A number of you have seen a widely circulated email, source unknown, under the caption, “To All the Kids Who Survived the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s ’60s and ’70s!” If the contents, that generated this caption, do not jump out at you, let me jog your memory today. This email highlighted some questionable activities and actions, some unsafe and others unsanitary that we engaged in, in the past, yet we survived.
As this email pointed out, in the past, we survived being born to mothers that smoked or drank, or engaged in both while pregnant. Being reminded of baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-based paints may have left you shaking your head. You probably gave no thought to the lack of childproof lids on medicine bottles; we wore no protective helmets when we rode our bicycles. None of us gave much thought to infants and children riding in automobiles with no car seat, seat belts or air bags. Some of you still drink water from a garden hose and not from a bottle today, just as you did when you were running around in the streets and yards of your neighborhood in the past. As I reflected on these things and the fact that we did survive, I began to think about how many other unsafe and unsanitary things many of us practiced, back in the day.
A number of things that I did as a child were not safe. Many of these activities involved playing in the streets. One of my favorite playful activities was riding a bike; most children rode bikes during their developmental and teenage years. I imagine that many of you caught a bicycle ride by sitting up on the handlebars of another child’s bike. One of my close childhood friends could only get on his bicycle, due to age and size, by holding the handlebars, running along side of his bicycle, jumping onto the crossbar, placing his left leg on the left pedal and then flipping his right leg over the crossbar so that his right foot was then on the right pedal. Since he could not stop his bike in the normal way, he stopped it by crashing into a bush, curb, tree, can or some other object. Now, how safe was it for him or someone else with his limitations to ride a bicycle? How safe was it to ride one of those go carts, made from a crate and baby coach or roller skate wheels, down a step hill? If the go cart had no brakes, it was really unsafe. Riding a bicycle or a go cart was even more dangerous when you consider that there were no bike helmets back then and also many children could be found riding them after dark, with no lights or reflectors.
Some of the games we participated in had their challenges. One of my favorite games was “hot bread and butter.” While it was my favorite, it was also a game that ends with one of the participants being in tears; clearly this was not a safe game but still we played it with gusto. You may have called it by another name but the principles were basically the same. One boy or girl would hide a belt in the backyard of a neighbor. The call “hot bread and butter, come and get your supper” was the cry for everyone, usually five to ten participants to go into the backyard to find the belt. Once the belt was found, the finder would hit the other children until they returned to the designated safe area. In spite of being hurt, in some cases bruised, we played this game throughout my childhood. Also dangerous was riding a sled down a long driveway or hill, during a snowy day, right into the street. This was particularly dangerous when there was no one at the end of the driveway or hill to alert the occupant of the sled that an automobile was coming down the street. I do not know how I was able to get off of my sled, one afternoon, as my sled went directly under an oncoming automobile. Yet, I sled down this same driveway over and over again, knowing that it was unsafe. But, we did silly, dangerous and adventurous things like this, back in the day.
Many dangerous or unsafe practices were thought of as fun when we were young. Walking on the railroad tracks here in Philadelphia or perhaps in the South was one of those practices. Sometimes, unfortunate lessons came from this silly but dangerous behavior. If someone, while walking the tracks or in some other circumstance fell and cut himself, what was done to stop the bleeding when no first-aid kit was available? Someone reading this column had dirt rubbed into their cut to control the bleeding. I vividly recall the process for removing a splinter. A needle was sterilized by holding it over the burner of a stove or over a match. This was not only unsafe but also unsanitary. Then there was the habit of cleaning the wax from one’s ears with a hair pen. Now, this is not one of those unsafe and unsanitary habits left back in the day; a number of people still use this method today. I know for a fact that this is still being done today because “yours truly” is quick to pick up a paper clip to remove wax from his ears.
Ear piercing was one of those unsafe practices popular back in the day. Usually it was not done in a doctor’s office but at home. I can still see young ladies walking through the streets with tooth picks or straws, sometimes thread, sticking through their ear lobes. If things went well, eventually those young ladies would be wearing pierced earrings. However, the unsanitary practices used in piercing sometimes resulted in infections or other serious problems. Other unsanitary practices young ladies engaged in while in junior high or high school, included borrowing a friend’s lip stick or other makeup and sharing a friends comb or brush These were just things that we did back then. There was little thought as to whether these were unsafe and unsanitary behaviors.
When I think of how much emphasis is placed on hand washing, I think about the children who sucked their thumbs back in the day. How many of you sucked your thumb? For those of you that may have done this, do you recall frequently washing your hands before putting your thumb in your mouth? We know there are issues around this practice related to orthodontic services, after years of thumb sucking. However from a perspective of sanitary practices, thumb suckers would need to have done a lot of hand washing when you consider the many places those little hands had been.
What could be more unsafe and unsanitary than handling money and handling food at the same time? Most people have ignored in the past and continue to ignore the practice today of driving through a fast food restaurant to pick up their foods, remove the dirty money from their wallet, pay for it, receive their food and drive off while eating their food. Few people give thought to the number of times that money is handled after it had been printed? I know of no one that washes money. At the same time, think about that dirty steering wheel that you are handling. It is as dirty today as it was back in the day. While many food servers wear gloves today, you must recall that no one, particularly at drive through windows wore gloves, when we were growing up. Back then, we also were not carrying hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes with us so that we could be certain children washed their hands before eating their food. We cannot fail to mention the purchase of food from vendors, back in the day. Think about those dirty, but tasty, hot dogs that you purchased from carts on the street or at a ball park. Back in the day, they wore no gloves but even if they did, the water in which the hot dogs were cooked had been used from sunup to sun down. Not much has changed about this today.
Consider some of these other unsafe or unsanitary practices from back in the day. If you grew up in a neighborhood with a corner grocery store, then I have no doubt that the pickle barrow comes to mind. Many of us loved to go into the store and pick out a large dill pickle. What most of us did not considered, however, was how infrequent, if ever, these pickle barrows were emptied for cleaning. Were you someone that used a small sharp knife to put food directly into your mouth? Did you engage in passing a soda bottle as a youngster so that you all drank from the same bottle? As you became older, did you share the same bottle in drinking alcohol or share a cigarette with another person? Did you sneak into a dance through an open window by climbing up the side of a building? Do you still lick your fingers to turn pages of newspapers, magazines or books? So you dropped something you were eating on the ground or on the floor. Rather than throwing it away in the past, you picked it up, kissed it and held it up to the sky. Obviously, not safe ,and unsanitary. These are all things we warn our children and grandchildren not to do today, but we engaged in these things quite often, back in the day.
Of all of the things that I experienced while growing up that was unsafe and unsanitary, involved an injury I sustained while playing football at 11 years old. I broke the ligament on my right, ring finger. The top section of my finger was bent over on a forty-five degree angle. My cousin took me to his home to provide aid. He stopped while we walked to his home and picked up two freshly used Popsicle sticks that were lying on the ground. At his home, he placed my finger in a splint created with the Popsicle sticks. I did not tell my parents what had happened but they eventually found out when a week later my cousin removed the wrap and my finger bent over just like it was following my injury and surgery was the only answer.
Obviously, we survived and for many of us have lived to a ripe old age even though we did a number of unsafe, unsanitary and I should add, dumb things, during our developments years. However, I suspect that few of us would exchange the adventure, creativity, lessons learned and the camaraderie we experienced in these activities, back in the day.
My pastor, the Rev. Marshall Paul Hughes Mitchell, is clearly the master of words.
At the rate I am going, I may have to provide him with a small stipend as quite often, his interesting, informative, instructional and well-delivered sermons plant thoughts in my mind that have become the basis for a number of my columns.
This is true today as the genesis for this column comes from something my pastor said, on a Sunday morning several weeks ago.
At some point during the worship service, at Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, my pastor used the term “gumption.” My wife looked at me and whispered that she had not heard this term in some years.
So, I decided that I would invite our readers to join me in taking one of those memorable trips to back in the day, recalling those unique words and sayings that people used in communicating with one another — words and terms that were quite descriptive — words that often times were not in the dictionary — terms that we associate with family and neighborhood folk — words that were imbedded neatly into our memories as a result of people being creative or cool — words that came, perhaps, from growing up in the south or just being misinformed, back in the day.
Just look around your home and you will reflect on words that are seldom used even though those same things from the past are still around, yet called by a different name. You may recall when your living room was a parlor. What about a sun room, vestibule or shed kitchen? What ever happened to the family’s cuckoo clock? Is there still a mantel in your home? While you may still have a table in front of the couch rather than the sofa, do you refer to it as a coffee table? What about other things that were in your home such as armchairs, bunk beds, oven, ice box, pot belly stove, linoleum, china cabinet, Venetian blinds, banister, claw foot bath tub, and wash tub. I know that you recall people using this word, Frigidaire, a brand name, to refer to all refrigerators back in the day.
When is the last time you used any of the following words or terms in relationship to your automobile — running board, continental kit, manual gear shift, choke, clutch, dimmer switch, antenna, eight track tapes, white walls, inner tube, bumpers and bench seat? Whatever happened to another word associated with automobiles, hitchhike? In the world of fashions, do you still hear the word trousers, britches or knickers in anyone’s vocabulary? Do you still tell a person that they are wearing some nice threads or that they are dressed in a snazzy manner? Are stockings with seams still asked for when buying nylon stockings? Are articles of clothing still described as being store bought or homemade? Do women today carry a purse or a pocketbook?
If you work in an office, think about those things that are no longer there. Something as popular as a typewriter has disappeared! I know that there is no mimeograph machine still being used. With few exceptions, time clocks are things of the past. Do any of you still receive overtime payments or compensatory time? Is there a drinking fountain in your place of employment or a water fountain?
Many of us have been in tough situations in the past with a knucklehead; quite often we end up in situations that we described as being “in a pickle” — being in a pickle as a result of just fiddlin’ around. In reaction to being in such situations you could have heard my father’s favorite word, confounded! If it was one of those heated discussions, with more than a share of cussing, you may have accused your colleague with engaging in “fool’s talk”; the person was a heathen that was trying to bamboozle you. The reaction to a confrontation in the past may have resulted in the expression, “oh phooey” or “darn it” perhaps ending with such words as, “I’m not studyin’ you!” These words are occasionally heard today but they were widely used, back in the day.
If boy/girl relationships have crossed your mind, then you are obviously thinking about those many words associated with all aspects of dating. When is the last time you heard someone ask a potential partner, “can I stand a chance with you?” Or, “will you go with me?” Conversely, how many years has it been since you were told or you told someone, “I quit you”? These are clearly, back-in-the-day expressions. How many words from your past can you recall that were used to describe a female that was well-endowed? Did you describe such a female as being built, sporty, stacked or a brick house? Under such circumstances, did you describe the female as bad when her physical condition was not simply good but awesome? So, did you try to hit on such a lady that was choice or fine, with the object to hook up with her? I recognize that I write for a family oriented newspaper. Thus, I must be careful with words from the past to describe a physical encounter. Clearly, there are a wide variety of such terms but let me simply leave you with I would love to hit that or get some. Now, tell me, does the term knocked up come to mind in mentioning these words? So, what were your words for a female that had a light complexion? Were they fair, light-bright, redbone or yellow? I am sure there were young ladies in your school or who lived in your neighborhood referred to as being five hundred or sadidy. Believe me, it was tough dealing with one of these young ladies that were viewed as high falutin’, back in the day.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were those less desirable females that were saddled with terms that were not complimentary at all. Most of you are familiar with the terms tack head and pepper head. What does the term skeezer mean to you? What about boga bear or someone with a bad mug? Now, I know that you recognize what it means when a young lady is described as fast! As far as young men are concerned, I know that someone in your neighborhood or school was a Romeo. Being classified as a dog or a player was common in the past when one had many girlfriends and these terms are still used on a regular basis today. These were guys that girls should have ditched sometime ago. If you were an older man and engaged in such behavior, you were classified as an old buzzard. Then again, perhaps the guys you know did not fit these terms. Maybe they were nerds, mama’s boys or boys that were always engaging in some type of lollygag or who just talked a great deal of smack or do-do.
So, what was a whatchamacallit? Did you ever ask, “wassuuuup?” Was there really a thingamajig? Have you ever inquired about that doohickey? Has irregardless found its way into the dictionary replacing the term regardless of? Do you know anyone that is clearly a smart alec? You have been out on the town and you return to your pad totally wiped out; blasted; bombed out; or a tad bit, high from drinking that idiot juice and ending up going home as a running drunk. The term heard most frequently in the past was, tore up.
Whenever I think about words that are no longer around or words that were not used or pronounced correctly in the past, I think of my mother saying remember me when she should have correctly said, remind me. Also, the Acme Supermarket was always pronounced “A-ca-me” by my mother. One of my close friends regularly spoke of her grandmother’s worryation. In response to my doing something in haste, a close friend said to me on numerous occasions when the outcome was not as expected, “I could have told you that in the first beginning.”
It would be difficult to leave you with the numerous words that are not around today but let me leave you with a few more. I was ushered out of the store. I know you recall oh shucks; fly; hip; freakin cool or bad; greenbacks; she’s the bomb; school master; cockeyed; bow legs; graveyard; timepiece; supper; lame; shot down; soda pop; movie house, lady like; make haste; yester night; yes sin; chill; kick back; fair to middling; y’all; composed; copesthetic; digits; grub; fire plug; filling station; red car; shush; crumb snatchers; money tree and elbow grease. So, when you went outside, did your mother say that you were outdoors or outside?
There is no doubt that I have barely scratched the surface with these words and expressions; you could add significantly to these words that I recall from the past. As you recognize, some of these words are still in use while others have totally disappeared. Obviously, one must be careful with regard to the context, as well as the environment, in which some of these words are used. One thing, however, is certain; if you connect with them when you are out and about and hear someone using one of the words or expressions appearing in this column, there is little doubt that their vocabulary was developed and refined, as was yours, back in the day.
On this Mother’s Day, many of you will send cards, give flowers and make long-distance telephone calls to mothers who are out of the area. Some of you will accompany your mother to church wearing carnations of various colors. Many of you will have your Mother’s Day dinner with your mother proudly smiling at the head of the table. Each child and quite often some grandchildren will jockey for position to obtain a photograph with their mother or grandmother as a treasured keepsake.
I used to do these things, but not for the past ten years. I no longer have Mother’s Day with my mother, as my dear mother passed in August 2002. Time has not eased the pain nor erased the memories. As the day passes, I will shed a tear or two and will experience many moments of loneliness because my mother will not be with me.
There will be that time when I will sit in church and watch mothers being honored. There will be that long ride out to Rolling Green Cemetery, where the sadness will probably be strongest. But there will also be many moments of joy as I reflect on times I spent with my mother.
Many of you will struggle, as I do, to cope with the absence of your mother on this day. It will not just be those of you who are spending your first year without your mother. If you had the type of relationship I had with my mother, it could be as much as 20, 30, 40 or more years since your mother passed.
But time has not erased the desire to spend one more time looking into her eyes and saying what we all would like to say, “Mother, I love you.”
So I invite you to join me in a trip similar to one I took in a Mother’s Day column in this paper on May 12, 2002, ten years to this day. I will again reflect on special qualities of my mother, just as you will reflect on those special qualities associated with yours.
Many of us have warm, fond memories of our mothers. If you close your eyes, that favorite memory will undoubtedly flash through your mind. For me, there is something about the kitchen that most often brings my mother to mind; for this is where she loved to spend most of her time. I can still see her dragging out the large potato chip can in which she stored the flour for her Saturday night baking ritual. Saturday night in my household always meant my mother would be sitting on a small stepstool, preparing cakes, pies and rolls. I can still see her with the large tan mixing bowl, preparing batter. As a little boy, I would hang onto her apron as I climbed up on the chair and stuck my finger into the mixing bowl to get a taste of the batter. There were no instant mixes in her cabinets; everything was made from scratch. What I would not give to have this experience again.
Perhaps it was not the Saturday night baking that brings your mother to mind. Perhaps it was Sunday after church, when everyone gathered around the dinner table for the mandatory Sunday meal. So, where did your mother sit? Mine always sat to the right of my father, who was at the head of the table. Did your mother place all of the desserts on the buffet? Did she wear a special apron as well as a special outfit for Sunday dinner?
Thanksgiving and Christmas were the most celebrated holidays in my household. All the children and grandchildren would sit at tables that extended down the hallway in order to be part of a tradition that was so typical of Black family life back in the day.
On this Mother’s Day, it is hard not to miss this experience, for it was one our mothers held on to over the years. Unfortunately, as mothers have passed on, this bonding tradition has disappeared.
Perhaps it is not the kitchen or those unforgettable holiday dinners that bring your mother’s face to view. Perhaps it’s those trips to church on Sunday mornings. Go back in the day and I will bet that you can still identify the pew where you sat with your parents and siblings. There have probably been several ministers since that time, but the pastor’s name during this period remains prominent in your mind.
Can you still hear your mother’s favorite Bible verse? Was it the same as the one my mother loved to hear, beginning with, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil”? Or do you still hear her singing her favorite song as you sit through Sunday worship service? Words like, “Just a closer walk with thee….” God, church and mothers! Someone once said that God could not be everywhere, thus he created mothers.
Food-shopping is not one of my favorite activities.One great thing about it, however, are those fond memories of going up and down the aisles filling up the shopping cart.
Although I was but a little kid, I felt like a big boy when my mother gave me a list of items to secure as she continued shopping. I continued to feel like a big boy as I helped to bag the groceries at the checkout counter. These are but a few of those back-in-the-day experiences that cause me to long for another moment with my mother.
Am I the exception, or are you also able to go back in the day and resurrect experiences from your primary years that continue to be vivid images for you? Can you recall kneeling by the side of the bed learning your first prayer? Or, could it be your first instructions on how to brush your teeth? The experience of sitting in the family’s claw-foot bathtub with my mother washing my back and my hair remain clear memories to this day. The use of Ivory soap and the rubbing of baby oil all over my body are from lessons taught and lessons learned, back in the day.
Wrestling is not a sport I care to watch. But back in the day, while most Blacks were drawn to baseball because of the path blazed by Jackie Robinson, my mother gravitated to and grew to love wrestling. As kind, gentle, loving and caring as she was, I could never truly understand her love for this sport. She could rattle off with ease names like Gorgeous George and the midget wrestler, Sky Low-Low. I have fond memories of her cheering her favorite wrestlers.
Many of us today participate in family reunions. My siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and others make an annual trek to Walterboro, S.C. to keep the memory of the Singleton-Reid family alive. I recall the holiday cookouts, especially on the fourth of July. Do you still have your mother’s picnic basket stored away? Certainly you recall family-sponsored bus trips to places like Coney Island, back in the day. Who was most prominent on these trips? It was your mother, of course. Go on a bus excursion today, and more than likely, you will be looking around for your mother, as her spirit will be in the air.
Throughout my school experiences, from elementary school through college, my mother’s love and care were always there. I have an elementary school picture of myself, but it is not me that I see first. I first see my mother,because the shirt I am wearing in this photograph is one she made. When I look at my college graduation pictures, yes, my mother is there. Those care packages she sent made campus life more bearable. For many of us, our mothers were always there. That is why some of us can fondly reflect back in the day to the relationships we had with our mothers.
Not everyone had or has a relationship like the one I have described. I must say I have great difficulty understanding children who can go days, weeks or months without some contact with their mother. A lot of people from my era argue that a young lady can learn a lot about a potential boyfriend or husband simply by observing the relationship between him and his mother. Quite often, a young man selects a mate based on the qualities of his mother.
My mother enjoyed 93 years here on this Earth, and I enjoyed and cherished the years, days, hours and minutes that I had her with me. So if you are fortunate enough to still have your mother today, I encourage you to redefine your relationship with her, if it is not strong. I encourage you to strengthen your relationship, even if it is already strong. Understand that your mother will not be around forever and you too will experience, as I am doing today, a future Mother’s Day without her. Put yourself in a position where you can have warm, pleasant and fond thoughts of your mother tomorrow because of things that you do today. Make your future memories possible because of what you have invested in your relationship with your mother today. Memories that will be, in the not-too-distant future, your back in the day.
There is nothing like the Penn Relays. If you grew up in Philadelphia, it is an event that goes on one’s calendar at the beginning of each year, marking the fourth Saturday in April. I have attended the Relays since my high school days. I have missed them only once or twice during the past 55 years. I sit in the same location and almost the same seat each year. Since I started writing this column in 2001, I have devoted time to the Relays and continue to enjoy reflecting on those memorable visits to the Carnival back in the day.
Last week as I approached Penn Relays weekend, my thoughts went back to recent years, but also to my high school and college days. While the Penn Relays Carnival was full of fun when I was in high school, it could not equal the excitement that came during my college days. The activities began weeks before. Friends would become closer friends and even enemies would seek to become friends, especially with those who lived in the Philadelphia area. A major reason for these friendships was the hope of finding a place to stay. On the Friday afternoon of Relays weekend, people would travel to Philadelphia using any means necessary. Quite often, the mode of travel would be hitchhiking. Not everyone was fortunate enough to hook up with a friend to have a roof over his or her head. I recall cases where one person rented a hotel room and ten or more people would sleep there. One of the most popular low-end hotels where people stayed was the Essex, at 13th and Filbert streets.
I even recall circumstances where people had to sleep in their automobiles. But they did not seem to mind, as the time spent at the Penn Relays and the time spent partying left little time for sleep. Activities actually started on Friday evening. For some people, it was not the track and field games that drew them to the Penn Relays, but rather the partying associated with them. There were house parties and cabarets, mainly cabarets. The Imperial Ballroom at 60th and Walnut streets was one of the major places to party. Times Auditorium at Broad and Spruce streets was another popular place. Just the thought of people coming together for the Penn Relays caused me to think about the camaraderie that still exists among many of us as a result of relationships built back in the day.
For my generation, Penn Relays partying has become more controlled; controlled in what we do; controlled in where we come together; and controlled in who attends. An event in the home of one of my fraternity brothers, Gus Dingle, in West Philadelphia is an example of this controlled celebration.
While no one can pinpoint exactly when it started, those who were around in its early years believe it goes back more than 25 years. Guys, and only guys, who were childhood friends, college classmates, co-workers, members of Greek-letter organizations and several who were track runners gather for the old folks’ version of partying. Dingle says this Friday night gathering was the result of close friends going to the Penn Relays each year and deciding to get together to continue the bonding experience they shared during the Carnival. This afforded a place where they could share the good times and the not-so-pleasant times they had experienced over the years. Why no females? I have been told this was a decision made by design when the getting together idea was conceived. The men simply wanted a place where they could unwind; a place where they could be loose; a place where they would not have to bite their tongues. So after the last event on the Friday of Relays weekend, there was a trek to the home of Gus Dingle. Some of those attending live in the Philadelphia area, while others come from up and down the East Coast, with a large contingent from Virginia and the Washington, D.C. area. This year, at least one person came from California. It is a touching experience to see approximately 20 Black men laughing and smiling as they come together one more time. Coming together becomes very significant when one reaches the fourth quarter of his life, to use a sports metaphor, and assumes even greater significance for those who have been blessed with being in the overtime of their lives.
In most Black homes back in the day, no one entering stopped in the living room; everyone headed straight to the kitchen. This is still true today, at least with this group. You can see those who come through the front door looking past the living room, their eyes fixed on the activity in the dining room and kitchen. As you would expect, food is everywhere; and while the days of alcohol consumption for most should have come to an end many years ago, that so-called “idiot juice” is readily available and well-consumed. In the years I have attended this gathering, I have done like everyone and headed straight to the rear of the home. I look for familiar faces so I can extend my annual greetings to those from out of town. The difficulty in this, however, has been the same every year. In the dining room, my eyes become focused on the roasted pig that stretches the length of the table. While I have no difficulty with eating pork, bacon, sausage and hot dogs, looking down at the pig while its eyes look up at me is a different story. The pig is not for me, but it is obviously okay for others, as it disappears each year before the fried chicken. From what I ate, in particular the potato salad, and from the comments of others, everything on the dining room table, the buffet, kitchen table and makeshift dessert table in the living room was exceptionally good. You may wonder about the food preparation. The pig is prepared by the House of Pork in South Philadelphia at the Italian Market; the chicken wings are from a restaurant, and desserts were provided by a female member of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church. The rest of the food is prepared by relatives and friends of Gus Dingle. Those who eat the food and have a drink or two make a modest financial contribution that does not appear to cover the basic costs. While the food and the drinks are worthy of writing home about, it is the conversation that brings the most fun; conversations that bring back fond memories from back in the day.
I am a relative newcomer to the group. However, for those who have been attending this gathering for years and those like me who have been coming only in recent years, it takes little effort to quickly become engaged in conversation. Much of it is about track, as many of those in attendance ran in the P Relays while in high school or in college. Anyone there not from this50-plus age group would think the discussions were from another world. You would hear conversations about the parking difficulties in nearby garages. Someone would tell a story about the ease of street parking in years past. The terrible conditions of the bathrooms at Franklin Field would find their way into the discussion. Someone would comment on having passed up getting a new Easter outfit in order to get a new Penn Relays outfit, as everyone attended the Relays in the past “dressed to kill.” Morgan University’s competition with Villanova in the late fifties and early sixties invariably comes up. At some point during the conversation about Morgan, you hear names such as Paul Winder, Tommy Anderson, Robert and “Rob-Roy” Ridley, III, who gathered with us on this evening. The Smith brothers, Lou and Hosea, always receive their share of attention, as do Ronald Merriweather, Cy Killer, Nick Ellis, Bob Barksdale and Morgan’s great hurdler, Josh Culbreath. Discussions of the feats of some of those present while in high school go on for hours. The great thing about these discussions is that we do not have to sit through exaggerations that are so common when men get together and talk about their high school and college athletic accomplishments. You see, in a gathering like this one, there is always someone who will forcefully tell you that you are telling a fib. I enjoy taking it all in, for we are able to share the fun and smell the roses while we still can. I can come together with friends while we can be seen and not situations where we can only be viewed.
I know coming together as we did last Friday night is not peculiar to our gathering at Gus Dingle’s home. I suspect that in many homes across the Delaware Valley, the Penn Relays Carnival was the impetus for a bonding experience. Our coming together occurs too often around the homegoing of someone from our era. I encouraged the group, as I encourage you, to take the lead and bring friends together more often; the Penn Relays Carnival occurs but once a year. Great relationships deserve more time and should take place more often, as time is passing quickly. Our younger generation should take a lesson from those from my era, whether it starts with socializing in the stands of Franklin Field, a dance or coming together in someone’s home, they should work on building relationships so there will be camaraderie in the future built on relationships that were established and nurtured, back in the day.
Last week, I went to to see “42,”the movie i about Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball. However, it was more than a baseball story; it was also about the Black family; the Black community; racism in America; and Branch Rickey, the man who took a risk and made Robinson a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. I thought it was an excellent movie that left me and perhaps others with a wide range of emotions The racism directed toward Robinson may have made some angry, but I felt sorrow for our white brothers and sisters whose ignorance is the basis of the racist behavior we still see today. As I glanced around the theater, I could not help but observe the reaction of the predominantly white audience; it was clear they were embarrassed. During the movie, I found myself reflecting on the days of my youth, when Jackie Robinson was on the hearts and lips of every Black person, in particular our young men who dreamed of playing major league baseball.
If you are a teenager today, I suspect much of your spare time is spent on the computer searching the Internet, downloading music, sending text messages on your mobile telephone or fooling around with some other digital device. Back in the day, at this time of the year, and particularly during the summer, my generation was out in the neighborhoods playing a wide variety of games. “Baby in the Air,” “Kick the Can” “Blind Man’s Buff,” “Hot Bread and Butter” and other games kept us expending tons of energy. Participating in the game of baseball captured the imagination of most of us. Unlike the grown men we imitated, we had no uniforms; no field; no bases.
The ball had to be a “pimple” ball. These were white, hollow and covered with little protrusions we called “pimples.” A broomstick became a bat and the pimple ball, cut in half, made the game of half-ball. This game,with its special rules and playing conditions, was one of our early introductions to baseball. When we grabbed the broomstick bat, we pretended we were our favorite player. In 1953, at age14, I had to be Jackie Robinson. Our role models for baseball were limited. While we knew the names of Larry Doby, Hank Thompson, Monte Irvin, Sam Jethroe, Minnie Minoso and Ernie Banks, our young people would say of Robinson, “He be the man,” back in the day.
As a child, I clearly did not understand the issue of racism. My parents made every effort to shield me from this very dark side of America. I had a vague understanding of Robinson’s struggles as a result of a trip taken with my father down behind the “cotton curtain” to Walterboro, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. when I was about eight years old. I experienced segregation at service stations, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor and a playground. But, it was not until I observed my mother, other family members and neighbors put everything aside when the Brooklyn Dodgers came to town that I really focused on this baseball player who brought so much joy to Black folk, Television was slow arriving in many households, and mine was no exception. I still have images of my mother with her ear pressed against our cathedral-style Philco radio when Jackie Robinson came to the plate. While I was somewhat sensitized by family, friends and neighbors to the horrific conditions Robinson faced to become a professional baseball player, the movie “The Jackie Robinson Story,” released in 1950, opened my eyes to the racism in sports, particularly baseball, at the tender age of 11. Those who want to compare the movie “42” to the 1950 Jackie Robinson movie can view the latter in its entirety at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ttb41kGNLdI.
Robinson played himself in this movie. Unlike “42,” the 1950 version provides more information about his early life, but still highlights the racist attitudes and behavior he had to deal with in becoming a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The discussion between Robinson and Rickey, shown in both films, has been with me over the past several weeks. Robinson asks Rickey, “Do you want a ball player who’s afraid to fight back?” Rickey responds, “No, I want a ball player with the guts not to fight back.” Some of my friends did not like this movie because of scenes like this. Some felt such behavior was unrealistic. Others felt Robinson portrayed behavior in keeping with the expectations and demands of whites and not in keeping with the temperament of a Black person in such conditions. Several indicated they would not see this movie because what Robinson did was too high a price to pay simply to get into baseball. I wonder about people who have such views, in light of our history; a history where Uncle Toms had a legitimate role in our advancement. One of the most interesting comments I heard rejecting the glamorizing of Robinson’s arrival in Major League Baseball was on the destruction of the Negro Baseball League without consideration of the larger picture; how integration destroyed the Black economic structure. I am supportive of Jackie Robinson, and I would love to see more Black men like him; men and women too, who recognize that who and what we are results from sacrifices made back in the day.
It is hard for those who grew up in my era not to embrace “42” and the life of Jackie Robinson. After all, what heroes did we really have back then? I saw my mother smile and even laugh sometimes when things in life were not going well and her only hope for good times was tied to Number 42 getting hits, stealing bases and making incredible plays around second base. As Rickey pointed out in “42,” there were little white kids playing baseball and pretending they were Jackie Robinson. Where else in this country did we have such recognition of Black people? How many baseball players had the greatness of a Jackie Robinson so their jersey number was retired by the entire league so no other player in the history of the major leagues would ever wear his number again? What other notable in any field had such impact on Black youngsters that my elementary school class was taken, during school hours,, to watch Jackie Robinson play at Shibe Park?
Yes, Jackie Robinson was more important than school, and while there have been negative comments about the movie, I have also received some compelling and positive comments. One came from a good friend from North Jersey, Fred Means, who wrote in an email, “Last night, Helen (his wife) and I saw ‘42.’ I believe the film gives an excellent portrayal of what happened. They did not avoid the reality of racism so institutionalized during the period that I remember so well. The film did not address the political views of Jackie, rather it showed the courage he had to confront hate with love. This was an excellent example of the non-violent tactic that Dr. King utilized to move us forward to where we are today. When I participated in demonstrations as a part of CORE, we refused to allow anyone to join us who could not remain non-violent. I know what it took for Jackie to endure the hateful abuse that he took paving the way for Blacks in all of America’s sports teams. At another time we can consider the political differences that we always have. However, it is sufficient here to simply give honor to a man who had the courage to overcome hate with love, as we continue to seek equality in America.”
Donald Hunt, sports writer for The Philadelphia Tribune, put this movie in proper perspective when he wrote in his April 9 column The Locker Room, “It’s a movie that everybody should see. It’s a film that every kid should see who isn’t familiar with Robinson’s story or what he accomplished in his career.” Teachers should find a way to take their classes to see “42” during school hours today, just as our teachers took us to see “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
Finally, there is the man who made all of this possible; the man born in Stockdale, Ohio in 1881; the man from a strict religious family; the man that said, “There has never been a man in the game who could put mind and muscle together quicker than Jackie Robinson.” As I have reflected back on “The Jackie Robinson Story” as well as “42,” Branch Rickey has become one of my heroes. He is someone I would love to better understand. I recognize that he had an economic agenda in pursuing Blacks in Major League Baseball. However, in the same manner that we need more Black men with the temperament of Jackie Robinson today, we need more white folk today like Branch Rickey, who made race insignificant, back in the day.