  Her family moved to Albany, New York, the year before we relocated to Maine, and oddly enough – although I’ll never know why now – my parents stopped at their house in Albany on the way east.  I still recall seeing Sherri run out to our caravan to say Hi, while my mom or dad was in the house, and then she gaily disappeared among the houses in her neighborhood.  Maybe the stopover  in Albany was to drop off something they had left behind, because when the Burwell family moved away, they sold their house to the Perry family.  Mr. and Mrs. Archie Perry (black to very black) were educators and also friends with my parents, enough so that they later visited my parents in Wilton, Maine, and then my wife and me at our apartment in Orono.

It was because of these friends, especially Mike, and all the nutty, sometimes delinquent, sometimes hazardous things we did that I was able one day to retort: “What nigger friend?” when some bully wanted to single me out for punishment because I hung around with Mike.  The goon thought I was denying I knew him, when in fact I drew a blank when he put the label on Mike.  (And Mike certainly was a rich dark brown, not at all on the lighter side.)  I ran from the thug, tried to jump a school tennis net, snagged the net with a shoelace eyelet, and took a worse bruising from the fall than I would have if I’d stood for the beating.  This experience of temporary puzzlement over my friend’s race led me afterward to reflect that, if someone had asked me whether so-and-so in that neighborhood was black or white, for there were a few whites, I’d have to pause and work it out.

One old woman living alone (I assume) in a small house overgrown with weeds and vines on that route, (yes, she was black-ish), whom I rarely saw, gave me a $5 tip for Christmas around 1965.  $5!  Another pair of very old women, sisters living together, would often pay me in coins that seldom turned up in the change that other people paid me with.  So I saved them.  Barber dimes, quarters, and halves, and Indian-head pennies.  They had evidently stashed hordes of silver through WWI or the Depression and were slowly letting it trickle out ever since.  (Standing Liberty quarters, walking Liberty halves, Mercury dimes, buffalo nickels, and two types of silver dollars were all still widely in circulation.)  I became a sort of coin collector during those years.  Up until 1964 I could go to the branch bank near my paper route and pass a few silver certificates across the counter and receive silver dollars dating back to 1878 in return.  What kid today can even conceive of that?  What kid today even knows that our coinage contained silver in 1964 or gold in 1932?  I still wonder what life must have been like for those two black sisters when, say in 1892, they were the age that I was as their paper boy.  And I still have some of those coins, although I couldn’t tell you which ones came from that house and which I acquired elsewhere.

A young black couple named Bivens, with two little girls who used to cling to my legs and jump on my back when I came to collect, used to invite me stay for strawberry shortcake – a luxury rarely enjoyed in my own house.  (Or in theirs of course.)  At 13 or 14 I might have been four years older than the elder of their daughters.  Yet it sent an odd feeling through me to be so accepted by those little girls.  I think it impressed me mainly due to my own sense of inadequacy and gawkiness among girls in general.  I had no confidence until I had reached college.  Here, though, were two who found me acceptable, at least in their terms.  I could walk into a room and count on a hug from a 10-year-old girl and an 8-year-old.  I found that acceptance reassuring, welcomed the innocent contact, and cared not a whit whether they were fat or thin, younger or older, black or white, rich or poor.

One day at a statewide youth conference on driving safely, in Columbus, during the spring of my sophomore year, I danced with a gawky, giggly black girl whom I met right on the dance floor.  She taught me a few steps, significant since I had never before been on a dance floor, and then sat down with me and a couple of other kids from my school.  My companions seemed to fall silent, and I later heard her referred to as my “chocolate drop.”  I don’t recall what town she came from or whether I ever learned her name.

Unpleasant things sometimes happened there in my adjoining neighborhood in Lima, too, between me and some of the younger residents.  These things had nothing to do with race, at least as far as I considered it.  Teenage boys would crowd around me as I collected for the papers on Saturday and say: “Len’ me a quarter.”  So I’d give the biggest one a quarter and sometimes had to give someone else one too, before they’d saunter off.  On other occasions some of the black boys would think it funny to ask me whether I liked this girl or that.  When I honestly said I thought Sherri Burwell was pretty, one became really angry and had to be yanked away from me by his friends.

The fleecing by the neighborhood toughs was a nuisance, but I tolerated it, and it never descended into anything more threatening.  My whole money bag was stolen right under my nose another time as I was making change on a front porch swarming with kids a little younger than I.  (The person paying me was one of the kids.)  No one saw it disappear, so I shrugged and walked off, thinking it was a prank and someone would return it before I’d gone far.  But no one did.  I gave my parents a different story but I don’t remember now what I told them.  I probably lost $12-$15 on that occasion.  (The paper cost 35¢ a week in the mid-1960s, and that included the Sunday edition.  Eighty customers would have meant I collected $28 a week, and I think I made 7¢ per subscription per week, which would have paid me about $6 a week altogether, counting tips.)

Cincinnati.  The summer of 1967 my family moved to Maine but I attended a six-week summer music camp at the University of Cincinnati while they were engaged in the move.  Another string base player at the camp was Dwight Shambley, from the south side of Lima.  A year my senior, Dwight was an egghead like me, but certifiably black, unlike me.  We arrived at the hilltop campus that summer in time to watch the smoke from several fires burning near downtown during that first or second year of the major race riots that swept so many of the country’s major cities.

In order to walk from the UC campus to downtown, which we did once or twice a week, one would normally pass through stretches of black neighborhoods on the hillside.  Dwight and I, alone, began making the trip after things quieted down, but we quickly realized that there was no protection for either of us by pairing up.  He felt as threatened as I did for associating with me.  We only confused those who glared as we went by, and we quickly found a different route.

Other things that profoundly affected my perspective on race and my place in it when I was growing up: That same summer of 1967 in Cincinnati I fell secretly in love with Marietta Cheng, a 100% ethnic Chinese girl from Chillicothe – (she liked me too, and we too walked from the campus to downtown a few times – the first girl I ever walked around holding hands with – but I never saw her again after that summer); Black Like Me; To Kill A Mockingbird; the movie "Watermelon Man" with Godfrey Cambridge in which he starts out as a white man who one morning looks in the mirror and discovers he has turned black; a private moment with Louis Armstrong following a concert in 1966; the Monterey Jazz Festival of 1970 where mine was the only white face in a crowd of a thousand (I was in Monterey for a year in the Army)...  I went to quite a few pro baseball and football games in Cincinnati from 1967-1970 and saw both Willie Mays and Hank Aaron play at Crosley Field, and perhaps a few more black sports heroes in other venues – the Bengals played at the University of Cincinnati stadium the first year or two they had a team, but I’ve never been a jock or a big sports fan, and to me a player’s race was of no consequence anyway.

A few short years later, 1973, when I was in Germany in the Army, I was one of four whites who were beaten up by about 22 blacks outside a mess hall.  Three of us had made the mistake of joining a fourth white guy who was already seated at a table in the mess.  Steve Fedorchak, the fourth guy, had argued with the all-black kitchen crew as he picked up his chow, (argued with them over his unadorned, knitted cap which he refused to take off), but the rest of us, coming in later, hadn’t seen it happen.  As we approached to sit down he tried to warn us off.  Nodding toward the serving line we had just come through, he told us frankly that “they” were going to beat him up when he left.  We looked back across the room, and the wall was lined with black guys who had their arms crossed and were staring at us.  The other three of us said we’d sit with him because no one would bother with him outside if we all four left together.

We were wrong about that.  We were attacked.  The predominantly black kitchen crew had somehow rallied a lot of supporters.  They watched us leave and let us get twenty-five meters from the mess hall on the quiet streets of Sheridan Kaserne (the base), and then they poured out the front and back doors of the mess and quickly surrounded us.  Belt buckles landed on our heads, but mainly on Steve’s.  I took a pounding in the mouth and eyes and eventually dropped to my knees, where I was kicked by someone’s knee.  I should have had the sense to collapse to the ground; maybe they’d have quit on me then.  None of us resisted, though.  An interesting experience.  As I was being thumped in the face while still on my feet, I kept trying to ask: “Do you even know what you’re doing?” – but the punches in the mouth kept muffling my words, each punch accompanied by “Shut [punch] up [punch]!”  (Not that what I was saying made any sense.)  MPs were on the scene in a mercifully short time, and as they approached in a car squawking something over a loudspeaker, our two dozen attackers sort of faded into the maze of buildings and trees, leaving the four of us sitting or crouching where they’d left us.  So we were arrested.

(I found it interesting later to realize that the taller, bigger attackers had formed an outer circle and the guys who were pounding on us were mostly the smaller guys.  I wondered whether it was a chance to let the little guys practice.  Nevertheless, I was grateful for the phenomenon.)

I had punctures through my upper lip where my eyeteeth had withstood the barrage, cuts around my eyes, and a bloody nose.  Fedorchak was the worst off among us but not eligible for a purple heart.  (We later joked that we would file claims for the medal even though we came under “friendly fire.”)  After we were treated and released from the hospital, we four whites were “disciplined” under Article 15 and were made to undergo an asinine course in sensitivity training put on by black militants, civilians I presume, evidently imported from the States for the occasion.  We were supposedly confined to quarters (and allowed to take the Army shuttle bus to and from our work site), but we all three ignored the confinement.  I never saw the company commander, (my “commanding officer”) in the year and a half I was there, never had “formation,” and always spent as little time as possible on base.  So I wasn't concerned about violating the confinement.  Evidently the CO was unaware of me before the incident.  The court marshal was conducted by some colonels, whom I'd never seen before either.  (Maybe my CO was there; I wouldn’t have known.  He didn’t pay me any attention afterward.)

A few days after that riot, Bill, a black GI with whom I worked and had a few laughs outside of work, came to my room in the barracks.  He told me he was in danger for even showing up at my barracks.  But he had to come and tell me he couldn’t believe it when he heard I was one of the four.  He said he was sorry but we’d sort of have to hang loose from now on.  He also told me I needed to watch my back all the time, because he couldn’t speak up for me or else he’d be blackballed, so to speak.  We rarely spoke after that.  I don’t recall that I even tried to explain to him how innocently I came to be there in the wrong place at the proverbial wrong time.  Racial tensions were extremely high among GIs overseas then, and this incident, which gained a bit of publicity, only wound things up tighter.  (My father told me they had read about it in the paper back home, sans names.)  In spite of the fact that I privately mocked the dap and found the racial distinctions palpable, I was the last person, at that time and since, who deserved a beating from someone else over race, or who needed sensitivity training!

(Or perhaps I did. Perhaps I needed to have my rational experiences around blacks violently replaced with politically correct persuasions about my guilt for something. I can't penetrate that kind of thinking, so I let it go.)

The dap was the official black handshake.  Somewhere I have a reverent explanation of it, published in some military magazine and meant to promote appreciation by explaining the symbolism of each element.  The dap was absurd and has no doubt fallen into disuse because, whenever, say, four or more black guys would get together, the hand “shakes” could take longer than the occasion for meeting, like stopping at the post office to mail a letter.  The same publication had a piece on pseudofoliculitis, a real skin problem, to which some black men who shave are susceptible.  Pseudofoliculitis, the article explained, happens when the whiskers are so kinky and stiff that, with a few days’ growth, they curl right back against the skin and bore a new hole.  Left to grow a few days more, each whisker tunnels into the epidermis and continues growing.  If shaved after that happens, the result is widespread gouging of the epidermis and, with enough cycles of this, a permanent pock-marked condition to a black man’s shaved face.  Blacks in all branches of the US military were permitted to grow beards after pseudofoliculitis was accepted as a bona fide medical condition.

You might think the beating outside the mess hall would have made me question my “place” among blacks.  But I had never defined my relationship with individuals according to arbitrary groupings – presumptions about the individual according to presumptions about the group with which others might identify him.  It was not I, nor even the other three of us who were thrashed, but the 22 black GIs who chose race as the issue.  They assumed Steve Fedorchak took issue with their race, not their silliness about a hat.  In fact, another of us four beaten whites married a black woman after returning home from Germany.

I left the Army in 1973 and returned to Maine, where, not counting our an annual vacation trips from Ohio beginning in the 1950s, I had only spent the last two years of high school.  I earned a B.S. in wildlife management at the University of Maine, moved even further north, and have generally lived away from people of color ever since (with a few exceptions).  One exception is a man who calls himself Huck.

Huck is from Oklahoma who married a local white girl in northern Maine.  They have two boys, now grown.  In 2000 I moved from the area where we both lived, but during our ten-year acquaintance Huck and I spent a lot of time talking about personal and family things, exchanging R&B CDs, and so on.

In a quintessential coincidence, Huck once mentioned that he was going to stop off in Ohio and see his brother on the way to Oklahoma for a vacation.  I asked where in Ohio.  Lima, he said.  I asked where in Lima.  West Wayne Street, he said.  I was able to tell him that that’s two blocks over from where I grew up.  His brother had moved there some 20 years after I had left, so there was no chance of having known him.  Nevertheless, it was a remarkable discovery.

For many years I was among the chorus of white people who would say: “Race – what does it matter?”  White people can say that, and I believed my thinking to be pure and logical.  Black people seem to say: “Race – it should not matter, but clearly it does.”  Yes it does, to a diminishing and annoying minority of whites and unfortunately to a majority of increasingly-politicized blacks.  I could forget, in my youth, that those people I knew were black.  They probably could never forget that I was white, but they made no issue of it.  Maybe I could empathize, they reasoned.  Maybe I was benign, even welcome and amusing.  But I could never see it from the inside.  This I understand.  And yet, if I am handicapped by being white, I have lived as much in the black “world” as a white person can.  I think I deserve respect for that.  So when I was being thrashed for walking out of a mess hall with a friend, it made me mad.  But when I was subjected to “sensitivity” training afterward, it made me seethe.  If it had boiled over into rage and I had decked someone conducting those classes, it would have been branded bigotry.  It was nothing of the sort.  It was the same intolerance I have for official idiocy wherever official idiocy shines its diabolical but innocent-looking smile.

I am sensitive to individuals regardless of race.  But I am deliberately insensitive to race-based politics.  Those eggshells need to be walked on and crushed.  Why is it clear only to whites, for instance, that Bill Clinton can’t tell the difference between a tar baby and a Negro?  The Democrat Party insists on grouping blacks as if they’re not like regular folks, tells them that they’re victims of all those whites who don’t group them as the Democrats do, only in order to promote itself as the party to rescue them from their victimhood.  The only advantage I had since childhood by being white is that I wasn’t promised rescue from my poverty.  I knew I had to do it myself.  Blacks who are conditioned to believe they’re victims are also conditioned to await rescue, not to do it for themselves.  But I was as disadvantaged by my parents’ economic disarray (father: heavy smoker, medically fragile, in college for eleven years; mother: raising six kids on a teacher’s pay) as most disadvantaged blacks.  I started my adult life with the same zero bank account and no relatives with resources to for me to inherit.

I also protest the assumption that there are blacks today who are somehow residual victims of slavery in the USA.  My ancestors were also slaves, serfs, and property, somewhere in Europe rather than in the USA.  Whose ancestors weren’t at one time or another?  Other than being on the receiving end of the vacuous promises of a self-serving Congress, (and living in a “broken” home), what makes Mike Stewart any more disadvantaged to start with than I was in the 1960s?  I had as little as Mike did as a child.  My family was just as poor, especially after two bankruptcies.  I hope he has been as fortunate as I in rising out of it.

Yes, the entertainment industry, that vanguard of political correctness and Democrat support as far back as the McCarthy era in the 1950s, portrayed most blacks as amusingly clumsy, shiftless, and dangerous.  (Bless Maidie Norman, not her left-wing do-gooder stereotypers, for leading the charge against that.)  Over-sensitivity to the portrayal of Negroes in the Disney movie "Song of the South," combined with indignation that Disney didn’t condemn slave-ownership in the movie, has led to its permanent ban in the USA.  I have been fortunate to obtain a copy from abroad, however.  Pity, few Americans will ever see it again.

I also realize, though, that the memory of slavery was still fresh in the USA as late as the 1960s.  Some of my eldest customers on that old paper route very likely were children of slaves.  Progress through the generations is sometimes slow.  (Although I am continually dazzled by the fact that my grandmother Sunderland – not my great grandmother but my grandmother – was born in 1884 in a sod hut in Kansas.  From stone age conditions to the computer age in two generations...)

I saw a good deal of South Lima.  I attended a few services – as whose guest I no longer recall – at the Fourteenth (or was it Fourth?) Street Baptist Church, a quintessential black Baptist church.  I did some sort of volunteering at Mizpah Mission, a charity-driven day care for small children in South Lima.  My best exposure to the community, though, was through Santa Claus.

Santa Claus.  This begs a new story.  From 1957 - 1960 my family lived in a couple of rents in the farming village of Gomer, some 10 miles north of Lima.  During our last year or so there I had a weekly paper route of four customers, (the Toledo Blade).  Made about 12 cents a week before I had turned ten.  One of the customers was Bob Shelmadine, an aging bachelor house painter.  (White, for clarification.)  Bob’s humble house was a Santa’s workshop year ‘round.  His front step continually received boxes of broken or cast-off toys.  The furniture in his front rooms consisted of long boards stretched over sawhorses.  These tables were covered with toys being repaired, repainted, and grouped for eventual delivery in December.  Bob became acquainted with my parents because he paid regular visits to elementary schools throughout the county and collected names and addresses of children in desperate straits.  (There was no official lunacy over confidentiality in those days.)  Perhaps from being his paperboy, or perhaps since my mother was a teacher there and provided him with other kids’ names, I was among the children who early on benefited from his visits.

During the weeks just before Christmas, Bob would discreetly make appointments with the parents in these several humble homes in order to surprise the children, and would map out a delivery route for each evening.  He donned a respectable Santa Claus costume and, usually alone, made his rounds in a late-40’s Chevrolet.  Good boy of good parents that I was, I began to accompany him on these trips as his “elf.”  I did this each Christmas starting some time after we moved from Gomer back to Lima, roughly from when I was 12 until I was 16 and we moved to Maine.

Bob, as Santa Claus, would enter a house, take the proffered seat of honor, and hand out wrapped and unwrapped gifts, all labeled for the kids by name; things he had repaired and repainted in his “workshop.”  I watched how patient he was, how gentle, how sincere.  He took whatever time was needed.  He would often sweat profusely in steamy, hot houses, and he sometimes betrayed a few tears as, I imagine, the inadequacy of his efforts struck him relative to the overwhelming need.  Any child who wanted to sat on his lap and had all the time in the world to converse with a real Saint Nicholas.

A major proportion if not a preponderance of his deliveries were made in the black ghetto in South Lima.  I remember dirt-floored homes heated with homemade stoves burning pasteboard boxes for fuel.  And I remember young adults and old people, all children of God, reflecting the thrill of their children as this white Santa came through the door shaking his sleigh bells.

I remember something else about Bob Shelmadine.  One day when I came to collect for the paper – and I couldn’t have been quite ten – he didn’t answer my knock.  Being always before welcome any time, I let myself in the front door.  As I stepped into the front room I saw an open bedroom doorway to the left and a strange old man, wearing only underwear and a vacant gaze, sitting on the edge of the bed, facing me but as uncomprehending as I was.  Bob, also in his underwear, rushed at me from out of nowhere and angrily pushed me back outside.  I didn’t get to the reason for my visit.  I related this experience to my parents, but certainly could imagine no reason why this would so upset Bob except that I saw the two men in their underwear – no big deal to me at the time.

It is testimony to my parents’ fairness with all people that they too apparently considered it no big deal and allowed me to continue cultivating my own friendship with Bob.  (I also trust that my parents took steps to assure themselves that I was safe around the man before letting me continue to be around him.)  This incident remained almost completely forgotten until I was in my first year of college at UC and realized that my aging piano teacher and another older man connected with the school had some sort of mutually spousal relationship.  Until then I was practically ignorant of the fact that two men could desire such a relationship.  I regret now that I abandoned my friendship with Bob as I grew rapidly into manhood.  But my mother visited him every year or so on her return visits to Ohio right up into the 1990s, and we kept current through her.  He died around 1997, and of course too late I realize what a saint he had been and how much I should have appreciated him more, for committing his systematic acts of kindness and including me in their execution.  His sexual disorientation presented no hazard to me as a child and had no effect on my development.  It was his giving, caring nature that had all the influence on me.  When an adult in the modest poverty that characterized Bob’s subsistence gives a child an example of giving like he did, it can overpower ten bad examples of what not to emulate.

One more episode deserves mention in this reminiscence.  When I was in first grade, Lincoln School had an assembly for a performance of song and dance by Aunt Jemima.  She was clearly a talented woman doing these performances as a traveling, paid advertisement for Aunt Jemima pancakes.  What’s more, I was aware of that brand name even then and was therefore duly impressed that she was at our school.  The image of her moving lightly about the stage and swaying with the music and shaking and tapping what must have been a tambourine is vivid with me, although what the music consisted of I can only guess.  Some gospel and spirituals, some children’s ditties, maybe something bluesy?

I don't condone the caricature of black women as Aunt Jemima was portrayed then.  It was degrading for the Quaker Oats Company to perpetuate the image, a century-old reminiscence for the good old slave days.  Even their print ads were blatantly wistful for those good old days!

(The following information is provided courtesy of Advertising Age.

Few commercial icons deserve to be called "cultural touchstones" of significant political and social change. But the Aunt Jemima trademark is one of them.

The image of the smiling black woman first appeared on thousands of boxes of pancake mix in the early 1890s, but throughout the 20th century, Aunt Jemima's trademark mirrored America's changing perceptions of African-American women.

The idea of Aunt Jemima was first conceived by newspaperman and entrepreneur Chris Rutt, according to the Afro-American Almanac. Mr. Rutt and his partner, Charles Underwood, had developed and packaged a ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour but they had not settled on a name or brand positioning.

One evening Mr. Rutt attended a vaudeville show and heard a tune called "Aunt Jemima" sung by a black-faced performer clad in an apron and bandana headband. The melody was such a hit, Rutt decided to use the song's title as the name for his pancake mix.

When Rutt and Underwood later sold the business to Davis Milling, the company hired Nancy Green, a 59-year-old former slave, to serve as the living trademark for the mix. The image of "Aunt" Jemina, however, is an artist's rendering and has appeared on Aunt Jemima products -- now marketed by successor Quaker Oats Co. -- ever since.

Beginning in the 1950s, the Aunt Jemima logo started coming under criticism that its image of a black "Mammy" in a kerchief was an outdated and negative portrayal of African-American women. During the 1950s and '60s the trademark was gradually modernized, with the most recent changes being made in 1989.

Today, Aunt Jemima's face beams from beneath a full head of dark hair -- sans kerchief -- but her sparkling eyes and warm smile remain the same.)


The Aunt Jemima of the 1950s was depicted, both in print and in person, more as a grandmotherly black servant woman of the 1890s than as a motherly black businesswoman of the 1990s. I drew on this recollection of the real Aunt Jemima to create one of my short stories, “Weary,” published in Tales to Harm Your Mind at DamnYankee.com. I wrote about the woman herself who I imagine portrayed this Aunt Jemima. The story is reverent and I hope poignant, but also, I hope, conveys a perspective that, as a white man, I’m probably not supposed to assume. But I also believe that the realities of that time and place are rapidly being cleansed from our collective memory. We see only the glistening statues erected to memorialize our recollections of past follies and virtues. Given what I know and where I’ve been and what I can do with words, I believe I have the duty to illuminate what gave rise to those condensed, color-drained marbled memories.

(Sadly, I haven't met anyone else in the Maine Highlands who recognizes most Negro spirituals, or who knows the words, or how to sing them. I feel so alone when one occasionally comes up in our little church in the wildwood and it gets totally Anglicized. And yet, I learned all the tunes and all the lyrics to a couple dozen spirituals in the Lima schools. The music that sustained slaves and defined the worship of their descendents for generations since is now an official embarrassment, I suppose. A shame. For its musical richness alone, not to mention its historic significance, it ought to be taught in schools even now.)

Sometimes I encounter a black person who, as a stranger, regards me with careful indifference. I am merely another nondescript white male of at least modest means. In such an encounter it makes me want to shake him and shout: “Don’t look at me that way! I’m not one of ‘them.’ Don’t draw a distinction between us! If you knew where I’ve lived and what I’ve done, my race wouldn’t matter just as yours doesn’t...” But the race almost always comes first when we, as passing strangers, regard one another. And then I succumb to the urge to make the distinction myself that I’m silently protesting in him. I feel as awkward as I do around someone with an obvious physical handicap. Yes, even having a son with CP and autism and being an advocate for inclusion and being on committees and commissions and boards of directors where the issues of disabilities are debated, I can be as clumsy and hoof-in-mouth as the next person.

When I pass among mobs of white, non-crippled people in crowded places, I don’t pay them any attention as individuals, nor do they me. [Crippled: an innocent, accurate, descriptive word which has been cursed with a connotation that I do no ascribe to it. Therefore I use it in its linguistically pure meaning.] When someone of them is crippled or black, though, assuming I notice, I get to thinking right on the spot: If I come very close to this person and don’t acknowledge her, I’m giving an affront. I’m appearing to snub. (People with apparent physical disabilities, whom I know well, often complain that other people seem to look right through them rather than acknowledge them, you see.) If I acknowledge her in an overt fashion but not everyone else whom I pass equally closely at the same time, I’m singling her out for condescension because she’s crippled/black/whatever. I’ve never fully resolved this discomfort, which is not the discomfort of one who fears being “contaminated,” but of one who knows all too well and can’t convey it in such casual circumstances or surroundings.

More about place. I believe I fully understand Mindy’s idea and think it rings true. I may be unusual about it in some ways, maybe more open about what constitutes place for me, and more abstract. I may be somewhat pathologically corrupted by loss of place on a few occasions. I have a wanderlust and could see myself as a vagabond. My parents moved often when I was young; I can count eight homes by the time I turned ten. (Then we stayed put for almost seven years!) But during those early years I was most captivated by any backyard we had that had acres of farmland or forest adjacent to it, land that seemed endless, that I could explore, where I could pretend to stake a claim, where I could disappear and be anonymous.

Now to add to Mindy’s examples of different contexts in which place can be defined. Where a piece of earth cannot be claimed, I too think place can be secured for some by belonging to a tightly-knit group or community – a grouping of their own choosing that provides benefits of safety or influence that wouldn’t be available to them if the grouping were rejected. Nomads. Military personnel. They take place with them. Place, as Mindy has acknowledged in The House of Joshua, and perhaps in most but the aberrant cases, is inextricably connected with community. Community of course is the foundation of any church. The mindset of community is also what sustains the hierarchies of fiefdoms and nations. So, yes, actual physical space is sometimes supplanted satisfactorily or pathologically by belonging to a group or gang or crowd or clique.

Society depends upon a sense of community and one’s sense of self-worth in the community – self-worth derived from self-respect derived from the ability to contribute to the community in some small way and thus feel secure.

All over the world and all through time, cities have risen at locations that were, at one time, strategic because of proximity to natural resources, water routes, or defensive positions. Holy sites also become the centers of great populations, but sometimes have arisen not for their logical proximity to natural resources but precisely for their distance from such. If a holy site has been established at the birthplace or the retreat of a reclusive saint and a city subsequently grew around it, its location can eventually seem peculiar without an understanding of the context. One city or another may have existed for so long that the original reason for its location has been forgotten. Another city may have risen more recently, but changes in modes of transportation (rail instead of water) or reduced need for proximate resources (synthetics instead of furs) have left its location irrelevant. Then it struggles to remain significant, to retain skilled and creative people, and to compete for legislative largesse.

Place is so important that it develops in all branches of the phylum Chordata. I think of anadromous and catadromous fishes – those (eels) that, respectively, live in the ocean but breed in fresh water and those that live in fresh water but breed in the ocean. Each can return to within a few meters of its own spawning waters in order to start another generation. I think of the Hymenoptera – bees, wasps, ants, etc., which are significantly bound to a brood nest. (And in the case of bees, where the queen goes, the hive goes.) I think of denning foxes and treetop monkeys. I think, too, of some ungulates, like the common deer. They gather in “deer yards,” and for the winter it becomes a much-reduced range (which they define for themselves). They attempt to survive on whatever food exists in the invisibly-bordered area, but they will starve before venturing a few meters outside the deer yard where ample food can be found.

A fundamental principle of ecology (the science of ecology as opposed to the politics of ecology) is that of niche. Animals have behaviors and are genetically disposed to behave instinctively or adopt habits about when and where they eat, sleep, breed, and travel. That set of behaviors helps keep each species in a niche, with just enough opportunistic behavior to let one species or another fill a void in any locale where it may occur.

In this part of Maine, most of the land is in the “unorganized” towns, ten kilometers on a side, that are numbered rather than named. T1R9 means Township 1, Range 9. It is adjacent to T1R8 to the east and T2R9 to the north, and so on. Thousands of square miles of the state fall within these unorganized towns. Large land-holding corporations own much of this land, as do a few inconceivably wealthy individuals, and each permits certain public uses according to the landowners’ whims. Since these town divisions have no town government and many a whole township is owned by a single owner, they are subject to county government. These unorganized towns are also subject to the edicts of the Land Use Regulation Commission, which has assumed a near-radical environmentalist mandate for itself and attempts to control whether the landowner moves a single rock or fills a single puddle one meter across. (This is not hyperbole.) Timber harvesting is heavily regulated yet allowed, but nothing is allowed that smacks of development.

LURC isn’t that old, however. These same thousands of square kilometers of timberland have remained wild while being harvested for centuries. Now a move is afoot, based in Massachusetts, to choke out all uses of the land except hiking and rafting for an elite comprised of young, wealthy “activists” from southern New England and to turn it into a new national park, ostensibly to preserve and protect it from reckless development, (which isn’t legally permitted in the first place), and from harvesting, which creates unsightly clear-cuts, however a clear-cut is defined. (If you were ten centimeters tall, a harvested cornfield would seem a devastation of criminal proportions.) This movement is not to be taken lightly. This is a well-financed coalition led by hemorrhoid-indignant anti-capitalists who invariably gain legitimacy by being shrill.

Around here, nobody is more in love with the land and respectful of it than the people who live here – long-standing assurance against environmental degradation. In fact, the riverbanks were a lot cleaner before 30,000 rafters a summer came downstream looking for someplace to pee and drop darkened Kleenex in the woods. I was on a hike one weekend in Baxter State Park with my daughter, Leigh, and her friend, and I stooped to scoop up an insect. I am a qualified entomologist and had reason to explain something about it. The bug was getting away from me, so I said to Leigh, “I guess I’ll let it go.” As I said this, a granola in a complete Massachusetts hiking outfit, who had apparently been observing my pursuit of the insect as she approached us on the trail, said: “Yuh!” in the tone of: “You idiot! You’re supposed to leave the wildlife alone in the park!”

I resent this attitude, obviously. Even though I can’t claim title and deed to all this land, I expect to be trusted with the resources. What Bostonian would applaud if I started a movement intent upon forcing them to preserve some areas of the city, a bunch of buildings and quaint streets and playgrounds, thus forevermore preventing any municipal opportunity to further adapt the areas for changing times? I would seize it for my own enjoyment and so that my children’s children can always enjoy a timeless, authentic urban experience, (to use my friend Dave Dickey’s words).

This wilderness in the Maine Highlands has been my geographical place since 1974. It is vast. The view from my window is 70 kilometers and takes in Katahdin. I know the tote roads between here and the mountain as well as a street kid knows the alleys in a ten block area of Boston. I resent the flatlander’s intrusion to save my place from myself.

I once heard a Maine farmer describe a couple of events that occurred on his farm, which is situated on the flood plain of the Penobscot River. (This was first-hand from the farmer himself.) Several years ago the river overflowed and the water rose inside the barn. He kept chickens in a corner of the barn. They roosted on perches set at different levels just above the ground floor. As the river rose he set about rescuing the other animals. He figured the chickens, which could come and go as they pleased and which could also fly, would take care of themselves. Just to be sure, he waded into their corner of the barn and noticed first the row of hens on the topmost perch standing long-legged, looking almost like floating ducks but soon to have water over their backs. Still they clung to the perch. Then he noticed, right in front of them, a row of beaks just breaking the surface of the flood and pointing skyward. The hens on the next lower perch also had not let go and were submerged to their up-turned nostrils, seconds from drowning.

He related another experience that reminds me of place. (He didn’t tell these stories in the context of the idea of place, of course. They were merely tales that begged to be told.) The second event involved some pigs. His wife wanted a small herb garden next to the barn. So in the fall they chose a space among the weeds and grass along the barn wall and strung a line of electric fence to enclose it. They led a few pigs into the enclosure, fed them there over the course of a few weeks, and waited for the pigs to till and fertilize what would become the herb garden.

When they concluded that the patch was ready, this farmer opened a corner of the electric fence where it met the barn wall and waited for the first pig to trot out. After a while he slogged into the wallow and tried to shoo one out. After yet another while he dropped one whole side of the single-strand fence. Do you think he could drive those pigs from that patch of tortured earth? Then he went for help. Eventually he and a couple of accomplices dropped the entire fence and tried to drive the pigs from the small plot. The pigs could be herded from corner to corner in the muddy rectangle and endured being tackled in the mud but refused to cross the line where the fence had run. Which was it that kept the pigs in check: the recollection of the electric fence or their comfort with the muddy rectangle as their appointed “place”?

Like a nomad, I can also take place with me. I used to think, but not with any depth, about what I’d grab if I were suddenly whisked away by some whim or urge or even outside force. (In the years since I’ve had a family of my own this kind of thinking has become moot; I haven’t considered this what-if in the context of leaving my wife and children.) What would be the bare minimum of my possessions that would sustain me indefinitely? And it’s not only concrete possessions I would count – a guitar, matches, binoculars, a knife, maybe a handgun – but also my skills in identifying and cultivating plants, in identifying signs of wildlife, in appreciation of ecology and natural history. What then of my collections of things? I am an almost-compulsive collector. I sort and label and look for the missing specimens. (Birds checked off in a field guide, stamps, pinned insects, model trains, old cameras, books...) I can secure place for myself by keeping these collections intact and available to my perusal. Where I am there they are also. But I believe I can also secure place for myself by assembling a few necessities and never looking back.

Like Don Crystal in The House of Joshua, I’m not one of the guys. Frankly, the “guys” seem to be more of an urban phenomenon than something you’d find out here north of the 45th parallel. I’m far too busy a person to cultivate a crowd of football friends or poker buddies. I am continually being elected the leader of one group or another, though, which would seem to imply that I’m particularly sociable and rooted in my community, but I’m not. Nor am I a tumbleweed; I do stay put for long periods. I’m an air plant, I suppose – a bromeliad, Spanish moss. Is it because I had to leave several neighborhoods and communities while growing up and I know how to leave and not look back? In any event, while settled in one locale my personal effects are crucial to my identity and sense of place. If forced to move about, especially in solitary disappearance, I could manage place quite differently.

In spite of this nonchalance about being uprooted, I have always yearned for a few private acres with a view and the luxury of not leaving it. The summer before my final year of high school my father bought the perfect 80 acres, consisting half of fields with stone walls, half wooded with an apple orchard and a stream, on a south slope on Voter Hill outside Farmington. It had a cellar hole from an original 19th-century dwelling and an old shed and some of the largest maples in Maine by DBH (diameter-breast-high). He built a house on the property after I left for college and the Army, (the house that couldn’t accept the piano right away), but I felt, for the first time in my life, that I had a real family homestead. He had grown up in the area and I loved it there. The “farm,” as we called it, held the promise of real roots, and I considered how I might return to carve out a piece and build there too. But my father had ADHD and had more dreams than cash, so within a few short years he had to sell the place. (He never let me know it was for sale. Wherever I was, in the Army still, I think, I would have found a way to keep it!) He kept an acre on the town road and built another house. (Actually he never finished either. They looked complete from the outside, but the walls and doors inside were never completed.)

My father also lost the “camp,” the cottage that had been in the family for a century, nestled in the pines on the shore of Porter Lake, named for my ancestors in New Vineyard, Maine. He and his two sisters inherited it from their mother, who died when I was 18 (same time he bought the land for “the farm”). The three inheritors fought over the camp while my cousins and siblings kept saying, We can work this out. Then my two aunts finally said, Fine, you can buy us out. Dad couldn’t, of course, so they all let it go. This was the place where we had stayed for a part of every summer for 16 years throughout my childhood. We lived in it that first autumn after we moved to Maine, after my first summer at UC. I paddled canoes on that lake (best after dark), camped on its island (best in the rain), learned the calls of the loon there, became lost in the woods, used it for my senior party with its bloody result...

In my own idiosyncrasy about place, I have studied foreign languages and have adopted a whole country as my preferred “homeland” at one time or another. At one time it was Italy, another time, France. I identify best with Russians, however, maybe because they are a people only lately (last 1500 years) to settle the land and yet so strongly attached to it. (And Rachmaninoff was a Russian.) I have two years’ study or more of each of four foreign languages: Latin, Spanish, French, and Russian. I lived in Germany for a year and a half and painfully regret that I know only what German and Italian as I picked up on the streets, believing that formal study would prove redundant. I should have taken courses even after I arrived there.

I believe I am an expert in English, largely because just about the best way to command your own language is to study another. I’ve kept up the Russian and have studied it with more vigor since the mid-1990s. I’m not as compulsive about Russian as Bob Fullilove was about French, but I understood perfectly what he was attempting. I also claim Switzerland, Austria, and Germany as former “homelands,” and were I to be once again completely un-depended-upon, I would not hesitate to take up residence in any of a dozen countries on six continents. Language is no barrier. I’d learn it. It so happens that once I arrived in Germany in the Army, posts came open in Sinop, Turkey and Asmara, Ethiopia. I applied for both but was not selected. I also wanted to visit Israel while stationed in Europe, although I’m indifferent to it now, but the tensions were too high even then and I was denied a visa.

Parenthetically, I traveled solo in Russia and Ukraine for a couple weeks in the summer of 1996, where I was able to verify some assumptions I had made in writing Fire, Wind & Yesterday. This was my first such trip in those countries. Everywhere I went I was challenged with: Where is your guide? Where is your group? Where is your bus? I’m traveling alone, I would answer. Invariably the response was one of incredulity, which was really the nature of the challenge in the first place; I wasn’t doing anything forbidden, just unheard of. I stayed the first couple of nights as a guest in a high-rise apartment outside Saint Petersburg, riding the metro into the city center and back and mixing with the sullen people.

Russia has some interesting ghettoes, created by the former government in the name of worker happiness. The high-rise complex where I stayed was such a ghetto.

When I arrived by train on the edge of Kiev I went immediately to the crowded metro station. I watched the people ahead of me in line as they bought their metro tokens, so when I reached the ticket window with the little hand-hole at the bottom I shoved some paper currency into the hole and said “five” in Russian, for five tokens. As the tokens came back through the hole, a black hand dropped some money onto the countertop and seized two of the tokens. I quickly calculated that the amount the hand left in exchange for the two tokens was correct, so I scooped up my remaining three and the small change and sidled away from the ticket window. I stood taller than most of the crowd, so I quickly spotted two young black men heading toward the down-escalator. I called to them and one turned to look at me, then the other. In Russian I asked them to wait, and they did as I made my way closer. They must have concluded that I was not a threat. I was alone against their two, was clearly a foreigner, and had only a heavy shoulder bag for luggage. When I caught up with them, I asked whether they could help me find the center of the city and maybe a good hotel. They communicated with each other through a system of glances and then turned toward the open ploshchad’ outside the station. (Which meant not taking the metro after all.) As we edged through the crowd they asked the standard questions: Are you an American? Why are you here? Where is your guide?

Back outside they said they thought they knew where I’d like to stay, and it wasn’t necessary to take the metro. They pointed to a tall black building in the distance, and we started walking. We exchanged more information. They said they were students at the University of Kiev, a little beyond the black building, and that they were from Angola. I recalled that Angola had been Fidel Castro’s Marxist outpost in Africa, so I acknowledged that I knew that. They were impressed but also seemed to grow skeptical of me.

I was cautious about them as well, but the street was wide and very public, although not very busy. I knew I was more vulnerable than I let on, so I kept up a friendly chatter in Russian (acceptable coming from tourists in Ukraine) until we turned onto the pathway leading to the front door of the hotel. Here they asked whether I might give them something for their service, and I gladly obliged. I realized I had diverted them from their intended activity, whatever that might have been. So I pulled out 50,000 Russian rubles, ($10 in the summer of 1996), and handed it to one of them. (I had Ukrainian currency, kuponi, as well, but I knew the Russian currency was preferred.) One of them took the money but they continued to follow me toward the door. I made a show of thanking them for their trouble as I entered the hotel. A large, stern-looking (and bored-looking) bouncer appeared to pay me no notice as I entered the hotel, but he swiftly blocked the path of the two Africans and rudely ordered them off the property. I hadn’t intended to bring them in with me, but nor did I think that rudeness was called for.

The two Angolans argued with the bouncer for a couple of moments, threw me an angry glance, but then left. If I had been in the USA and this had happened, I might have spoken up to protest the treatment of them or to insist that I had asked them to bring me and maybe intended to rejoin them shortly for some sightseeing – anyway, something besides simply abandoning them to the indignity of being evicted. But this was ex-soviet Ukraine, and I realized immediately that there were no civil rights, and that, indeed, other than mere compassion, I had no reason to rejoin them later. Not because they were black, but simply because they were, in truth, complete strangers, I had to abandon them to what happened.

The Hotel Lybid had once been communism’s Hotel Intourist, the official hotel for foreign tourists in Kiev. A pretty and fancy, but tired-looking woman checked me in. When I returned a couple hours later (to turn in my key, an official requirement before stepping outside), this same woman said to me: “Be careful out there,” and she nodded toward the entrance. “Be very careful.” I never saw the two African students again, although I considered venturing onto the university campus. When I saw the guarded campus entrance, I decided to do something less regimented with my time.

Russia and Ukraine in 1996 reminded me of the farmer’s pigs. Communism was dead. The fence was down. But most people in both countries still observed most of the same nonsensical rules that had been imposed by the previous 75 years of totalitarianism, precisely because they didn’t dare venture beyond the limits of their own electric fence, now removed.

I also identify with Bob Fullilove’s quest for perfection (in French) in a different way: in my immersion in writing and publishing and the perfection they allow me to pursue, perfection in something for its own sake. (And I have quirky little secrets, for instance I never use the word “got” in writing, even though it occasionally slips out in my speech. It’s a superfluous word and one that permits and accompanies laziness in speech and writing. Other people, who nevertheless speak well and write well, use it, but it is too easily substituted for precise verbs.)

I appreciate, in The House of Joshua, the phenomenon that the author, a doctor, often says she doesn’t know the answer to a question she has posed. She offers possible reasons why something is so and then leaves the matter open. Humility lends authority to her treatise.

I was delighted to see the word ‘entropy’ in House. I love that word, or more accurately, the simple truth about nature that it conveys. Nature doesn’t accept stasis. What a creature has made, orderly nature tugs toward disorder. Even very “lowly” creatures – termites for instance – rearrange nature to their sense of place, but then, when the creatures that arranged things in orderly fashion abandon their place, nature restores the disorder (and, usually, ecological diversity) that went before.

Yet a further thought about place: I am involved with KFI, a non-profit agency, headquartered in Millinocket and Lincoln, Maine, which provides supported living services from Bangor to Millinocket for seriously disabled adults. KFI, with a hundred employees and a multi-million-dollar budget, has been recognized nationally and is often visited and emulated by other agencies in the same business throughout the country for its innovations in getting beyond the group home model of supporting severely dependent people. KFI has an unofficial motto: We don’t hide them in institutions, we “hide” them in the community.

Maine has spent years closing down Pineland, its shameful warehouse for discarded adults. Much of the delay had to do with arranging for the funding to follow the people to be supported, but much was also due to the reluctance of family members and guardians to believe that their locked-up relatives could function as members of a community. KFI has gradually arranged for several people from Pineland, plus more otherwise un-served adults, to move into the local communities, (and to support them as near as possible to where their families live), where each one occupies her or his own apartment, where some take roommates of their own choosing, and where one mentally, supposedly totally, incapacitated individual, has bought his own home.

Millinocket and Lincoln are remote towns for such a phenomenon to be taking place, but that’s partly why it has occurred here first. KFI has expanded the services as far south as Bangor. In Maine it’s nothing to travel a couple of hours to visit, shop, or see a doctor. (The geography of place is very expansive here.) So the whole northern half of the state, (Millinocket being roughly geographically central in the state), is delighted to go no further for this kind of program when the alternative might be a five- or six-hour trip from Aroostook County to Augusta or Portland. And KFI has also placed one or more individuals from out of state. The agency was told, for example, that one such young man was the worst (behavior) case that Vermont social services had ever seen and Vermont had no idea how KFI would ever deal with him. He was in adult foster care, and when his guardian moved to Maine to take a job an hour from Millinocket, this man was permitted to come too, and KFI accepted the request to provide the supported-living services.

The services provided by KFI are tailored to the individual and range from the minimum support of having an attendant accompany someone shopping a couple times a week to the maximum level of full 24-hour in-home care. Wherever possible, the supports are gradually withdrawn until maximum independence is achieved.

It is rewarding to see the awakening in some mentally retarded people, even some who have been institutionalized for decades, when they realize that the space they occupy is now their own to control. An individual making this transition may have no concept of renting versus owning versus institution, but almost everyone, no matter how profoundly retarded, can eventually come to comprehend control of one’s own space and possessions.

One woman, Anita (not her real name), came to the area from Pineland. At Pineland, she had received round-the-clock care, with her hands bound in heavy socks. This was Pineland’s solution to her nervous habit of picking at herself to the point of injury. Although non-verbal, Anita initially made it clear that she was fearful of the new surroundings (her own apartment) and of the people she was expected to deal with. One of the first things KFI’s well-meaning support people did was to remove the socks. Anita picked at herself furiously and then accepted having the socks returned. Eventually Anita began coming to her attendant and proffering her hands, and so little by little, the socks were rolled down, then removed for brief periods, then removed for most of Anita’s waking hours, only at her request, and were restored, only at her request, for she also realized when she was getting nervous enough to pick at herself. Nowadays, Anita has only waking-hours support, controls her own television, and even cooks a little for herself. And dons the socks herself when the need arises.

I know from living with my own son how nearly impossible it is to get into the mind of a severely-retarded, non-verbal person. But having seen how some of the people thought least likely of doing so have adapted to control of their own “place,” especially those never exposed to the concept until well into adulthood, I have more insight into the significance of place and, concomitantly, control.

(Sidelight: Pineland was closed by a court decree. A funding formula was worked out that basically said the cost of running the institution would be divided by the number of individuals resident there, and that dollar amount would follow each one for life. Each person also qualifies for SSI and Medicaid and miscellaneous other minor supports, but it’s interesting that they can be supported as individual humans as cheaply as they were as cattle.)

To my son, by the way, place is obviously very important. To him it is both a familiar venue and a familiar routine that keep him contented. We can take him anywhere so long as we follow a familiar routine around eating, bathing, dressing, and going to bed.

Here’s one final thought about place, which has more to do with space. I wonder, though, whether it applies in some way to 10 Maple Street and what became of the Crystals (in The House of Joshua) when they lost the large house. I’ve noticed again and again that time seems to go more slowly in a larger house than in a small, cramped home. That has been my observation both in the houses I lived in and visited as a child and in the apartments and homes I’ve had as an adult. I don’t propose that it is a cosmic phenomenon. I suspect, rather, that there are more quiet corners in a large house and more opportunity for a half-completed project to remain out of the way and unmolested if left where it is. (Like the effort required for scene changes in a play, clearing your bookkeeping or sewing from the dining table two or three times a day kills a lot of productive time.) A mantle clock slowly tapping out the seconds in a high-ceilinged, silent room with tall windows covered by lace curtains on a quiet street is a graphic example of the syrupy pace of time in a large space. Time is more leisurely from a front porch overlooking a field or from a tent nestled in a forest than from a street-side bench on a busy city sidewalk.

Place has more than a superficial relationship with space; as The House of Joshua attests and I affirm, there is more to place than space. There is also time, as in the example of a cramped, busy, noisy space versus a large, quiet space.

While Mindy Fullilove’s thesis would allow for a collective sense of place, which may occur to a degree in some oriental societies, it is the individual’s sense of place that concerns her and me as well. I don’t subscribe to a collective opinion about anything, really. This frustrates lovers of government-by-largesse. This frustrates retail marketing experts, who want me to follow the crowd and buy the most popular CDs or books or cars. This frustrates religious dogmatists. It frustrates leaders of any kind of “movement.” And, if they knew of me, I would be a particular irritation to the self-appointed black leaders who insist upon telling whites what their collective relationship must be with blacks. I choose to ignore them and live according to what I’ve learned in individual relationships with blacks.

I regard the choices before me – choices in geography, people, (groupings), habits, hobbies, employment, music, food, entertainment, responsibility, and all the rest. From the available choices I carve out my individual place. Even though I can take some initiative and move to a new location, change jobs, get another degree, make new friends, and so on, and have done all of that, my contentment is the greater if I can find satisfying things to populate my world from the choices immediately available.

I’ve just used the term “some oriental societies.” I acknowledge that therein is a grouping of people without regard for their individuality. Several points about that, however:

(1) When great numbers of individuals present to the world a unified aspect with distinct cultural characteristics, adherence to common beliefs and practices, or submission to a vocal spokesperson, then they have voluntary grouped themselves. I’ll accept that and use it. Sometimes I’ll use it against them, as when some people allow themselves to appear ridiculous by associating with numbskull political beliefs. (2) There are individuals within any self-grouped population, and if someone presents to the world an individual aspect apart from the grouping, I’ll accept that. Eric Hoffer wrote brilliantly about the phenomenon of mass movements in The True Believer. I read that early in my adulthood and found in it great strength to oppose being sucked into mindless mass action. (3) Even for myself, I can’t help that I am an American. I reject membership, however, in someone else’s grouping that contains a false premise or misinformation about Americans. (4) Within any society there are smaller groups that oppose the dominant line. Whether I agree with their dissident beliefs or not, I accept them at their own group definition.

2002
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