As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m getting ready to release my second collection of short stories soon. As a way to familiarize myself with Amazon’s publishing process my second work that I ever published way back in 2014 was a short story, August, 1963.
It was a story that was written to commemorate the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech.
I read through this story as I was getting ready to post it and it struck me as a timely tale for today’s climate in the United States. In an effort to avoid the appearance of being political, I will just say that. although the events in this story take place nearly 60 years ago, we still have a long way to go in many aspects of our society.
This story also comes from my short story collection Random Tales which is a collection of unrelated stories.
My next collection will have four related stories that are essentially novellas. It’s been a long journey in nearly five years.
I hope you enjoy August, 1963, posted here in its entirety as it exists in the book along with a prelude explaining the origins of the story.
This story was written to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There are a few things to note about this story. First, the main character tells the story in first person, which was something I wanted to try. Second, the character is a transplanted northerner moving to the south at a time when the Civil Rights movement in the US was at a fevered pitch. Although I was less than a year old when this story takes place, I experienced some of the same issues that the main character faced during my own move to the south over 30 years later. Finally, if you’ve read “Frankly Speaking” or “Let Me Be Frank”, you might notice some familiar names and references. This is something that I’ve started to do in my work. I want to have a common underlying thread or universe of characters throughout my work.
This story very much echoes my own feelings on prejudice and racial inequality. One theme that rings through is, no matter how enlightened we think we might be on either side of the race issue, we don’t truly understand what is going on in the hearts and minds of others involved in the struggle. I was able to weave in music as a common thread that binds the characters together. You will see the use of music in many of my stories. Besides writing, it is another passion in my life.
Note: One change that I made in this version of the story from the original is using the actual n-word instead of masking it. I received some reviews and messages saying that this would make the piece more authentic. I struggled with this as the word has become so controversial and I have always viewed it as offensive. I was convinced when I recently re-read my favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. When Scout uses the word in the book as a young child, her father tells her not to use the word because it is “common” meaning “low class” in the context of the time and place. I am using it in my story even though, like Atticus Finch, I consider it “common”.
I hope you enjoy this story and I hope that it makes you think a bit.
August 1963 was a pivotal month in American history. James Meredith became the first African American to graduate from the University of Mississippi. A costly first, his protection cost over five million dollars. The South was much slower to recognize the equality among the races. It had been nearly 100 years since the end of the Civil War, but some Americans south of the Mason-Dixon Line were still licking their wounds and holding onto traditional views that had been passed down from generation to generation.
Integration during this time period was a slow and painful process among adults. There were individuals among the more enlightened Washington politicians that believed racial harmony could be achieved more quickly among children. This harmony came in the form of mandated school integration which was adopted in slow drib and drabs across the South.
Just as James Meredith was receiving his degree in August of 1963, three young black children were venturing into the previously all-white Booth elementary school in the town of Indian Trail, Florida.
I remember that day clearly as I was one of the students in Mrs. White’s class when the students joined us. The names of these brave souls were Molly, William, and Isaiah. They were driven to school by the pastor of the local black Baptist church, and two policemen waited to walk them to the front door. As we all looked out the window, I could see the scared look on the children’s faces. Isaiah was a tall, thin boy and appeared to be the leader of the group as he bravely walked to the entrance of the school with the posture of a marine and the face of a frightened child. William wore glasses and looked small and bookish next to the much taller Isaiah. Molly looked somber in contrast to her multiple pigtails and colorful dress.
Once in the school, the new additions entered Mrs. White’s class and were seated at three adjacent desks at the front of the room. Sitting in front of the classroom was not desirable; in the rear of the room it was easier to hide from the prying eyes of the teacher.
As soon as the three were seated, the murmurs began.
Mrs. White cleared her throat and said, “Class, it’s time to begin our day.”
The murmurs stopped but the uneasiness in the class was palpable. The morning routine began with the Pledge of Allegiance and then on to mathematics. Surprisingly, the novelty of the new students wore off quickly as the routine of the school day took over.
As a transplanted ‘Yankee’ in the South, the idea of being in a room with black children was not a new experience for me. I spent my early years in Catholic school where integration had begun organically in the late 50s as common faith was a stronger determinant of equality than skin color. As I looked at these children, I felt empathy as they were uprooted from one school environment in which they felt comfortable and were forced into a new school where they felt out of place. This had happened to me three years earlier as I was ripped from the Assumption Catholic Academy in Syracuse, New York, and whisked away 1,200 miles south to a faraway land called Florida. In some ways, my situation was more traumatic than the “Booth Three,” as they would come to be called. When the school day was over, they could return to the comfort of their own neighborhood, family, and friends. I only had my mom and my baby sister Lillie. My Dad was in the Navy and spent months at sea. There was little common ground between me and the other kids in the neighborhood. They played tackle football, hunted, and fished. I read books, wrote stories, and played the piano. They were Southern Baptists and I was “one of them Roman Catholics.”
My best friend was my dog Rusty, a German shepherd mix my Dad given me before his latest deployment. I tried playing with the neighborhood kids, but the taunting I endured due to my lack of athletic ability, cultural common ground, and a common religion resulted in my quick retreat to my room to read under Rusty’s watchful eye. I tried to live a stealthy, quiet existence, with the hope that my Dad’s deployment to this horrible place would end and we would return to the more civilized North. This hope (and my obscure existence) both disappeared during 1963 thanks to the Booth Three.
Lunchtime at Booth Elementary School was always an ordeal for me. I didn’t fit in. According to my peers, I had three strikes against me. I was a Yankee, I talked funny, and I was one of those Catholics. I wasn’t sure why Catholics were treated as outcasts in the South. It was only later that I would learn about the Ku Klux Klan’s hatred for other groups based not only on skin color, but also other ethnic origins and religions. I was Italian-American and Catholic, which I later found out were two strikes against me. I often sat alone or with the special-education kids who, in spite of their so-called handicaps, were far less judgmental. When the Booth Three arrived on the scene, they faced the same precarious situation at lunch time and recess. They sat alone. They were blocked from the swing set and other playground equipment. Their only consolation was that they had each other. I had only myself. As a result of my ten-year-old logic, I assumed they would welcome me to their group with open arms. I was wrong.
Just as southern whites had their misguided preconceptions about blacks, the black community had preconceptions surrounding the motives of whites that reached out to them. They viewed these types of gestures as condescending, insincere, or downright dishonest. The Booth Three were no different. When I approached their isolated lunch table one September day, they eyed me with suspicion, curiosity, and fear. I gestured toward the remaining empty chair and said, “Can I sit there?”
Isaiah looked at me and in a quiet voice laced with anger said, “Why do you want to sit with us, peckerwood?”
I had been called many names since moving to Florida, but that was a new one and I had no idea what it meant. Isaiah’s tone, however, let me know it was not a term of endearment.
“I just need a place to sit, and this seat is open.”
Something in my pitiful voice stirred some sympathy from Molly.
She said, “Let him sit down Isaiah. Those crackers don’t like him either.”
Isaiah rolled his eyes.
“Have a seat peckerwood. Every garden needs a weed sometimes.”
Isaiah flashed a quick smile. I had no idea that all eyes were on us at the time, both adults and children.
We sat in silence and unpacked our lunches. My lunch was a salami sandwich in homemade Italian bread with provolone cheese. I also had some cookies that my mom had baked. The Booth Three unpacked fried chicken and corn muffins. They were as curious about my food as I was about theirs. I could see Isaiah glancing at my lunch.
“Do you want to trade?”
“Why, so you can poison us or make us eat something nasty?” Isaiah asked.
“No. I just thought…” I trailed off feeling my face and ears flush like they always did when I was embarrassed.
“I’ll trade,” Molly’s quiet voice piped up.
She offered me a chicken leg and a corn muffin, and I gave her half of my sandwich and a cookie. As I bit into the chicken, I felt as if my taste buds had died and gone to heaven. It was the perfect blend of crunch, spice, and juicy chicken.
“This is…” I was going to say delicious when a hand tightly clamped down on my shoulder.
It was Mr. Perkins, the school principal. He pronounced my name as “Rose Annie” with his thick southern drawl.
“That will be quite enough. You return that food, gather what is left of your lunch, and come with me,” Perkins said.
My face flushed again. I had done something wrong, but had no idea what. I followed Mr. Perkins to his office.
“Mr. Rozzani, just what did you think you were doing?”
I had no idea what answer he wanted, so I tried the truth.
“Eating lunch sir.”
“Eating lunch! Don’t get wise with me son.”
Mr. Perkins furrowed his brow, which disturbed his intricate comb-over that seemed to start from his sideburn hair.
“You were eating that other student’s food. That’s not acceptable.”
I was confused, assuming that he thought I had stolen it.
“But sir, we traded.”
“Traded? With one of those students? That just isn’t done son.”
“But sir, the other kids trade all the time and I…”
He cut me off.
“It’s not right to trade with those students. It just isn’t done.”
“I…I don’t understand sir.”
“Well maybe detention with Mr. Faber will help you understand. Now just sit there for a minute.”
While I sat, Mr. Perkins angrily scrawled a note, put it in an envelope, wrote on the envelope and handed it to me.
“I want this signed and brought back to me tomorrow,” he said with a dismissive wave.
Lunch was now over so I returned to Mrs. White’s class and took my seat. I could hear whispers as I sat down. Obviously word of my trip to Mr. Perkins’ office had spread.
As the day went on, I started to dread my impending trip to Mr. Faber’s detention session. It was where the bad kids went. If there was a group I wanted to be associated with, the bad kids were not it.
When the 2:30 bell rang, I slowly packed my books and headed down the hallway to Mr. Faber’s classroom. Mr. Faber was the 4th and 5th grade history teacher. The 4th grade was treated to his take on European history. His view somehow rationalized that Hitler was a misunderstood and benevolent leader. The Fuhrer was criminalized in World War II by being lumped in with the evil Japanese in their attacks on the allies. Mr. Faber also believed that Hitler was viewed as a malevolent dictator due to conspiracy theories perpetuated by a certain non-Christian religious group.
His 5th grade American History class revolved around a retelling of the Civil War, in which the South was persecuted for its beliefs by the arrogant North. In his view, the war was not over, but merely in a holding pattern until the South rose again. He prominently displayed the Confederate Flag alongside the Stars and Stripes in his classroom. I was only 10, but suspected that his teachings were skewed to fit his own beliefs.
His detention sessions were notorious for their usual participants and for the way he ruled them with an iron fist. He didn’t literally use his fists, but anyone who misbehaved during detention was subject to encountering what he called his ‘board of education’, a well-worn wooden paddle that hung from a hook next to the blackboard. It was about three feet long by eight inches wide and 3/4 of an inch thick. He had fashioned it himself and had drilled several holes in it so that it could be swung faster with reduced air resistance. Anyone dumb enough to be disruptive during detention would be asked to bend over and place their elbows on Faber’s desk so he could deliver a number of blows to their vulnerable rear end based on the severity of the infraction.
As I settled into detention, Mr. Faber handed each of us a blank sheet of notebook paper and a pencil upon which we were instructed to write the Pledge of Allegiance over and over until we were told to stop. He reminded us of the consequences of being disruptive during this exercise which elicited a barely audible snicker from the back of the room.
“Is there something amusing, Mr. Grant?”
Mr. Grant was Rufus Grant, the biggest 5th grader at Booth. Legend had it that he had failed every grade since kindergarten at least once. He was not only the tallest and heaviest student in the school, but it was widely rumored that he was already shaving.
“No sir,” Rufus answered. He was a frequent past recipient of whacks from the paddle.
“OK then, let’s begin,” Faber said.
The detention session only lasted 45 minutes. It felt like an eternity. As I sat their writing, my mind also wanted to how I would explain detention to my mother who wielded a smaller, but painful version of Mr. Faber’s paddle in the form of a wooden spoon. I also wondered what information Mr. Perkins had written in the note that would explain my detention. Would it be “traded food” or “ate unauthorized fried chicken” or some other violation of an unknown school rule?
Finally detention ended. I grabbed my book bag and headed toward the front exit of the school. My rented house was about a quarter of a mile from the school and was an easy walk across an empty lot. While we were in school, the daily afternoon rain showers made the field muddy in spots.
As I crossed the field trying to keep my new white Keds clean, I could hear the sound of footsteps behind me. I was afraid to turn around and instead started to run to the other end of the field and the safety of my house. I wasn’t fast enough. I heard the unmistakable voice of Rufus Grant. Because of my repulsion for some of the terms used in those intolerant days, I will modify Rufus’ language to only hint at what was said.
“Hey nigger lover. Why don’t you slow down and talk to us?” Rufus barked.
I took a quick look behind me and saw Rufus and his minions chasing after me. They caught up to me and Rufus grabbed my book bag and threw it into a mud puddle and then pushed me to the ground.
“How was that fried chicken nigger boy? Are you and your nigger girlfriend going to get married and raise chickens?”
“Stop it,” I said foolishly thinking that this might work.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t your nigger friends around to help you? Did they go back to Africa?”
The words were ugly. I was raised to judge people by their actions, not their skin color or ethnic background. As the grandson of Italian immigrants that fought prejudice and poverty to make a life in America, I felt the sting of those ugly words almost as much as if they had called me a wop or grease-ball.
“Leave me alone you peckerwood,” I said out of desperation. I still didn’t know what the word meant, but obviously Rufus did.
“You even talk like them,” he said. “Maybe you should look like them too.”
Rufus grabbed my shirt and lifted me to my feet. He then pushed me toward a large mud puddle and shoved me to the ground again. I fell face-first into the mud. I tried to get but he pushed me down again. This time he stomped on the back of my neck with his work boot. My nose and mouth were submerged in the mud. I could feel the gritty mixture between my teeth and I couldn’t breathe. Finally, he let me up. As I went to a sitting position I wiped the mud from my eyes and spit the filthy water from my mouth.
“Look at him boys. He looks just like one of them and smells like one too.”
As an exclamation point, Rufus lifted me up and punched me in the mouth splitting my lower lip which swelled immediately.
“That’s the last touch, big lips and all,” he said laughing sadistically as his minions joined in.
They left me sobbing and rubbing my sore lip. I rose to my feet once they were gone, grabbed my book bag and began the short walk to my house. When I opened the front door, Rusty ran to me and then stopped to survey my appearance. He apparently didn’t care how I looked or smelled as he began to lick my face removing mud.
“Dominic Francis Rozzani,” my mother said as she emerged from the kitchen. She only used my full name when she was angry.
“Where have you been and what happened?”
I started to sob. I was a good kid. I know it was hard for my mom raising us when my dad was gone for long stretches.
“I got detention and then some kids pushed me and I fell in the mud…”
“Detention! Fighting! What is wrong with you? I didn’t raise you to be a hooligan. Get out of those clothes and get in the bath. I have to feed your sister and then we’ll deal with what happened.”
As I soaked in the bath, I replayed my day since lunch. What did I do wrong? What had made the principal and “the bad kids” find common ground that justified punishing me? I got out of the bath, dressed, and went downstairs to receive the sentence from the toughest judge, my mom. I found her in the kitchen. The envelope from Mr. Perkins lay on the counter and my mom was reading the contents intently.
“Dommie, what happened at lunch today?”
Dommie was my pet name. Good sign.
I told her what happened at lunch, what Mr. Perkins had said and what happened on the way home. When I told her the names they called me, she angered visibly, but her anger was not directed at me.
“Dommie, you did the right thing. People can be ignorant and children can be cruel, but some, like you, can be wise beyond their years.”
As she tended to my lip, I felt a mixture of relief and confusion. How can something that I did earn me both punishment and admiration.
I had a few nightmares that night and woke feeling sore. I dreaded going to school. When I went downstairs, my mom was dressed in one of her nicer outfits and our elderly neighbor, Mrs. Fitzsimmons, was in the kitchen as well.
“Mom, where are you going?”
“I thought that instead of signing Mr. Perkins note, I would pay him a personal visit to discuss it.”
We left the house and crossed the field toward the school. I wasn’t quite old enough to be embarrassed by walking to school with my mom. I felt safe. When we got to the school Mom told me to go on to class and she went to the front office. I didn’t know at the time what transpired in the office between my mom and Mr. Perkins. After the meeting, however, there was a change. I later found out that Mom had threatened legal action against the school and negative publicity for how Mr. Perkins handled the situation. Whatever she said made a difference, at least until disaster struck.
The change started with my mom packing extra food in my lunch. I asked her why and she said it was in case any of my friends wanted to share. I walked to school with a heightened sense of awareness based on the beating I took the previous day. Rufus and his crew lived on the other side of town and likely wouldn’t pass the school to bother with me. The morning was uneventful and then it was time for lunch.
When I entered the cafeteria, the Booth Three were sitting at their usual table. Isaiah saw me and caught my eye. He motioned for me to come over.
“You can sit here if you want to,” he said.
I was too shocked at the offer to say anything other than “thanks,” and I sat down and started to take out my lunch of homemade meatballs and Italian bread.
“I heard you took a beating because you sat with us,” Isaiah said. “That’s messed up.”
He then passed me some juicy looking ribs and looked at me expectantly.
“You want some meatballs?”
“Well, yeah. You didn’t poison us the first time, so I’ll take a chance,” he said and then flashed me a radiant smile.
As we ate together in the days that followed, conversations began. We talked about our families, our churches, our classes and other things that children talked about in the days before cable television, the Internet, and video games. Like me, the Booth Three had few friends at school and at home. They were shunned by their friends for coming to an all-white school. They weren’t viewed as pioneers or heroes. They were viewed as traitors who forgot where they came from.
I became friends with William, Molly, and, especially, Isaiah. We had more in common than you would think. We were outcasts among our peers. We were fish out of water. We also shared a love for music.
I found out that Isaiah played the saxophone like his father, William played the drums, and Molly could sing. When they found out I played the piano, William said, “We should start a band.”
“We could go to my house,” I said. “I’ve got a piano.”
“I can bring my horn to school,” Isaiah said.
I looked at William and said, “We don’t have drums at my house.”
“Do you have buckets and pans with lids?” he asked.
“Then I’ve got a drum set. I’ll just bring my sticks.”
“I’ll bring my voice,” Molly said quietly.
We looked at each other and laughed so loud that we earned a stern look from Mrs. Yancy, the English teacher who had cafeteria duty.
We decided that Friday would be the day. It couldn’t come fast enough for me. My mom promised to make a traditional Italian dinner for my friends. When Friday arrived, we planned our musical session. They would walk home from school with me and we would play for a while. The pastor from their church would pick them up at my house at 7PM after we had a chance to feast on my mom’s cooking. It was going to be a great day. I had no idea then how magical it would become and how the magic would be replaced by tragedy.
After school we met in front of the building for the short walk to my house. All eyes were on us, but we did our best to pretend casualness. Molly and I were flanked by Isaiah and William as we silently walked toward my house across the field. Amazingly, we were not bothered. We weren’t even inside the house when the aroma of garlic, tomato sauce, and fresh baked bread hit our nostrils.
“Somethin’ smells good,” William said.
“It smells like a better version of those lunches you bring to school,” Isaiah added.
It was just food for me. My mom usually cooked three or four times each week and we had leftovers the other days, or occasionally went out. When Dad was home, we ate wonderful home-cooked meals every night. My mom loved to cook, and was good at it.
We walked into the living room where the old Wurlitzer baby-grand piano stood perfectly polished and ready to go. Mom had also put some buckets of various sizes and some old pots and lids in one corner of the room. I introduced her to everyone and they nervously said hello, but my mom immediately put them at ease by giving each of us a slice of warm Italian bread slathered with butter. A lot can be learned by high-powered diplomats about the power of food to build bridges among diverse people. The Booth Three were instantly at ease.
I sat at the piano, William set up his makeshift drum set. Isaiah handed William the drum sticks he had stored in his alto saxophone case while he moistened a reed in his mouth. He then put his vintage Selmer horn together. Molly stood in front of us. We were ready to go except for one detail, what were we going to play? I knew the names of songs and composers. Isaiah knew the names of saxophone players. William knew drummers and Molly knew singers. This knowledge put us on incongruous ground.
“Do you know any Bird?” Isaiah asked.
“Bird? What’s Bird?” was my reply.
“You know, Charlie Parker.”
That didn’t help.
“Do you know any Cole Porter songs?” I asked.
“What does he play,” William asked.
“I don’t know,” was my reply to this.
We went on this way for a while and finally my mom came in and looked at us. “I don’t hear any music. What’s going on?” she asked.
“We don’t know any of the same songs,” I said.
“Come on now, I’m sure there has to be at least one song you all know.”
She named a few I knew that drew blank looks from the Booth 3.
“How about ‘When the Saints go Marching In’?”
This resulted in nods of recognition from all of us. I had learned this song as a march from one of my piano lessons and had taught myself the chords. My dad played guitar and taught me about the role of chords in music. I started to play the song as a march. Isaiah fumbled to find the key and played along. William played a marching beat on the bucket drums which he made sound incredibly musical. Finally Molly joined in with a voice so clean and powerful that we all stopped playing and looked at her. She had a voice honed by years of singing in church that made her sound musically mature beyond her age.
We played the song again from the beginning sounding slightly less tentative than the first time. When we were done, Isaiah shook his head.
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s too straight. We sound like a marching band. We need to put a little swing into it.”
My dad was a fan of big band music, so I knew what Isaiah meant. I just didn’t know how to get started. He played the song once through to demonstrate what he meant. When he was done he turned to William and said, “Start us off Willie.”
William played a masterful four bar introduction on his bucket drums and we were off. For a first try, it sounded great to us. When we were done, my mom came in from the kitchen and clapped.
“That was great. See you did know a song. And Miss Molly, how is that big strong voice coming from such a cute little girl?”
“Thank you ma’am,” Molly said quietly.
There was suddenly a noise on the porch and the front door swung open.
“Anyone need a guitar player in this group?”
It was my dad, still in his uniform and fresh off the ship two weeks early. I ran to him and jumped in his arms, not deterred by the smell of the sea mixed with perspiration.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Our deployment ended early and I wanted to surprise you.”
“Mom, did you know?”
“For a couple of days now,” she said as my dad swallowed her in a bear hug.
“I had to warn your mom so she would have time to get rid of her boyfriend before I got home.”
My mom playfully hit Dad with a towel.
“So, about that guitar player? I think your group needs one, but first I want to meet everyone.”
I introduced everyone to my dad and he retrieved his guitar from the closet. It was an early model Gibson solid body electric. He had a small amplifier that went with it. Before long, he was tuned and ready to go and the magic began.
My dad was a gifted natural musician and teacher. Using our only song, he taught us different ways to make it sound better. Our newly formed musical combo let Isaiah play the melody the first time through and then let Molly sing it once. Dad then let us take turns making up our own melodies over the chord changes. It sounded much better. We then switched to the blues. Dad taught me the chords in a blues progression in E-flat which was the equivalent of the key of C Major for Isaiah’s alto saxophone. We took turns improvising runs over the blues chords. When it was Molly’s turn, she made up words about our group with references to our school, but not to our differences, which had been set aside that magical night.
At 6:30, my mom announced it was time for dinner. We sat around the table and the only sound above the chewing and swallowing was laughter and talk of the next jam session, which would tragically not take place. At about 7PM, the sound of a vehicle pulling up in front of the house stole my dad’s attention.
“That’s probably Pastor Robinson here to pick us up,” William said.
“Oh no. Dinner’s running late because of all of that great music,” Mom said. “Italians tend to lose track of time when we’re eating.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Dad said as he rose from the table.
After a brief conversation, both men came through the front door.
“Are you sure about this Mr. Rozzani? I can wait for the children outside in the van.”
“I won’t let you do that when we have all of this extra food that will go to waste and please call me Francis. Mr. Rozzani is my father.”
Pastor Robinson chuckled at this.
“Well, Francis, may I use your phone to call the children’s parents to tell them we will be delayed.”
My dad showed him where the phone was in the living room. We could only hear the pastor’s side of three short conversations, but we could imagine the similar questions after he told the parents that he was invited to stay for dinner. When the pastor joined us, my dad set the tone for the rest of the meal.
“Pastor Robinson, we have already blessed this wonderful meal, but would you honor us by saying a special blessing for this gathering?”
The pastor was only too happy to oblige.
“Dearest Lord,” he began. “Please look down upon this special gathering and help us to understand that it must be the first of many of its kind. Let the blending of these peoples serve as a model for us all and as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us of his dream, let us be the waking realization of that dream. In Your Name. Amen.”
The three members of my family, being good Roman Catholics, made the sign of the cross at the conclusion of the blessing eliciting giggles from the Booth Three and a stern look from the pastor.
It was an enjoyable meal that night and a memorable night in terms of seeing my parents in a new light. They were truly caring, open-minded people. My Dad later told me that in the high-stress military environment, the only color that mattered was the color of your uniform. Everyone had families and loved ones they left behind regardless of what they looked like and where they came from.
When the meal was over, we begged Pastor Robinson to let us play one song for him. He agreed and we played a rousing version of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ with some surprise scat singing from Molly that brought a heartfelt smile to the pastor’s face. When we were done, William said, “Maybe we can play at church sometime.” We all joined in with “can we?” directed at my parents and the pastor. My dad and Pastor Robinson shared a look and the pastor said, “Now that would be something.” Unfortunately, it would never happen.
It was time for everyone to leave our home. It had been a great night and would have continued to be so had the church’s van not been vandalized sometime during the evening. The van’s letters had read West Indian Trail Baptist Church. On the driver’s side, the side away from our house, someone had crossed out the word ‘Baptist’ with red spray pain and had written the word ‘nigger’ above it. The reverend told the children to get in the van, thanked my parents with a deflated look, and drove away. A perfect night had been soured.
The vandalism of the church van was representative of the thinking during that time period. Peaceful events like the march on Washington, sit-ins at white only lunch counters and even dinner and music at my house were responded to with escalating violence accompanied by chronic ignorance.
On a warm early fall night, about a week after our dinner guests had left, the three of us were awakened by the sound of breaking glass coming from our downstairs living room. My dad told us to stay upstairs, grabbed his pistol, and went to see what happened. I noticed an orange-yellow flickering glow coming through our guest room window at the front of the house. As my mom and I looked out, I could see tense anger lines etched on her face reflected in the window along with the glow of the burning cross. I had no idea what the cross meant at the time, but would soon find out the hatred, intolerance, ignorance, and blasphemy it symbolized. My dad was out on the lawn dowsing the flames with our garden hose. They were quickly extinguished and he came back in. Mom was cleaning up the remnants of the broken window. Dad paused to pick up a large piece of paper that had been wrapped around the brick that had broken the window. He showed it to us. It said ‘Get out Rozanee, you nigger lover’. My dad broke into a bitter smirk.
“What is it Francis?” Mom asked.
“Ignorance and hate. So ignorant, they spelled our last name wrong.”
My dad called the sheriff. The officer took nearly an hour to show up at our house despite that the station was only a mile away. He said things like, “probably teenagers” and “What did you expect?” My dad pulled my mom aside after he left and said that it probably took him so long to respond because he had to change out of his hood and robe and into his uniform. I understood the meaning of this later and agreed with Dad.
This event at our home was only the beginning. The next weekend, a series of explosions was set off at the West Indian Trail Baptist Church. It took place during Sunday services when the church was full. News of what had happened was slow getting to our side of town, so I raced to school on Monday only to find out that none of the Booth Three were there. I approached Mrs. White before class and through tear-filled eyes; she told me that William and Molly had been killed as they sang with the choir. Isaiah had been badly burned, but would hopefully recover.
I left the classroom sobbing and ran home to my parents who had also discovered what happened and were there to comfort me. I later found out that Isaiah’s mom and older sister had also been killed by the explosions. Pastor Robinson had died from smoke inhalation as he repeatedly entered the church trying to save survivors. I felt incredible guilt wash over me. Had my loneliness at lunchtime led to this violence and death? My father, at hearing me express this, enveloped me in a powerful embrace.
“Dommie, you are a compassionate, smart, loving boy. Don’t let this change you and above all don’t blame yourself for the ignorance of others.”
It took me a couple of days to be able to go back to school. When I finally did, Mrs. White was very helpful and kind with helping me catch up. On Friday of that week, not quite a week after the bombing, my dad picked me up in our mint green Chevy Impala. This had me confused as we only used this car for trips.
“Hey Dommie, I thought you might want to go visit a sick friend today. I talked to Isaiah’s dad and he said that Isaiah is well enough for visitors today.”
I hopped in the car both anxious to see him and nervous about what I could say to make it better.
West Indian Trail Hospital was a rundown, neglected institution, but was also an enigma. Its doctors had left the South after being awarded scholarships at some of the top medical schools in the North. Although Affirmative Action had not been enacted yet, some of the more liberal institutions recognized intelligent black students as a type of academic and social status symbol. Many of those students returned to the South with visions of helping their communities and hospitals like West Indian Trail benefited from this.
There was no shortage of stares when we entered the hospital lobby. That was until a handsome, middle-aged woman dressed in black came to greet us.
“You must be Mr. Rozzani,” she said in a sad but dignified voice as she extended a hand to my dad.
“Mrs. Robinson. Let me say that I only spent a brief amount of time with your husband but I feel a profound loss at his passing. I can’t imagine what you are going through,” my dad said as he took her hand.
“The words ‘We shall overcome’ resonate with me,” she said. “Many others senselessly lost family members to this evil act. My husband died doing what he was meant to do, saving his flock. I will survive by helping others through this tragedy. And, you must be Dommie,” she said turning to me and placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. “My husband told me of your kindness and hospitality.”
“Thank you ma’am,” I said.
“Isaiah is doing well. He is a fighter like his daddy. They have incredible strength in the face of tragic loss and are lifting each other up. He is looking forward to seeing you. I’ll just warn you that he was burned badly and is bandaged quite a bit. He can do little more than whisper.”
With that, she led us to the elevator and we ascended to the hospital’s third floor where the two bed burn unit was currently treating ten patients from the church explosion. We walked down a row of closely spaced hospital beds until we came to one that had a strip of masking tape on it with MERCER, I. scrawled on it. A tired looking man with familiar, yet older, features sat by the bed holding the patient’s heavily bandaged right hand. As the man looked up at us, I couldn’t help but see many conflicting feelings behind his sad eyes. Blame, empathy, loss, envy. All of these seemed justified given the situation. He rose and shook my father’s hand.
“Isaiah Mercer,” he said. His name was the same as his son’s.
That was the extent of the words uttered between the two men, but their eyes said a thousand words.
I slowly walked over to Isaiah. The top of his head and his right eye were covered. His mouth, however, remained uncovered and noticeably undamaged.
“Hey Isaiah, I’m so sorry.”
Tears began to flow from my eyes.
“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s a mean world and the nice people get hurt,” he said in a breathy voice.
“But if I hadn’t sat down at lunch with you…” I started and he cut me off with a sharp one-eyed look.
“You didn’t set the bombs off. That would’ve happened anyway. You think they care about you? This is about hate for who we are.”
I couldn’t argue his point. It was similar to what my dad had said. Instead of insisting, I took Isaiah’s other hand and for whatever reason opened my mouth and started singing quietly.
“Oh when the saints, go marchin’ in…” As I did this, Isaiah joined me in a slightly stronger voice, then our father, and then other patients, visitors, doctors, and nurses in the ward. After about four times through, the singing stopped and Isaiah said he was tired. I told him I would see him again soon and we would get together and learn some new songs. Our fathers exchanged a sad look when I said this. I found out in the elevator from my dad that the fire had taken part of two fingers on Isaiah’s right hand and part of three on his left. His saxophone playing was essentially over. Isaiah’s dad also mentioned they were moving to Atlanta to be with extended family and to get away from memories.
On the way home my dad was very quiet. Then he finally spoke.
“Hey Dommie, speaking of getting away from memories, what do you think of moving back up to Syracuse?”
“Did the navy transfer you again?”
“Not exactly. I’m thinking of leaving the navy. I have two cousins that are police officers in Syracuse and they think I might be able to join the force.”
We had relatives in Upstate New York and somehow the idea of getting away from this socially intolerant area seemed like a good thing to me.
Time passed quickly and in 2013, I’m on the back-end of a long career in consulting. I have a great wife, kids, and grandkids. It’s been 50 years since that time in Indian Trail with the Booth Three. I still fly more than I would like at this point in my career. One of those interminable layovers in Atlanta resulted in a coincidence I never could have imagined. Atlanta has multiple terminals connected by a train. When I have a long layover, I sometimes like to find a quiet corner in one of the food court areas to sit and read a book. One thing about the Atlanta airport is that they are conscious about keeping these areas clean. Attendants are always present to clear your table and sweep up any litter immediately. During one such layover, out of the corner of my eye, I saw what I at first thought was a ghost. It was a tall black man wearing a uniform vest worn by those that help diners find tables or that need directions. Something about his carriage, even after all of these years, was familiar. I had to walk over and be sure. His vest had a name tag that read I. MERCER. It had to be him.
He looked at me with one clear eye and one that was not quite right, as though it may be a prosthetic.
“Yes sir. May I help you?”
“It’s me, Dominic Rozzani.”
I was sure he had no idea, but I had to try.
“You probably don’t remember me…”
“Dommie? Dommie Rozzani?
I hadn’t been called that name in years. There was no mistaking the smile.
“It’s me,” I said.
“How long has it been? Fifty years?”
“Yes it has,” I said. “I can’t believe I ran into you. I’ve been coming to this airport for years and sitting in this very spot and I’ve never seen you in all this time.”
“All this time? What do you mean, all this time? I’ve only worked here for a week.”
“A week? I just assumed”
“Just assumed? You just assumed the black man’s been working a minimum wage job in the airport for 50 years? That’s just racist.”
My face fell. Suddenly, Isaiah’s fake scowl turned into that famous smile again.
“Man, Dommie. After all these years, you’re still so easy to mess with. Let’s grab a cup of coffee and sit down if you have time.”
I had time.
“That would be great.”
We sat silently for a minute, not sure where to begin.
“So what have you been doing for the last 50 years, Dommie?”
“Oh the usual. We moved to Syracuse and dad became a cop. He made it to deputy chief and retired after 30 years without having a gun pointed at him. Then he dropped dead of a heart attack about a year into retirement. Mom was never the same. Physically she was OK, but she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died about seven years after Dad. I’ve been married for 35 years with three beautiful daughters.”
I thumbed my i-phone and showed him some pictures of the girls.
“Are they musicians like you and your dad?”
“No. Athletes. One of them graduated and is playing pro basketball in Germany.”
“Wow. Their mom must be athletic to explain that talent.”
“Funny, but accurate,” I admitted. “So, what about you? Have you been OK? It’s alright if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“Dommie, I get the feeling you think I just crumbled after Indian Trail and the church bombing. Believe me, I could have. Dad and I went through some rough times. He used to play his sax on street corners for change when we first moved here. One night a guy heard him playing and asked if he wanted to be in a back-up band for a singing group. Dad asked how much it paid and the guy said he thought it was pretty good. The group turned out to be Gladys Knight and the Pips just as they were hitting it big and touring. Dad got a great reputation as a dependable sax man who could read music, improvise, and show up on time. He was pretty sought after for recording and touring.”
“What about you? You were pretty talented, but the accident…”
“Oh, you mean these?”
He flashed his diminished hands.
“They were just a temporary setback. Dad found a saxophone company that made me a sax with special keys. I was never as fast as I could have been, but I was fast enough.”
“Fast enough to get a full scholarship in music education. I was a music professor at Morehouse College and Emory University for over 30 years. I just retired. I was driving my wife nuts so I took this job to get out of the house and people watch two nights a week. The money I make goes to the church and I get to stay married.”
I was blown away. I expected a sad story of a down and out man. Instead, I saw perseverance.
“What about kids?” I asked.
“Four of them and three grandkids. The three oldest, Sophie, for my mom, Marie, for my sister and William for, you know, are out on their own. At 45, my wife of 22 years announced she was pregnant and we had another girl, Molly.”
My eyes started to tear.
“Dommie, that experience in Florida is not forgotten to me. In some ways it is a perverse blessing in that it convinced my dad to get me out of there and to what eventually become a better life. Do you remember when I told you not to blame yourself?”
“Well, I’ve thought of you over the years. You and your family reached out. You taught me that not all white people were evil or out to get me and hold me down. Sure, some were, but finding that common ground, like you did with us, can bridge enormous gaps of ignorance.”
It was time to catch my flight. I couldn’t describe my feelings, but my face must have been transparent. Isaiah gave me a strong hug and said, “Thank you Dommie.”
As I left, I found a business card and wrote my personal cell phone number and email on the back and gave it to him.
“What’s this for?”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe we could keep in touch.”
He just smiled and tucked the card in his pocket.
I trudged down to gate A33 at the end of the concourse. As I was boarding the plane, my phone vibrated. I stowed my bag and collapsed into the seat exhausted for many reasons. Once I was strapped in, I pulled my phone from my pocket and saw I had received a text from an Atlanta number. I pulled up the text and it read, “Oh when the saints, go marching in…”