Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Innocence Lost, Part I

Joe Beasley, Southern Regional Director Rainbow/PUSH Coalition:

I think it was a lack of diligence on the part of the Braves to recruit African-American players. There's not diminished enthusiasm for African-Americans playing baseball. It's simply the opportunity hasn't presented itself.

griftdrift in May 2006:

Bill Clinton didn't lose Jesse Jackson. He was lost every time someone witnessed his vampiric tendency to show up at a tragedy. He was lost every time someone witnessed his need to place pride before principle. For me, he was lost one hot day in Albany, Ga.

Being birthed and raised in a small town in the deepest part of a southern state, the question of race has always been unavoidable.

I was born in an era when blacks still lived on their side of town. Where busing caused panic in white families. Where a sister would sob through the night from fear of going to the new black high school. Fear that she would be raped by the black boys or beat up by the black girls.

Up until the first grade, my only interaction with black people were the handy man who came around to help fix a fence or a maid when visiting a wealthier friend's house. Then I met Travis.

Travis was my first black friend. I was the next generation of desegregation. Entering first grade a full decade following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Attitudes had changed little but the gulf of racial understanding had begun to be spanned by the smallest of hands.

We both liked to draw. Every second grader likes to draw but it filled Travis and myself with a passion. While studying London, for God knows what reason, Travis and I were chosen to draw a map of the city on a huge piece of butcher paper stretched taut across the whole bulletin board. We threw ourselves at the project as only small boys do. We worked every free moment, forgetting recess, baseball, bugs and all the other passions of 7-year old males.

In between staring at pictures in our textbook and gripping our "sharpies", Travis and I talked. We talked about our homes and what we liked to eat. He liked grits and I, already feeling the seeds of rebellion, did not. My mother worked for the government and his worked at a restaurant. I was raised on a farm and he was raised in "the quarters". He was bussed clear across town to attend a "white school". I was a 5 minute ride away from pastures filled with cows.

The moment a child considers asking permission to have a friend over for the night is a momentous one. It is the first tentative step in forming one's own community away from the family unit. Of course, I didn't realize this at the time - I simply wanted to ask Travis to come over and spend the night.

Then, I began to think odd thoughts. I looked at Travis with his mid-70s fro and considered my own bowl cut. My new clothes and his hand me downs. I considered my split level house in the country and what I knew was Travis' shotgun shack in the poorest section of town. I gripped my magic marker and silently went back to drawing. The gulf was still there. The differences were far too great for a child to cross.

I lost track of Travis, but I think of him now as I remember another young man I met many years later.

In summers of the past, small towns meant baseball. For a 16-year old boy on summer vacation it also meant a summer job.

I was lucky. I didn't have to work 'baccer or some other hideously gruesome job. I worked for the city recreation department. In the morning, I assisted with the 6-8 year olds in day camp. They played kickball, tag and red rover while I generally stood around making sure they didn't kill themselves. In the evening, I umpired farm league baseball.

Farm league was for the kids 8-10 year olds who were not yet ready for the rigors of true little league. I had been a farm leaguer myself, usually positioned in right field at the end of a game, silently praying a fly ball wasn't hit my way. It was fairly obvious most of the boys didn't have the talent to progress beyond this level. A caught fly ball was a miracle. A pitcher who didn't walk the bases loaded was coveted. A catcher who could throw the ball on the fly to second on a steal was an MVP.

Every now and then, as I stood between the pitcher's mound and second, dodging another errant throw by a spaghetti armed catcher, I would spot a particular kid. One that I knew would make the progression to little league, then pony league and maybe beyond.

I spotted him early in one summer. He was shy, never smiled and wouldn't look you in the eye. But even at eight, he had the look of a baseball player. The confident lope of athleticism which set him apart from the other gangly messes of stumbling arms and legs. He could throw. He could catch. And lordy, could the child hit. The coach wisely placed him at shortstop in the vain hope the team might get some occasional outs at second and a few fly balls drifting into short center. His name was Dexter.

It happened off the bat of a monstrous catcher. One of those children whose glands had run wild causing a minor panic among the local uniform supplier. With a man on first, he smacked a grounder hard past me. I swiveled expecting the ball to scoot into center field but understanding I needed to make sure the runner tagged second. Then, Dexter did something wonderful.

He scooped the ball in his oversized glove, ran to second, tagged the base and gunned it to first. The second minor miracle occured when the tiny first baseman held onto the ball. Everything was silence. All was frozen, including myself. Mouth open, I slowly pointed at second and raised my fist then turned to first, pointed my finger and raised my fist. The crowd erupted. For many, it was probably the first true double play they had ever seen on this particular field.

Dexter trotted past me on his way to the dugout.

"Nice turn, Dexter", I said.

"Thanks", he replied, then turned to me, looked me in the eye and smiled.

I graduated a few years later. A decade later so did Dexter. I heard he received a baseball scholarship to Clemson and then toiled in the minor leagues. After that, as with Travis, I lost track of him. But I will never forget one evening as the sun set, a double play and the innocent smile of a child.

To read Part II, please CLICK HERE.


Grayson: Atlanta, GA said...

Wow. Beautiful, soulful post. Made me think of how I too was on the "frontlines" of desegregating... the South Carolina public school system. It was just hard. Plain hard, end-of-childhood hard. No getting around it. The whole experience put a toughness and a wariness in me and on me I never, ever wanted. There are scars and pain enough to last several lifetimes, and I can imagine the fun a therapist would have with my past.

But the hard times are eased when I think back on a high school pal, John Wood Gaither. He was black, from a farm family. I was one of the "dirty hipppies" new to the town in '71. We were both "advanced level" kids who took a lot of heat from refusing to back down from being snotty and proud of being smarter than the rest. Naturally, we bonded, but only while at school. We never even thought about socializing. That just would have crossed too many lines neither of us could possibly cross, as teenagers.

To this day though, I can see his grin flashing and his eyes lighting up at me from across our French classroom when it began to snow one winter day about '75 or so.

We couldn't help ourselves; we opened the window and jumped outside to throw snowball... at everyone. We got in so much trouble, but I don't think I've laughed so much in pure, innocent, goof-off fun ever since.

Makes me wish I was a filmmaker just to try to recreate that one perfect moment in time.

Anonymous said...

Very nice post, Grift!

I have to wonder, though, what kind of teacher would make two first graders draw a map of the whole city of London? That sounds more like a punishment, sort of like being forced to copy encyclopedia pages.

possum said...

My first grade teacher made me draw a map of Acworth