Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Muncie Boyhood-Racism and Innocence

In honor of Black History Month, here is my Muncie Boyhood discussion of the racism around me in my youth in that “Model of Middle America" known as Muncie.

I am finding that this particular article is difficult for me to begin.  I suppose because it remains such a delicate subject in so many ways, and even though I am strongly opposed to any sort of racism, I could easily be taken out of context.  Therefore, I feel compelled to be so very careful in how I write this, that I am slow to get going.

I was born in 1961.  So, by the time the Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam in the mid-60’s, I was still a small boy.  A small white boy. 

I was watching a History Channel story today about African-American history and to my surprise…well, maybe not surprise…perhaps chagrin…Muncie was mentioned in the context of the early 20th Century rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  I am grateful to say that my family was never a party to that hatefulness and I never was aware of any active members, but I’d be willing to bet that some members lived in my neighborhood… nearby.

As a young white boy in Muncie in the 1960’s, life was simple to me.  I had no understanding of the long and intense history of prejudice, racism, and bigotry that had plagued our society.  My family didn’t promote racism, but they weren’t particularly outspoken about it either.  And while there were many cuss words that were heard around our house, “Nigger” was never one of them.  I might have heard it from a neighbor or an extended relative from time to time, but it just wasn’t in my family's regular vocabulary.  Without any training that I recall, I just disliked the word from the earliest memory I have of it, and I could not understand why anyone would call someone else a hateful name simply because their skin was darker in color.

I have to admit, though, that as a young boy, I lived a life that was very isolated from other races.  My entire neighborhood around the intersection of Hackley Street and 21st Street was completely made up of industrially supported, lower middle class families and were without exception white.  All of the black families lived on the other side of Heekin Park.  Even my school, Roosevelt Elementary was all white.  I don’t recall ever seeing anyone there…teacher or student…who wasn’t white.  Basically, the only time I saw African American folks was when they drove their cars down Hackley Street and passed by our house.  So, my entire early cultural education on black folks was based on the TV and what the other people in my life said.

That provided a conflict in my mind.  Most of the adults that spoke about race relations in my early life in Muncie were bigoted, but the TV news depicted a grand struggle for equal rights as well as the obvious mistreatment of innocent people for no good reason and that seemed unreasonable to my sensitive mind.  I had no personal knowledge from which to build an opinion, however it seemed to me that it was inherently wrong to pre-judge someone based on what they looked like.  It seemed to me that the hateful words that I heard spoken by folks around me were just that...hateful.

So, I rejected racism very early.

That doesn’t mean that my mind wasn’t tainted by it.  Fear was imbedded.  I saw the news on TV of the race riots in other cities.  I can remember hearing the kids at Roosevelt talk about “another riot at Southside.”  In the early days of Muncie South…the home of the Rebels…their mascot was a Confederate Rebel and I think they did make some use of the Confederate Battle Flag as well.  When you consider that a large part of the student body was black, that didn’t sit too well.

It was also during this time that there was a good deal of unrest down the road near where Hackley Street intersected with Willard Street and the surrounding blocks.  I can remember riding in the back seat of my dad’s new Chevy Nova as we went to pick him up from work at the Chevrolet plant late one night, when as we stopped at a stop sign to turn west on 8th Street, a large rock landed on our rear window.  My mom sped off and I can remember the talk being that it was a race thing.  The window didn’t break and everyone was okay, but it fed my fear.

That scary event was offset to a degree at Tuhey Pool.  My dad used to take me swimming at the pool, and it was one of the few places (Heekin Park being the other) where I would have the opportunity to interact with black kids prior to middle school.  I don’t remember much, but I do remember this one smiling black boy that was so friendly…I liked him a great deal and had fun playing in the water with him.  It helped with the fear to a degree, but it couldn’t completely offset the feeling of anxiety that was developed inside me both by the news media and the gossip of the prejudiced people around me.

It was with this brew of fear swirling in the pit of my stomach that I approached the prospect of moving on from the entirely white Roosevelt Elementary to the fully integrated Wilson Middle School.  Not helping the matter was a little tour our sixth grade class took the spring before I was to attend there.  Here I am, with the irrational fear of other races testing my tentative courage as I walked down the strange hall in the strange school, when a large black boy…probably one of those huge 8th graders (All 8th graders looked huge to me back then.)…well, this boy menacingly lunged at me as he passed our group.

He scared the ‘stuff’ out of me.

So much for what little courage I had.  After that, I had nothing but that encounter to think about as the summer before my 7th grade year whizzed by.

Fear led to anxiety.  Anxiety led to worry.  But there was no way out.  I had to go.

Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as I had heard.  Maybe I wouldn’t get beat up by someone just because I was white.  I’d never hurt them, and I couldn’t understand why they would want to hurt me for no reason.  Today, I understand that the same fear was residing in the hearts of many of the black kids as they prepared for that same first day of school on the other side of Heekin Park, but back then I had not yet learned the full history of the way that black folks had so bitterly been mistreated.  My innocence blinded me to the deeper plight held by my classmates.

When the start of school came, I entered in the morning with fear in my heart, but left in the afternoon with the joy of new friends!  In the days that followed, that irrational fear subsided as I playfully bantered and goofed off with new friends like Marvin and James.  They were funny.  They were fun.  I forgot they were black because in my inner being, I never really cared what color anyone was on the skin-side of their soul.  I no longer feared the black kids because they were black.  From then on, I was just afraid of mean kids… because they were mean…white or black.

But, there was another fear that hid itself in my heart…and one that I am still ashamed that I allowed it to control me.  You see, I liked James and Marvin a lot.  We had fun at school.  So much so, that I often thought about having them come over after school.  But, I was afraid to ask them.  It seems weird to me now because my folks weren’t outwardly bigoted.  I think it was more the influence of the neighbors.  I was worried about how they would react if I had my black friends running around the neighborhood with me. 

As I type this, shame is resting on me.  Marvin or James, if you are reading this, I am sorry.  Please accept my apology for ever letting that fear prevent me from being fully a friend to you.  I don't know if you would have wanted to come over...I don't know if your folks would have allowed you to either...but, it sure would have been fun if you had.

After Wilson Middle School I headed on to the dreaded Muncie Southside High School…the home of the race confrontations of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  By the time I had arrived there, the Confederate (and the flag) had been replaced by a cannon (Ole Reb), and the outward racial animosity between most of the kids was gone.  In my four years there, I developed more friendships with guys like Donnell S., Dante S., Tyrone H. and Tyrone P.  I wasn’t close with them, but I liked them a lot and I have many fond memories.  Donnell has passed away, but I am pleased to say that I’m connected to Dante and Tyrone H. on Facebook.  Another friendship that I started in high school was with a guy named John Benford.  Great guy.  Basketball star.  He was cool and I was sort of nerdy, but we always talked some at school and had a class or two together.  The last time I saw him was after he graduated, and we ran into each other in a parking lot near the old A&P Grocery on south Madison Street.  He was in his car and I was in mine.  We stopped, driver’s-side to driver’s-side, and talked for a few minutes.  It is funny how sometimes you speak to someone and you don’t realize that you may never see them again.  I think I heard he was in California now…I sure hope he’s doing well.

I suppose that if we couldn’t see the color of one another’s skin, we’d find some other reason to be hateful toward each other, but I must say that my idealistic nature wishes that we could put this one issue aside.  I wish we could just stop considering it at all.  I wish we didn’t have “White” Americans and “Black” Americans….or “Native” Americans…or “Latino” Americans.  Maybe if we stopped with all the labels, we could just see each other for who we are…and start assessing people by the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin.  That is a dream that I share with a rather famous man…Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

So, I suppose this Muncie Boyhood story is simply one that describes the fact that even though a white boy is surrounded by racism as a child, he doesn’t have to grow up to be a racist.  And, even though I may have been too innocent as a child to understand the full historical plight of my African American friends, simple compassion was enough to tell me that bigotry was wrong. 

And, hopefully one day I can watch the History Channel and see some story of how racism was replaced by friendships in a small city in middle America called Muncie, Indiana.

Friday, February 22, 2013


One of my best and worst personal characteristics is my curiosity.  Sometimes it leads me into trouble, but more often it leads me to new knowledge and new understandings.  It can be my undoing and it can be my drive toward self-development. 
It can also be like a piece of fried chicken when you’re on a diet…or a like that last piece of pizza that your date picked up before you could get it.  If you ask my wife how to drive me crazy, she’ll tell you to play on my curiosity.  Start to tell me something and then stop.  Hint that you know something I’d be interested in but don’t reveal it.  Give me a glimpse of something and then pull it back.


Comment on my blog without identifying yourself!

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous…you are driving me crazy!  You are finger nails on the chalkboard to me.

Some of you log in.  Some of you sign your name.  THANK YOU!

But some of you…and you know who you are (I don’t, but you do.)...make comments on my stories and hint that you are someone I know, but you don’t reveal yourself.  Maybe you don’t mean to be, but you’re being mean to me!  You are pulling my curiosity cord with a vengeance.

Help a guy out, will ya?  Tell me who you are!

So, if I ask nicely…say “pretty please”…will you do me a favor and sign your name to your comments?  Or, at least send me a note to tell me that you commented?

Pretty please.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Fried Bologna and a Good Book

Today, I visited the Gerst Haus in Evansville, Indiana to enjoy one of their wonderfully delicious fried Bologna sandwiches.  It is a great German restaurant and the bologna sandwiches are one of their loyal customers’ favorite menu items.  Thick cut.  Fried.  Pepper Jack cheese.  Grilled onions.  German mustard.  And, a side of German fries.  Great stuff!
Check it out at this link:

Often when I eat lunch alone, I am accompanied by a book.  It could be anything from the Bible to a Dean Koontz adventure; from Baldacci’s intrigue to something on Civil War history.  Today, it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  When the waitress arrived to take my order, she excitedly told me how fantastic it was that I was reading that book!  Later, after I’d completed my sandwich and was paying the bill, she told me to enjoy the book, and that she was glad it was a real book and not “one of those Kindles.”

I really enjoy a good book.  I especially enjoy fiction.  Even more, I enjoy it with a hint of horror, fantasy, or science fiction.  Thus, I am especially fond of Dean Koontz…he is my guilty pleasure/vacation writer…the guy I turn to when I want to escape on an adventure that will both carry me someplace exciting, and make me laugh while scaring me to death.  That said, I often push myself to indulge in other genres as well, and try to mix it up with spiritually enriching works, classic literature, and various studies of history.  In an average year, I’ll read 12 to 15 books of various types.  I don’t set any reading records, but I think that is pretty good.

So, what about those Kindles?

My wife got me one for Christmas.  So far, I’ve read two books on it: Norma Jean’s Sun by Kris Courtney and Running Blind (Jack Reacher #4) by Lee Child.  (You can find them both on Amazon, and while they are very different, they are good reading.)  I like that Kindle thing.  It is light.  It is convenient.  The books are generally less expensive than buying paper versions.  It is easy to carry from place to place.  And, it is easy to use.  I will continue to use it, no doubt.

But, I have to say…there is just something about the real thing!

I like books.  Real books.  Books with paper and ink.  Books with pages that you have to turn.  Pages you can dog-ear.  Pages you have to mark.  Lines you can highlight.  Words you can underline.  I like the feel of them in my hands.  I like the smell of them as I strum the pages.  I like the look of them as they collect on my shelves.

If my wife and I are out and about, one of the most financially dangerous places for us to go is Barnes and Noble.  Books stores to us are like candy stores for kids or crack houses for addicts.  Well, that last example might be a bit over the top, but you get the point.

While my wife reads nearly as much as I do…or maybe sometimes more…, she doesn’t seem to feel an attachment to the actual tangible book after the story is over.  She reads it and she’s done with it.  The Kindle is her ideal tool.  For me, I’m also a collector.  If I particularly liked a book, I want to keep it.  If it is a classic, I want to keep it.  If it is in a series that I’m enjoying, it stays around.  If it is by Dean Koontz, it goes into the collection.  I may never read any of them twice, but I like to see what I’ve accomplished.  I guess it makes me feel smart.

I think my ideal house would have a huge library like you see in the old movies with volumes and volumes of books of all types and sizes; some that you can only reach by climbing on one of those wheeled ladders.

So despite how good that little Kindle is, I will never completely part with my paper versions.  I will have to feed my book addiction, and the Kindle placebo just will not cut the yearning for the real thing.  My drug of choice is a good story contained in a paper container.

So…if you happen to wander into El Rodeo on Franklin Road, or any other restaurant that I might frequent, and you see me perusing a book as I nibble on tortilla chips and salsa…well, you might want to consider the following video before you interrupt me:

Good readings to you…and see you at the book store.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Muncie Boyhood-Cannons in the Street

Growing up in Muncie, my friends and I shifted from one favorite activity to another about as quick as the weather changed…and, in Indiana that was pretty quick.  One summer, we might all be into baseball for a few days, then it would be neighborhood-wide games of army or hide-n-seek.  Another summer, we’d be into jumping ramps with our bikes or building a fort on someone’s seemingly abandoned piece of property.

One particularly dangerous period involved the creation of “Tennis Ball Cannons.”  I think it was my friend Jerry who introduced it to me.  Now, before I explain it, you, the reader, need to understand that you cannot build these “safely” with today’s materials.  The materials just aren’t as robust as they were back in the 70’s.  And, I put “safely” in quotation marks because even then, we really couldn’t do it safely.

A tennis ball cannon was made from three soda cans and duct tape.  In those days, pop cans were more cylindrical than they are now.  They didn’t taper down on the top and bottom and they had nice heavy rims.  Anyway, without giving enough detail for some ridiculous kid to duplicate it, you duct-taped the three cans together, removing some specific layers (I’m not telling you which layers and how much) in the middle, and completely removing the top of the top can inside the heavy rim.  Then, by putting a hole in the side of the bottom can, you could introduce an accelerant…lighter fluid.  By pushing a tennis ball into the top (and it fit very nicely…quite snugly), and by squirting some fluid in the bottom, you got a very potent cannon.

I can recall standing in the middle of 21st street and shooting a tennis ball into the sky so high that you couldn’t see it anymore.


Then, a few seconds later it would reach its pinnacle and start to fall back to earth.  After it bounced a few times, you’d go collect ball with all the fuzz singed off and reinsert it for the next shot.  Cool stuff.

That’s what my teenage mind thought.

I am pleased to say that this particular activity got nipped in the bud before anything tragic happened.  There was very little that I did that I didn’t introduce to my nephew, David.  He was four years my younger and we were really more like brothers than uncle/nephew.  (In fact, that is still the case.)  So, eventually I carried my cannon to Monroe Street to show him how it worked.

With him in tow, I sat it up in the middle of the street.  Loaded it up.  Squirted in the fluid.  Lit it.


It was a beautiful shot.  You could see the flames of the fireball as it rose out of sight!  So cool!

My sister, his mother, stepped out on the porch.  “What are you doing?” she asked.

I was just innocent enough to not realize that I needed to hide this wonderful, little homemade disaster-waiting-to-happen from the wandering eyes of the adults in my life.  “I’m shooting off my tennis ball cannon!  Come on out and watch.  It is soooo cool!”

So, I shot it off for her a few times.  Phlummpp!  Phlummpp!  Phlummpp!

She watched.  She seemed to think it was pretty neat.  She didn’t say much.

She tattled on me to mom.

And before the night was over my cool cannon was history.  Mine was gone and so were the ones that my friends had made.  Our foray into the firearms business was brought to an abrupt conclusion.  We didn't even get to join the NRA.

Now I do realize that it was for the best that she brought that segment of creative play to an end.  However, at the time, I thought she was worse than the offspring from the union of a Klingon/Romulan marriage.  I decided to shun her.  Shut her out of my life.  I vowed to never speak to her again, and I was true to my word for about a month.  She would come over…I’d leave the room.  She’d follow me…I’d ignore her.  Not a word.  Anything I needed her to know went through an emmisary. 

It was about the worst punishment my fourteen-year old mind could come up with, and in her case, it was quite effective.  Pretty soon, she was nearly begging me to give in…so much so that I began to feel sort of sorry for her, and ultimately I decided to forgive her...well, maybe not forgive.  I decided to "let it go."  To her relief, I relented and allowed life to return to its normal, dysfunctional self.  And, we moved on to other, safer activities…like hurling steel darts as hard as we could across the basement…perhaps, that’s the next story.

So, to all you grudge-carrying folks out there…let this be a lesson to you…whenever your older sibling decides to treacherously save you from your own sorry self-destructive actions…

You should forgive them.  And, hopefully before you’ve reached age 51.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Smoker's Rights? Nope.

Out on the grass in my front yard, near the road, is an empty cigarette package.  I keep hoping it will dry up enough so that the wind will blow it somewhere else.  I ought to pick it up and put it in the trash, but I have an aversion to all things “cigarette.”  I can’t stand the smell.  I can’t stand the smoke.  I can’t stand the mess.  I can’t stand what they do to people.  And, I can’t stand the litter.  I don’t even like to touch anything related to it.

A little extreme…I know.

It started when I was a kid.  Almost every adult in my life smoked, but I saw the news stories and the anti-smoking TV ads, and I believed them.  While my mother believed all the Surgeon General’s edicts about smoking causing cancer and emphysema were lies, I was convinced that it was as terrible as they said it was…plus, I just couldn’t breathe around it.

I can’t recall a time in my life when I haven’t HATED cigarettes.  From my earliest days, I worked hard at avoiding the smoke.  I’d recline on the living room floor instead of sitting on a chair or the sofa so as to be under the floating vapors of death.  I spent countless hours isolated in my bedroom.  I escaped outside or down in the basement.  As a child, I would rather suck in the mustiness of that old basement than the odorous fumes from the cancer sticks.

Car rides were the worst…especially in the winter.  The summers weren’t as bad in the old ’68 Chevy Nova with no power nuthin’ because we had the window and vents open, but winter was a killer…some would say “literally.”  It really bothers me today to see parents driving around with their kids in the back, windows sealed up tight, and the smoke just rolling around inside.  If that isn’t child abuse, then we need to redefine it.

When I turned sixteen and got my license, I suddenly took control of the car.  Whenever mom and I drove somewhere, I was behind the wheel.  Combine the natural lack of respect present in most every teenager with my obsessive hatred of tobacco products and you have someone who is going to go over and beyond to ensure that he doesn’t have to deal with smoke in the car.  One of two things would happen if mom insisted in lighting up while I was driving: 1. I’d turn up the radio as loud as I could take it, or 2. I’d stop the car, then get out and sit on the hood until she was done.  Soon, she pretty much refrained from smoking in the car when I was driving.  I’m not recommending those steps, but it’s what I did.  Call it a confession.

It’s funny how time changes things.  As a child, all the adults smoked and all the kids went outside or to the basement to avoid it.  Now, many fewer people smoke and generally they have to go outside to partake.  In this one way, I like how society has shifted.

Back to that empty cigarette packet on my front lawn…

What is it with smokers?  Why do they feel so free to leave their mess everywhere?  I took a walk today too, and in the one-mile I trotted I saw a number of other empty cigarette packages and many more old, nasty cigarette butts.  Here’s an exercise for you…the next time you’re sitting at a traffic light with the motor idling and you’re waiting for your turn to go…take a look out your window and along the median curb…see if you can count ALL of the butts lying there in the dirt.

Further, I wonder if that empty cigarette pack was left there by the same goofball that has been leaving his or her cigarette butts on the end of my driveway for the last ten years.

I remember as a kid going to Ross Supermarket in Muncie, Indiana with my mom.  She would smoke all through the store, and when she was done with one, she’d drop it on the floor and step on it.  That was common practice “back in the day.”  Being a slob with smoking materials seems to be built into the DNA of our addicted society.  But, dear smoker, the next time you are lamenting how your rights are been so severely restricted in today’s anti-smoking culture, you might want to consider all the ways that you have cut off your own nose.

·         Contaminating other people’s air

·         Locking up your kids in smoke-filled cars

·         Causing health problems in others through your second-hand smoke

·         Dropping your used butts in every conceivable location

·         Burning down your families' homes

·         Causing economic and emotion devastation for you family as they cope with your cancer and death

·         And, dropping your trash in my front yard!

My mom did eventually quit smoking.  In 2002, after she was diagnosed with throat cancer, she gave them up.  And, in mid-2004, when the Smoker’s Rights representative called to ask for her help in petitioning the state to prevent smoking bans, I had to tell her that she had died.  Because, you see, she died in 2003 from the side-effects of fighting the cancer.  That woman from Smoker’s Rights suddenly apologized for calling, and then said:  “It’s just my job.”

I sure hope she found a better one.

In memory of:

Uncle-- Keith Terrell (Lung Cancer)

Mom-- Marge DeCamp (Throat Cancer)

Brother-- Bob Nicholas (Throat Cancer)

And others…