Jumat, 10 Februari 2012

CHOCOLATE MAN by Peter Nolan Smith

Maine is the northern most state on the Eastern Seaboard. The distance from its southernmost town to the Potomac River is approximately 500 miles and in the winter of 1863 the 20th Maine Regiment crossed into Virginia to confront the Confederate forces at Fredericksburg in the winter of 1863. They avenged the one-sided slaughter beneath St. Marye's Height with a desperate charge at Gettysburg.“At that crisis, I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough.” The bare steel of Joshua Chamberlain's troops repelled the threat to the Union left and the 20th Maine fought with distinction to war’s bitter end. At Appomattox the mayhem of four bloody years ended with a ceasefire and Colonel Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were present for the formal cessation of hostilities. As the rebel soldiers filed past to surrender their arms and colors, Chamberlain ordered his troops to attention. His memoir THE PASSING OF ARMIES captured the solemn dignity of their submission to a great force.“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.”After four brutal years of civil war more vengeful Northerners had regarded his chivalry as treason, however to his fellow soldiers Chamberlain's gesture had signaled the resumption of brotherhood and the State of Maine had proudly commemorated the sacrifice of their native sons with bronze statues of facing south. The defeat of the Confederacy had liberated millions of slaves. Few ventured north of the Potomac and by the middle of the 20th Century the black communities of Bangor and Lewiston numbered about 6000 out of a population of one million souls living within the borders of the Pine State. In 1953 Maine was the whitest state in the USA.That spring my father moved his family of five from Boston to Portland. My parents found a newly-built three-bedroom house on McKinley Road. Eastern Heights lay across the harbor. The scent of the sea mixed with the fragrance of fresh bread from the Nissen Bakery near the Back Cove. Work at the phone company was a ten-minute drive down US1. The neighborhood was filled with young couples like themselves. The hordes of children were the result of the Baby Boom and this paradise was called the suburbs. My mother and father wanted this house to be their home.After my father agreed to a closing price my mother asked the real estate agent, if there was a Catholic church nearby. She was Irish-Catholic out of Jamaica Plains. Her family were city people.“Are you Catholic?” The real estate agent made a face. Maine was also a very Protestant state.“Yes.” Our last name was Yankee, but my father had converted to marry my mother. He loved her that much. "You have a problem with that?"“I guess it’s okay, we have a Jew living on the next street.” The man shrugged with indifference. He lived on Bailey's Island in a house over two-hundred years old. Catholics and Jews belonged in this neighborhood and not his."Thanks for telling us." My father's family had come over on the Mayflower. "What about the house?" The agent "We'll let you know."His comments had kiboshed the deal and my father sought out a real estate agency with a French-Canadian name. Canucks were Maine's real minority. The woman selling the house was Mrs. Benoit. The petite brunette lived in the neighborhood and knew the seller. Hearing about the other agent's comments, she loped a thousand dollar off the price."I'll see you in church."We moved into the house that summer and our family paid little attention to our minority status. My older brother, younger sister, and I were blonde-haired and blue-eyed. My mother’s Hibernian beauty and her soaring alto were a welcome additions to cocktail parties in the coastal suburbs north of Portland Mrs. Benoit's son was my age. Shane, my older brother, and I attended a one-room schoolhouse off US 1. Mornings began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. We were loyal American and the stigma of Catholicism was never mentioned in school, however my mother expressed her loyalty to her Irish blood with green milk on St. Patrick’s Day and the IRA call to arms, “Up the rebels.”Our world was our neighborhood, the school, and church until my father brought home a Zenith black/white TV. My older brother and I were soon obsessed with the Red Sox, HOWDY DOODY, BOZO THE CLOWN, THE YOUNG RASCALS, and THE THREE STOOGES. "Moe, Larry, cheese.” Curly’s cry for the calming cure of cheese was the height of humor for boys under the age of six. “Idiots.” My father hated my comic idols and threatened to throw out the boob tube, however my mother had reserved Sunday evening as family night and every week my father drove into Portland to buy two pizzas, which we ate in the living room watching LASSIE to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW on CBS. My father ordered my older brother, younger sister, and me to bed at 8 o'clock. One November night my mother let me stay up a little longer to see her favorite program."He should be in bed." My father scrunched his mouth in frustration. His one-on-one time with my mother was governed by our sleeping."He wants to be with me." My mother sensed the childishness slipping from my bones. "You'll spoil him." Life in Maine was hard. "He'll turn out just like you, won't you?" Her hand brushed my crew-cut. Our town was plagued by lice. My father owned electric clippers and shorn our skulls to the bones twice a month."Yes, m'am." I hugged her with all my might. She smelled of fresh bread. The whole house smelled the same. The wind was from the south and Nissan Bakery was working a night shift."Be quiet and don't ask any questions. Your father likes this show."Throughout the opening segment of THE JACK BENNY SHOW my parents laughed at Jack Benny’s stinginess and the man who said, “Yeeee-essss?”, but I came to life when a dark-skinned man appeared on the TV.“A chocolate man.” I sat up straight on the sofa and stared at the TV screen. Jack Benny's servant was darker than a Hershey Bar. His face was round and his hair was slick as a grease stain at the garage on Route 1."He's not a chocolate man." My father's voice spiked with exasperation. He wanted to watch his program without my interruption. "He's Rochester.""Rochester?" My teacher had taught the classroom a song about his kind. "You mean like Little Black Sambo?""No, he's called a negro or colored." My mother informed me."His people came from Africa as slaves. A war was fought to free them.""Like Moses freed the Israelites?" I attended Sunday school after Mass. Our teacher had read us Exodus this morning."Yes, only there Moses was Abraham Lincoln. His face is on the penny.""Why's he speaking different from us?" He sounded funny.A commercial came on the TV and my My mother stood up to clear off the plates and dishes."They have their own way of speaking," she said on her way into the kitchen."You mean like Mrs. Benoit's mother?" Shane's white-haired grandmother spoke German. She had been born in Europe."Sort of like they speak another version of English. You know Amos and Andy?” My father believed in telling us the truth as he saw it."Yes." I had heard them on the radio. “Those are Negroes too.” He went onto say that their roles were stereotypes. We had an RCA record player. Mono. Not stereo.“If blacks are on TV, why don’t they live with us?”“Negroes live in their own communities. It’s better that way. Everyone staying with their own kind.” My mother re-entered the living room. She from Jamaica Plain in Boston. Her neighborhood was Irish. She had met my father in the elevator of the 51 Oliver Street Telephone Building.“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 wearing thin. She wanted peace and quiet and most of all golden silence during these Sunday TV sessions and what my mother wanted she got from both my father and us.We ceased to call Rochester ‘Chocolate Man’. Jack Benny was even less funny as before, but at Underwood Primary School our classmates explored the borders of kind. Steve Gordon was a Yid. Shane Benoit was called a ‘Canuck’. My brother and I were Micks. There were Negroes. When Shane 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.” The stout teacher sternly warned that any infraction of her edict would warrant a meeting with our parents, but they were the source of these words.The older men had fought ‘Krauts’ ‘Wops’, and ‘Japs’. The enemy of Korean War veterans was labeled ‘Chinks’. During our Davy Crockett phase we killed thousands of ‘Spics’ surrounding the Alamo. Negroes were spared our bullets, after learning that 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 want to hear the words ‘kike’ or ‘yid’. Steven 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. That summer the Red Sox finished 3rd in the league. 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 town.“He played for the St. Louis Browns in 1948. Subbed 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 and it 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. His pitch got across the plate with speed. Only Charleen Davis hit him with regularity. The 15 year-old girl would have been the best player in Falmouth Foresides, except girls were banned from Little League.Every time my family went into Portland for dinner, I searched the streets for a black face. There were none downtown or 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. 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 escaped the English fleet by sailing down the west coast of Ireland.” My mother was an endless source of Irish lore. “Many of the ship wrecked on the rocks. Some of the survivors were Moors. They came from Africa. Maybe a little of them got in your blood.”Labor Day families deserted the Foresides. We spent our long weekend at my grandmother's cabin on Watchic Pond. Shane Benoit went to Sebago Lake. Steven Gordon visited relatives in Boston. When he returned from his vacation, he told us on the first day of school, “There are hundreds of blacks moving into Roxbury.”He made it sound like an invasion.“Why?” I thought blacks avoided the far 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. We were lucky. My grandmother had to leave Prague, because she was a commie.”“A commie?” Nothing was worse than being a commie in the 50s, but his grandmother was a sweet old woman. Her apple pie spiced with cinnamon was good enough to be a sin.“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. Shane's mother had been 10. She spoke with a funny accent too."So we're all like the blacks?" My grandmother fled 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. "Our families came to America to avoid getting killed.""Except the blacks were brought here as slaves." Steven looked at Shane and me. in chains by men with whips and chains and those men are still living down in the South.""They have to be old." The Civil War was almost a hundred years ago and slaves had been here a long time before that according to Mrs. Stange,"Not them, but their children's children's, but the black kids I met were funny."Steven spellbound us with tales of the city.There was another world beyond Falmouth Foresides and Maine.Every Sunday night 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. And funny too. I laughed at his jokes. So did my older brother.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 the whole week. On Friday Edith packed our bags and drove us to Union Station below Western Promenade. She parked her brand-new VW Beetle and we walked inside the granite building to buy tickets.Only two."What about you?" I asked in terror. 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 her $1000. That was the price for a new Volkswagen.“I’m not going to Boston, but don’t worry the porters will take care of you. They knew your grandfather.” Edith had met our grandfather in France during World War I. He had been a doctor and she was a nurse. “He treated them like white people.”"Aren't they white?" Neither my father nor my mother had said anything about traveling without an adult. Surprises were reserved for cheeseburgers at Simpson’s or a trip to Old Orchard Beach."No, they're African-Americans." Edith sat us on a passenger car. There were only three other travelers. The men had heavy faces and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. They looked foreign. My grandmother caught the terror in my eyes. "Are you scared?" She pinned tickets on our jackets along with name tags. "Yes." I hoped that she would change her mind."You'll be fine." She 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-grandfather sailed around the world when he was only 10.”I wouldn’t be 10 for another four years. My older brother was in shock. Edith exited from the train and waved from the covered platform. My older brother and I ran down the aisle to join her, but the train lurched from a dead stop and pulled out of the station. Jumping off was not an option and I led my older brother back to our seats.He clutched my hand as tightly as he had seized my body after our father had thrown us off the dock into Watchic Pond last summer.Thirty years earlier his father had taught him the same ‘sink or swim’ technique. I dog-paddled to the surface, but my older brother panicked and climbed on my back, dragging me underwater My head sunk underwater. My father finally came to our rescue and stood us up. My grandmother, Uncle Russ, Aunt Sally, and my sisters and brother laughed, as we discovered 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 and safe did not include being alone on a train. I turned around to see a giant black man in a uniform approaching our seats. His skin was the color of burnt coal. I tapped my brother on the leg and whispered, “A chocolate man.” “Ain’t no chocolate this dark.” The words rumbled from the forge 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 of hard soap and cold water.“We’re not supposed to call black man ‘colored’.” My answer straightened up the conductor.“And who told you that?” The hands resting on his hips were the size of my head. “My teacher.” African savages tortured white hunters in Tarzan movies. Maine was gone. we were in Africa.“Me and my friends decided that. We don’t like what the KKK is doing.” My older brother broke out of his catatonic sate. “Is that so?” His yellow-rimmed eyes were taking no prisoner.“Yes, sir.” My hands were trembling so hard that my soda was fizzling out of the bottle. The conductor snatched the Coke 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 can call me Leroy.”His smile melted my fear. He had never been a bad man. “Good to meet you, Leroy.” This was the first time that I had ever called an adult by their first name and I offered my hand. “Good to meet you.” His hand swallowed mine. 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. 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 Italian sandwiches. Good eating. Cheap too. Now where was we?” We relived the 1957 Championship season game by game through Saco, Wells, Dover, Exeter, Haverhill, and Woburn, where he added an aside that Woburn was the birthplace of the fried clams.“A trainman fried them up in batter. Woodman’s in Essex claimed the honor, but we railmen know the truth. Your other grandfather was one of us. A trolley man out of Forest Hills.”“You know him?” My Irish grandfather had died two months before my birth. My mother never spoke about him.“He worked the Forest Hill Station as a trolley man. He got my cousin a job as a mechanic. Broke the color line for us.” The passenger car was half-filled and Leroy leaned over to whisper, “The Irish were scared of us. They thought we were after their jobs. Your grandfather was union through and through. As long as you were union he didn’t care what color was your skin.”“Thanks.” I had no memories of him.“It’s a long life and 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 he somehow blocks the shot. Overtime starts with only 7 Hawks left on the court. In the final seconds the score is 127-125. Bob Petit’s shot rolls around the rim and out. Celtics win their first championship.”The crowd listening to Leroy burst into applause. The Red Sox haven’t played in the World Series since 1918. The Bruins exiled to the lower ranks of the NHL. One black man had brought Boston the Big Win.Bill Russell.White-Black. Not important.The train crossed a river.“Only a few more minutes to North Station. Been good ridin’ with you boys. Your grandfathers were good men and they ain’t easy to find. You keep up their 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 before hugging us, as if we had crossed the Atlantic. I waved good-bye to Leroy. He waved like we would see him tomorrow. I wished it was true, but tomorrow we weren't going anywhere.Later that night my older brother and I fought over the $5 from Edith. We decided to split it 50/50. It was only right and we went to sleep content in the knowledge that there were no Chocolate Men and blacks weren’t really black.It would take a long time to learn how different, but better late then later for white boys, especially Black Irish boys to discover that we all loved chocolate.

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