Atlanta always on this white boy’s mind

June 13, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Posted in spiritual rantings | Leave a comment

It was the Autumn of ’79 that I had first truly considered my mortality. Death as something more than a malingering shadowy haunted figure that perpetuated itself through the dream-memorae of the old and the sick. Earlier that year, we had laid my grandparents to rest, dying only a month apart from one another. I had spent the weekend with my aunt Faye as my parents went to the funeral and grieved.

By the time I had first heard of the Atlanta Child Killer, I had already well formed the concept of the dead as something forever lost. It was only a little over a year that one of my classmates JoJo, had been found after his father had killed himself.

The race riots were still an ever prevalent specter to which I could still recall my mother taking us into the basement with her twenty gauge and us hiding there as some roaming pack of blacks had been seen in our neighborhood. I never really knew if they ever actually did anything to anyone. I only remember my mother’s fear. The news was that some crazed white man of the KKK was
going around killing young black boys. I was white, but part of the poor whites of Atlanta, Georgia, yes we were poor white trash.

It ended much of the simplicity of life for me. From those that once seemed as resilient and enduring as my small world had always seemed, to those that existed beyond those confines of my little known world. I think the most immediately devastating memory from that time was that I had begun to consider that I never really knew God at all…

I was seven.

“What’s wrong Chip?” I had only been inside the door for a few moments before my mother found me in my room.

“Nothing,” I lied. Truth be told, I had my first, of several altercations, with the older boy,JoJO a black boy who lived next door. a little while later, we became best friends. There was always something a little cruel in the way that JoJO played through his life. Not particularly noted as the best and the brightest at Stiles Elementry School, even then there was something likable about him to me. JoJo never really dealt with people well, and un-beknownst to most was that his older brothers were beating the wholly living shit out of him on near a daily occurrence. Even when they were only playing, they were riding him down the road on the handle-bars of their bikes and steering for the biggest pot-holes they could find, or knocking him out of trees with rocks. There would inevitably come a point where the middle brother would intervene, and the oldest of the Hollis boys near made JoJo appear to be genius.

JOJO had said something about my lunch pail the day before, which at the time had scenes depicted from the television series with H R Puff n stuff. I had normally had hot lunch at school, but I seen the lunch pail, and like a typical seven year old– I wanted it. The next day, after insulting it the day before, he wanted it and tried to take it from me. He got it, though not likely the way he wanted it. There was only a small dent in my lunch pail, but a rather large tear in my new school jacket that I had only had for a month or so.

Mama was beside herself, she just wasn’t going tolet this one fly, seeing as she was holding my “new coat” in her hand.

“You’re going to need to do a little better than that, especially once your father gets home and sees this,” she probably knew I had seen it in her hand already, but she held it out in front of my face likely for emphasis. “We paid quite a bit of money for that coat and…”

She stopped when she noticed I had been crying.

Mrs. williams my teacher had a point everyday, usually after lunch, where she would read to us. Mrs. Williams aside from the fact that she kind of resembled Lena Horne (which, among other shows, we watched faithfully until it was canceled); had it pretty much convinced herself that we were pretty petered out on all the running with Spot, the dog, that Jane did– an opted for a more mature sort of reading material. I am not sure how it worked for the rest of the class; but for me, it was virtual genius. I could rightfully not give two shits about Jane and her ever faithful side kick Spot, which led to one of life’s little ironies. Due to the dullness of Jane’s days full of four letter words that a kid could and should use, or at least learn– I was going to be placed in a remedial reading class. Mrs. Williams hadn’t a clue that my cousin and I had been reading comic books and Mad magazine for a couple years at that point, mostly him reading them to me in the beginning. She also had no clue that I knew who Lord Alfred Tennyson (compliments of my other grandmother who was still alive) was, and was beginning to learn the fundamentals of poetry.

Mrs. williams had opted to read “I Will Fight No More Forever” that day, from Dee Brown‘s book “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee“. Up until that point, the only idea I had about the “Indians” came from the old cowboy pictures my grandfather used to watch. I really hadn’t considered that the story that she read that day would be about a man that I would admire for the rest of my life.

“What happened?” She set aside the coat and came to sit beside me on the edge of my bed.

“I got in a fight with JoJo,” the tears came again. “He tore it.”

“Did he hurt you?”

“No,” tears were one thing, but what followed that was one long gush. “I think I hurt him,” I bellowed out. I proceeded to tell her all of the gory details, about the lunch box and how I had swung around and knocked him down. He’d cried, but not from the fall so much as I believed that he thought I was going to keep hurting him.

My Ma tried not to laugh, she really did. “You want me to call his mother and find out if he is alright?”

“Alright,” I did and I didn’t. JoJo and I had already had more than a few words with one another, and there seemed to be some kind of concession in this. He was only a year older than me, something that had become moot when he flunked out in second grade, but he wasn’t in Mrs. Williams’s class. He was in the other section of second graders at Stiles.

I felt as if I had failed. Not in the fight itself (if you can really call it that), something that I hadn’t wanted but JoJo just kept pushing me. I had come to the conclusion that if it came down to a fight, you had already lost your best chance to resolve anything… something that Chief Joseph had taught me.

“His Ma said he is fine, and he will be over in a few minutes.”

“Why?” This was not the sort of resolve I was looking for in this particular situation. Just because I felt bad for hurting him did NOT mean I wanted to apologize for it.

“To apologize for tearing your coat,” she said, her brow arching as she considered my reaction to that.

“Alright,” I was in no way, shape or form going anywhere near that door when he did show up.

She left when she heard the knock at our front door, and I pulled out a book that I had borrowed from the library. I remember the librarian’s look she gave me when I checked it out.

“Are you sure you want this book?” The librarian asked, and I gave a half shrugged nod of assent. “This is in the fifth grader’s section, and you were supposed to stay in the books on the long low shelf in the back.” I wasn’t sure if she was scolding me, or just assuring herself that this was the book I wanted to check out. “There aren’t many pictures in it.”

“I know,” was my only response.

“Alright then, but you have to bring it back next week.” There was another look in her eyes as she executed the borrower’s transaction, a book of poetry in a second grader’s hands was one thing. That the poet, in this minority school, was e e cummings, Mrs. Williams used to say her son was alot like this great harvard graduate, . I won’t lie, I understood very little of it until I got to one short stanza…

“why must itself up every of a park
anus stick some quote statue unquote to
prove that a hero equals any jerk
who was afraid to dare to answer “no”?
“He wants to talk to you,” my mother came back a few minutes later, and I just sort of stared up towards her, my expression blanked and dumbfounded.

“Why?”

“I don’t know, he just said he wanted to talk to you,” she said and glanced down towards the book in my hands. “Is that something you have to read for school?”

“Yes,” I lied, not even truly appreciating why I thought I should.

“I thought they were going to put you in a remedial reading class,” she looked between my eyes and book. I think she knew I was lying.

“I guess so.” I got up and moved past her before anymore questions could surface, as suddenly the meeting with JoJo seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Lying was one of my mother’s pet-peeves, along with the use of the word fuck. Technically at that time, I wasn’t allowed to use any of the four letter words that were not in that droll assed reader they were trying to goad me into reading in school; but something alike Dante’s versions of Hell, there were different punishments for the shits, damns, and hells over the word that should never be uttered in our household. Not even my father and his friends used it around her, though it seen a lot of use in conversation outside her earshot.

“Hey,” JoJo said as I opened the door and seen him standing there, watching a fox squirrel run along the road towards the neighbor’s oak tree.

“Hi,” I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

“Your Ma said you were worried that you hurt me,” he glanced back towards the squirrel as I closed the door in behind me.

“You tore my coat,” I wasn’t conceding to that to him.

“I know, I’m sorry about that.” He sounded pretty much like he meant it, which left only an awkward silence to follow. “You didn’t hurt me neither, I just thought I was going to get into trouble. I thought you would tattle on me or something queer like that.”

“I kinda did,” my face flushed.

“Naw, ya didn’t really.” He said after considering it. “I’ll see you at school tomorrow.”

“Alright,” I said as I seen him wave and watched him move across the small field that separated our yards.

I went back in to try to figure out something that had puzzled me from much earlier, something that had led to my mother and I having to hide down in our basement with a loaded shotgun. I had never known about slavery (beyond the Hebrews in Egypt), which was in part what made e e cumming’s book of poetry particularly difficult to grasp. I wouldn’t really until the weekend when I showed my grandmother the book I had borrowed, and wanted to know what he was talking about.

With some due consideration to my age, she explained what cummings meant, and read some of the poems aloud to me that I didn’t get. After she was done, I told her about Ma and I having to go into the basement; and she just gave a knowing smile and nod as perhaps she had figured out my original curiosity. I also told her about the fight I had with JoJo Hollis, and the story about Chief Joseph that Mrs. Williams had read.

It was funny in that I never realized while I would go to my mother for more practical matters, to my father with any help I may need with homework; that anytime I wanted to know anything about the world, I always went to my Grandmother. She understood things differently, and what’s more she had time to listen. She never called me by the nickname I abhorred, and she was the first one to realize that I had sense of humor. God only knows she had sit through more than enough of my dumb jokes, but it was not a month later that I wrote my first poem. (Contrary to her “opinion”, it sucked.) I had asked for a typewriter for Christmas, something that had led to Ma and I sitting around and expanding my vocabulary by asking her how to spell countless words and then plunking them out on the cheap old manual typewriter. I used to type my spelling words for a while, until I pretty much knew the words that came on the list before we were expected to know how to spell them.

I went back to school on Monday, a friend and I were playing on the swings when one of the third graders decided that he wanted to take the swing from us. Ahmed Washington looked over towards me as I shook my head, and then started to go back to sit on the swing when the older kid plopped his butt down into it first.

“What are you doin’ Ahmed?” I hear from off to the aside as I am still considering what my next move was, and I see JoJo standing there with his arms folded as he leaned against the metal upright that held the swings up.

“I am going to swing on this swing,” he said, and JoJo just sighed and shook his head, NO.

“There’s one just down the way that you can use,” JoJo moved in front of him so that swinging was impossible.

“Let them take that one then,”Ahmed said and JoJo just shook his head tightly.

“Get off,” he said, and I was a little surprised that Ahmed actually did. But he was standing up just in case that JoJo tried to hit him or something. That stand didn’t last very long as I moved in beside him, and my friend just sort of lingered in behind JoJo’s other shoulder. Ahmed gave up the swingt, and JoJo turned back towards me before nodding towards the swing. “You ever had a really high underdog?”

I shook my head as he held it for me to get on and then proceeded to push, and then pull me back; only for a few minutes before he put his hands on my knees and ran forward, ducking under me as I began to come back down.

I saw Ahmed and JoJo talking as I pumped my legs, trying to go higher. Jo Jo kept ducking under as my swing got higher, everytime my swing got lower JoJo gave me another ‘underdog”

JoJo and I became best friends. I wrote lyrics and He would sing them. He loved to sing and sang at his church’s choir, every Sunday, he’d be all dressed to go to church, I asked once if I could go with him, and his ma spoke plain and simple,

“there’s no white people allowed in our church, but you can wait for JoJo outside if you must.”

I waited for Jo Jo and then we’d peal off our sunday best after church and go swimming down the creek.

It was there an older boy who was swinging from the rope and jumping into the creek, told JoJo about this radio producer looking for young singers.
Jo Jo was all excited, he said he was going to be famous, have his face all over the place. The older kid gave jo jo a flyer, we read it on the way back to our house.

Jo Jo was going to audition cause he was a fine singer. I read the name, and got excited. Hey the radio guy’s name is Wayne Williams, I wonder if he’s related to Mrs. Williams my teacher. She sure is the finest teacher in the school.

The next morning was the first day of summer. JoJo was gone when I knocked on the door to the Hollis house. I never seen
JoJo again. But his face was posted everywhere, all over the streets the tv and the newspapers, just like he wanted.

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