Hard To Find


Watching
Factory Worker. Photo courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Stagalee had been working at the gun factory in Midland, Virginia for almost a year by the time Celestia Brentwood Farnsworth was hired there in 1979. Stag ran the CNC machine, milling and boring pistol parts. Having Celestia operating the sanding and grinding tools just across the aisle from him was like a breath of fresh air in the stale environment of the shop. The way the shop was laid out, there was a circular walkway or aisle that cut a path through the rectangle building. Machines were scattered on both sides of the aisle. There were drills, mills, sanders, saws of all types arranged in departments based on the company’s gun making process. Even though you couldn’t tell by looking, there was an actual work flow. There was a method in the madness of noise, dirt and dust. Most folks didn’t bother familiarizing themselves with the whole process, they learned just enough to keep the pay checks coming week to week.

Celestia made sure everyone knew she wasn’t just any ordinary worker, living pay check to pay check. From her first day on the job she told anyone in earshot that her father was very wealthy and that she didn’t really need to work there. Celest drove her father’s Mercedes Benz to work each day from their family home in Middleburg, Virginia. As she had done all of her life, when she wanted something, she simply went to her father and said “Daddy I want…”. Up until this last time, she’d always gotten what she wanted. This time, she’d gone to her father and said “Daddy, I want a car”. For the first time in her life her father bulked at a request she made. “Not this time baby, you think money grows on trees. You need to find out where it really comes from”. According to Celeste, her father told her she would have to get a job, any job, and save the first $500 of the cost of a car. Once she’d earned that amount, he would put the rest to it. And that, she proclaimed was the ONLY reason she was working at that “God-forsaken place”. It was the first job she’d ever had, the only one she could find and she’d only have it long enough to earn the money she needed to get that car, she made no bones about it.


Watching
Factory Worker. Photo courtesy: http://www.seattlelighthouse.org

Stagalee and Celestia hit it off from day one. They met and talked every chance they got. Stag would tell Celest of his aspirations in life, he hoped to some day become a high school Phys. Ed. teacher. She would tell him of her plan of someday becoming a partner in her father’s law firm, but first things first, get that car! They took their two daily 15 minute breaks together, sat outside at the picnic table and ate lunch together. To passersby, they were always laughing at some unheard joke, whispering shoulder to shoulder or just sitting quietly, enjoying each others’ company. They were friends, real friends. Stag had other friends, but she was special, they “got” each other, they had a connection.

After weeks of enjoying Celestia’s company, Stagalee came to the realization that his feelings toward her had begun to stray beyond the realm of friendship, he liked her as more than just a friend and wanted very much to move beyond it. It was during one of their daily breaks that Stag decided to share his feelings with Celest, they were so close, he was sure she must be feeling the same way he did. “Celest, we really get along well don’t we? As far as I’m concerned you’re my best friend”, Stagalee confessed. Celest looked at Stag and smiled, “Sure Stag, you’re really the only person I know here”, Celest took Stagalee’s hand as she spoke. This was going even better than he’d imagined. Even though Stag had never dated a white girl, he didn’t see her in those terms. He didn’t think race would be a problem for them or anyone else, after all, this was 1979 for cripes sake! “Celest, I was thinking that maybe you and I could go out, you know, on a date, maybe to a movie”. Stag held his breath.

Celest looked off into the distance, he noticed that the faint smile she always seemed to have had left her lips. She removed Stag’s hand from her grasp and her face became expressionless before she began speaking, “You want to date me? You and I?”, she seemed to be thinking aloud rather than speaking to Stag. “That would mean that eventually you would want to kiss me at some point. I’ve only ever kissed an adult negro man once in my life”. Stag was a bit surprised to hear Celestia talking this way, he hadn’t realized that she even thought of him as “a negro”, he thought she simply saw him as a friend. She continued to speak, “When I was growing up we had a butler who lived with us, his name was Jerome. Jerome took care of me since I can remember, he practically raised me, but then he became deathly ill. Once we knew there was no hope that he would recover, I went into his room and visited with him as he lay in bed ready to expire. I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, he died not long afterwards. We all loved Jerome, we knew there was no way we could ever replace him”. Then she looked directly into Stag’s eyes and stabbed him in the heart with her final words,”…And it’s a shame because it’s so hard to find good Black help anymore”. Stag almost choked, did she say what he thought she said? Was she serious? Was she just trying to put him in his place?

Well, there you have it, “Its so hard to find good Black help”, he knew exactly where he stood. With that he rose from the picnic table, went back inside and returned to his milling machine. They never spoke again. A few weeks later she quit her job at the factory, apparently saving the money she needed to get her new car. Stag learned that not only was good black help hard to find, but so were good friends. He would be a lot more particular in choosing his from then on.

Norfolk State College: The Untold Story

“Big – Bad – Moses – Rose!”
“Da-da-da”
“Big – Bad – Moses – Rose!”
“Da-da-da”
“Big – Bad – Moses – Rose!”
“Da-da-da…”

Oh no, here he comes again, Moses Rose, football star extraordinaire, walking through the quad of the Norfolk State campus singing about his favorite subject, himself.
It was just after Christmas break early in 1972 and Moses Rose was the big man on campus. Before that Jo Jo Bethea held that crown. He doesn’t know it, but he and I were in Phys. Ed. together, but that is the extent of our contact or my knowledge of his short stint on campus. One minute we were in Gym class together, the next thing I knew he was thrilling the crowds at Clemson and later at the Norfolk Scope with the Virginia Squires in the American Basketball Association. But Moses Rose was “Da Man” now and he let everyone within earshot know it by singing that one verse song of his (I won’t repeat it again here).

As far as I and my friends were concerned Rose could have his fame on the football field, we had ours in the ping pong room. We spent morning, noon and night playing table tennis. There was me, Trinidad (Trini), Trinidad #2, Jerome and “Plastic” and a few other names I can’t recall. It is my opinion that there has been someone on campus named Trinidad every year since the early 1960s. Our problem is that we had two Trinis, one was a great table tennis player and the other was a wannabe of the other Trini. Yes, you’ve already guessed it, they were both from the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Trini #1 was small and frail. He was what we called a professional student, when I matriculated in 1971, he had already been in school for six years and from the amount of time he spent in the Student Union building, he could look forward to staying another six or more. I don’t think the other Trini was actually a student, he could be seen working in an office on the upper floors in the building but always found time to make his way down to the basement where the ping pong room was located.

“Plastic” was the only female in the group, well, there was Gwendolyn, but she wasn’t as dedicated as the rest of us, she actually spent some of her time going to class. “Plastic” was a good player though, she had game. The reason we called her Plastic is because of the shiny make-up she always wore, it made her look like a mannequin in a store window. She wore a big afro, red lipstick, had rosy cheeks and was beautiful to boot. Plastic had a really nice personality, I think she was the one who sold me down the river. When I arrived on campus I told everyone I was from Washington, DC. I didn’t see the point in trying to explain that I was from a small little town way out in the country 50 miles away and besides, no one would ever know. Well, it didn’t take long for someone to ask what part of DC I was from, “Southeast”, of course. “Where in Southeast? What street do you live on? I know all about DC, did you go to Spingarn or Ballou?”. Well, that was all that it took, I was sunk. I said I went to Spingarn. “Spingarn? Spingarn? Spingarn is in northeast, Ballou is in southeast. Yeah, you’re from DC, Ha!” From that moment on we were best buddies, she called me “D.C.” and I called her “Plastic”.

The inspiration for our endeavor came one day while we were taking an outdoor break to watch little Trini show off his skills at soccer. Then, from off in the distance you could hear the faint sound approaching…
“Big – Bad – Moses – Rose!”
“Da-da-da…”

Great! Here comes Moses Rose, “That’s right, that’s right, step aside, make way for Moses Rose. Moses Rose is passing through”. For some reason he always referred to himself in the third person. I have to admit, the guy was impressive, built like a brick you-know-what, but in all fairness he was pretty entertaining, you had to like the guy for his self confidence, if nothing else.

It was then that someone spoke up, “Why doesn’t the school have a soccer team? We could all be on the soccer team” (I’d never played soccer in my life). Trini agreed and someone suggested that we just start one up, how hard could it be to start up a soccer team and schedule games, right? That’s how it all got started. The next thing you know we had not only organized a soccer team, we’d put together a chess team (the chess room was directly across the hall from the ping pong room). The student union was built with lots and lots of glass. The walls to each of the rooms in the basement were made of glass, as were the walls to the entrance of the building and the entrance doors. I can’t tell you how many newbies walked right into the walls and doors face first, trying to get into the building. You could just stand at the entrance to the basement and pick out the kids who were going to run into the glass “SMACK!”
So, by the end of that week, we had organized enough people to have a soccer team, a table tennis team, a chess team and a spades (card game) team. The next step was to make some phone calls to other schools to see if they would be interested in organizing representatives from their campuses to compete against us and other schools, yet to be determined.

Before Long we had schedules for traveling from one to school to another. We were the first to travel and first on our list was a visit to Virginia State in Petersburg. I remember that outing like it was yesterday. We all jumped in cars and drove to V.S.U. There must have been at least 10 to 12 of us. It was too cold for soccer so it was just the ping pong, chess and spade teams. We all basically rotated from one team to another so even if it were warm enough for soccer, the head count would have probably been the same. We arrived late Friday night with games scheduled for Saturday morning. The first thing we did was go to the student center and hang out. This was a learning trip if ever there was one. When we arrived at the center, we were met with music and dancing, there was a party going on. In the center of the room was what appeared to be a very intoxicated girl dancing on one of the tables. All she needed was a pole and you would have thought we were in a strip club. I asked someone from the school who the girl was, he said, “Oh, that’s not a girl, she’s a transvestite, a cross dresser”. I’d never seen anyone like that before and it made me realize that I needed to start paying closer attention to who I was talking to. After the party we went to a predetermined dorm and crashed for the night. Oddly enough, directly across the hall was the cross dresser’s dorm room. The noise from across the hall kept us up all night. There were guys in and out of that room all night, all going there for the sole purpose of having their hair braided. In with a fro, 30 minutes later, out wearing braids. We barely got any sleep at all.

The noise must not have affected us because the next day we won three out of four ping pong games, two of four of the chess matches and swept the spades games. It was a very successful outing. Three weeks later V.U. visited our school, but I have only a minute recollection of it. Our next stop was to be Virginia Union. There was a really bad snow storm that weekend so I decided not to go. There were two or three cars battling the elements to get there on that fateful day. I wasn’t able to make that trip, so I only have what I was told to go by. But apparently, the car that Jerome (Alias) and Plastic were in was trying to make it through the blinding snow when it skidded off the road and slid into a guard rail. Neither of them were hurt, so they got out of the car to inspect the damages. They circled the vehicle to see if it was drivable, but as they stood behind it looking it over, another car turned the corner and did exactly what they had done. That car plowed into the rear of their vehicle pinning them between the two bumpers. I was told that Plastic died at the hospital, Jerome had to have one of his legs amputated. I lost a good friend that day, two good friends. I never expected that Jerome would return to school, but he did. I would occasionally see him on crutches making his way to class, but he never came back to the ping pong room.

The school landed in a hot water because of the accident and the fact that it happened while students were participating in unsanctioned athletic events. Ultimately, back then at least, the school was deemed responsible for the students while they were in their care. Needless to say, that no more tournaments took place. I have found no formal record that this incident, or the events leading up to it, ever took place. Of course, I am using aliases to protect the privacy of those who suffered during this tragic time in the school’s history. But the least I can do is memorialize what I know about what took place in writing, here and now.

Norfolk State College: The Ping Pong Man

“We gon’ kick yo ass, Mister Ping Pong Man. You done done it now, yo ass is grass!”.
– “Yeah, let’s get him”. Stagalee was about to leave the Grandy Park Recreation Center not sure exactly what he should do. It was time for him to go home for the day, but the Liberty Park boys were gathered just to his left, they were standing in the street staring him down. To his right were the Grandy Park girls, these 15 to 18 year old girls were just as notorious as their male counterparts. They, too, stood in the middle of the street. The girls were all dressed in what could best be described as the group uniform, Chuck Taylor all star sneakers, white knee-high socks, miniskirts and either a jean jacket or a mink coat. The minks were of various lengths. Each of the girls sported a switch blade knife which they menacingly flicked opened and closed, as they stared at Stagalee, waiting for him to leave the safety of the rec center.


Liberty Park
The Liberty Park neighborhood of Norfolk, VA. (Photo @1964 Courtesy of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority).

The year was 1971, VA-44 (I-264) was still under construction. The Norfolk Scope arena had not long been completed. Dr. J. was a Virginia Squire for the American Basketball Association. Norfolk’s urban renewal was in full swing and Stagalee was there fresh out of Remington, Virginia. This was only Stag’s second day on the job. He had been assigned to the Grandy Park area in order to fulfill his work/ study program obligation at Norfolk State. Through the program, Stagalee received a $500 check for school tuition and a $20 a week salary. Begging for food in the Student Union building was never again an issue after this program began in the second semester of his freshman year. Grandy Park, as it was known, wasn’t that bad of an area. There were some nice homes there, it appeared to be a very nice neighborhood. The problem with Grandy Park was its close proximity to Liberty Park. Liberty Park was, well, it was the projects. Liberty Park was one of the first federal housing projects in the country. It was constructed to be “a defense housing project for 800 Negro families… developed by the Federal Public Housing Authority of the National Housing Agency”. By most accounts, the neighborhood began to deteriorate from the moment construction was completed. Students at Norfolk State were warned to stay away from that area, they were told that gangs roamed the streets and that no one was safe. Stagalee was being confronted by two of those gangs right now, one male and one female. He decided to take his chances and turned in the direction of home and started walking down the street, in the direction of the girls. The Liberty Park boys began following, the girls encircled Stag, tossing out profanity laced threats all the while. One of the girls turned to the boys, who were about 20 paces behind and yelled, “We got this, we don’t need ya’ll to handle him!”. The boys stopped and turned back up the street.


Mr. Ping Pong Man
A likeness of Mr. Ping Pong Man demonstrating his abilities on the table. Photo courtesy of Tumblr.com

Just yesterday he’d been treated like a celebrity. When he arrived at the rec center for his first day of work one of he kids asked him if he knew how to play table tennis. Of course he did. Stagalee spent almost every waking hour in the ping pong room at the student union building on campus. His prowess on the table was well known among those who frequented the basement of that building, which housed a room for ping pong, the chess room, where the chess club met, the restaurant / greasy spoon and several other rooms that were of no importance to Stag.

Stag had been listed as the best player on campus for a full week, the title was a difficult one to achieve and an even harder one to hang on to.

Stagalee took ‘next’ on the ping pong table at the rec center and never relinquished his spot the entire night. That’s when the kids began calling him “Mr. Ping Pong Man” and bringing in their friends from the street to watch him play. He was a big hit at the center. But that was yesterday.
This day he was assigned by the center’s director to referee a basketball game between the rival teams of Liberty Park and Grandy Park. That news meant that any calls made against Liberty Park could be his undoing. But he had no choice. “Twe-e-e-e-e-e-t!”, Stagalee blew his whistle in the final seconds of the fourth period. “Foul! Number 43 Blue!”. The call was against the team from Liberty Park, the fifth one of the night on that particular player. The rules stated that the player had to be ejected from the game for fouling too many times. The threats had already been coming since the first foul in the game, but kicking out their best player and causing them to lose the game? Well, that brought on even more taunts and warnings of impending violence toward Stag.
Today and every day after, he was escorted out of the neighborhood by the same group of girls. The threats flowed, the switch blades flicked, the girls were always waiting outside to walk him to the end of the block and the fence that separated Grandy Park’s Kimball Terrace from Brambleton Avenue. Stagalee noted to himself that the girls, nor the boys for that matter, seemed to ever venture beyond the fence. Stag would slide through the fence opening and onto Brambleton then walk the remaining two blocks to the house where he and his room mates stayed on Willoughby. But he could not figure out why those girls seemed to respect an invisible force field that held them inside their neighborhood. Being a college freshman meant that Stagalee was no more than a year or two older than these girls. But they may as well have been decades and worlds apart. As they walked, between taunts, Stagalee tried to relate to them by discussing their aspirations. He tried to get the girls to see beyond the now, beyond the fence. After a while the girls talked about life after high school and Norfolk, even considered the possibility that they might one day attend Norfolk State College (now N.S.U.).


Mad dog
As Stagalee walked down the street he noticed a dog chasing a little girl around a street light. Photo courtesy of TheWeek.com

After about a month of working at the center, Stag was walking through the neighborhood on his way to work when he heard screams coming from down the block. He looked up and saw a large dog chasing a little girl round and round a street light. Stag immediately began running toward them, yelling at the dog, trying to get its attention. The dog didn’t notice Stagalee approaching the little girl did and ran directly toward him with the dog snapping at her heels. Stagalee picked the little girl up and put her down behind him. The dog approached at full speed and jumped on Stag’s chest. The dog began excitedly licking Stag’s face. He hadn’t been trying to bite the child, he only wanted someone to play with. But this was a huge dog, and the little girl was terrified

At the same time Stag was petting the dog and trying to get it off of him, the little girl had run into a pool hall behind them screaming about the dog. The occupants of the establishment rushed out into the street to see what was causing the commotion, pool sticks in hand. Just as Stag got the dog under control, the men came at Stag, clutching the girl in a protective fashion.
– “Is that your dog?”
– Hey you! IS THAT YOUR DOG!?!” another person asked.
“No, that’s not my dog, I’ve never seen this dog before today”, Stag replied anxiously.
– “If you want to live to see tomorrow , you better take your dog and get the hell outta here!’, they were moving in toward Stag, ready to pounce
Then Stag heard a girl yell out from down the street, “Wait! He didn’t do nothing, he pulled the dog off the girl, we saw the whole thing!”
It was the Grandy Park girls, they’d witnessed the entire episode from several blocks away and were running toward what was now a throng of people ready to attack Stag for what they presumed had happened.
“That’s the Ping Pong Man” (they never bothered to learn my name, Stagalee thought himself, they don’t even know my real name).
“He works at the recreation center, he’s OK.”, they said, “We know him, he saved that little girl from the dog, ya’ll should be thanking him”.
The group of people took a collective step back and just as they had done so many times in the past, the girls surrounded him, but this time to protect him, maybe that’s why they’d been escorting him all along, for his own protection. The girls continued to walk Stag to the rec center each day after that and were waiting for him from then on to escort him out of the neighborhood, even though it was no longer necessary. They spent that time talking about what the future might bring, the switch blade knives never came out again.
And from that time forward, Stagalee was treated with respect and admiration in the neighborhood. Not only did the kids look upon him as somewhat of a hero, but the adults treated him as a respected member of the community as well.
= “There goes the Ping Pong Man!”, they’d say.
– “Hi Ping Pong Man” or “‘Bye, Mr. Ping Pong Man. C’Ya tomorrow!”.

Mr. Ping Pong Man, the boy from the sticks of Faquier County had found a home away from home in the projects.

A Picnic to Remember


Family outing along Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park
My family and I on one of our many visits to Skyline Drive, that’s me on the right

While growing up, our family made picnicking on Skyline Drive, in the Shenandoah National Park, a regular pastime since before I can even remember. So when I was finally able to purchase my own car and it came time to take a female friend on a date during the day, driving and picnicking along the Shenandoah National Parkway was always my first option. The female in question on this occasion wasn’t actually a girlfriend, well she was my girlfriend, I just wasn’t her boyfriend. It gets complicated, see she already had a boyfriend, so to her I was just a good companion to have around when he wasn’t and it seemed like he was hardly ever around. Whatever the situation was, it didn’t matter, we seemed to enjoy each other’s company. This unidentified young lady lived on a farm up in the mountainous region of northern Fauquier County. She even tried to teach me how to ride a horse bare back once. I never caught on to it though, I couldn’t get pass the “slide-while-you-ride” factor, horses are slippery critters.

The dirt road that led to her house was like a rollercoaster ride, only worse. But that was during the day, at night you couldn’t tell if you were driving over a steep hill or about to plummet to your death off of a cliff, that’s how steep the terrain was. My car would get to the top of one hill that was so steeply angled that the frame would get caught on the gravel road with the tires suspended off the ground. You had to rock the car back and forth and you could end up going backward or forward, depending upon which tires hit the ground first, the front or the back. We really didn’t need to pay $2 to go to Skyline Drive, to me she already lived in the mountains.


Great Picnic fixings
I considered myself quite the lady’s man back then, unfortunately…

When it came to impressing the ladies, I didn’t half-step, I always tried to go the extra mile. This was one of those occasions where I wanted to make a good impression, so I stepped it up a notch. So, I went to the 7-11 and bought a bottle of Sangria, some assorted cheeses, went to the A&P and bought a loaf of French bread and two long stemmed wine glasses. I even drove all the way to Pier 1 Imports in Manassas to buy a wicker picnic basket (with the complimentary checkered table cloth included). All I needed to do now was pick her up and we’d be on our way. I drove 30 miles to the mountains to pick up the young lady, then we drove another 30 miles to some other mountains to look at other mountains, yep, this was going to be a day to remember.


1971 - An unidentified young lady sits atop an old Ford pickup truck somewhere in the mountainous regions of Fauquier County, Virginia
An unidentified young lady sits atop an old Ford pickup truck somewhere in the mountainous regions of Fauquier County, Virginia

Back then, I guess you could say I was a bit naïve about, well, just about everything. We arrived at Skyline Drive and spent the better part of the day moving from one overlook to the other, talking and enjoying each other’s company. Finally, it came time to eat and we decided to stop somewhere and enjoy our picnic lunch. I found a good spot to park, just along a curve with a shoulder just wide enough to be clear of oncoming traffic. The spot was at the foot of a pretty steep hill, but the hill rose to a secluded area. From our vantage point I could tell that the woods above contained a hollow with cool soft grass that was just right for a romantic interlude. We unpacked the car and hiked up the hill. We stopped at a spot where there was a clear 360 degree view, we were at the crest of the mountaintop. The wine was poured, the cheese was cut, our bellies were plied and content. Now came the time for romance.

I stared deeply into her eyes and leaned forward for that first kiss. It was at this juncture that I happened to let my eyes wander away from hers, I looked down the hill toward my car. That’s when I noticed that a park ranger had pulled along the shoulder. He was already out of his car and looking over my vehicle, this scene was being played out about a half mile below us, we regained our composure and watched and wondered at what caused him to stop in the first place. The park ranger then turned his attention toward the hill, the hill we were sitting on. He looked up and down the hillside, but there was no way he could see us, but he was definitely trying. He reached into his vehicle and pulled out some binoculars. After scanning through the trees for a while, he decided to just start up the incline. He was climbing the hill but had no clue which direction he should be going. I could tell that if he continued in the direction he was headed he would miss us by quite a distance, but he continued to climb, apparently determined to find the owner of the car left on the side of the road.

After about 15 minutes of watching the park ranger hunt for us in vein through the woods, I decided it was time to let him in on where we were. I knew he’d eventually find us because it didn’t look like he was about to quit anytime soon. I called him over:
“Sir! Officer! We’re over here!”
As he approached, he spoke up while we nonchalantly continued enjoying our wine and cheese. This is how the conversation went…
“Good afternoon sir, I’m the park ranger assigned to this area, is that your vehicle at the bottom of the hill sir?”
– “Yes, it is”
“You’re having a picnic, are you? Nice day for it”
– “Yes, it’s a beautiful day”.
“Is that wine you have there in those glasses?”
– “Yes, Yago Sangria” (He needed to know that he wasn’t just dealing with anybody, he was dealing with a connoisseur of fine wines)
“And the young lady, hello ma’am, how old is she?” (He was very polite)
– “Oh, she’s 17”.
“And you sir, how old are you?”
– “I’m 19”
“Ok, well, do you know why I came looking for you up here today sir?”
– “No officer, is there a problem?” (Did I mention how naïve I was?)
“Well there are a couple of park regulations that you’re currently in violation of, where shall we start?
Your car sir, #1, you’re parked on the side of the road, that’s an undesignated area. You can only park in designated parking areas within the park, sir. And #2, you’re picnicking in an undesignated area, we have picnic areas clearly marked throughout the park. Then there’s the alcohol, there’s no alcohol allowed in the park, that’s #3. You have an open container of alcohol, #4 and you are drinking in public, that’s 5 so far. Sir, the young lady, you say you are 19 and she is only 17, that means you are contributing to the delinquency of a minor, you could go to jail for that young man. That’s 6 park violations. That’s it, I think that’s all I can find for now. What do you have to say for yourself?”
– “I’m sorry officer, I wasn’t aware of those rules”
“You weren’t aware, YOU WEREN’T AWARE? We have signs posted everywhere! How could you not be aware?” He calmed himself and thought for a minute, then continued, “But you seem like a nice young man, you called me over, you weren’t hiding from me. You do seem innocent enough and you weren’t doing anything other than having a picnic, so I’m going to let you go, but let this be a lesson to you”
– “Oh thank you sir, we’ll go back down the hill and get out of here right now”
The officer turned and started down the hill to his car, then he looked back and pointed his finger, “Don’t leave any trash, that’ll be number 7! Take all your trash with you. Leave it the way you found it!”. With that he was gone.
Seven national park violations and he let us go, that had to be some kind of record. Needless to say, the young lady in question and I never went back to Skyline Drive again.

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Just Like Hugo’s

 

How in the world could I have let myself be talked into a situation like this again? There I was crouched on the floor behind the passenger’s seat of a car, peering over the dashboard trying not to be seen. For all I knew, my friends were inside having a good old time, while I was stuck outside hoping not to be discovered or killed. I only had two white friends and they came to me telling me about this brothel they’d stumbled upon just a few miles down the road from where we worked. They wanted to go and they said I should come with them. So here I am hiding in the back of a car because my friends brought me to a place called the S&S Truck Stop. They waited until we got here to warn me that the place was full of racists, but they thought they could convince the owner to let me in. As soon as we arrived, they started making their plans. First of all, this wasn’t a truck stop at all, it was just a run down old house out in the middle of nowhere. The only thing that remotely made it like a truck stop was that it had a parking lot and there were trucks parked in it. But they were pickups, not tractor trailers or semis, just ordinary trucks driven by local yokels, with a few cars scattered about. The place seemed to be pretty busy, there were a lot of men moving about, people leaving people arriving, we sat and watched for a while. “You stay here Stan, we’ll go in and talk to the owner. I’ve been here before”. That was Joe Planko talking, “These people are all a bunch of racist rednecks and if they see you out here, there’s no telling what they’ll do. Get on the floor and stay low until we get back”. Some great idea this was turning out to be.

I’d arrived in Brunswick, Georgia only two months earlier and had already been called the N-word three times by then. I was fresh out of Navy boot camp and had been assigned to the Naval Air Station Glynco for Air Traffic Control Class "A" School, I’d told the recruiter I wanted to be an air traffic controller. The first n-word came the week after I arrived. I was walking into McDonald's at the time and a white man was coming out. He took one look at me and said “G*dd*mn N-word!” and kept walking. By the time my friends got to me I already had him on the ground banging his head against the pavement. My three friends, who were all white, separated us and told the man he’d better get out of there and forget what happened if he knew what was good for him. Well that’s what I wanted to do. What I really did was step toward the man as if I were about to pounce on him, but gave my friends enough time to get to me to hold me back. The next time that term was used on me, a white woman said it and all because I’d smiled and nodded at her. I can’t recall the reason for the 3rd time, I only know it was a man and by then I realized this was going to be a long three months if this kept happening.

I grew up in Virginia and this was the first time I’d ever been called that name. I was amazed that I had to actually leave the state for it to happen. These people in GA didn’t pull any punches, they’d get right in your face and let you know what they thought about you. They seemed to want you to know they were racists. Racial discrimination back home came at you more at an angle. The non-direct approach made it less obvious, but just as effective. For example, you might not get that car loan you applied for or the house you wanted might suddenly become unavailable. Maybe you’d find out that the land you just purchased didn’t perk, so you wouldn’t be able to put in a sewer system. I remember once when two young women from Alexandria bought an investment property near my home town. We met for an interview after I applied to rent the house and they seemed excited about the prospect of having me as a tenant. When I went by to sign the lease agreement, a man came by to welcome me to the neighborhood, even shook my hand and watched me sign the lease. As soon as I left he made his move, he threatened to burn down the house if the women let me move in. The two ladies called, crying and apologetic. They told me what the man had done and said they had no choice but to break the lease, of course I agreed. The worse case of perceived racial prejudice I encountered back home was what happened in a little corner mom and pop store out in the country, near my job. I went to this store every day for lunch and ordered a deli sandwich. This particular day when I arrived back at work I took a bite into my delicious sandwich. I noticed it had more mayo than usual and decided to take a closer look at it, that’s when I saw half of a fly right at my bite mark. I gagged at the thought of where the other half was by then. I opened the sandwich and found two more dead flies inside. Who knows how long flies had been part of my daily diet. As I thought back, I realized that every time I ordered a sandwich there the lady would take my order and then begin swatting flies. I just thought they had a lot of flies. I didn’t realize they were being used as a garnish. With these types of tactics, it was hard to prove that race had anything to do with what transpired. Maybe the woman behind the counter just didn’t like me personally, she just thought I was a smart mouthed jerk who deserved a fly in his sandwich. Maybe, just maybe, the land really DIDN’T perk and race had nothing to do with it, who knows? But if that’s the case, it sure makes for a boring story to pass down to your grand kids.

 

Most of my stay in Georgia, minus a few negative encounters, I found myself having a great time. My friends and I occupied our time most weekends on one of the nearby islands, camping out on either St. Simons or Jekyll. Our main mode of travel was by motor scooters. We went everywhere on them. Two of my classmates and close friends were female lieutenants in the Philippine Navy. We drew lots of attention whenever we putted around together on our scooters and it wasn’t always positive. The girls were in Georgia to train along side us in hopes of becoming controllers. In the U.S. Navy, enlisted personnel are trained as controllers, but in the Philippine Navy only officers could be air traffic controllers. Once the two girls and a friend and I hopped on our motor scooters and rode all the way to Jacksonville, Florida just to spend the weekend on the beach. Riding in a car was rare for me since I’d arrived in Brunswick, so I jumped at the chance whenever the opportunity arose.

 

So there I was in the back seat, on the floor, peering over the dash, waiting for my friends to come get me so I could have access to a “house of ill-repute”. It goes by another name but I won’t mention it here. I was a sailor in the U.S. Navy and these things happen. Sometimes you find yourself in some pretty awkward situations. But this awkward situation reminded me of something else, what was it? I’d found myself in a large parking lot surrounded by people who didn’t want me there on another occasion, where was that? Oh yeah! It was Hugo’s Skate Way back when I was still living in Fauquier County. I’d let two other of my white friends talk me into going to Hugo’s that night, even though we all knew there was no way I’d get through the front door. They convinced me that the party was on the outside anyway and we’d have just as much or more fun as the folks inside. After a lot of convincing, I said sure, I’ll go. We went. We parked. We watched. We waited. We got out of the car. Just like here at the S&S Truck Stop, there were a lot of pickup trucks there. There were a lot of men hanging around drinking, a lot of moving about. I stayed close to the car, leaning against the front fender, just taking in the activity. Just about everyone in Fauquier County knew that blacks weren’t allowed inside at Hugo’s. It wasn’t posted on any sign, no one had to tell you. If you were black, you just knew it, but every now and then an outsider had to learn it the hard way (Johnson v. Hugo’s Skateway, 1992). I wasn’t an outsider, so no one should be surprised that in my entire life, I’d never been inside Hugo’s establishment and had no desire to ever darken its doorway, pun intended. But none of that factors into the influence of your friends and what you will let them talk you in to doing. So we ended up in Hugo’s parking lot.

What I found somewhat odd about Hugo was that he seemed to be a “walking contradiction”. On the one hand, he was renowned in the county for being a racist who refused to allow blacks to enter his entertainment establishments, but on the other hand, he was a philanthropist who single-handedly funded the construction of a fire station for the community. By contrast, he didn’t seem to be a racist when it came to his well drilling business, he drilled many wells for black people in the community, providing clean drinking water for those families. He must have given good deals and reasonable prices to blacks, otherwise my father would never have gone to him to have our second well drilled after the well he’d picked, shoveled and dynamited by hand began to run dry. Dad could have easily gone to Leazer’s well drilling company a mile away in Remington. There could be only one reason he hired Stribling to drill the well, money! As far as the entertainment business was concerned, he seemed to be a huge racist. But when it came to community service and his service related business he was apparently open to all and fair-minded. That means, in the morning I could have my well drilled by a philanthropic, community minded entrepreneur and that evening be asked to leave or be arrested at the local skating rink, all orchestrated by the same person. So yes, you could say the man was a walking contradiction.

 

Of course, my friends decided just standing around outside wasn’t enough, they were going to mingle about a bit. They knew people, I didn’t, I stayed by the car. They left and I waited. That’s when some drunk decided he wanted to cut somebody. This guy pulled out a Bowie knife and began threatening anyone who walked his way, flailing his arm’s around, slurring his words. Since I was standing still, not moving, I guess, as with other predators, the guy just didn’t notice me. He noticed my mingling about friends and immediately went into attack mode. I minded my own business, the guy was too drunk to do any real damage anyway, I quickly jumped in the car. The boys easily evaded his moves and ran back to the car, they jumped in and we high-tailed it out of there at top speed. As we left I kept my head down and peered out the rear window, watching to see that we weren’t being followed by an angry mob. That was my complete and brief experience at Hugo’s Skate Way, I never went back. Hugo’s was eventually sold in 2005

“Over three decades, in 1978, 1989 and 1990, the skating rink was in the news over race discrimination charges.
In 1978, the FBI investigated charges of discrimination in admission and the U.S. Justice Department found that Stribling had no right to say the business was private, and that he had illegally barred blacks”

(Zitz, 2005)

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With the S&S Truck Stop now looming in front of me, I was quickly awakened from my day dream by the sight of my three friends in the doorway. They were either struggling to escape or were forcibly being pushed out the door, I couldn’t tell from this distance. Either way, they stumbled down the rickety steps and headed, at full speed, toward me and the car. Joe jumped in behind the wheel and started the engine. He barely waited for the other two to get in before he floored it and peeled rubber down the road. As the truck stop faded in the distance, the boys breathed a sigh of relief. One of them finally spoke up and said, “Whew! We barely made it out alive! We went in, sat around a while, talked and laughed and had even picked out the girls we wanted. Then we told them that you were out here and asked if you could come in too. The owner jumped up from behind the desk and said ‘Not only can that ni**er NOT come in, but we’re gon’na kick you boys’ asses for bringing him here in the first place, now get the hell out!’, that’s when yu saw us coming through the door”. As I listened to my three best friends in the world rehash what all had gone on inside, I peered over the seat through the rear window. I watched down the road to make sure we weren’t being followed by an angry mob. No one was following us, so I leaned back and drifted off to sleep… Yep, this was just like Hugo’s (Z-z-z-z-z-z).

Sources:

OpenJurist, 974 F. 2d 1408 – Johnson v. Hugo’s Skateway, Retrieved on 2/21/2014 from: http://openjurist.org

M. Zitz, 2005, The Free Lance Star, “One Last Spin” Retrieved on 3/3/2014 from: http://fredericksburg.com

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Norfolk State College: (A Fish Out of Water )

(The following events are true, the names were changed to protect the innocent (and the not so innocent))

“Benny, you get the bologna, I’ll get the cheese. Leroy, you get the mayonnaise and Stagalee wear my maxi-coat, you got’ta get the bread”. Yes, it had finally come to this, Bill Clayton and his three roommates were laying down a strategy whereby they would go to the local Be-Lo Market and shop-lift enough items to make sandwiches, bologna sandwiches. They were literally starving to death and something had to be done.

The Norfolk State College admissions building loomed perilously in front of Stagalee.
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This hadn’t been what Stagalee envisioned when he received his letter of acceptance from Norfolk State College during the past summer. Sure, he knew it wouldn’t be easy, heck, he wasn’t even able to raise the fifty dollars needed to secure on-campus housing, but he was determined to go.
When it came time to leave for college, Stagalee found that he didn’t actually have a ride to get there. It just happened that a neighbor and close family friend, Tina, and her husband were driving back to their home in Hampton that weekend and offered to give Stag a ride. He quickly took them up on their offer to ride along. When they arrived in Hampton he spent the night at Tina’s house, the next day they dropped Stag off on Corprew Avenue in front of the school’s admin building. Stag stood and watched as Tina and Paul drove off down the street, he was all alone now. This was becoming far too real for poor Stag, there he was standing on the sidewalk, his seventy-five pound trunk of clothes sitting beside him on the lawn, he had no idea where to go from there. He picked up his belongings and headed down the long walkway to a sign marked “Admissions”. Long story short, six hours later and being directed from one long line to another, Stag learned that he did not have enough funds ($50 to his name) to qualify to live on campus. The good folks in admissions gave Stagalee a piece of paper with an address and directions on it, he walked the six blocks with his trunk to his new home at 1719 Willoughby Avenue. He had to walk past the Twin Towers, the male and female dorms that loomed watchfully over the campus, the dorms where he should have been walking into right now. When he finally arrived at the address written on the paper, there waiting for him in the house were his 3 new roommates, Bill Clayton, Benny Sims and Leroy Whitaker. These guys were all from the Hampton Roads area, they knew their way around, had family and friends nearby and seemed prepared, at least outwardly, for the challenges that lay ahead. Stag, on the other hand, was like a fish out of water, he’d never been more than 50 miles in either direction from Remington, Virginia. This was all new to him and the prospect of living with people he’d never seen before in his life was a bit overwhelming. Bill was the oldest and seemed to be the most laid back of the three. Bill was from Hampton, owned a car but, for some reason, had decided not to bring it with him. Benny was from an upper middle class family, his family owned the first and only black-owned hotel in Myrtle Beach, from the start it was plain to see that he was a spoiled brat who had been given everything he ever wanted. Leroy was an amateur boxer, he was a self proclaimed black belt karate expert and also had a cousin who was a professional boxer, Parnell Whitaker.

Stag should have been staying in the Twin Towers dormitory, but was not financially able.
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The rent for the row house was going to cost $7 per month for each of them, but it wasn’t just them living there. Behind the locked door in the kitchen lived another tenant, old man Grimsley. The landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Everett, live upstairs, they are an elderly couple with no children of their own and who decided to open their home to college students for both the extra income and to help young people as they try to prepare themselves for the future.

The first day of classes was particularly uneventful and Stagalee was glad to get back to his new digs and away from the hustle and bustle of campus life. He opened the front door, which held the foyer, directly ahead was the door to Mr. Grimsley’s room, slightly right were the stairs leading up to the landlord’s apartment. He unlocked the door to his left and went into the living room where he and his schoolmates lived. The living room was pretty large as row houses go, it was big enough to hold the bunk bed where Benny and Leroy slept at night and the normal furniture that goes with living rooms. The next room was smaller and this is where he and Bill slept in single beds on opposite walls from one another, there was also a desk for studying and dresser and mirror. The next room was actually a hallway that lead straight ahead to a bathroom and then off to the right there was the kitchen, which Mr. Grimsley also shared. The kitchen was obviously a later addition because there was a window in the wall between the hall and the kitchen, this came in handy because you could see who was in the kitchen through the window without having to go all the way to the door. Mr. Grimsley had his own refrigerator and he only came into the kitchen long enough to prepare his meals, then he would disappear back into his room. Mr. Grimsley appeared to be between 75 and 80 years old and did not seem to be very friendly, they rarely saw him at all.

Stagalee went home for Spring Break, Freshman beanie and all.
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The next day when Stag arrived home from classes he walked through the living room, through his bedroom and into the hallway on his way to the kitchen. But he noticed that the bathroom door was slightly ajar and someone was inside. He went to the door, pushed it open slightly and there slumped on the toilet seat, leaning up against the sink was Benny Sims completely unconscious… with a syringe sticking in his arm. Benny Sims was hooked on scag, heroin, H. Stag saw that he had needle marks on both arms and there he lay high as a kite and knocked out. Stagalee grabbed him, picked him up and began smacking him, trying to bring him around, but it was no use, he was out. Stag laid him on the floor and closed the door. When his other two roommates arrived from school Stagalee told them what he’d found and they all went into the bathroom, pulled Benny out and began beating him relentlessly, he woke up only to be beaten some more. Benny’s three roommates told him in no uncertain terms that if this happened again he was out, he’d have to leave the house, needles would not be tolerated in the house. Of course Benny never touched a needle again after that.

During the summer prior to coming to school Stagalee had applied for a student loan. He acquire the loan from the State Bank of Remington with the provision that once he graduated and worked as a school teacher in the state of Virginia for a period of two years, the loan would be forgiven. The loan was part of a work-study program and that meant he needed to find a job. Stagalee found work in one of the neighborhood youth centers, the Grandy Park Youth Center just a few blocks from campus. The center was in the middle of rival gangs, there was Liberty Park, a housing development just north-east of the center and Grandy Park, the development the center was located in. There was always a war brewing because gangs from both neighborhoods played basketball inside the center and Stagalee’s work -study job was the referee the basketball games, this place in a constant no-win situation. This made for an interesting and scary walk home each night, Stag was taunted and threatened to the outskirts of the neighborhood every night, but mostly by the girls. The girls, decked out in mink coats, mini skirts and Converse All Stars slashed their switch blades and hawk billed knives at him with promises that hiss face would be messed up if he keep flubbing calls during the games. Stag finally realized that he would not be attacked when kids from Liberty Park tried to attack him for what they considered making a bad call against them during the game, the Grandy Park girls chased the would-be attackers out of the neighborhood and from then on he was under their protection, after that they escorted him out of the neighborhood each night.

The decision to steal groceries hadn’t been made lightly, for months they had been living off the kindness of others. Many days went by with them only eating peanut butter crackers or Ramon noodles, if they were lucky. On numerous occasions they stood at the back door of the Student Union snack bar waiting for “Big Mama” to hand them a few frozen hamburger patties or a bag of frozen French fries. This scene was played out almost once a week now, Robert would stand at the counter, begging her to give them something, anything, just to keep them from starving, thankfully, she was always able to find something for them. When times got really hard, Robert would tie the front of his Tee shirt in a knot and switch around in front of the gay guys who hung out in the snack bar and who always seemed to have money, he didn’t like doing it, but it kept the boys fed. This particular time we’d gone for over a week without eating anything at all. Even Jimmy, Clayton’s friend who lived on campus, had stopped leaving food in their fridge because he’d grown tired of them scrounging it all.

The Giant Open Air Market.
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This would be their second attempt at stealing a meal, their first try failed miserably. The plan was to walk the one mile down Brambleton Avenue, across the vast Campostella Bridge into the area called Berkeley and on to the Giant Open-Air Market. There they sold fresh rotisserie chickens. It would be Stagalee’s job to reach into the hot case, pull out a chicken, put it under his coat and calmly walk out of the store undetected. The other three team members (yes, this was a team effort) would go about the store gathering the necessary accoutrements needed to make an entire meal, bread, well basically just bread. One other person would also grab a chicken and make his way to the exit after insuring that Stagalee had made it safely outside. There were two problems with the plan, Giant Open Air Markets, if you are familiar with them, have a unique design, they are completely open, there’s no doors, just wide open space between the inside and out. The only thing that separates the indoors from the outdoors is a high volume curtain of air blowing downwards in the front of the store. There is a grate (somewhat like a cattle guard) that customers have to walk over, that captures the air and recirculates it back to the top. These stores also maintain a security guard at the entrance, just ‘inside’ the store.

In 1971 you had to be dressed in the latest threads on a weekend night in Norfolk, VA.
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Stagalee was wearing Bill’s maxi coat, which reached all the way down pass his platform heels. In 1971, begging for food or not, you had to either be dressed like Super-Fly or Shaft if you were going to be seen in public on a weekend night in Norfolk, VA. He stood at the counter dressed to the max, he grabbed the chicken just as planned and placed it inside his coat, under his arm. Stag began slowly walking toward the front of the store, but the container holding the chicken was slathered in grease and the chicken began to slide down the side of Stag’s body inside the coat. Stag held on for dear life but by the time he arrived at the entrance and the security guard, he was walking completely hunched over, the chicken was resting against his ankle, the only thing between the chicken and his hand was Bill’s extra long maxi coat. Stagalee looked like a crippled up old man in need of a cane. He safely arrived at the stream of air, seemingly unnoticed, but the force of wind was too strong, it blew the chicken out from under his coat and it went skidding across the floor and back into the store. Stagalee stood there paralyzed expecting the guard to start toward him. The other boys saw what had just happened and all three went running from the store and back toward the bridge without looking back to see if anyone was after them, never realizing that Stag had been left behind. Stag wasn’t too far behind, he was right on their heels in his Flagg Bros. platform heels, which were not made with running in mind. When they all finally arrived at the bridge they stopped long enough to realize how lucky they were and right there decided never to return to the Giant Open Air Market or try anything like that again.

But that was then and this was now and they were hungry again, really hungry. This was their last ditch effort to get food. They went over the plan at least ten times, you would have thought they were planning the rob the Louvre or the Chrysler Museum, they left no stone un-turned. “Look Stag”, Bill began, “This time you have to make sure you don’t lose the goods, we can’t all get back here and find out we’ve got everything ‘cept the bread, we can’t make sandwiches without bread”. Stag was adamant, “No man, it won’t be like that this time, we will be eating tonight. I hate that this is the only option left, I’ve never stolen anything before”.
Leroy raised his hand, whispering, “Quiet! You know Mrs. Everett listens to every word we say, last month she told our parents we were smoking funny cigarettes, so shut up!”
Well, she was right in a way, they had been smoking funny cigarettes, “Tijuana Smalls”, those little cigars with the plastic tip, everyone smoked them, she just thought they were something else.
Benny Sims turned to Stag and said “Hey man, let me hold your short”, Stag handed him what was left of the cigarette he was smoking and he continued, “We need to get going, I can’t take it no more, I can smell old lady Everett up stairs cooking Sunday dinner for her and her husband and my stomach is kicking my butt”.
Bill said, “Ok, Let’s go!”, and was out the door first, they walked the half mile to the store and everything went just as they’d planned. Stag got the bread, Benny got the pack of bologna, Leroy got the mayo and Bill got the cheese, they all made it in and out of the store without a hitch. When the boys got to the corner of Willoughby they double checked the take, it was all there, they breathed a sigh of relief and turned the corner to go “home”.
When they arrived back at the house Stag took out his key and opened the door to the foyer, they all gasped at the same time. There, in front of their door sat a large tray and on the tray were a platter of hot, crispy fried chicken, a large bowl of potato salad, a basket of piping hot biscuits and some salad greens in a plastic container. They couldn’t believe their eyes, but at the same time knew exactly what had happened… Mrs. Everett must have been listening at the vent (like she always did) and overheard every word they said. she had prepared that meal and placed it in front of their door while they were out stealing a meal. There had to be a lesson in there somewhere, but it completely escaped them because when Stag suggested the right thing to do would be to return the stolen items back to the store, Robert quickly retorted, “This chicken will only last one meal and then we’ll be hungry again. The bologna will last us all week.” And with that they went into the kitchen and enjoyed a Sunday chicken dinner fit for a king.

The following week Stagalee received his first paycheck from the Work-Study program via a loan agreement from the State Bank of Remington. This new job marked the beginning of a new set of perils and adventures in the life of Stagalee, but it also meant that the boys never had to beg, borrow or steal for their meals again.

~ To be continued… ~

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