Friday, August 26, 2005

Dispatch from Cape Cod

It’s the end of August, officially not of any real significance except to note that summer’s close to being over. The local weather guy on TV seems to make a point of saying that, meteorologically, fall starts the first of September. All of this to say that summers speed by much too quickly. I try to slow the process by focusing on how my children see it but, there too, the pace has picked up from how I remember my idle/idyll time of summers past.

They have camps, activities, places to go, people to look after them, everything seems so damn scripted and each moment filled. Sheila and I have talked about this every once in a while. They should have ‘down time’ we say, they should be able to invent things for themselves, use their imaginations and make up things. They should just do whatever they feel like doing.

Back in East Falls, my old neighborhood in Philly, and in Beckley, West Virginia, and Millsboro, Delaware I used to play with friends, real and imaginary, for hours with no adult supervision. Somehow I managed to survive summers wandering the West Virginia woods, the streets of Philadelphia, Fairmont Park, the flat country-side of southern Delaware without encountering any of the evils we imagine lurking about our children should they be unguarded today.

People have come up with multiple income streams by creating a multitude of services for children during the summer. There are as many camps as there are specific sports. And then there are camps for general activities and cup scouts, girl scouts, fun camps, arts camps, etc. We busy adults are all too happy to provide an ‘enriched’ experience for our kids. We’re happy to ensure that they are safe and protected during those months away from school.

When do my children have a chance to sit down and gaze upon the sky and see the shapes of the clouds? When do they drift off into the streams of imagination that sweep like currents through their minds, souls, and hearts? When do they encounter the majesty of nature in a way that is not restricted, not bounded by artificial or commercial concerns?

Today we spent four or five hours on the water off Cape Cod watching our nieces in sailing races. The children were fascinated by the whole scene and Robert said he wanted to spend time up here next summer sailing. While we certainly will see that he does find a way to do that I immediately saw it as a wonderful way for him to get to that sense of summer that I used to have.

We shared an observer’s boat during the races and spent a good deal of time just coasting on the current making sure race participants followed the rules and, if they needed it, being ready to give them help. I couldn’t help but notice that while on the boat the proportions of land, sky, and water were drastically changed. The land was but a ribbon stretched between vast reaches of sky and water.

The houses we could see were tiny, humans outside our boat and the sail boats almost non-existent. What was important, especially to those sailing, was the wind. Watching the children racing, the youngest were eight, we could see some of them being masterful with their rigging, tacking and plotting their moves over the course. Some were struggling, one actually flipped his boat. He stayed calm and eventually got it up righted and continued fighting his way up wind on the first leg.

Eight or nine year old boy against the wind and the sea…it was amazing to watch!

What could be better for these children than learning the lessons of wind and water? There probably are plenty of answers to that question but at the heart of parenting isn’t the core of our purpose to prepare our offspring to make their way in the world?

After learning to appreciate the wonder of nature, or maybe coincidental to that, is learning to partner with others as you learn to make your way through life. Watching all of this made Robert wistfully ask Sheila and me if he could come up here next summer to sail. We found out there is a three week ‘camp’ for beginners and, yup, both of us said yes.

I hoped quietly that I too could find a spot in that camp…

More from Chatham and Yarmouth next week!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Finding Haney

HANEY, ROBERT J., Aug. 8, 2005, suddenly. Retired Philadelphia Police Officer. Beloved husband of Clarita (nee McKeever); dear son of Alice Lowry; brother of Kathleen McNellis and Mary Riccobono-Martin; also survived by several nieces and nephews. Relatives and friends are invited to greet the family at THE McILVAINE FUNERAL HOME, 3711 Midvale Ave., East Falls, from 5 to 7 P.M. Friday eve Aug. 12th. Funeral Service 7 P.M. at the Funeral Home. Int. private. For those desiring, donations may be given in Bob's memory to: St. Bridget Memorial Fund, 3667 Midvale Ave., Phila. PA 19129; or PAL, 900 W. Hunting Park Ave., Philadelphia. PA 19132. Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer/Philadelphia Daily News on 8/10/2005.

This was how I found out my best friend from high school died. A friend some of you have seen me write about before, Mouse, my buddy from the projects in East Falls, and still a close friend, sent this to me. Both Tommie and I (oh, Thomas is the Mouse's real name) had been searching for Bob for a number of years. Some time ago I found his phone number and left a voice message with all of my information. More importantly, I said that no matter what had happened, no matter what he had been through as a police officer I wanted to talk with him, meet with him. After all, he and I had some incredible experiences together and we became best friends in spite of the fact that initially, he had been one of those Irish kids that tormented me daily in Saint Bridget's school.

Seventh grade, first day, and our teacher was handing out seating assignments. There was little distance between our desks, maybe two or three inches. We were twelve and both very tall and large for our age. He was stocky, shorter by about four inches. I was taller and wiry; about ten pounds less in weight. He lived in the Abbottsford Homes projects. I lived in the notorious housing projects known as ‘Sin City’. He was Irish, as white and as angry as a kid could be. I was the outsider, the nigger kid. And there he was, forced to sit next to me for the year.

Each and every time the nun, Sister Frances, turned her back to us to write on the board or get something, he’d punch me as hard as he could. Seventh grade was hell for the longest time. It was a continuation of what elementary school at Saint Bridget’s school had been all along, only now I had to sit close to one of my tormentors, one who quietly tried to beat me to a pulp every opportunity he got.

By that time children had stopped calling me names during recess because it was taking five and six of them to call me nigger. One kid would do it and by the time he got to the second ‘g’ my fist was in his face. Then, of course, his friends would feel obligated to pull me off him and they too would fall prey to my outsized fury.

Like I said, Bob Haney and I were large kids. At twelve I was almost six feet and weighed about one-seventy. Haney, on the other hand, was about 5’ 8” but about 180 or so. He was a bruiser. And, like I said, he was angry all the time it seemed. Especially when he woke up one day and found out he had to sit next to me.

“Damn, nigger germs, I’m gonna be covered with nigger germs every day,” he hissed under his breath as he moved into his chair. I ignored this but the next thing I knew, as Sister Frances was involved with another seating placement, he hauled off and landed one right in my side, knocking the air out of me.

“Fuck you, nigger,” he hissed again. “Get used that as long as you sit there, nigger!” I resolved right there and then he was going to pay for that, no matter how long it took, regardless of how many punches I’d have to take.

“Fuck you right back, you ugly white motherfucker,” I said with my normal voice, not caring who heard me. I tried to sit up straight but the pain in my side still made me crumple over, listing to my right.

“Charles, there will be no talking while the seating chart is carried out. Just for that, you will start this semester with several demerits.” Sister Frances, prim, proper, and always martinet in her manner, was lecturing me while I sat there in physical and emotional agony. Like I gave a flying fuck what this woman said, like what any of the penguins said meant a damn thing after what happened to me in fifth grade. Fifth grade taught me all I needed to know about how duplicitous adult white people were…nuns and priests even…when it came to dealing with their children’s treatment of the ‘nigger kid’ in their school.

John Cashman snuck up behind me when our fifth grade nun left the room for a moment. He punched me in the side of my face while saying ‘nigger’ something to me. Of course the black cloaked avenger came back into the room catching me swinging back at him. She stood me up against the blackboard, placed her left hand firmly against my right cheek and swung her right hand from way behind her into my face.

I saw stars.

She never asked John Cashman why he was standing beside my desk during the incident.

And to make matters worse, one of the girls in the class room stood up and respectfully informed the Nazi Nun what had happened and she still never reprimanded Cashman. Yeah, we were all children of God alright.

So, seventh grade had one angry Creole nigger boy in it at Saint Bridget’s Elementary School that year. And poor angry Irish boy Robert J. Haney was gonna pay.

About a month into the semester I had learned to block his punches, another couple of weeks later I was hitting that pug faced son-of-a-bitch when Sister Frances turned around. And I kept on hitting him until I got tired of the game. Eighth grade he left me alone entirely and I got into a somewhat normal routine with my friend Tommie Hart, AKA the Mouse and our salt and pepper gang from Saint Bridget’s and our projects.

The two of us were tight since third grade and we had a nice little circle of friends and we had lots of fun. We played hooky from school and watched my hero Roberto Clemente and the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Yankees in the World Series. By then the rest of the Italian and Irish kids had figured out that they had better not ever let me catch them calling me anything. They could make all the ugly faces they wanted, and they did. But the name calling had stopped. I wasn’t universally accepted, but my school life had reached a state of truce.

Then something very strange happened freshman year in high school. Haney started hanging around with us and acting like he wanted to be my friend. He was always over to my place, always asking me to come by his house. And, stranger still, I found myself liking him. He was still gruff and grumpy to other people. He was still angry in his manner. But with me he was open, honest, and, scary now that I write this over forty years later, he was poetic.

When we were fifteen I confessed to him that I wrote poetry, I showed him my journal. He wrote some poetry and showed it to me. By the end of sophomore year we were so tight that his white friends and my black friends had come to peace with our ebony and ivory act. We spent that summer in summer school at West Catholic, right in the heart of West Philly. There were plenty of black boys not at all accepting of my friendship with Haney. One day I completely dissed one of them over it and that afternoon, as I walked down a hallway at the end of the day I heard a major commotion behind me. I turned around and found Bob on the floor with two black guys. I threw one of them off him and we bolted out the door and flew up the street to the El station, just ahead of a pack of blood thirsty friends of these two guys. He never would answer my questions as to why he had jumped these dudes.

The next day, the guy I originally dissed came up to me before my class started and remarked that I was a lucky person to have such a loyal bodyguard. Haney had saved my ass from a sneak attack by two members of his crew. He was letting me know that while they were going to back off us, they were still going to keep their eyes open for an opportunity to blast either one, or both, of us.

The guy had gone from bashing me to defending me.

We had an interesting couple of years together. My sister, when I called to tell her that Bob had suddenly died remarked that we were always together. You never saw one of us without the other. We had a great night together before I left for college and he came down to school several times, becoming tight with two of my college friends. In fact, the three of us initiated him into our "Tres Club", not as an honorary member but as a full fledged 'Tres Brother'. The picture above on the right is Cliff Green and Kwame Freeman on the way to our graduation ceremony with Bob. The one on the left is Bob and me in New Jersey after my sister's graduation from Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York.

Bob and I stayed tight until our mid twenties when he had slipped back into what I thought as very racist thinking probably because he was surrounded by racist police officers on the Philly force. He made comments to me when I came home to hang with him that I found profoundly offensive and we argued about them for the length of my visits. I never stopped wanting to see him or never wanted to not be his friend, but he gradually faded from my life.

I knew a woman he had been seeing; she was introduced to him by one of my former girlfriends that was friends with Bob. I was visiting her while on a business trip when she informed me that she had broken off her relationship with Bob because of his actions on the force and how being a police officer had changed him so completely.

I can’t imagine the man Bob became, but while he is somewhat frozen in my heart as he was in our friendship I know I can surmise several things about him. He was dedicated and fierce in his beliefs that what he was doing was the right thing. He was passionate and loved strongly. I can only hope that he still remembered me and how much I loved him, faults and all. I pray that his soul has found peace and love and that some day in the far future I will get to see him and tell him how much I missed him over the years that we were apart. The love he gave me was certainly worth all of the punches he threw at me. I hope he feels the love I have for him.

September 14, 2005

Since I've written this I've found out that over the last decade or so Bob has expressd to his wife that he wanted to get together with me. His sister Mary and I have been connected through email after one of Bob's neices sent her the note I had written in the guest book on the web attached to the notice that starts this journal entry. While it made me sad all over again for our lost friendship this news made me realize that connections are never really lost...misplaced maybe, but once someone moves into a space in your heart its hard to move them out, regardless of time or circumstance.

Mary wrote that when she thinks of me she sees her brother and me in their kitchen when we were fourteen and she was seven. She says very warm and wonderful things about how she felt about me then. She also shared that their mother is very ill these days but that when she read the note I wrote for Bob she was both happy and sad.

Finding Haney might have come too late in most ways for me. But several of his survivors have found their way back together again. Life goes on, life ends. Love finds us and we find love.