Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Beginning of Wisdom

The summer of 1968 would have probably been a bland summer. There was a nine year old boy named Billy who lived on Michigan Avenue in East St Louis, the oldest of five (or was it six?) siblings, all of them mentally disabled to a degree except for the oldest daughter whom nobody liked. They were close in age to myself, but I wasn't allowed to play with them, and only watched them from afar.

They weren't so different from other boys and girls really with the same predilection for games and laughter as any other children. They always said their father worked for the state, but mom explained to me one day that this meant he was on public aid, and they required people to work for the state in some small capacity to get the money. There were no totally free rides in those days. East St Louis used to be a big railroad town where people could always find work, but over-the-road trucking brought an end to all that, and times were getting hard. Most folks lived in houses they had built themselves with whatever used wood they could find and wrapped their homes in cheap, but very flammable, shingle siding that always made for a quick fire, and there were plenty of those during the race riots.

Billy was appointed king of his clan. He was to keep an eye on all his brothers and sisters to keep them safe, and this he did with great pride. Mostly he was just a good boy. I don't remember Billy ever telling a lie, and when you're nine years old, telling lies is your measuring stick where goodness is concerned. But while he had his siblings to play with, they were too young to be much fun for him. There was no one to catch him when playing tag, no one to beat him at shooting targets with slingshots, no one to catch his fastball without dropping it. Yes, it would have been a bland summer.

One day to Billy's great delight, a new family moved in a few houses down on the other side of the street, and they too had a nine year old boy named Billy. And even though the new Billy was above average in the brains department they became quick friends. People found it difficult to call them by name though since they had the same moniker, so it was decided that the former Billy who had been there the longest would be called Willy.

Life during hard times doesn't seem hard at all when you have a friend to go through them with. The two Billys did everything together. Willy wasn't normally supposed to go far from home, but as long as he was with Billy his mother didn't care. He also didn't have a bike, but Billy would gladly cart Willy on the handlebars all over town. East St Louis is an odd town, shaped like a football field, several miles long, but only a mile or two wide, and there wasn't much of any part of it they hadn't traveled. Still, they found the most pleasure close to home playing on the canal behind Billy's house where they shot off bottle rockets, tossed cats in the quick moving water, or captured cottonmouths in jars only to torture the "evil varmints" to death later as nine year old boys are want to do. There was also a boy over on Minnesota Ave who had an actual car! It was a tiny French car that sat two people and looked like a glorified go-cart. It had no motor and was very light, so the two Billys and the other neighborhood kids took turns pushing each other down the hill in it. The summer of 68 was turning out not to be so bland after all.

Willy had blond hair and very fair skin with the bluest eyes I ever saw. He had posture that was so good you would have thought he was brought up in a military school, but that's just the way he was. One day after some testing at his "special" school, it was decided that he would be able to go to regular school, although he would always be in remedial classes. I remember him that first morning walking to the bus stop by himself for the first time to go to a normal school. He looked so proud.

Billy was a dark haired boy and a little husky. His grandfather had once been a minister in this town, and his home was full of religious pictures and statues. There was even a painting of Jesus surrounded by children that hung in his bedroom. Billy though, like most kids, never thought too much about religion. His parents sent him to a school in another all-white town where he had gone before they moved to East St Louis. He wanted to go to school with Willy, but there was no talking his mother out of it. She wanted her boy to have a good education and was afraid of the riots, and in truth, was probably not wrong to feel that way. There were lots of killings in those days by blacks and whites both. There were also the old-time gangsters who still ran the town behind the scenes, and you sure wanted to stay clear of them. That lady was just about the most scared women I ever did see. But she had no fear of other women, and once I saw her threaten to knock the teeth right out of some neighbor lady's face during a dispute about a parking space. I realized then that women fight over the silliest things only to make up again before supper. That's why we don’t let them run the Army.

One day Billy's cousin, Brenda, went to see Gypsy about her warts. Gypsy was an old woman who lived on Minnesota next door to those Wells boys who had the little car. I never knew what her real name was, but she knew some old remedies to heal people of various ailments, and so we always just called her Gypsy. She wrapped Brenda's finger in some gauze, said a few words, and then rubbed the finger this way and that. When she pulled the gauze away, the warts fell to the ground. She was an amazing woman that Gypsy.

Another time, Willy had lost his dad's car keys. He used them to unlock the shed and somehow managed to misplace them and was afraid he'd get whooped when his dad got home. Billy had heard of an old woman downtown though who could find lost things if you gave her a little money. So off they went on Billy's bike.

They had to ask several people before they found someone who could tell them where she lived. It was a very rundown house not far from the bridge traffic. She sat outside on the porch in a rocker fanning herself in the summer heat. The boys thought she looked a bit crazy, but they got their courage up and walked to the steps. "Warm night isn't it boys?" she said.

"Yes ma'am," both Billys replied in unison. "Are you the lady that helps people find lost things?" said Willy.

"Well, I help folks when I can. And did you lose something?"

"He lost his dad's car keys," said Billy. "Can you help us find them? We have some money." They used to hunt down soda bottles and turn them in for the deposits. Together they had nearly two dollars worth.

"Well let me see what ya'all got there honey," she said as he placed the money in her hand. She smiled and gave the money back. "You keep this. You might need it one day." Then she laid her head back and seemed to go to sleep.

The boys weren't sure what to do now. They were too polite to wake the old woman. Finally they were starting to walk away when she bolted upright and said, "You'll find those keys in the creek behind the shed."

The boys looked startled at one another.

"You better head on back home now. It'll be dark soon, and it ain't safe here after dark," she told them.

They both thanked her and headed back home on the bike. By the time they got there it was already dark, and their mothers were beginning to get worried. Billy said a quick greeting to his folks and then ran out again with his small penlight in his pocket saying he'd be right back. Willy's dad said nothing about the keys. It was a Sunday, and Willy hoped his parents hadn't tried to go anywhere. People weren't on the go all the time in those days like they are now.

The two Billys searched the creek behind the shed, which thankfully, was dried up in the summer heat. Willy let out a gasp, "There they are!" he exclaimed. Sure enough, there were the car keys just as the old woman had said. He went to put them in his pocket and found a gaping hole there. He carried them into the house instead and laid them on his mom and dad's dresser without anyone noticing.

Both boys were quite exhausted and slept well that night. Before drifting off to sleep, Willy thought about going to college one day even though he knew the odds were against him. Billy, on the other hand, for the first time took a serious glance at the painting on his wall, thought of how much fun it was to be a boy in East St Louis during the summer of 1968, and wished he never had to grow-up. And he never did.