Learning to be a human
I once lived near a small creek in Fox Lake, WI. My afternoons were filled with bass fishing under the willows from my canoe with a crazy cat that would eat the little fish caught.
Sometimes she wouldn’t even wait for me to reel the fish in, she would jump in after it. I carried a salt shaker for the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes brought along for me from the small garden our family kept. We snacked together.
One day I noticed someone whistling. Loud and strong, floating upon the wind down the creek where I was fishing. This wasn’t just someone whistling a little tune. This was like a performer. Whoever it was could likely get on a stage and captivate an audience. After a week or two of hearing this everyday, my curiosity got the best of me and I went looking for the person.
I found that someone had moved in over by Anna King’s Hill. (Hope I got that name right. It’s been 35 years since hearing it said.) It was our sledding, skiing and tobaggon hill for years. Long and steep with a good run across the frozen creek for you at the bottom. It was often filled with local teens playing during the winter. I started hoping the new owner would be friendly so we could keep up the tradition.
I pulled my canoe up to the dock, tied off and started up the hill. To my surprise, there was a small building in the middle of our tobaggon run, recently moved in it seemed and sitting on blocks. Out the door stepped a big man with ½ a smile. I could almost see a big sign over his head with the question “What’s this?” written upon it.
I walked up, introduced myself and told him the truth. “I heard your whistling and it is wonderful. I wanted to meet you.”
His face lit up, he shook my hand and I met my next best friend. A plumber from Milwaukee named Fred who was turning our winter paradise into his summer home.
After telling him of our winter traditions, he said we could continue as long as we didn’t hurt his things. He seemed to like knowing it was being used by people playing.
Inside the new building was a small fishing boat being rebuilt. I began visiting several afternoons per week to help, learned how to use fiberglass and yes, it did float. We went fishing in it several times.
I could likely find dozens of stories about Fred and I teaching each other things, automatically it seemed, just by being friends, even though I was barely 14 and he was near 60 when we met. But their was one thing he tried to teach me that came as a major surprise and was never quite accepted.
It’s like the theme of my life. A social more on this planet, in this country I live in, with these people I walk with everyday, that was (still is) alien to me.
I kept coming home with new stories of Fred and I, our times together fishing and the wonderful things he was doing with that old lot of land, until one day, my mother insisted, “You should bring your friend over for a piece of pie.”
He really enjoyed the idea and agreed the first time I mentioned it, arriving soon after in his plumber’s truck and coming to the door to be welcomed by me, and brought in to meet my mom.
And right here, something changed. I could not quite understand what it was, but something felt different. He became quite humble and called her ‘Miss Veronica’ – his tone and everything reminded me of something from an old movie. We made small talk in the kitchen. Mom seemed polite but Fred seemed uncomfortable.
At one point, she asked me to come help her with something in the other room. Once I was out of eyesight, but not out of hearing range, she grabbed me by the ear and demanded, “What the hell are you doing bringing a black man into my house?” After assuring me that we would talk later, we went back into the kitchen and she continued the charade.
Fred eventually expressed his gratitude for the wonderful pie to Miss Veronica and thanked me for the invitation as he went upon his way.
I continued to be his friend, to the dismay of mother who could not gain the support of my step dad in this, else I am certain our ties would have been cut.
The day finally arrived when he decided to help me see his reality. Sitting in the front yard on a warm summer afternoon, he began my lesson.”
He then spent the afternoon explaining how people all around me saw him as something different, something less, he wasn’t really being welcomed to some of the places we went, he said that he had been treated well because of people close to me simply being polite to my friend. Years later, I managed to experience his reality first hand.
Fred passed away several years back. He lives on firmly in my mind and heart. One true friend that seemed to return many times later in life, in stranger stories that are harder to believe. I still believe it was a gift to meet him and I question now, and then as I meet others who did not accept the prejudices of their parents, what changed?
What was born in us that we did not accept, nor properly learn this trait of humanity?
Whatever it is, I celebrate it’s reality. Can’t even take credit for it personally because it came from within.
Something out there tries to have humans learn how to hate each other for one reason or another. But something in here doesn’t buy it.
There was another friend like that met in Southern California back in 78’ We were like brothers busting rock together in a Marine Corp brig and co-conspiriters in a farewell party pulled off one night our last week in Casual Company before discharge.
I asked for his address in order come visit someday. He too decided to sit me down and explain reality, “Don’t you get it dude? Your white. Hell, you couldn’t walk down my block to knock on my door without being shot.”
I never did quite understand this phenomenon and went on to ignore reality even worse later by marrying a young hispanic woman. I walked in her world for 6 years. The people there were polite to my face also, at first.
The winter of 96’ or maybe 97’, I had a new job, fresh out of 2 years college learning Mechanical Drafting and how to operate CAD Software. The college had been re-hab from a back injury deemed permanent. The doctors and lawyers said I would never work again. This job was my first attempt to prove them wrong.
Each morning, the general manager would come in with a raunchy joke about black people – each day raunchier than the last, nasty and vicious is what it felt like to me but I tried to hide my discomfort, not sure I laughed much though.
It was bothering me but I needed this job, needed to fit in with this group who all seemed to enjoy his humor just fine.
The work was fairly simple and allowed plenty of opportunity for conversation with the other draftsman in the office, swapping jokes passed the time well.
About my second week there, somehow, a plan slipped out of my mouth without thinking.
My co-worker was a prankster. He savored messing with people, shocking them, tricking them and he slapped me on the back with approval after my autopilot blurted out, “Tomorrow, let’s tell him that my wife is black.”
My autopilot not seeming to have much more understanding of the real world than I do, overlooked what I was about to do, sending me home that night with the hope of meeting an black woman somewhere who would take a snapshot with me, for my desk, at my new job I just worked 2 years to get.
My real wife at the time, not black btw, was a bit more bright than me and warned against it, even though she thought it was kinda funny too. Some would say I should have listened but in this case, the choice was made for me already. I was on a journey, sometimes pushed and shoved down this path.
The next day arrives. The boss joins us for morning coffee and once again astonishes me with the imaginativeness of his humor against black people. Then my autopilot took over, I started to stutter slowly, with just the right inflection of voice and expression on my face the words come out “Sir, I’m new here and have been afraid to say anything really, because I need this job, but your humor is really starting to hurt me. You see, my wife is black.”
I don’t remember ever seeing a man so scared in my life as I did that moment. He calmly walked out of the room without a word, but I felt fear. My co-worker commented something to the effect, “oops” and I began to worry. Within an hour, I was in the company VP’s office, being given a formal apology on behalf of the company and full assurance of this man being punished properly.
I must add that this man, before learning it was a hoax, spoke to me privately and explained that he had been raised a certain way and taught to think certain ways. He apologized for insulting my wife and or hurting my feelings. At the time, I felt it was sincere and that he had just been pushed into looking at his beliefs closely by an uppity new guy on the crew. It must have been tough on him too.
More details may follow later. Long story short, I was un-employed again within 3 weeks. For un-related reasons of course.
This has been a theme and pattern as far back as my memory serves. The people in my world all around me have been welcoming me to their realities, sometimes in dis-belief at how clueless I seem to them at the moment. Way too often, they are quite disappointed and angry when I politely decline to join them.
Many attempted to teach me how to survive in society. I’ve received applause for learning how to lie well with straight face. (That stills astonishes me) All along though, I’ve been nudged by something, from one of you to the next, learning about and experiencing your various realities.
Sometimes I see pity in your eyes.
Sometimes I see wonder.
Way too often I see fear, which very closely resembles hatred.
Sometimes I could see and hear a thought clearly “Wow, I got a dumb sucker here!” This often resulted in a longer adventure because I usually only heard that thought after waking up in chains. Too late to really use the information well.
There were brief moments when I was penniless and some of you fed me. Driving a taxicab in Austin back in the mid 80’s was quite an experience but I never really made a nickel at it.
Sometimes one of you would get in the taxi and offer a free dinner if I would just come share conversation for a little while. I often wondered if you knew that I had just finished praying for a meal and you were sent within minutes?
Thinking too much of such things becomes troublesome for me. I usually avoid it.
One afternoon in May of 87’ a man found me hitch-hiking up I-35 on my way to Pennsylvania with no more than a gym bag of belongings and the story of a son I wanted to meet. He seemed to appreciate what I was attempting so much, that he was led to insist that, he to help me.
“Don’t ask why,” he insisted as he offered to drive me one tank of gas north in his old Texas beater, which he did, sipping on a small bottle of whiskey and giving me advice about living on the road for several hours, until the gas and whiskey ran out.
When dropping me off at last just outside of Dallas, he offered a warm handshake, a $5 bill and a pack of cigarettes, wished me luck and drove off. I could see the city all lit up and pondered on how cool it was to already be 4 hours down the road and $5 richer. I had left without a penny.
I tried to plan better but had become snarled in a tenant dispute. I was visiting friends before leaving for Pennsylvania, borrowing a couch for a few days. The landlord banged on the door my 1st day there.
He explained that my friends hadn’t paid their rent in several months. They were being evicted. He was quite stern when he asked, “Now what the hell are you doing here?”
I told him the truth, I was heading for Pennsylvania in a few days. Just borrowing a friend’s couch while I tried to save a few dollars for the trip. He offered me 3 days at first but on the afternoon of the next day, he called me back over to his office and apologetically told me to leave. His patience was used up and the police were coming to evict my friends.
He said, “I hope you get a ride right to your son’s back door, but you have to go now.”
I got my small gym bag, left my friends a note and locked their keys inside before starting up the road, without a penny. That owner’s wish upon me came true though. After over 1,400 miles, I did get a ride straight to my son’s back door and arrived faster than a normally scheduled Greyhound bus could have got me there. Thank you sir.
Something has caused some of you to help me, to offer handy tips at needy moments, to let me slide for an innocent goof, feed me when I’m hungry, trust me with secrets. You’ve taught me things. Sometimes, like the apartment owner just mentioned, you were used to shove me down the road at the right moment to meet the next person.
For a time, it was almost magical, simple, and innocent.
For a time, I believed every one of us could live such a life.
I never imagined that so many of you would not want to.
I never imagined how much assistance is available to slap a person back into what is commonly referred to as reality, should they stray too far into mystery.
Autopilot ~ term I created to explain choices and or actions which often surprised me.