1968 was a year of miracles and madness.
It began with something called Tet. It was what the people in Vietnam called the new year. Ho Chi Minh was the charismatic leader of the people we were over there fighting. Uncle Ho celebrated by sending thousands of troops south to kill as many American soldiers as possible. Happy New Year!
Later on in January, you had people falling all over themselves about some new Broadway play about hippies who actually took their clothes off on stage. Hair! It symbolized a generations' rebellion and identified its' soldiers. The longer your hair, the better. It made you appear more bold. It placed you squarely against the established order of things and the people who were in charge of making sure nothing changed without the ruling class' permission.
Also that winter, the sports world was flipped on its' head when long haired Joe Namath quarterbacked his team and a struggling new football league into history when the New York Jets beat the oddsmakers and the hell out of the Baltimore Colts, just as he had predicted.
Speaking of sports, this guy who had been a big time ball player at my high school just a few years earlier had just become the MVP of the NIT, a college national basketball tournament held in New York every year. Not only that, he was now a rich man getting ready to move from Atlanta to New York to play for the Knicks. Walter Frazier Jr. (Clyde) didn't rest until he got to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
But things turned ugly that spring.
People thought it was a April Fools' joke when on the first day of the month, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Texan who inherited the job after John Kennedy left parts of his brain in a limo in Dallas on my 13th birthday, announced that he would not run for re-election that fall. He had, only a few years earlier, been celebrated around the country for his courageous support of legislation that would guarantee the civil rights of previously disenfrachised U. S. citizens and watch their backs at hostile voting booths in the south, but was now the object of scorn and redicule because of the war in Vietnam. Seems nobody in the country wanted us there but him. He thought this was too much, so he gave up the job, opening the door for whoever could convince the country they would get us out of that Southeast Asian cesspool. (we finally left fifty-six thousand bodybags later).
Then later that week, Atlanta based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a group founded by southern preachers that expoused a new kind of revolution without bullets, and who had of late fallen out of favor with the national media and its' patrons when the civil rights organization took a stand against the war in Vietnam, had its' heart and soul ripped away in a cheap Tennessee motel one afternoon. Its' leader, a modest man who preached tirelessly for peace and love, was publicly ostrasized and villified and secretly spied on by a government agency out of control. But he never wavered in his stance against the insanity of war as a means for securing peace. He was eventually proven right...again. On the fourth day of April, he went to Memphis in support of garbage men who thought it would be nice if maybe the city could afford to pay them a decent wage and treat them like men. Martin came home in a pine box with a large part of his neck torn away by a conspirators' bullet. History books don't tell of the rebellions that took place across the nation the days leading up to his funeral. A lot of Black folk were fed up waiting on America to keep its' word about freedom and justice for all of its' citizens and the murder of one of its'most prominent spokesmen had America teethering close to a national uprising.
And by the way, speaking of miracles, guess who graduated from high school? I was the last of my mother's sons to accomplish the feat, but for me, unlike the two gentlemen befor me, my finishing high school was not a certainty. Momma may have stumbled a bit at the baccalaureate ceremony, but she was clean, sober and beautiful that night at the old city auditorium. She seemed proud of me.
It would have been nice to have had a life plan at this point.
The summer of '68 proved to be a point of reference for a paradign shift in America. And me!
I worked at a park across the street from Grady Homes projects that summer. Handing out horseshoes and softballs paid pretty good. Now being between girlfriends has its' advantages. There's no committment to be anywhere at any time. And this forced socializing that came with being claimed as some poor girls' boyfriend was worst than military torture. Double dating and bowling with her best friend and her best friends' latest boyfriend was boring the first time. The fifth time, I walked out the door, turned on Mayson Turner where the 11th Frame Bowling Alley was located in northwest Atlanta, walked down to Simpson Road, caugth the bus and never looked back. Besides, that cute little girl who lives down there on Hilliard Street across from the park where I worked has been making eyes at me. I hope she knows I'm damaged goods.
Now that job at the park was a direct result of riots in Atlanta. One in Summerhille. the other on Boulevard after this white man drove thru there and shot Roy Wright and this other kid. Roy lived with a bullet in his neck the rest of his life. The other kid died. So building recreation centers was a direct response to the community's nuclear reaction to oppression.And this token gesture of goodwill,which was the governments' response to decades of neglect and economic abuse, actually quelled the distraught folk somewhat. Go figure.
And then there was momma sitting on the edge of my bed crying early that June morning a couple of days after I graduated. I thought it was the licquor. Until I heard her thru the sobbing saying,
"they're gonna kill all of 'em. Everybody that tries to do something to help colored folk they gon either run'em off or kill'em".
It was June 6 and Bobby Kennedy had just had a hole put in his head by a guy who worked at the hotel where he was celebrating a primary victory in California that many thought provided him with a clear path to the presidency. I liked Bobby bettter than his brother, the then late president, John. Bobby had gone to Mississippi and witnessed impoverished Black folk whose living conditions were no better than any in most third world and underdeveloped nations across the world. He said he had no idea these types of conditions existed in the U. S. at the time and he seemed visibly moved and vowed to do all he could to change it. Too bad a murderer that balmy summer California early morning had fate in his hand and changed the course of history with the twitch of his finger. Didn't seem fair then. Still doesn't.
Well, I thought, things surely can't get any stranger for the good old U S of A. But then there was Chicago.
The Democratic National Convention held in Chicago that summer gave the world its' first look at police brutality directed at white kids. Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago and a big time fix it man when it came to presidential politics ( JFK loved his concept of new math when it came to tallying up precint votes) sicked his police goons on them and tried to convert them into patriots via the police baton. On live TV! American democracy demanded it. They beat college children for three days and cost a good man, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the presidency. We ended up electing a racist crook who thought nothing of putting hit squads into the countryside to murder as many Black resistance leaders they could find and destroying the organizations they represented.
So now its early fall and the two guys that I used to hang out with all the time have dissappeared. Where did they go? College! What! Nobody told me that this was an option in life. I never even thought about being in anybody's classroom again. Hell, I didn't know what the SAT meant or what it was for. I just remember every time there was an announcement that there was gonna be a test given that you had to pay for, well...` shit on that. I didn't even take most of the tests you were supposed to take in high school so you know I wasn't about to pay to take no dam test. And where was that money gon come from. Yes, the rent is always on time. So is the lights, gas, phone, hell everything is taken care of and I'm not kicking in a dime. My momma is taking good care of my sorry ass. But there wasn't a whole lot extra. It didn't add up. And the draft took anyone else I could run the streets with. But I didn't worry about the military . I guess because I was only 17 and wouldn't be 18 until nearly the end of the year so now I was back to my drifting and wandering ways.But then I start getting these very large and informative letters from the United States Government. Seems all of a sudden they're very interested in my immediated future. That's when it dawns on me that the people that make the decisions on what the rest of us could do to help the empire continue its' imperialist ways, think I'm a prime candidate for learning how to kill little men in pajamas over there near China. This will never do. The only people I wanted to kill was that guy who stumped me some twenty times in the hallway near the gym in front of the whole school (still do) and that sleazy motherfucker who kept feeding my mother licquor until she was no longer a mother to anybody (he got his). So now I'm very interested in the Peace Movement.
Friends I had grown up with didn't seem all that fazed by the monthly funerals and cheating girlfriends. The funerals were an uneasy reminder that we were now adults and subject to all of the baggage our parents lugged around without hesitation (racism, sexism, classism, isism,) so that we could join the struggle full time. Joseph was the first sacrifice from our graduation class. We were told that he stepped on a mine in Vietnam and it blew him into a thousand pieces. And this girl he married right befor he was drafted had his baby four months later. His death scared the shit out of me so I declined attending any more of those type of class reunions.
It's September and the presidential election is dominating the conversation everywhere you go. I somehow managed to get a job at this shoe warehouse downtown on Marietta Street. It was actually owned by the biggest department store in the south, Rich's. Now I had stopped stealing when that lady at the bakery called me out in friont of half the eighth grade class when she saw that box of honey buns tucked in my pants. But you had all of these expensive lady shoes being unloaded daily at this place with only seven people in the whole building. And the man that would normaly watch my kind all day seems to be cut from a different cloth. He not only is a trusting fellow, he believes that he has seen something in me that suggest that I should be striving for something better. Well, his faith in my honest and wholesome character dissuades me from carrying out any criminal fantasies I had begun to entertain and made me think about maybe getting another job. That's when Snooky, my friend since we were ten years old drives up to the warehouse (I don't know how he found me) and told me that the post office was hiring and thought we should get in line for the testing date. And he was getting those same letters I was getting from a government that heretofor had no interest in my welfare. Well we wondered why some of our old high school friends weren't worried about being forced to join a organization that made you kill people you never met (no, not the mafia). We weren't dumb so we decided to find out why. Why? Why? Goddam, they were in college and apparently if your folks had a few bucks, that's where you go to seek refuge from battle. As for the rest of the po folk that couldn't afford to go to college, or couldn't tackle all-state running backs and get free tuition, you were going to be trained as a murderer, whether you had it in you or not. And you were gonna live with whatever inhumane act you were surely gon commit, for the rest of your life. So this is why those longhaired teen-agers were burning these identification cards, American flags and pictures of LBJ .
So now whilst trying to get a decent paying grown folk job at seventeen, we started a quest to get in somebody's college. Now let me tell you how far away from the rest of the educated world I was. Remember that test you had to pay to take just to go to college? In high school they would occasionally announce that there was going to be a test given on a Saturday (you're kidding right?) and that it would cost twenty five dollars (see where I'm going) to take it. I thought when I heard this announcement the first time my sophomore year, it was a joke. I ignored it after that for three years. This test was something called a Standardized Aptitude Test, or SAT. And you apparently had to take it if you wanted to go to college.Shit!
Wait a minute though. I heard about some schools that will take you sight(test) unseen. Me and Snooky find one such place. It's a school that trains you as a draftsman (ironic name, for guys trying to avoid being just that). It was down on Peachtree Street and Pine in the attic of a gutted warehouse that had been renovated as classrooms for young ladies who aspired to be secretaries, a very high calling for women who wanted to earn their own money. The drafting program was a direct result of a need for skilled support for the architecture profession. When the guy who was the registrar made it so easy for us to enter, it became apparent that he was either a pacifist so dead certain against the war that he was willing to bend a few rules to keep us from going to war or a very smart entrepreneur. I didn't know what a draftsman did at the time except, ironicaly keep me out of the draft. Yeah, I was stupid, but now safe from the long arms of that recruiter for killers, Uncle Sam. Or so I thought. The school folded that next week and I'm about to turn 18. There's another funeral invitation and I'm getting very nervous. This time it was the brother of this girl I use to slip into my apartment at night when my mother was too drunk to see who was going up the stairs past her bedroom. He was a good guy. I was too scared to see him in a coffin so I passed on the formal service that honored him (although I did express my personal condolences to his sister the night befor in my bedroom) and wondered when it would be my time to learn how to die. But now I had a game plan. I would search high and low for another school to keep me safe, from what the crazy guys who had survived that madness called, 'in country'.
Atlanta Technical College over on Stewart Avenue was a place that could provide me with the santuary I was looking for. And now that I had found out what drafting was, I could get a legitimate vocation and carreer. I made my way over there that next day after the warehouse school cancelled their program. And guess what? These are very special people who also don't believe in pre-testing as a way to educate you later. But when I call Snooky and tell him about this new avenue to avoid the clutches of Uncle Sam's war machine, he has discovered another backup plan. Well, we use to run the streets all over Atlanta getting as much pussy as the law would allow. But now it seems he has convinced one of these girls to marry him and start having babies. Seems he found out the Army put you in the back of the line when choosing young men for war when there are little mouths to feed. Good for him but this was surely not for me. Even though I got that job at the Post Office (folk who knew me thought this a miracle of sorts. I somehow managed to score very high on the civil service test that night I was in a hurry to catch up with that horny little girl who lived across from the park), I had no intention of being a father to anyone. I wouldn't know where to start. Who was gonna teach me? I never had one and did not want to take the chance at doing that to some girl and her baby just to stay out of the army. It hurt too much on this end to recycle that misery. Atlanta Tech would be my salvation, thank God. Or so you would think. After getting accepted into the winter quarter drafting program, a lady from the admissions office calls the house in the middle of my celebration at avoiding the war to tell me that not enough guys sighned up for the course and the class was cancelled.It's late January and the letters from the draft board are coming every Monday and are getting more and more personal. They are now calling me by my first name. Panic has begun to set in.
And then while drifting thru Five Points I run into Bro Huff.Now Bro Huff finished high school the year befor me and was better known as T Square. That's how smart he was. I hadn't seen him in a while and figured he was either at Morehose or Harvard or some province in Nam with foot rot. But he was carrying a load of books from this school over on Decatur street where men in my neighborhood used to go early every morning to 'catch out'. Catching out was where constuction companies came to pick up laborers for years to build up the 'Jewel of the South for cheap. Well, Bro said that this college was so inexpensive that he didn't need a loan to pay for classes. He paid for his schooling out of his pocket, working part time at the Atlanta Brave and Falcons' games. And he told me to think about getting in. What! Me going to a real college. How in the hell was I gonna do that. I knew I had to do something fast because now I'm getting a letter from Uncle Sam every Monday AND Fridays and I was too scary to go in the army. And how do I start that process. You guessed it. The dam SAT!
I went back to my old high school and looked up my homeroom teacher, Ms. Mc Cray, and told her what I had in mind. I could see in her eyes during the long stare she gave me, the history of my pitiful high school scholastic achievement. I tried to walk away without further embarassing myself and was nearly out of the building, thinking about dying in some rice patty overseas, when this girl runs down the steps and says, 'Big Ma' (that's what we called her for four years) says to get my sorry ass back upstairs and to wait in her science lab office until her class was over. This was probably going to be a tongue lashing I deserved for being a slacker and chronic class cutter under her strong tutelege. I waited in that small backroom for three hours like a small child about to get another ass whipping. But what I got instead was her loving motherly advice on how to go about getting myself ready to take an exam I had rediculed really good classmates for taking.
She told me that she knew that I had it in me to be more than just a pool hustler and whore monger. How and what gave her this incredible insight on my fragile pschyche? She somehow remembered me testing pretty high during one of my rare visits to class and that the counselors showed an interest in supporting a student who had slipped under the radar and thought that the person who wrote such a brilliant essay (her words, not mine) should be looked at more closely. That is, until they found out it was some wannabe thug who found proper classroom decorum a distraction from his clowning ways. And what about my transcript? It had to be a mess. It seems that these records, which were kept in the school you attended for two years after you graduate, were mostly handwritten or typed, so minor alterations wouldn't be a problem. She then hugged me and told me to go get this SAT preparation guide and study it all week and that she would get me in the testing site that next month even though the date to pay and be admitted to the testing site had passed back in December and it was now January. When I left David T. Howard High School that day, I was shaken emotionally and went home and cried a little. Not because of the wonderful way in which I had been received by a lady I had given pause and reason to never ever associate with me again. But it was something I saw on the way out of her office. You see Big Ma had seen another group of miscreants thru four years of her mothering befor she got us. And on her back wall was the pictures of five of her old students in military uniforms. And taped to the bottom of each one was a funeral program. She did what she did not just for me, but for those that had gone befor me into futile battle and didn't come back. She not only wanted to change my life, but to also save it.
Being in a homeroom full of brainiacs for four years and taking a lot of the same high level classes alongside the valedictorian (i must have been the comedy relief from boredum) somehow, thru osmosis I guess, I picked up some common, though not exceptional by no means, skills of the various classroom disciplines I had so scoffed at in the past. The English section of the SAT workbook was so familiar, it was, what? interesting. How was I able to dissect sentences, write James Baldwin passages and identify themes in other people's writings? Ms. Hankerson, that's how.
We had that crazy bitch for three and a half years. She worked us (actually them) like slaves. Gotdam her ass. I knew Shakespeare because of her!
And the history was a joke. Not because I remember a thing about it from school. Hell no. I don't even remember taking the class to tell you the truth. Listen here. I spent a lot of time between girl friends, so a lot of Saturdays were wasted in my bedroom watching a very small black and white tv. I remember a couple of shows that had to be castoffs from never tv land but were on because they knew nobody watched tv on Saturday afternoon. You had the 'Littlest Hobo". The story of a half-breed german sheperd that traveled the country saving lives and souls. Kind of a Rin Tin Tin Fugitive. And then you had War of The Worlds! Who knew they had World War One and Two on film? This was excitng first hand insanity. Mussollini's body being dragged across the screen. Churchill's famous rallying cry to arms in front of parliament was way better than Live Atlanta Wrestling. Roosevelt's broken body negotiating for pieces of Europe against the villainous Stalin was more soap opera than history for me. And films of that lil bitch from Germany spouting mystical venom to thousands of wild eyed followers. I swear I did not know Hitler was a real person.( The kind and generous Jewish man and his family that lived and owned a small store across the street from our apartment on Highland Avenue in the fifties never mentioned that the Nazis had killed six million of his brethren only a few years ago. Not once.) But this gory film footage of history gave me even more confidence that this SAT thing might have a legitimate shot. I didn't mention science being a problem, did I. That's because Big Ma was my four year-eight semester, science teacher.
And then I get to the last section of the book. After thumbing thru the algebra and the geometry, I put the book down, called that little girl with the cute smile and ask if her mother has left yet.
I lived about three miles from that smile and walked at a purposeful pace when I started toward my new girlfriend (oh my, my, my), but as I was getting my change from the gas station condom machine, I heard Mr. Jackson, the owner talking about his grandson missing in Vietnam. I told you befor, I'm scary. After listening to Mr. Jackson and some of his old man friends talk about the war and what it was doing to a lot of the younger guys that were coming back, I put the rubbers in my back pocket and went back home.
I tried tackling the math section on my own, but...what the hell was all these alphabets doing in arithmetic, and why did some numbers have little numbers sitting on their shoulders? How could I not have a clue about any 'figurin' that was higher than dividing. I'll tell you how. In the ninth grade, this girl who somehow talked me into her house one afternoon after school, was the boyfriend of this guy who was a baddass. He found out and was looking to kick my ass for a year. But the only way he knew to catch me was on the third floor at my third period class, which was, Algebra 1. I wasn't taking no ass whipping for no grade. So that class got cut for almost an entire semester, until somebody shot him. Then in the tenth grade, I discovered consistant sex, so... no brains left. In the eleventh grade, I got a job at Sears and Roebucks that started about an hour befor school was out. I needed the money so I went every day, skipping my last period class the entire spring. Beginning Geometry was a stranger. And my senior year, Ms. McCray scheduled me for Trigonometry. What a sadist.
I woke up about six o'clock that Saturday morning in early February and walked about fifty yards from our place and caught the bus right in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Aburn Avenue and rode it all the way to Washington High School on Hunter (MLK) Street to take a test that I had given myself 50/50 odds to pass. When I got to the historic westside campus of my old high schools' traditional rival, there seemed to be hundreds of other college hopefuls milling around waiting for the scheduled ten o'clock start. When the doors finally opened to the gym, which was set up with desks from end to end, we entered and gave our test credentials to someone at the door and was directed toward a particular seat. I was pinned in between this skinny Black guy with huge brown glasses that looked kinda like a mask with that giant nose of his looking like it could spout soda from it, and this fat White girl who kept her coat on the entire test even though it must have been about a thousand degrees in there. And I got the surprise of my life once the test began. The test people pulled out a clock. Nobody told me there was a time limit on how long I could sit there and daydream until I found out a way to cheat on the math portion. I was determined not to panic. The reading comprehension was first. I hurried thru four written passages and was asked various questions about what went on. I thought it was some sort of trickery, so I looked at those questions over ten times befor settling on answering the simple queries with very literal answers.
I knocked out the science and history portions befor the little bell timers that was used to let us know we were out of time rang and you had to put your pencils down.
Then the dreaded math portion was served up to us like the final entree at an expensive restaurant. It was the main course. It was what the special ocaasion was all about.
I looked around at the people near me, expecting to see the same panic expressions on their faces that was certainly showing on me. But instead there was a lot of figurin going on that scratch paper that was provided for us to use for our many calculations and formulaic determinations. Well after looking over the four pages of, hell, this had to be Latin, I decided that Enney, Meeney, Miney and Moe would do just as well as Mr. Smart Looking Person sitting next to me. I again finished early and handed in my test and caught the bus back home and wondered what military life would be like.
It's now March and Georgia State's spring quarter starts in April and I desperately need that school deferment from the draft. That's because last Monday I had to report to the Army Depot headquarters on Ponce De Leon for a pre-military physical exam. I'm thinking my destiny is now tied to a test I wasn't prepared to take and and a school I didn't know existed until a few weeks ago. I'm screwed.
You know eighteen year olds could drink legally back then, so this one night when I'm hanging out at the Pink Pussycat lounge on Simson Road, I run into this girl I used to date in high school. Seems her ride has made other plans and wants to know if I can provide her with a safe way to get home. Well, I've turned into the accomodating type who now wants to treat everybody and everyday a little more special because, well, you just never know.After a brief stop at Piedmont Park, I drop her off at the same old apartment where we used to get together whenever her mean old mama used to go to work. Like every other day. But that was back in high school, over a year ago, so neither of us has any lasting feelings or anything after the tryst, so bye bye and take care. When I get home it's about two in the morning and my mother is passed out on the sofa as usual. I clean her up as much as a tired, slightly high teenager could. When I put her in her bed, I changed her urine soaked clothes and washed her down some and closed the door to her bedroom hoping she would stay there for at least a day. I learned over the past few years that you have to wash out pissy clothes as soon as possible or the stains will never go away. So I'm putting her stuff in the bath tub to soak overnight and that's when I see the mail all wadded up in her pants pocket. I'm paying a few bills now so I take a look at what might be due and I see this letter from the testing agency mixed in with the other items. It's been pissed on. How appropriate I'm thinking. I take it in my room and lay it on the dresser and decide to wait and check out my scores tommorrow when I can face my fate a little more sober. Or drunker.
Better lucky than good whenever you gamble! 840 was good enough to get me in college.
I learned from Bro Huff that you have to get to the Business Administration building on Decatur Street early so you can get the classes you want at the time you want them. So I manage to get all my classes, according to the school catalog, I can take as a first quarter freshman with a business degree in mind. That's what Bro tells me to do. Man I can't wait to be a college boy.
When I walk into Sparks Hall at the downtown campus that Monday morning in April, I spot the room where my first experience with higher learning is going to take place. I find me a seat at one of the long black porceline like tables at the front of the room. That's when this tall, middle aged white women struts in with a big old fashioned brown briefcase in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Oh yeah, I'm ready for this. Surely I can charm this brainy southern belle. I wonder what she teaches. I've actually forgotten which class this was. I know I signed up for English one-o-something and sociology. And then the tall, gangly, chain smoking white lady writes this on the blackboard;
Miss Pickett Riggs...Calculus 101
Hut, two, three, four...hut two.........