Kamis, 29 Desember 2011

CHOCOLATE MAN by Peter Nolan Smith

In 1861 Maine was the northern most state on the Eastern Seaboard. The distance from Portland, Maine to rebel lines of Northern Virginia was approximately 500 miles. The 20th Maine Regiment traveled south to engage the enemy. The troops were stricken by a smallpox outbreak in camp and missed the bloody battle of Chancellorsville in the Spring of 1862. The regiment was up to strength by year’s end and saw action for the first time as the last charge at Fredericksburg in the winter of 1863. Bullets plucked lives from the cold air and the commander ordered his soldiers to take shelter on the open field. Under the cover of night they returned to their lines chastened by the hailstorm of Confederate rifles and cannons.

Their next outing was at Gettysburg and historians have credited Colonel Joshua Chamberlain with the salvation of the vulnerable Union left with a desperate charge.

“At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.”

Chamberlain and the 20th Maine fought to the war’s bitter end.

At Appomattox a Confederate officer approached the 20th Maine under a white flag. He carried an offer of surrender from Robert E. Lee and the mayhem of four bloody years ended with a ceasefire. Three days later Colonel Chamberlain was present for the formal cessation of hostilities. As the rebel soldiers gave up with colors and rifles, Chamberlain ordered his command to attention. His memoir THE PASSING OF ARMIES captured the solemn dignity of that moment.

“Gordon, at the head of the marching column, outdoes us in courtesy. He was riding with downcast eyes and more than pensive look; but at this clatter of arms he raises his eyes and instantly catching the significance, wheels his horse with that superb grace of which he is master, drops the point of his sword to his stirrup, gives a command, at which the great Confederate ensign following him is dipped and his decimated brigades, as they reach our right, respond to the ‘carry.’ All the while on our part not a sound of trumpet or drum, not a cheer, nor a word nor motion of man, but awful stillness as if it were the passing of the dead.”

This gesture signaled the honor shared between combatants, although many northerners considered his chivalry close to treason. It had been a long hard war and the State of Maine commemorated the sacrifice of their native sons with bronze statues of steel-eyed soldiers facing south. They had saved the Union and freed the slaves, even though the black population of Maine was roughly 1300 freed men. By the year of my birth the African community had grown to about 6000 centered in the factory towns of Lewiston and Bangor, making the Pine Tree State the whitest state in the USA.

Falmouth Foresides, my childhood hometown, had two minorities; French-Canadians and Jews. When my parents were shown a house on McKinley Road, my mother asked the realtor, if there was a Catholic church nearby.

“Are you Catholic?” The real estate agent made a face.

The year was 1954.

“Yes.” My father answered with conviction. He had converted to the ancient religion to marry my mother. He liked this neighborhood. The two-story house was five yards from the bay. Portland’s Eastern Heights rose across the harbor. The air was scented by the sea and the smell of bread wafting from the Nissen Bakery near the Back Cove. Work was a ten-minute drive away from our front door.

“And a Maine native.” He spoke the words with pride.

“I guess it’s okay, we have a Jew living on the next street.”

The backhanded comment went undressed by my father and we paid little attention to our minority status. His ancestry in America dated back to the Mayflower. My brothers and sisters were blonde-haired and blue-eyed. My mother’s beauty was a homage to Hibernia. Her soaring singing voice could silence a choir and she was a welcome addition to cocktail parties in the coastal suburbs north of Portland.

When my older brother and I grew old enough, we attended a one-room schoolhouse in a pine grove. My best friend, Chaney Noyes, was a half-breed like me, although his non-Yankee side was Czech and not Irish. He was also a Catholic, but our faith was practiced at bedtime and on Sundays. The stigma of religion was never mentioned in school, however my mother told us to never forget our heritage and we toasted St. Patrick’s Day with the IRA call to arms, “Up the rebels.”

None of the French-Canadians spoke French in class and the single Jew, Steven Gordon, was a good baseball player. Falmouth Firesides was a world without color until my father brought home a Zenith black/white TV.

Our obsession with HOWDY DOODY, BOZO THE CLOWN, THE THREE STOOGES, and THE YOUNG RASCALS drove my parents crazy with the thought that their children were addicted to TV. Our height of funny was achieved by Three Stooges and Curly’s cry for cheese.

“Moe, Larry, cheese.” My older brother, my best friend, and I ran around the yard yelling these words until we were hoarse.

“Idiots.” My father hated my comic idols.

Sunday night was a family event and we watched CBS from LASSIE to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.

My brother wanted to watch MAVERICK in the 7:30 slot. NORTHWEST PASSAGE, Kenneth Robert’s historical novel set during the French-Canadian War was my favorite. Our desires were secondary to our parents’ choice. It was their TV on Sunday night.

“Boring.” I muttered under my breath, as I sulked every Sunday night through the one hour of THE JACK BENNY SHOW. My parents laughed at the jokes about Jack Benny’s stinginess, the man who said, “Yeeee-essss?” and the tribulations of his love interest. The only bright spot for us was Rochester ‘s appearance on the screen.

“Chocolate man.” My brothers, two sisters and I shouted with enthusiasm.

Actually Rochester was darker than Nestle’s Bar, although the color of Hershey chocolate was merely another shade of black-and-white on our TV. Steven Gordon had a color TV. His father owned an appliance store on Congress Avenue.

“Rochester is not a Chocolate Man. He’s a Negro.” My father explained that the Negroes had come to America from Africa.

“Tarzan comes from Africa too.” I loved Cheetah. He was a funny monkey. That summer the circus had come to Portland and the sideshow had a barrel filled with monkeys. They looked sad in their cage and ate bananas without any joy.

“Tarzan is not real. Negroes were once slaves. The North fought a war to free them a long time ago.”

None of this made sense to us. Our universe was white. Moses had freed the slaves. He was a Jew like Steve Gordon.

“Did Moses free them?”

“No, President Lincoln did.”

“The man whose head is on the penny.” MY older brother was a year ahead of me in school.

“Yes.”

“But what are Negroes?”

“You know Amos and Andy?” My father believed in telling us the truth as he saw it.

“A little.” The weekly radio show was aired past my bedtime, but I had heard the voices. They didn’t speak like us.

“Those are Negroes too.” He went onto explain that their roles were stereotypes.

“You mean like better than mono.” We had a mono RCA record player. The Gordons had a stereo. The sound was fuller, but I couldn’t tell why.

“No, stereotypes are how people think about someone different.”

“Negroes are different from us?” My father had little patience for questions, so I kept mine short.

“Yes, they have different skin color and hair.”

“If blacks are on TV, why don’t they live with us?” I had never seen one in Falmouth Foresides or Portland.

“Negroes live in their own communities. It’s better that way. Everyone staying with their own kind.” My mother fielded the question with a disapproving look. She came from Jamaica Plain in Boston. Her neighborhood was Irish.

“You’re Irish and Dad’s English. Shouldn’t you have stayed with your own kind?”

‘That’s different.”

“How?” I had no idea about kinds.

“Just is?” My mother’s patience was worn thin by raising five kids. She wanted peace and quiet and most of all golden silence during these Sunday TV sessions. One stern look and what my mother wanted she got from both my father and us.

We ceased to call Rochester ‘Chocolate Man’ and somehow Jack Benny was less funny as before.

My classmates at Underwood Primary School explored the borders of ‘kind’ with special words. Steve Gordon was a Yid. Danny Benoit was called a ‘Canuck’. My brother and I were Micks. Chaney was determined to be a ‘Polack’. No one of us were ‘Chocolate Men’ and certainly no niggers. When Danny Benoit joked in class about “Micks’, Miss Stange, our teacher, lectured the K-2 students on the propriety of race.

“I don’t want to hear that word again or any of the other words.” Her stern voice warned any infraction of her edict warranted a meeting with our parents, who were the source of these words.

The older men had fought ‘Krauts’ ‘Wops’, and ‘Japs’ in World War II. The enemy of Korean War veterans was labeled ‘Chinks’. During our Davy Crockett phase we killed thousands of ‘Spics’ surrounding the Alamo. Negroes were niggers, even if the 20th Maine had freed them from the rebels.

Being a Mick I didn’t like either word. The Boston Celtics’ Bill Russell was a Negro. His stop of a Syracuse National player’s shot at the end of overtime had stolen the voice of Johnny Most, the Celtics radio announcer.

Steven Gordon had been to Boston Garden and informed us that the Jones boys were not brothers. They weren’t black either.

“More brown. Like different shades of chocolate. And they don’t like being called ‘negro’ or ‘colored’. They want to called ‘black’.” Steven went on to say that he didn’t like the words ‘kike’ or ‘yid’. He was bigger than the rest of us and his father let us watch Red Sox baseball games on their color TV. The entire team was white.

Only three teams in the American League had black players; Carlos Paula of the Washington Senators, Ozzie Virgil of the Detroit Tigers, and Elston Howard of the Damned Yankees. The Red Sox finished 3rd in the league that year and Steven Gordon’s father said that they needed a black player like Satchel Paige.

“Who was Satchel Paige?” I asked in total ignorance.

“Only the best pitcher of all time. He couldn’t play in the big leagues because of the color clause. No blacks. No way.” Steven’s father was a tall man with a big nose. He liked to fish by the dock at the end of the street. He gave his catch to the poorer families in the neighborhood.

“The first time he played for the St. Louis Browns in 1948 was as a sub for Bob Lemon. He took it soft on the first two batters, but struck out Whitey Platt, so bad that he lost touch the grip of his bat. Ended up down near 3rd base.” Mr. Gordon recounted the at-bat, as if he had been there that day “He would have been rookie of the year, except he was 42. Best pitcher ever was.”

Chaney, my older brother, and I accepted his judgment. Mr. Gordon knew his baseball. He was first pick in the neighborhood baseball games between adults. His pitch got across the plate with speed. Only Charleen Davis hit him with regularity. The 15 year-old girl was the best baseball player in Falmouth Foresides, except girls were banned from playing with Little League.

Every time my family went into Portland for dinner, I searched the streets for a black face. There were none downtown and the docks. My Aunt Sally said that Westbrook had a black postman and supposedly migrant workers from Jamaica picked apples in the orchard farms.

I never saw any, so I served as a substitute for our neighborhood. The summer sun failed to burn my skin and my tan was darker than that of my brothers and sisters. My mother called me ‘Black Irish’.

“After the failure of the Spanish Armada the galleons escape the English fleet along the coast of Western Ireland.” My mother was an endless source of Irish lore. “Many of the ship wrecked on the rocks. Some of the survivors were Moors from Africa. Maybe a little of them got in your blood.”

Labor Day Weekend families deserted the Foresides. Chaney went to Sebago Lake. Danny Benoit’s family drove north to visit his grandmother in Quebec. My grandmother had a cabin on Watchic Pond. Steven Gordon spent the long weekend in Boston and when he returned from his vacation, he said, “There are hundreds of blacks moving into Roxbury.”

He made it sound like an invasion.

“Why?” I thought blacks stayed far from the north, because the climate was too cold.

“Because the KKK are hanging them from the trees. Lynchings. Murder. Burning houses.”

“Why?”

“Because they don’t know their place.” Steven said with sadness. “The Nazis did the same to the Jews.”

“My grandmother had to leave Prague, because she was a commie.” Chaney’s grandmother was a sweet old woman. Her apple pie was spiced with cinnamon. It was good enough to be a sin.

“A commie.” Nothing was worse than being a commie in the 50s.

“Not really, but her name was on a list.” She had told us many times about escaping the Nazis by riding on top of a train. Chaney’s mother had been 10. My grandmother left Ireland at age 12. Nana told a story about an uncle shot by the Black and Tans. My mother had few good words for the British.

I watched THE JACK BENNY SHOW with a hidden agenda. Jack Benny’s character treated his valet more as a friend than a worker and with good reason. Rochester was smarter than the rest of the cast. My older brother and I laughed at his jokes. They were actually funny.

A few days short of the Columbus Day holiday my father, mother, and my younger sisters and brother traveled south to Boston. My older brother and I had school. My grandmother took care of us throughout the week. On Friday Edith packed a bag and drove us to Union Station below Western Promenade. She parked her new VW Beetle and we walked inside the granite building to buy tickets.

Only two.

“I’m not going with you, but don’t worry the porters will take care of you.”

Edith had met our grandfather in a medical camp during WWI. He had been a doctor and she was a nurse. Grandfather had been dead since 1952, but people still came to the front door for help. They said that he had been a good man.

“Porters?” Surprises were reserved for cheeseburgers at Simpson’s or a trip to Old Orchard Beach. I had never been with a stranger.

“Don’t worry, they knew your grandfather. He treated them like white people.”

Neither my brother nor I had the courage to ask the difference. My older brother and I were in a state of shock, as Edith sat us on a passenger car. There were three other travelers. The looked foreign, maybe Canadian.

Our tickets were stuck on the seat. Paper nametags were pinned to our jackets. Our grandmother handed us two Italian sandwiches without onions and peppers along with two bottles of Orange Crush. Napkins too plus $5.

“Your mother will be waiting at the other end. North Station. Think of this as your first adventure. You know your great-grandaunt sailed around the world when he was only 10.”

I wouldn’t be 10 for another four years. Our days were supervised by parents, teachers, family, and babysitters. This couldn’t be right. Someone had convinced our grandmother to sell us into slavery. This awful person must have paid here $1000. That was the price for a new Volkswagen.

Edith waved from the covered platform. The train pulled out of the station. My older brother clutched my hand as tightly as he had seized my body after our father threw us into the lake last summer.

His father had taught him the same ‘sink or swim’ technique off the same dock.

My brother climbed on my back. My head sunk underwater. He was in a panic and I fought to get him off me. My father came to our rescue and stood us up.

My grandmother, Uncle Russ, Aunt Sally, and my sisters and brother laughed as our discovery that the water was only shoulder-deep. My mother didn’t think it was so funny.

“6 inches is enough to drown in.” Mothers liked their children safe.

We weren’t supposed to be alone on a train and I turned around to see my grandmother. Instead a giant black man in a uniform was approaching our seats. His skin was the color of burnt coal. I tapped my brother on the leg.

“A chocolate man.” I whispered in the voice taught by older boys in our grammar school. The train was picking up speed. Jumping off was not an option.

“Ain’t no chocolate this dark.” His voice rumbled like the words were forged from thunder in his large belly. “I think of myself as the color of black coffee. No milk. No cream. But plenty of sugar. Black as Africa. You ever seen a black man before?”

“No, sir,” My brother and I replied with a machine gun stutter.

“The times there are a-changin’. White boys callin’ a colored man ‘sir’.” He pocketed our tickets and leaned over to check out the nametags. His over-sized body smelled different from that of my father.

Hard soap and cold water for a bath.

“We’re not supposed to call black men ‘colored’.” My answer straightened up the porter.

“And who told you that?” The hands resting on his hips were the size of my head.

“Me and my friends decided that. We don’t like what the KKK is doing.” My older brother usually spoke with better grammar.

“Is that so?” His yellow-rimmed eyes were taking no prisoner.

“Yes, sir.” My hands were trembling so hard that my soda was fizzling. The conductor snatched the bottle from my hand and wiped the foam with a snow-white napkin. “Sorry to scare you like that. You the grandsons of Doctor Smith. He was good to my people. I’ll be as good to you. My name is Leroy Brown. But you call me Leroy.”

His smile lit my heart afire like a nuclear bomb in the Nevada desert melting like frozen fear to molten metal.

“Good to meet you, Leroy.” I offered my hand. His swallowed mine. It was the first time that I had ever called an adult by their first name. Children were to be seen a little and heard even less. This family rule was not in effect with Leroy and I asked without any hesitation, “Do you know Bill Russell?”

“Do I know Bill Russell?” His laugh shivered the windows. “This train’s final destination is North Station. Above the station is the Boston Garden.”

“The home of the Boston Celtics.” My brother had found his nerve too.

“Champions 1957 and next year too.”

“The Jones Boys.” KC and Sam.

“You know your basketball. I see Bill Russell from time to time. He’s a warrior on the hardwoods and I’ll tell you why after this stop.” The train pulled into Old Orchard Beach. Gordon’s Fried Clams was down the street. The amusement park was closed for the winter, which was a long season in Maine. My brother and I stuck straws in our sodas. We unfolded the Italians on our laps. The smell was too enticing to wait for lunch. Leroy joined us half way through the sandwiches.

“I like them too. Good eating. Cheap too. Now where was we?” We lived the 1957 Championship season game by game through Saco, Wells, Dover, Exeter, Haverhill, and Woburn. He added an aside that Woburn was the birthplace of the fried clams.

“A trainman fried them up in batter. Woodman’s in Essex claims the honor, but we railmen know the truth. Your other grandfather was one of us. Trolley man out of Forest Hills. A long time and a small world. Anyway Game 7 a few seconds left in regulation. Inbounds pass to Coleman. Russell is on the baseline but somehow blocks the shot. Overtime only seven Hawks left on the bench. Game 127-125. Bob Petit’s shot rolls around the rim and out. Celtics win their first championship.”

The men listening to Leroy’s recounting of that game burst into applause. The Red Sox haven’t played in the World Series since 1918. The Bruins were exiled to the lower ranks of the NHL. One black man brought Boston the Big Win.

Bill Russell.

The train crossed a river.

“Only a few more minutes to North Station. Been good ridin’ with you boys. Your grandfather was a good man and they ain’t easy to find. You keep up his good work.”

Leroy escorted us off the train. My mother and father were waiting on the platform. So was my grandmother Nana. She thanked Leroy with a tip of $5 and then hugged us as if we had crossed the Atlantic. It was good being with family. I waved good-bye to Leroy. He waved like we would see him tomorrow.

Later that night my older brother and I fought over the $5 from Edith. We decided to split the money 50/50 and we went to sleep content in the knowledge that there were no Chocolate Men and black men were only a little different from our kind.

It would take a long time to learn how different, but better late then later for white boys. Even for the Black Irish.

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