We have decided to devote a portion of our magazine to non-fiction. These are stories of things that have happened serendipitously, being in the right place at the right time or just heartfelt musings, thoughts, and feelings on life. Join us in our non-fiction section. These stories speak to anyone and everyone and are told by anyone and everyone who has a story to tell.
"The Complex Simplicity of Joy" by Zenaida Toledo; http://myhealingmoments.blogspot.com.es/
Editor's Note: Certain terms and referrals to the attitudes of particular groups in certain regions are included in the historic context of this story. They are meant to convey a time and the views of certain groups of individuals rather than generalizations. The story reflects personal experiences, growth and revelations surrounding a pivotal era.
Freedom Summer 1964
by Patrick Byrne
This summer will mark 50 years since the simmering civil rights movement in the South exploded onto the national scene with the brutal murders of three young men near the rural town of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
The murders were precipitated by deep racial hatred, stoked by the Mississippi Summer Project, more commonly known as Freedom Summer. The 10-week project launched in June 1964 had a goal of enrolling as many black citizens as possible to the voter rolls. Mississippi was selected for this project, because less than 7% of eligible black voters were registered.
In an effort to maximize registration, an estimated thousand-plus volunteers, comprised mainly of white college students from the north descended on rural Mississippi towns. Assisted by civil rights organizations, these volunteers set up centers known as Freedom Houses and Freedom Schools to educate local black residents on how to gain voter rights.
It was against this backdrop that I was on the home stretch of my Navy enlistment. I was stationed at a naval air station in Pensacola, Florida with only six months remaining until my discharge.
I should explain that 1964 Pensacola, located in the Florida panhandle was not the Florida of Miami or other more glamorous locations typically associated with that State. Today, the panhandle is known as LA (lower Alabama) and in 1964, was deeply rooted in the traditions of the "Old South". Unfortunately for many, those traditions included overt racism and blatant segregation.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, I was acutely aware of a subtle form of discrimination practiced there but outright segregation of public places on a widespread basis was not commonplace. So, I was unprepared for my first experience when confronted with the Jim Crow laws of "separate but equal" prevalent in most of the South at the time.
Our base had been selected to stage an air show featuring the Navy Blue Angels precision flying team. This was a major event for a small outlying field and extra help was needed to ensure success.
To that end, I was temporarily assigned a sailor from another nearby air station. John, who was a black man, hoped to work in journalism and attend the Navy Journalism School I had been fortunate to have been assigned to several years earlier.
John was exceptionally bright and capable of handling numerous tasks without any supervision. As the pressure and workload increased he became invaluable. There was a calm and quiet confidence in how he approached the work. He seldom spoke of himself and I was surprised to learn he had only completed high school. His writing ability certainly surpassed his formal education but John did offer that he wrote extensively on topics of personal interest.
After a week of hard work we had written and assembled a large volume of promotional material and headed to downtown Pensacola to a civilian printer. The shop did all the larger printing needs for the base including the weekly newspaper.
With the work now in the hands of the printer, John and I, now friends, decided to catch a movie. Upon entering we handed the usher our tickets and proceeded into the theater.
Suddenly, I was grabbed by the shoulder and told if I was with him, meaning John, we would have to sit in the balcony. "They," said with sarcastic emphasis, "are not allowed down here."
Stunned, I blurted, "We don't want to sit in the balcony."
"Then get the hell out!" he shouted.
At that point, John, who had been silent, was grabbing my arm saying, "Let's go, let's go," which we did while I was hurling every expletive I had every heard in the Navy.
Outside, John said, "I was told to expect this down here." He seemed to shrug off the entire incident but I was still angry and in disbelief.
I was anything but a civil rights zealot but after that night I began to take a closer look at my own attitudes on race which consisted mainly of indifference. It had always been easy to be indifferent to the plight of groups of people. Groups are faceless. However, it becomes a personal matter to witness the hurtful indignity of racism when directed at a friend.
After a successful airshow, John returned to his base and even with our pledge to stay in touch we never saw or heard from each other again. This is not unusual in the military, but over the years I have wondered if John made it to journalism school, in or out of the Navy. He certainly had an exceptional aptitude for the written word and much to offer.
It was about this time that civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman disappeared after being released from a Philadelphia, Mississippi jail on a minor traffic violation.
Initially, the incident was being treated as a local police matter but pressure by numerous civil rights groups convinced Attorney General Robert Kennedy to assign the FBI to the case.
Then all hell broke loose. The 1988 movie Mississippi Burning describes the chaos and violence ignited in Mississippi and other parts of the South when federal agents took over the investigation.
One scene from the movie depicted sailors from a nearby base searching a swamp for the missing men. Since we were only hours from the Philadelphia area, notice was given to be ready to assist in the search, if needed. I would be assigned to cover the story for the base newspaper. Before that call came the three men were found buried in an earthen dam 44 days after their disappearance.
For most of the country the drama was over, but down South the sigh of relief was mixed with deep resentment for the Northern media's portrayal of all Southerners as uneducated bigots. They reasoned that the record for civil rights, especially in large cities in the North, was abysmal and not exactly a cause for flaunting moral superiority.
Eventually, there were arrests and trials after years of legal wrangling but the perpetrators escaped with light sentences. The last co-conspirator was not tried until 2005 and was convicted of three counts of manslaughter.
Finally, my long awaited day had arrived and my discharge was processed in the usual perfunctory and efficient Navy fashion. It seemed so anticlimactic. After 3 years, 3 months and now 1 day before my 21st birthday I was being returned to civilian life with only a sketchy plan to attend college.
Paperwork completed, I gathered my gear, finished my final farewells and joined my ride, a Navy photographer who would be driving me to St. Louis on his way to a family Christmas in Minnesota. Another sailor from that area also joined us.
After driving several hours we stopped at a roadside diner for lunch in an unnamed spot in rural Mississippi. Immediately upon entering, we should have recognized we were not welcome. Following 10 minutes of icy stares and no service, I asked the waitress if she could take our orders. Her reply was a sharp "We don't serve college kids from up North here. Go someplace else." We quickly tried to explain we were in the Navy but my friend's University of Minnesota sweatshirt coupled with Minnesota plates on his car, plainly visible through the window, triggered a firm "leave now". Before we could explain further, several rather large 'good old boys' who had been eyeing us, rose from their booth and started in our direction.
We immediately decided the waitress had given us sound advice and we quickly headed out the door and into the car.
That night with Mississippi in the rear view mirror, I began to reflect on my time in the Navy. The world had changed dramatically. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 had almost ended the world. In 1963, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated and now, in 1964, a massive civil rights movement had been launched by the deaths of three young men. I too had changed, but then I wasn't exactly sure how. I only knew that these events and the war clouds swirling over Vietnam would continue to reverberate and that more turmoil lay ahead.
Now as I reflect on the chaos of the 1960’s and the unending crises since, many of the lessons that were beyond my grasp then have come into sharper focus. Time and experience give perspective to past events no other processes can achieve. My realization that the world was a fragile and unpredictable place dispelled all notions of trust and security I had always taken for granted. More importantly, it demanded from me a new level of responsibility. I was forced to recognize that there are issues greater than myself and I could no longer afford the luxury of indifference.
An obligation now existed to at least try and make a positive contribution no matter how small to the many troubling problems that would cross my path in the years to come. Writing this recollection reminds me I still have that obligation.
Bio- Patrick Byrne is a retired businessman (commercial real estate) currently residing in Tampa, Florida. His writing background after his Navy days as a young man has been limited to business matters or subjects centering on his interest in historical events. "Freedom Summer 1964" is the third story regarding significant events that occurred during his time in the Navy.
"Chance Encounters", the first story, was published on this site in the Spring/Summer 2013 edition. "We All Remember That Day", the second story, appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2013 edition.
"Simply Sincere" by Stephanie Flood; www.floodmedia.org
Introducing: "Opening the Bird Cage" (Special Multimedia/Art Feature)
by Stephanie Flood
It was just this past November when the typhoon in the Philippines struck.
The biggest typhoon in world history devastated my birth country. It was strange how I could feel the ripples of this event hit me from so far away, even as I've been tucked away in a small, college city in Northern Arizona, living an anchored life of graduate studies.
Additionally, it has almost been two years since my reunion with my birth mother and my reunion with my homeland. Two years since my hectic flight to the other side of the world, to the Philippines, a country I only lived in for two years after my birth there in 1985, where I lived in an orphanage, until I was adopted at the age of two in 1987, and flown to the United States. I wish I could say that everything had been resolved, since I made that video story of my reunion in 2012, and stabilized since then. But then there was the typhoon.
As luck would have it, I finally gained the confidence to write my birth mother one month before the typhoon. I wrote that I’d been thinking about her and my birth family all this time, and it had taken me this long to feel ready to begin a relationship with them. I mailed it. Then, the typhoon hit. I read news of the damage. I thought, No, not the Philippines, and it felt like the cathedral I poetically described in “Opening the Bird Cage” was ripping apart, piece by piece, shifting like tectonic plates, right underneath my once secure earth.
I checked the mail continuously since then, because I didn’t know what happened to my birth family. If they were okay. If anyone was hurt. And I didn't even know them. And since then, I haven't gotten a response. And since then, I've had to accept this. All of this.
This is a dose of the conflicting feelings that have cut and sculpted me, as a Filipino-American adoptee living a life that didn't make sense, these obstacles morphing me into an artistic individual able to create as a means to let go.
“Opening the Bird Cage” was an emotionally difficult video story I made surrounding my reunion in the Philippines. I needed a positive outlet to express myself after that life-altering event. I needed to voice all that I was internalizing. In this video, you will hear my voice in the narration. I’m singing. I’m playing guitar. I created three-dimensional art with recycled materials, mostly cardboard and found objects. All the images were taken by me, switching from in the Philippines to a more present time, when I was editing and producing the video story in the United States.
Now, it’s been almost two years. Since then, and after the typhoon hit, I’ve been able to accept a few things, heal a little, move on, reflect, keep going. I've realized that the world shifts everyday. Time effects everything. There is nothing in life that stays the same forever. And, even in destruction, we can learn from what comes our way. Every moment in our life crafts us into the individuals we become today and tomorrow.
Brief Bio- Stephanie Flood is an adopted Filipino-American born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. She is finishing an MFA Student in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, on the verge of completing a metafictional thesis on her adoption experience. Stephanie has been a community journalist and offbeat writer since 2008, published in Flagstaff Live, The Noise, The Daily Sun, The Story Shack, The Journey Magazine, Mystic Banana, Hole in the Donut blog, Lost At Sea magazine, The Writing Disorder, with over 200 articles with Demand Studios. You can view her multimedia portfolio here: www.floodmedia.org
"Grace of My Heart" by Sue Shanahan; www.sueshanahan.com
For the Love of Grace (Special Art Feature)
by Sue Shanahan
“Blessed be childhood, which brings down something of heaven into the midst of our rough earthliness” -Henri Fredric Amiel
The little girl in the above illustration is Grace Audrey McDonnell. She is one of the twenty children whose lives were cut short at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December 14. Although I didn’t know her personally, she has taken residence in my heart. I was first introduced to her while watching the news. President Obama shared Grace with the world during a speech unveiling his gun control agenda last January. The president brought to light the details of her life. He said, “Grace was seven years old when she was struck down. Just a gorgeous, caring, joyful little girl. I’m told she loved pink. She loved the beach. She dreamed of being a painter. And just before I left, Chris, her father, gave me one of her paintings. And I hung it in my private study, just off the Oval Office. And every time I look at that painting, I think about Grace…”
Hearing about Grace’s art hanging in the president’s study triggered some memories of my own. I had been beyond thrilled when I learned Hillary Clinton had hung my portrait of Chelsea in her private study when she was first lady. It saddened me Grace wasn’t here to know of the honor bestowed upon her painting.
I was drawn to Grace and began reading articles about her short life. We had so much in common. Like me, she was born with the soul of an artist. When she grew up, she wanted to live on Martha’s Vineyard. Vacationing there every summer for years, I share her love for everything about that island. And I learned that, like me, some of her happiest moments were spent there.
I felt such a connection to Grace. The thought began coming to me that I had to paint a portrait of her for her parents. I tried to dismiss it as just a sympathetic impulse, but the entreaty wouldn’t leave me alone. I had the distinct feeling it was something Grace wanted me to do. It was my part to play in her family’s healing. The painting would be a gift from Grace through me. I tried pushing these thoughts down but they were always there, humming in the background. Finally, I surrendered to them and tracked down her mom, Lynn. Understanding she might be wary, I expressed my conviction with trepidation. Grief is such a personal thing. I didn’t want to add to her parent’s burden in any way. Lynn accepted my offer and sent me the program from Grace’s memorial service. When I opened it up, I knew I had found the picture to base her portrait on. Inside the booklet was a photo of Grace taken by her mother at the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. The pensiveness in that child’s beautiful eyes revealed her soul – a look only a mother could capture.
Last week, I put the finishing touches on my painting of Grace. All that’s left to do is pack it up and ship it to her family. My hope is that anyone who reads this post prays for Grace, and for the healing of all those she left behind. Collective prayer always brings miracles.
Grace Audrey McDonnell didn’t have an ounce of hate in her. She was the light and the love of her family. She was Chris and Lynn’s daughter and Jack’s little sister. She was a granddaughter, a friend and loved by many. But to me, she will always be, simply Grace of my heart.
Bio- Sue Shanahan has spent her career as an artist bringing children to life in her illustrations. In addition to contributing work to various children’s books and magazines, she has been commissioned by such clients as Walt Disney World and Auyrn Inc. Oprah Winfrey has purchased Sue’s art for her private collection and had her as a guest on her "Favorite Things" show. Sue’s work has also found its way into the White House, where her portrait of Chelsea Clinton hung in the former First Lady’s study.
As a writer, Sue’s blog, Commonplace Grace, is regularly featured in the Huffington Post. Here second children's book app, Glory in the Morning will be available in iTunes store through StoriesAlive in January 2014.
Editor's Note: There are some terms in the story used in the context of the time it portrays to connote race; it also examines issues of gender equality. The story is about coming of age, coming together, finding common ground and the necessary progress and change that took place to pave the way for a better future.
The Upside-Down Year
by Anita Solick Oswald
Was it me? Or was it everybody else? At twelve going on thirteen, I wrestled to understand myself and the changes that were going on around me. Mad Magazine had proclaimed it so and 1961 definitely felt like an upside-down year to me.
The year started out very well for me when Jack Kennedy was inaugurated. My younger sister Barbara and I volunteered with Kennedy’s election campaign and I watched the young President take his oath of office. I was personally excited by the prospect of transformation and his words as he called the nation to service in his inaugural address.
But my euphoria was short-lived. Daily, the Chicago Tribune headlines shouted the news of a world in tumult. The United States severed relations with Cuba, Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, and the Bay of Pigs was a failure. The Cold War raged and plans on how to build a bomb shelter were published in the paper. There were air raid drills. I examined the map that the Trib published detailing the devastation if an A bomb were dropped on Chicago and made a plan. Unable to tolerate a blanket when I slept, I knew I would not like to be trapped under a pile of bricks in the restaurant basement. I read books about the devastation after Nagasaki and Hiroshima and I knew what I must do. I secretly plotted to run in the street if the air raid was real and become a shadow on the sidewalk.
While 1961 offered some glimmers of hope, like Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps, every day brought ominous news that frightened or disturbed me. I worried about whether I would live to be eighteen. It seemed a long way off.
In my small corner of the universe at Madison and Keeler, the world was changing, too. My neighborhood had been in transition all through the 1950s, and, for the first time, Black and Puerto Rican families settled in our neighborhood and integrated our school. The topic of conversation with the adults always seemed to turn to integration, property values and fears that the neighborhood would turn into a slum. Adults used phrases like “the colored” or worse when they talked about my classmates and friends and their families.
It was an awkward time for me and no one noticed it more painfully than I did. I was younger than the rest of my classmates, prepubescent, but precocious. While some kids who had not yet entered the chaos of adolescence played on, unaware of the pain and ecstasy that awaited them, I had a mature head on a small body, and, saw it all ahead of me. I read voraciously—maybe that was my problem. I’d read all the new releases Dad brought home from Bantam Books for me. I made short work of Franny and Zooey and decided I would eat nothing but cheeseburgers and Cokes. The Carpetbaggers held no interest for me; it was too long to sustain my attention, even if it was a potboiler with steamy passages. Even back then, Norman Mailer seemed old. My curiosity about sex could not be satiated by steamy best-sellers but I was too young and gawky to experiment.
When I looked around me I saw my friends becoming young women. But I still saw a skinny child in the mirror, with too short hair. I wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn, but with that cowlick I thought I resembled Alfalfa.
It was still warm and brilliantly sunny that first day of school in September 1961. The leaves had not yet started to turn, but I felt that crispness in the wind that whispered of fall soon to come. In eighth grade students were to prepare for high school and that meant a new uniform. I was grateful that hot day to trade in the old blue serge jumper, shiny from wear, for a blue skirt and white blouse.
I surveyed myself in the mirror of the dresser I shared with Barbara. The reflection had its drawbacks. I was so skinny that the uniform blouse collar gaped around my neck. The red nylon scarf, branding me as an eighth grader, hung loosely under the collar, like a yoke around an emaciated horse. I tried to tie the scarf tighter to take up the slack, but the collar bunched up. The Elizabethan look was not going to be acceptable to the nuns, so I left the collar and scarf slack. I thought I looked like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. I smiled. My eyes and teeth looked to me to be too big for my long face. The short cut of my dark brown hair seemed to exaggerate this effect. Most aggravating to me was the cowlick that kept my thick bangs from staying flat on my brow. No matter what I did the night before to try and calm the beast—tape, hair spray, and Dippity Do smeared like wallpaper paste on my forehead—the infuriating cowlick always won the battle. Dismayed, I decided to give up and head to school.
The first week of school was lost in a lot of administrative officialdom. Announcements from the principal, Sister Veronica Ann, rang out over the public address system. Eighth graders were given a homeroom teacher and would rotate classes with assigned groups for English, Math, Science, and History. This new arrangement was supposed to prepare us for the high school environment.
My homeroom teacher was Sister Bernard—a tall thin, tomboyish young woman who wore wire-rimmed glasses. Enthusiastic and athletic, she would need every ounce of energy she could muster that year with a homeroom of 62 boys and three girls. The nun thrived on challenge and had a special place in her heart for the students who struggled most with their studies. One of the vanguard—a new breed of nuns, socially committed, working in depressed communities—more confidante than disciplinarian, she encouraged her students to think and to ask questions. I had a million of them.
Sister Bernard liked to get the children involved. The first day of class she ticked off a list of volunteer opportunities, and a reward system for participation.
“Class, I’d like your attention. There are many areas where St. Mel’s and the community need your help. I’ll have a signup sheet at the front of the room and you can earn merits for your participation.”
My ears pricked up. I expected to rack up a few demerits that year and thought I would hedge my bets and avoid detention by signing up for as many activities as possible. Besides, I enjoyed volunteering and the notion of me, a young girl, being able to make a difference really appealed to me.
After school, Mary Lennon, Ray Gerardi and Michael Gaffney walked home via Monroe Street. Mary and I had become friendly with the two boys, who were seminary-bound after eighth grade, when we walked the same route after school. They both had a vocation, which made them seem sort of neutral to adolescent girls and worthy of our confidence. We’d stroll home after class, gossiping and complaining about friends, schoolmates, and classes.
“Are you going to the sock hop they announced at school today?” Mary asked the two boys.
Ray piped up, “Why not?”
“Well I thought maybe since you are going to be a priest…”
“Hey, I am only thirteen, I’m not dead yet!”
We all laughed, at thirteen, death, like being eighteen, seemed a long way off.
Once back in my apartment on Madison Street, I gave Mom the rundown on the day’s events.
Her eyes lit up when I mentioned the sock hop. Mom loved dancing and fancied herself a great dancer. I had to admit she was pretty good.
She leapt up from the kitchen chair and announced, “I’m going to teach you the latest dance. All the jet setters are doing it. It’s called the Twist.”
Barb and I groaned and rolled our eyes. The Twist was last year’s fad. If Mom was doing it, we knew it was really passé.
“Mom, nooo. No one does that dance anymore. Only old people.”
“No, you girls are wrong. Frank Sinatra and the jet setters do it, and Andy Williams does it. I saw it on TV. Look, watch me. Here is how you do it. Round and round and up and down.” Mom gyrated in her housecoat demonstrating her best moves.
“Mom, exactly. Frank Sinatra is old.”
“Girls, the bobby soxers all loved Frank when I was in high school. I climbed out a window of Providence High School to go see him. The girls all swooned over him”
“Mom, yeah, we know. That was a long time ago.”
Mom was then thirty-seven.
To further my righteous pre-teen chagrin, the news delivered by Sister Bernard that week dealt an unexpected blow.
“Can’t you find some other mom?”
“Anita, your mother said she wanted to help and this is where we have the greatest need. We need an English tutor for the Spanish-speaking children.”
The Lives of the Saints and a bloody martyrdom for the nun flashed through my mind, when, over my strenuous objections, she asked my mother to volunteer tutoring the new students from Puerto Rico in English.
“Sister Bernard, how could you?” She should die like Saint Agnes; I’ll yank out her ribs myself. I groaned. A budding adolescent, I was fiercely protective of my privacy. I had little enough of it as it was living with three younger siblings and only one block from school. I did not want my mother hanging around all day, spying on me. I wanted the classroom to be my separate place, away from parental expectations. But Sister Bernard had a nose for another do-gooder like herself and soon, although she did not speak Spanish, Mom was installed in the cloakroom, tutoring the kids several times a week. She connected with the kids, especially the boy. He loved baseball and so did Mom. Using comic books and baseball magazines she purchased herself, Mom proved an able tutor, and soon the kids were speaking their first English phrases. An advocate for higher education, she pushed them to think about high school and college, and helped one of the girls, who had been destined for a young marriage, to secure a scholarship to Providence High School, Mom’s alma mater.
By nature I was a child who questioned authority and I began to feel even more skeptical about the status quo. When the orientation for Sacristy custodians was announced, I was interested. At last I would have a look at the inner sanctum behind the altar where the priest donned his vestments and prepared for the Holy Sacrament of Mass. Girls could not serve at Mass; there were only altar boys then. I imagined being initiated into ancient secret rituals. As it turned out, there were no secret rituals and no custody of precious relics. Sister Petronella told us we would be allowed access to clean, dust, vacuum, and wash the floors, and this was a great honor. She began to show us around the ante room, but I interrupted.
The young feminist in me was outraged. I sputtered, “Why? I don’t even do this at home. You mean want us to be maids?”
Truth was, Mom didn’t like housework or anything to do with homemaking and she had taught me well. We argued over my doing chores around the house and I was usually derelict in my duties. I’d had many a screaming fight with Mom about housework. I wasn’t about to sign on for more. Why didn’t they have boys cleaning up after themselves? And I didn’t know those priest smoked cigarettes!
Sister shushed me with just a look and I said nothing more. When we left the chapel, I announced to my friends that I was not a cleaning lady and wouldn’t be going back. I told them I thought it was unfair. In my mind, I questioned the nun’s role and wondered how she felt about being assigned clean-up duty. Until then, I thought of the nuns as authority figures in the Church who had a good life. They ruled the school with iron hands. Even as a small girl, I could see the priests had a lot more freedom and perks, riding around in Cadillacs, getting free meals at all the restaurants, ski vacations and boats at their disposal and questioned the disparity. But Mom said the nuns had it made—many came from large, poor, Catholic families and would never have had the money to go to college. In exchange for a life of service, they got an education and meals and lodging for free. They never paid for anything. They were taken care of for life.
Now—I could not imagine teaching a bunch of bratty kids all day, but I thought Mom had a point. And Mom was not big on marriage and family. In fact, she never said anything to us about getting married and having children. She talked about where we would go to college and our careers, but never marriage. I grew up thinking the convent wasn’t such a bad deal, but now I had my doubts. What kind of an honor was it to clean up after a bunch of sloppy men and some boys? I stormed out of the sacristy and told my friends I would never be back for more.
Planning for the dance interested me more, although I had already determined I would not be sticking around for the clean-up committee. I decided I would help organize the committees and volunteered to recruit the volunteers. I pictured myself as more of an executive type anyway. I drafted a list of committees and posted a handwritten sign-up sheet with a brief description of responsibilities at the front of the room.
Copping a line from my President, JFK, I made a pitch to my homeroom, urging the students to give back to the school and to ask their parents to participate as chaperones. I asked for five people to sign up for each committee. Sister Bernard added an incentive by promising 10 merits for anyone who signed up, so I got plenty of volunteers.
At that moment, a tall figure in sun glasses swaggered into our homeroom, snapping his fingers. “Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl…” John “The Duke of Earl” Lee heralded his arrival every day with a serenade for Room 21. The class broke into laughter and applause, as Sister Bernard put a halt to his signature song with, “Mr. Lee, take off those sunglasses and take your seat.”
Block by block, our neighborhood was becoming integrated. The Civil Rights movement was the national topic of conversation and our neighborhood was no exception. And while parents may have seethed about integration and its impact, their children were more accepting. John Earl Lee was one of three black students—one boy and two girls—that joined my homeroom that year. Towering over the rest of the students, John Earl Lee immediately established his reputation as King of the Cool, the classroom comic, and a favorite of teachers and students alike. His knack for impersonations cracked us up. Instantly popular, he hung out with the hip kids, the kids who barely acknowledged my existence. By contrast, the two girls, Anne and Rhonda were serious types who excelled at their studies, and they fit right in too, making friends with the other “smart” kids.
Barbara’s class, two years behind mine, welcomed many more minority students, mostly black and biracial students. All Baptists, they were excused from religion class unless they exhibited an interest. Instead, they went to breakout classes. I fantasized about what they were doing. After nine years of study, memorizing catechism was not my favorite subject. St. Mel’s Church, hoping to rope in some converts, would sweeten the deal for non-Catholics and offer a discount on tuition if the families attended Sunday Mass where the priests would peddle salvation. Amazingly, many families took advantage of the offer, attending both Mass and the Baptist services on Sundays.
Barb became good friends with most of the black girls when they all tried out for cheerleading. Barb’s new friends had attended public school before coming to St. Mel’s and they knew all the latest cheers. She was so tiny and athletic that she was instantly selected for the squad. Because of her size, she was the perfect choice to top the human pyramid—so easy to hold her up! The black girls befriended my sometimes shy little sister, taught her all the hot routines, and elected her captain of the team. Barb was blossoming and developing her own circle of pals.
And, while adults fretted about declining property values, blockbusters, and the impact of integration on their neighborhood, the kids were indifferent to their fears. All we could think about was the big dance.
I knew Mom would let me buy a new outfit to wear. I had my eye on a pleated skirt and a mohair sweater in the showcase in front of Madigan’s Department Store and I was sure I could persuade her to buy it for me. Or maybe Gram and Gramps would get it for me. I thought the bulky mohair sweater would make me look less skinny.
The sock hop committees were meeting after school several times a week and would report back to the Executive Committee. Plans were going well, I thought, and I hung around after school one day to fill Sister Bernard in on our progress. Very officious, I’d prepared a report on the little Remington portable typewriter my parents had given me for a Christmas present the year before. Sister Bernard listened to my report, but she seemed more distracted than usual.
“Ah, Anita, I wanted to let you know that we will be having some guests at the sock hop.”
“Oh really, who, Sister? Bishop Hillinger? The Cardinal? “
“No, no, nobody like that. We are going to have some students from neighboring schools attending the dance.”
“You mean the kids from Tilton? Sister, we are going to need a lot more chairs and refreshments.”
“No, not exactly. Well, some of the guests attend Tilton, but there won’t be that many. We’ve told the Negro students that they may bring guests to the sock hop. They will be bringing friends from other schools.”
“OK, well, can anyone bring a friend, because I need to know what the headcount will be.”
She hesitated, “No, only the Negro students will be bringing friends.”
"I don’t understand." I thought maybe this was another thinly disguised effort to recruit Catholics, but Sister Bernard set me straight.
“We told the Negro students they could bring friends, because we were concerned that no one would dance with them. “
“Now I really don’t get it.”
I thought, they are the best dancers in the school. They know all the new dances. Why wouldn’t people want to dance with them? I know why they don’t want to dance with me. I am not a good dancer, I have big feet, and I am a brain. But why not them?”
Sister Bernard sighed and explained, “Because they are Negroes.”
“Sister, I don’t think so. Those kids know the latest dances from their old school. They’ve been showing us in the playground. You are wrong.”
“Well, the decision has been made, so add three more to your count of attendees.”
After school, when I told Mom about my conversation with Sister Bernard, she brushed it off with, “Some parents must have complained to the school. They’d throw a fit if they find out their kid was dancing with a colored kid.” Then she told me something she’d never mentioned before.
“You know, when I was young, most of the men were at war, but Negroes weren’t yet allowed to serve in the military. The men registered but they were passed over by the Selective Service Boards. All our boyfriends had shipped overseas, and, well you know how I love to dance. So we girls would head to the south side clubs to go jitterbugging. These clubs were all owned by colored people. They had the best music and dancers. Sometimes, some big stars even showed up, like Billie Holiday or Lena Horne. The Negro men came dressed to the nines; lots of them wore zoot suits. They’d ask the white girls to dance, especially me because I was the best, and we’d jitterbug until the wee hours. There were some great dancers there; I picked up a lot of new steps. But we couldn’t tell anyone and they could never come to the white clubs. It was taboo. If anyone had found out we would have been in trouble. And the guys risked getting beat up or worse by dancing with us.”
“What? Doesn’t seem very fair. If someone wants to dance.”
“You don’t understand. Men were fighting and dying to make the world safe. There was resentment.”
“Well, it wasn’t their fault if they weren’t allowed in the Army, was it?”
“Yes, well, people were prejudiced and Truman changed that. A lot of things are changing, but some people aren’t ready for it. They feel threatened.”
“Mom, I don’t get it, these kids are our friends. Why would anyone feel threatened by them? They are kids.”
Mom cut right to the chase. “It’s a long story. People are afraid of anything they are unfamiliar with. Maybe they’re afraid if kids get too friendly they will marry their children and their grandchildren will be black.”
“Oh, Mom, nobody wants to get married. We want to dance. Anyway, some of Barb’s friends’ parents are negro and white, so the girls are both.”
“People call them mulattos. And that’s what I am talking about. Those girls will never be accepted by either Negroes or whites. ” Mom sighed, “They are pretty girls.”
“What, Mom, that’s stupid. Why not? Yolanda and her sister, Barb J—they are the cutest girls in her class and the best cheerleaders.”
“That’s the way it is now, honey. People are not ready for it.”
“Well, Mom. You can’t stop progress.”
This conversation had a profound effect on me; a curtain parted; I wasn’t a child anymore. At once, I saw the inequities, the cruelty, and the sexism—everything that seemed to be holding us humans back from being the best we could be. I felt sad and angry. I wanted my classmates to bring their friends—all of them. I wanted everyone to be welcomed at our dance. My enthusiasm dampened for the sock hop, but I went on, if half-heartedly, performing my volunteer duties... I never made promises I didn’t keep, but I did not care as much about the dance.
The night of the dance arrived. Mary Lennon and I agreed we’d walk together as usual to the school that night. Mom gave us the final once-over before we headed off for the dance. She retied the scarf Mary wore around her neck, and smoothed my unruly bangs.
“You both look terrific.”
I knew we must because Mom did not hand out compliments easily. You had to earn them.
Dad looked up from Peter Gunn. He beamed and motioned me over for a peck on the cheek. “You look beautiful, honey. Have fun. Don’t let Sister Mary Holy Water give you a hard time.”
Dad never like nuns and called all our teachers, “Sister Mary Holy Water.”
“Daddy, her name is Sister Bernard.”
Dad shot me a mischievous grin, “Oh right, right. Have fun.”
That night the weather was cooler and my pink mohair sweater was not too warm as Mary and I walked to school before the dance. I wore a crystal necklace that Gramps bought for me and I thought I looked grown up. It was getting dark earlier now and as we hurried along Madison Street towards the school, I saw a big yellow harvest moon rising in the sky. Indian summer was usually one of my favorite times, but that night, I felt discontent growing in me. Things seemed off.
“I hope everything goes okay tonight. I spent a lot of time on the planning.”
Mary, who had inherited her mother’s easy-going manner, tried to reassure me. “It’ll all be fine.”
As we turned on Washington, we saw the school lights were all on and the doors wide open. Parents stood in the vestibule, running interference for the nuns, checking students out and directing them to the basement of the school. Mary and I headed downstairs to the basement meeting room, called Sodality Hall. The committees were putting the finishing touches on the lunchroom which served as our ballroom that night. The decorating committee had done a great job transforming the room with paper streamers, balloons and banners with glitter that read, “Welcome, St. Mel’s Class of 1962.” I took one last look and decided we were as ready as we’d ever be.
Students arrived in pairs and groups. When the room was full, Sister Veronica Ann called us to attention. She never missed a chance to kick off an event and give a speech.
“Young ladies and gentlemen—your attention, please! There will be no close dancing. Gentlemen, you must stay an arm’s length from your partner. Young ladies, there will be one Ladies Choice dance tonight. I will announce when you may ask someone to dance with you. There will be no leaving the dance tonight. Anyone who leaves the dance will not be permitted to re-enter. If you are chewing gum, please spit it out in a napkin and dispose of it in the trash receptacle. We will have no gum on this beautiful linoleum floor. If I smell smoke on any of you boys, you will be ejected and sent home. Let the dance begin.”
Then someone dropped the needle on the record player and the thunk rang out over the public address system which had been jerry-rigged to serve as an amplifier by Ray, who also handled the audiovisual requests for our homeroom. I thought he was an electrical genius. The first song was "Michael Row the Boat Ashore". I suspected this was Sister Veronica Ann’s choice. She needn’t have worried about kids getting too close. The kids just stood around and looked at one another. The black students all stood in a corner, talking with their dates. I felt inner terror—the sock hop was going to bomb. It would be a failure. All my hard work down the drain!
Mercifully, songs were only two minutes 13 seconds long then and Michael rowed his boat to shore quickly. My friend Ray took matters in hand. He grabbed a new 45 by Gary U.S. Bonds and plopped it on the spindle.
The song was like an anthem. “Well, doncha know that I danced, I danced ‘til a quarter to three…”
Someone let out a scream and everyone crowded the floor. Kids danced in a circle, they danced by themselves, they danced in a line. No one danced with a partner; we danced as if we were one person. Black and white and Puerto Rican, all celebrating our youth and our love of rock and roll. The mohair sweater stuck to my spine, my cowlick popped up with the humidity, and the garter belt that held up my stockings dug into my bony thigh, but I didn’t care. I was in ecstasy; the sock hop was a success!
Ray played joyous song after joyous song. "Tossin’ and Turnin’", "Runaway", "Hit the Road Jack", the "Bristol Stomp" and "Shop Around". My fears receded with each note and I thought of something I’d heard a jazz musician say, “Music is a country where there is no color.” It might have been an upside-down year, but I felt like it had flipped over to the A side that night.
Bio- Anita Solick Oswald is a Chicago native. She’s written a collection of essays, West Side Girl (working title), that are written from the point of view of her younger self and chronicle the colorful, diverse and oftentimes unpredictably eccentric characters and events that populated Chicago’s West Side neighborhood during the 50s & 60s.
Her essays have appeared in The Write Place At the Write Time, The Faircloth Literary Review, Fullosia Press, The Fat City Review and Avalon Literary Review.
She studied journalism at Marquette University, earned her B.A. in Economics from the University of California at Los Angeles and her M.S. in Management and Organization from the University of Colorado.
She is a founding member of Boulder Writing Studio, where she has been generating and editing essays over the past 2 years.
by Dana L. Facchine
If you are looking for me today I’m at Starbucks in Paris. How American of me. The one next to the Centre Pompidou. And that’s fine, I like it here. I’m basically just passing the time. It’s true that Paris is full of its own wonders and things better than Starbucks. But here I can hear people speaking English which always reminds me of where I came from when I start to forget. On my way here I saw that man on the train whom I’d been trying to avoid. Quel surprise. That’s always my luck. More than anything Paris feels a bit like home. Or New York or something. In New York the people talk just as fast and they make the same mistakes. The piano music overhead helps my thinking.
I was going to go walk down along the river but I’m tired of the crowds by Notre-Dame when all I want is the cathedral view and nothing else. Just a little peace. But this is not really the city for that. I miss the river but I suppose I’ll see it soon enough, it’s hard not to run into here and I’ve always liked that about Paris.
It’s a flute solo now playing. I never thought life would grant me the great fortune of sitting in Starbucks in Paris or not having to pay to get into museums. I was in a good mood before that man stalked me on the train. Just kill me now, I thought as he began to speak to me. I changed seats while he was on the phone and I do not care if that was rude. I do not care for men or experiences like that. It is 13h and the time has passed significantly quicker than I knew. I am tired of being pretty. It makes the old men tremble and that sickens me. Is that conceited? I wonder how many people have come and gone since I’ve been here and if they’ll kick me out for staying too long in one place. Leaving means being bored somewhere else and I don’t like being bored in this rich city. The biggest dog outside, a spotted Great Dane with an owner who can’t quite handle him. A chick just on the other side of the window, she’s a chain smoker which I always wanted to be but then my grandmother got lung cancer.
Paris is a good place for being lonely. It’s where the lonely people go. I win staring contests with tourists outside because they run out of window before I do. It’s easy to spot hobos and drug addicts if you people-watch long enough. And I am always surprised when people are polite which makes me sad. There are no red-headed French people so I know that guy over there is foreign. I’ll soon think to myself, you made it, as I rot away culturally in American establishments. Yes indeed, I have let the others inspire me today.
Bio- Dana Facchine is a 27-year-old free spirit and coffee addict from New Jersey. She has a couple of Bachelor's degrees from Towson University in Maryland and mostly spends her money on clothes, ethnic food and road trips to Boston to visit her best friend. She became a published author at age 17 when her short story "They Need to Hear You Sing" was published in Dad's Lemonade Stand. Since then her writing has been published in Instigatorzine and Maverick Magazine. This is her second piece to be published in The Write Place At the Write Time. For more of Dana's work, please visit her poetry blog at: http://mindfollies.tumblr.com
Rooms of My Heart
by Carol J. Rhodes
Nothing much decorated the bare plank walls of my first room, the tiny one in which I was born, but my father’s whistling when he walked through the door, and my mother singing me to sleep to the strains of "The Old Rugged Cross", or some other hymn which was all I needed to know I was loved.
My second room was large enough for napping, games, and the rare tricycle ride inside when it was raining. In those days my father came home for lunch and afterwards I would sit on his lap, listen to the radio, and occasionally sing along with Ernest Tubb’s "You Are My Sunshine".
My room in the teen years, which I later shared with a sister ten years my junior, was a small one, hastily constructed, a bungalow in war-time. Not much space or place for privacy, but pretty, flowered paper on the walls and country-style curtains gave the room a feeling of pride, warmth, and love.
After college and later on marriage, my room became our room. Since money, or lack of, was no longer a problem, our room, was tastefully decorated with antiques and lavish fabrics. This quiet retreat was continuously filled with late night small talk, laughter, caresses, and love.
Our room remained a peaceful sanctuary as reading, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, gin rummy, and music became the main activities as years passed. Then one day Parkinson’s Disease paid an unannounced visit.
Now our room is once again my room. Maybe still beautiful in other’s eyes, but in my eyes, its walls are cold, empty, and lonely, which years of prayers, tears, time, and money have not been able to change.
Bio- Carol J. Rhodes, Houston, TX. Her creative works, short stories, personal essays, poetry, non-fiction articles, plays, and book reviews, have been widely published. Among her credits are The Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, Stroud News & Journal, Country Home, Good Old Boat, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend’s Soul, and numerous other publications.
Additionally, Carol is a freelance literary & technical editor, business consultant, and instructor of her popular business writing courses, “Why Not Write It Right?” and “E-mail Protocol”.
She is also the mother of one son, two Poodles, and four cats.