Sunday, June 23, 2013

Incidents with Rabbits and Blackbirds

When I was six-years-old, in 1969, my father’s job transferred us to Florida. We spent a couple of years there. We lived in a town named Winter Haven that was the home of a big tourist attraction called Cypress Gardens, and that billed itself as “The Water-Skiing Capital of the World.”  At that time it probably was.

The cost of living in central Florida in those days was considerably less than Chicago, and it hadn’t been overly developed so my parents were able to build their dream house.  It was situated in a new sub-division near a chain of lakes, and it backed up to a swamp on one side and a cow pasture on the other.  Most of our neighbors, which were few, either worked with my father or were retired people.

During those days, my sister, Melissa, had a rabbit that lived in a hutch out in the backyard near the combination shed/tree fort, all of which my father built.  The rabbit’s name was Floppy.  It was a big old white one that when we let it into the house would chase our dog, a kind of odd pit bull mutt, named Nibby, all around.  She was a lot of fun. The problem with Floppy was that she always found a way to get out of her hutch, and when she did, she went into Mr. Talbot’s garden.

Mr. Talbot was not a nice man.  He lived alone; he was a widower. Most of the other people on the two blocks that comprised our neighborhood at that time let kids pretty much run wild through their yards, steal water from their hoses, and would invite us in for things they had baked.  They were like second grandparents.  Mr. Talbot was not like that.  All he did was scowl and work in his vegetable garden. 

One day when Floppy got out Melissa and I went to look for her.  We went into Mr. Talbot’s garden and found her there nibbling on his lettuce.  We tried to grab her and get out before he saw us but no such luck.  As we tried to leave the garden he was standing there in his Bermuda shorts, his big belly hanging out of his white undershirt.  He was smoking a cigar. His arms were crossed and he looked very angry.  He said to Melissa, who was holding Floppy, “The next time that rabbit gets into my garden, I’m turning it into soup. Get on, now.”  We ran home as fast as we could and took Floppy into the house.  When my father got home he did everything he could to patch up the rabbit hutch so Floppy wouldn’t get away again.

The culture in Florida was very different from any I had ever experienced.  The most striking difference was school.  At our elementary school they started the day with outside flag assembly and then bible stories.  They didn’t like you to be left-handed, which I was. I’m right-handed now, though they couldn’t erase all of it. I still do a lot left-handed.  When you got in trouble you went to the principal’s office to get paddled.

What was most strange to me was that it was the first time I went to school with people that were a different color than me.  It didn’t bother me. They were just kids in my class who I liked.and I became friends with. There were two boys I liked very much: one who snapped his fingers in the air when he wanted to answer a question, and one who I helped with his reading. What did confuse me was why they went into different bathrooms from us, and rode on a different bus.  Aside from paddling, if you got detention, you had to ride on the black kids’ bus after school. I didn’t see how that was much of a punishment because that meant I got to ride home with my friends, but apparently down there at that time they thought it was.

One day when we were walking to our bus stop, we encountered some of the construction workers who were building more homes to grow our sub-division. They said “Good Morning" and I said, “Good morning,” back.  A little girl named, Val, who I thought was a conceited little snob, pulled my arm and took me across the street.   I said to her, “Why are you pulling me?”  She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Didn’t your mama tell you not to talk to blackbirds?”  I’d never heard that expression before.

One day, not long after that, my mother was in the kitchen of our house eating a sandwich when she started to choke.  She ran out into the yard to seek help. Fortunately, one of the construction guys was walking by and he helped her.  Some of the other neighbors heard the commotion and came out to help too.  That night when my father got home he went down to where the construction men went to wait for trucks that came to take them home.  He said thank you to the man who had helped my mother and he shook his hand.

A few days later, after school, my mother took us to the Stop-n-Go to get frozen slushies. While we were in the store we ran into Mr. Derwin.  Mr. Derwin lived in a somewhat ramshackle house with a bunch of kids and grandchildren that he let run in the sprinklers in their underwear. He worked in the orange orchards that were also near our house.  The other thing I remember about Mr. Derwin’s house is that he had these little statues of black jockeys and doormen in his front yard.

As we were paying for our drinks Mr. Derwin came up to may mother and said, “You’re damned lucky, Mrs. Sharpe.”  My mother replied, “Yes, I’m glad that man was there to help me.”  Mr. Derwin said, “That’s not what I meant.  I meant you’re damned lucky that blackbird didn’t do something else.  I don’t care what kind of trouble she’s in, I wouldn’t want some blackbird to put his hands on my wife.” 

You could tell my mother was getting angry. She said to my sister, “Melissa, take the kids to the car.”  Melissa did but I could still see my mother through the plate glass window of the store. I could see her yelling at Mr. Derwin and poking him in the chest.  When she came out and drove us home she was still steaming.  When we pulled into the driveway she put her head on the steering wheel and started to cry.  She told Melissa to watch us and went upstairs to lie down for a bit.

When my father got home from work, it was late.  We’d had our dinner and baths by then, and were getting ready to go to bed. He went upstairs. He talked to my mother a bit and then came down the stairs very quickly and went into the garage.  I tried to follow him but he was moving fast.  By the time I got into the garage, all I saw was him throwing a bat into the back of his little convertible and then driving off.

At some point in the night I woke and I saw flashing lights outside the house.  I went to window and saw my father leaning through the window of a police car.  Eventually my father stood up, gave the officer a wave, and walked back into the garage. 

I went down to the garage. My father was in white jeans, which he always wore, working on buffing his car.  When he saw me, he said, “Why are you up, Tom?”  I said, “I saw the police lights.”  He smiled, “Don’t worry about that.  It’s all okay.”  I said, “Does this have to do with what Mr. Derwin said to Mom about the blackbird?”  He stopped what he was doing and looked at me with fire in his eyes.  He stood up. “What did you just say?”  I repeated the question.  He put down his drill and he said, “I’m only going to say this once. We do not use that word in this house and if I hear you say it again I will wash your mouth out with soap. You know how that feels. Now get your butt back in bed.”  I have never used the expression again.

We never saw much of Mr. Derwin again, because when he would see us he would cross the street or turn the other way.  There was a lot “buzz” in the neighborhood.  There was a retired couple up the street that Melissa and I liked a lot, the Bells.  Melissa would help Mrs. Bell with her baking and I would help Mr. Bell with whatever he was doing around the house.  Our reward was we got to surreptitiously watch “Dark Shadows,” which was not allowed at home.  During that time, when other neighbors would come by, Mrs. Bell would step into another room and there was a lot of whispering.

Not long after the incident with Mr. Derwin, Floppy got out again, and she went to Mr. Talbot’s house.  Melissa and I, again, went looking for her.  As we were walking down the road (they didn’t have sidewalks there) we saw Mr. Talbot on his front porch in a chair, smoking a cigar, and holding a white object.  As we approached he called out, “Melissa, I got your bunny.” I thought Melissa was going to burst into tears. We walked up the driveway.  Melissa, sniffling now, said, “Mr. Talbot can I please have my rabbit back?’  Mr. Talbot stood up and said, “Come get her.”  Melissa ran up, took Floppy and held her to her chest for a moment, and then ran home. I turned to leave too and Mr. Talbot said, “Son, tell your father I am going to come visit him on Saturday.” I nervously asked, “Why?”  He said “Because I think he’s a good man and I want to have a conversation with him.  I also think I can give him some ideas on how to fix a rabbit hutch.”  We really never had trouble with Mr. Talbot after he came to visit my father that weekend.
The people at that time in Florida, and where we lived, did not use the word, “blackbird.” It is just a euphemism, because I cannot bear the word they did use and the tone of their voice when they used it.  I understand that rappers and others have co-opted the word and some of the reasons why. That is their prerogative, but I still wince whenever I hear it.  I don't like that word or several others that are thrown around to describe someone who is different from you.  Words that I have chosen not to ever use.  Words that imply you are better than someone else...words that hurt.

At one of our jazz dinners after I was an adult, I asked my dad what happened at Derwin’s house that night.  He shrugged his shoulders and said, “We had a discussion about why I disagreed with his opinions on certain things and why he should never approach or talk to my wife or my children ever again.”  

I then asked him, “Why did you take the bat?”  He just smiled wryly and said, “Well, I’ll put it this way. When I left Mr. Derwin’s that night he didn’t have any jockey statues in his lawn anymore.  I had to pay for that, but it was worth it to do something that I felt was right, just, and fair.  Sometimes your conscience makes you do crazy things. I don’t advocate violence, but sometimes you need to make a point. Sometimes you regret the things you do and sometimes you relish them. That night is not one I am ashamed of.”

My father did a lot of things in his life where he followed his conscience and did what he believed was right, just, and fair, and sometimes it cost him.  He lost friends, roles, money, and other things.  He did it anyway. I don't think he ever regretted that that was how he lived his life and how he treated all people.  It is how I have tried to live my life and what I hope we've taught our children well.  Based on the way they live their lives, I think we have.