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Part II

Tiger Tiger Tiger

Before the Japanese navy could begin their assault on Pearl Harbor in early December of 1941, they needed the coded command “Tora, Tora, Tora”. That was Japanese for tiger, tiger, tiger. They were well aware of the ferocity and power the name symbolizes. Today the tiger is an endangered animal and I think is only found in parts of Asia. In the sixties there were still some in Vietnam. I know this because our platoon was stalked one night by a tiger. We had made camp and dug our foxholes in the usual circular perimeter. As the night wore on, we began to hear low growling in the jungle around us. At first, we thought it could be a leopard but after the growling grew louder, we knew it had to be a tiger. He circled the foxholes slowly as if he, like the enemy, was probing for a weakness in the perimeter. At first, the growling and occasional roar of the beast was intimidating. After awhile, reality set in.  The tiger, for sure, is usually king of all he surveys. This night was different. Tonight he might be the prey. Looking around at all the soldiers and their machine guns, grenade launchers, and rifles, I was reminded of an ominous line in the Walt Disney movie- BAMBI- “The hunters are in the forest”.  Yes, the hunters were indeed in the forest that night. I doubt there was any soldier, myself included, who wasn’t ready to kill that tiger should he charge the camp. After a few moments of more compassionate thought, I was hoping that beast would surrender the evening to us. I wondered if he was aware of the danger that lurked in the darkness. Yes, he had a cat’s night vision, and could see much better than we could. Still, he could not know the pain and lethality that was contained in the sticks we carried. Thankfully, after about an hour of stalking growling and roaring, he reluctantly gave up that portion of his territory to us. I was also reminded of Kipling's poem- Tiger tiger, burning bright, in the forest of the night, what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry Yes it sounds poetic but man is still the most frightening animal in the forest.


The Assassinations


On April 4th The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered. I, along with other white soldiers went around to our black comrades to express our sympathy. The assassination had sparked riots and violence back home. Of course we all knew that we couldn’t have that same reaction in the field. We were all too dependent on each other. The black soldiers just quietly grieved among themselves knowing they had  lost a great leader and a symbol of much hope for the future .Though I was very impressed with Dr. King’s oratory, his non-violent commitment and his cause, I didn’t think that I could fully comprehend the despair his death brought to my black friends. I simply gave them all some time to grieve. Two months later, a black soldier walked up to me and said, “John, they got your boy” He then informed me that Bobby Kennedy had been murdered. It was at that time hat I began to comprehend the magnitude of the loss that they had experienced with Dr. King’s death.  How could it have happened? How could the two most charismatic leaders of our time have been killed within two months of each other? How was that possible in America? Who could have done these things? We all wondered in our grief, were these mere coincidences or was this a plot? Of course, we all remembered that terrible day in Dallas on November 22nd in 1963. We wondered if there was a connection. It seemed very unlikely. Still, within two months the anti-war movement had lost its most powerful leaders. Was this a clue? By 1968, any one who had ever fired a gun and hit a target knew that president Kennedy was killed by a bullet fired from his front right. The Zapruder film made that obvious to any of us who had been shooting the M-16 for a few months. A bullet fired from a rifle packs a mighty wallop and hits you with the force of a bat swung by a major leaguer. If it’s fired from the front, it will knock you backwards. If it’s fired from the rear, you will be thrown forward.  The bullet that shattered the president’s head was fired from the front unless the laws of Physics had taken that day off. Obviously, someone in the country wanted everyone to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin. No one, it seemed, could ever solve that dilemma. Who would want to kill the president and why?

Now we had his brother and another great leader dead. Who could have wanted them killed and why? What did they all have in common? I could only come up with one thing-Peace. Marin Luther King was killed exactly one year after he came out against the war. Bobby Kennedy was campaigning on an anti-war platform. As for the President, he had taken the rap for the C.I A. after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. He had prevented the military hard-liners from invading Cuba during the missile crisis of 1962. It appeared he was not as enthused as others were about getting deeper into the Vietnam quagmire. I recalled what my father had told me once- You can preach hate or love but it is very dangerous to preach peace. Think of Gandhi, Kennedy, Lincoln, Jesus. All were men who preached peace or conciliation. All were assassinated. I wondered if there somehow was a connection between the Kennedy and King murders. We couldn’t totally see it but for now we could not dwell on such things. We had our own assassins to deal with. Out in the jungles and rice paddies lurked our own Oswalds, Rays and Sirhans- the Viet-Cong.



Guard Duty- Let the Soldiers Sleep


When we were out in the field, which was most of the time, we had to pull guard duty. That’s when two, three or four men are assigned a foxhole or position and at least one man has to be awake through the night. Each man would take anywhere from two to three hours or more per night to be awake and "On Guard" During this time the other men at his post or foxhole would sleep. I remember what I used to say to the man who would follow me on guard duty each night. After making sure he was truly alert and ready to stay up throughout his allotted time, I would always say the same thing. I would lie down inside my poncho and say, "Wake me when the war is over".  It was just a routine I had and I'm sure no one else except me thought that it was such a clever or witty thing.  Still, I persisted in doing it every evening. Being on guard was such an immense responsibility that hardly anyone, other than José, ever went to sleep on their watch. One time however, after an unusually long march, I awoke in the middle of the night to find no one else awake at my post. I was pretty surprised because out in the field we rarely let out guard down and seldom fell asleep unless the assigned soldier was up and alert. I rose and walked over to the next foxhole. No one was awake there either. At the position beside that one, a couple of my Mexican American friends were up. They were Laredo whose real name was Ricardo Guajardo and Robert Sanchez a machine-gunner from another squad. It was common for people to be called by their hometowns, cities or states. Laredo was one of those cases. It was too bad because his Spanish name had a nice musical feel to it-Ri-Car-Do Gua-Jar-Do. Still, he was called Laredo. Like many other soldiers, they were sharing a portion of their guard duty. In other words, one of them was up for the last part or the first part of the other’s assigned time. You would end up serving more time this way but for at least some of your duty, you would have company. Also, there would be an extra pair of eyes. I told them that some of the foxholes were unguarded and then proceeded around the perimeter. To my amazement, we three were the only ones up. I immediately went to David’s position. Without hesitation I woke him. He walked around our whole camp with me. Only the four of us were now awake. The camp was in the open and was about the size of a football field minus the end zones. It was oval shaped and had about fifteen foxholes or posts. It was in a wide-open space and the nearest jungle or cover for the enemy was hundreds of yards away. David surveyed the situation. He knew that we hardly ever fell asleep on guard. He realized that most of the men were completely exhausted. He also knew that our perimeter and position was actually fairly safe as long as a few of us remained alert. He was also aware that if the Captain or the wrong lieutenant found out we would all be in for an even longer march in the morning.  He looked at me with that clever handsome smile of his and I knew right away what he was going to do. He said, Johnny, you take one corner, Laredo and Sanchez will take a corner each and I’ll take the last corner. In about an hour and a half, we’ll wake up one man on each position. Now, you might ask where are the corners in an oval perimeter. Well they call a boxing square a ring don’t they.  Without any questions or grumbling we followed David’s order.

As I stood watch over my “corner”, I was struck by the peacefulness of the night. It was not quite a full moon but it was very clear. Many stars were visible. By now, I had my night vision and could clearly see for hundreds of yards. With the four of us on guard, our contingent of about eighty men was safe. Safest of all were the Captain and other officers sleeping quietly in the middle of the perimeter. You do a lot of thinking when you’re awake at about three A.M. and I always did my share. I thought again about my fear of being one of those forgettable souls who go away to war and don’t come back. Someone no one quite seems to recall that clearly and is remembered as a friend of this person or that person and that he was killed but never had done anything that caused people to remember him. It was then that I decided to write down, as soon as I could, every single relatively important event of my brief life. I couldn’t write just then as I was on guard, but I began to recall moments and feelings for later recording. I would leave behind my own brief history so if I didn't come home people could still read my story and know that I was a person, I was a soldier, I did exist. Gazing up at the beautiful night sky, I stared across the open fields, I breathed the cool night air and once more I began to think of my childhood  



I Grew Up In Heaven or How I Became Color Blind



I had the great fortune of growing up in Roxbury Massachusetts in the 50's. I considered it the most wonderful place on earth. To this day, I remember almost every minute detail of my childhood there. My first memory is of my father rocking me to sleep while he played his harmonica. I was about four years old and he would often tickle my neck with the short whiskers of his five o'clock shadow. This would immediately send me into convulsions of laughter and I'd almost fall off of his lap. He would always catch me just before I hit the floor. From those moments on I seemed to live a charmed existence. Although I didn't like school, I did well academically. With the nuns' disciplined style it was often sink or swim. I thought I'd take a dip. Of course when, as a third grader, you witness another boy getting his mouth washed out with soap, you tend to walk the straight and narrow. In the first grade I remember singing "Immaculate Mary" every day before our spelling quiz. It always made me feel good. It wasn't because I liked to sing or that it was a beautiful song. Like most religious songs, other than Christmas Carols, it lacked complex lyrics or a pleasing melody. What I enjoyed was the fact that immediately following the hymn we would get our spelling books out and be tested on ten words. Each word was worth ten points. If you spelled all ten correctly you got a hundred. That meant you would get a perfectly formed red letter C on that page of your spelling book. It was absolutely wonderful, in my mind, to receive that letter in your own personal book. Next to recess, it was the greatest thing about school that year. I did avoid a temporary setback in the second grade though. By that time I had established myself as a very obedient, quiet, and pliable student. I was a nun's delight. The very first day of school, however, a great dilemma was forced upon me. You see that was also the first day of school for my younger brother Dan. He has been a free spirit his whole life and he didn't waste any time getting into that mode. I was growing up in the 50's in Roxbury Mass. and going to St. Patrick's grammar school. Dan was, on the other hand, fifteen years ahead of his time and going to be the first six-year-old revolutionary.  It should have been no surprise to me when the first day of school. Dan and a few other miscreants were paraded into my classroom. While they took their places in the front of the class, the nuns began their verbal assault. I don't recall the exact words but the gist of it was that these kids up here are very bad boys. They should be avoided at all costs. They were disobedient, fresh punks and probably communists. Actually they might not have used the word communist. While my classmates gasped in horror and fear I wondered how my brother had been able to, at the age of six, convert so many followers. Now of course, after investing nine months in establishing myself as a spineless obedient running dog of the nuns and priests, I didn't want to go down in my brother's ship. I slowly bent down behind the student in front of me praying that they would take my brother and his hooligans to another classroom. No such luck. My brother Dan caught my slinking body out of the corner of his eye. “Hey Johnny”, he yelled. It was like being hit with a rock. My wonderful world of happy illusions was about to come crumbling down. How could I, an “A” student and teacher’s pet, be in any way connected with this devil child? At such a young age I was facing a cataclysmic decision. Do I recognize my beleaguered brother and lose my hard won reputation or do I deny him. To most it might seem like a difficult decision. To me it was not. The student to my right asked me, “Do you know that boy?” Immediately and without the slightest trepidation, I denied my brother. Before I could even feel guilt, I said, “No I don't know that kid”. To this day, I am perplexed by my lack of sensitivity. Anyhow I survived that terrible day and continued on as a goody two shoes. Of course my brother Dan was not too happy on our walk home that day. We both continued down our different paths. For eight years I remained a good student and Danny went after any known records for detentions, suspensions, and corporal punishments. We both succeeded in our quests.



As I recall St. Patrick's School, I do have many fond memories and the kind nuns always outnumbered the volatile ones.  I remember the hard wood floors of the school and how they creaked and groaned under your feet as you walked from class to class. The noise was even more pronounced if you were late. I was rarely late. I remember the ink wells in the desks and the dark indigo ink we filled them up with. I remember the boxes of candy they gave us each Christmas. I remember My First Communion and not being able to eat meat on Friday. That was a Mortal sin. You go to Hell for that. I remember that venial sins are the little ones like stealing a candy bar from the corner store. There seemed to be a lot of territory to be covered between Mortal and Venial sins. The strangest one of all was Original sin. That was the one you got for just being born. It could keep you out of heaven. You had to be baptized to get rid of Original sin. Anyone who didn't get baptized before they died went to Limbo. Limbo was between Heaven and Hell. It wasn't beautiful like Heaven but it wasn't as hot as hell. Actually, nobody ever really described Limbo that well. So, although my visions of heaven and hell were relatively clear, my picture of Limbo was rather clouded. When I was first informed that mortal sins like not going to church on Sunday could send you to hell, I was terribly frightened for my father. I knew he hadn't been to church in a long time. He also liked pepperoni and often ate it on Friday night while watching the boxing matches on T.V. That was another bad one. I was so worried that one day after school. I let all of my friends go home before me. I was on a mission from God. I had to get home safely and not get killed by a car or truck or even the "Rag Man" in his horse and carriage. If that happened, I couldn't warn my father about his impending trip to hell. It took me a long time to get home that day. I was so careful crossing the streets. When I arrived, he was already home. Immediately I informed him that he had to go to confession. Confession was where you go into a cubicle and tell a priest the bad things you've done. He listens and then forgives your sins if you do your penance. Penance is usually a number of prayers. The more sins the more prayers.  I told my father that he had Mortal sins on his soul and he would go to hell if he didn’t confess them. He laughed and said, “Johnny, there ain't no hell. Everyone goes to heaven”. I was stunned. In one sentence he had negated two years of constant religious indoctrination. It was an epiphany for me. The ponderous weight of my Church’s teachings was immediately lifted from my small shoulders. I felt instant relief knowing that my dad was not doomed. From that day on I didn't allow the inflexibility of my religion to trouble my mind too much. After all I was living in Roxbury in the 50's things couldn’t have been better.    


Marbles, Penny Candy, Bicycles, Ice Cream and the Tree of Heaven


When I was five, my family moved from one section of Roxbury, near the City Hospital to Cleveland St.which was in St. Patrick’s Parrish. As soon as we arrived in the apartment, I remember riding my bicycle through the opened double doors that separated the three bedrooms. The bicycle rolled smoothly along the hard wood floors. I would spend the next few years, with my siblings, playing on these same floors. I loved rolling marbles, which we called “Aggies”, across the hard wood surface. We had a nice backyard, a long driveway which eventually would be called Cleveland Park and a huge field to the rear of the house behind us. There seemed to be a million places to play and things to do. I felt like I was in a kind of “Heaven on Earth”. Upstairs, my cousins Tommy and Stephen lived. Tommy and I were about the same age but because he had started school very early, he was a grade above me. Stephen, who was younger, became one of my closest friends. Our gang consisted of my younger brother Dan my cousins and a few other boys from down the street. Of course, we never considered ourselves to be anything as unruly as a gang. The worse thing we did was to steal the pears off of the trees in the neighborhood. On occasion, one of us would commit the near mortal sin of taking a whole candy bar from The First National or Dinty’s Corner store. On Saturday mornings, we’d run down to the Rivoli Theatre near Dudley Street Station to see two full length movies, a Three Stooges short and some painful sing along song. The charge for this priceless entertainment was a dime. As I said, “It was Roxbury, Massachusetts in the 50’s and I was in Heaven”. If you didn’t have enough money for popcorn and a drink, you could always stock up on penny candy in the stores on the way. Root Beer Barrels could last a long time and were a sure fire way to guarantee a trip to the dentist.

The movies of the time were absolutely incredible, especially the Science Fiction ones. There was The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, War of The Worlds, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Revenge of The Creature. These were followed by the final episode of the trilogy- The Creature Walks Among Us where the monster becomes almost human and shows more compassion than many of the other characters. I have to say though that two of my most favorite were The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Day The Earth Stood Still. Both movies had powerful and ominous endings. In the Day The Earth Stood Still Aliens warn the people of earth to terminate there war like ways or face the wrath of peace loving entities who are organized and from many other far flung galaxies. Too bad not many adults were listening. In the last scene of The Incredible Shrinking Man, the title character ponders his future. He concludes that it is possible that he may continue to shrink as long as he is alive. He wonders if it is possible that the infinitesimally small might at some place and time merge with the infinitely large. Incredibly powerful stuff for a ten year old to ponder. I remember that tiny man walking through the screening of a window in his basement and outside to an even vaster universe. He realizes that though he continues to shrink, he remains alive. To this day, I can hear him say, "I Still Exist". To compare these Classics with the computer generated, special effects strangled and poorly written science fiction of today is like comparing fine wine to mud. You can have your "Matrix Unloaded'. Give me some classic 50's Science Fiction. Case Closed.

I remember the first time I walked to the store by myself to get an ice cream cone. As I was returning from the drug store and walking up Moreland Street to Cleveland Street, I was jumped by a Doberman pinscher. The scare caused me to drop my precious ice cream to the ground where the pig of a dog lapped it up. I have had no use for Dobermans ever since.

One of my most indelible memories was my first ride on a bicycle. It came shortly after my older brother and sister had somehow removed the training wheels from my bike. They told me that they were going to teach me to ride like a big boy. They told me to mount the bicycle which, despite my misgivings, I did. As I held on tight, they proceeded to push me rather quickly down Cleveland Park in the general direction of Cleveland Street. Now my older brother was the fastest runner around of his age. My sister Joanmarie, once lost a boyfriend because she had beaten him in a race and he was the fastest kid his age around. As you can see there was a lot of foot power at their disposal in their earnest quest to teach their little brother to ride in a relatively safe fashion. They began to push me and my bike slowly down the street. In a moment I was hurtling at warp speed down Cleveland Park on a collision course with any car that might be going by on Cleveland Street. I had two choices. One was to stay with the bike and possibly die. The other was to crash. Now my siblings maintain to this day that I was not going that fast when I jumped from the bicycle and crashed onto the concrete pavement. They did however, slowly come over to me just to see if I were still breathing. My loving brother and sister asked me if I was ready to try again. Knowing that we already had a rather large family of six and that my mother was a devout Catholic and my father was Italian and that more siblings were probably in the plans I paused for some serious thought. If my older brother and sister succeeded in their plans to kill me, that would mean one less mouth to feed and one less kid to clothe. Therefore, they would probably not receive a punishment proportional to their crime. It was then that I decided I needed to learn to ride my bike real soon. Not long after that day, I found myself peddling down the alley between my house and the next-door neighbor's. Balancing on the bike was a new achievement but there was something incredible about the bike's moving although, I was no longer pedaling. This was the first bicycle I owned where the wheels would roll though I was not pedaling. Up to this time, the wheels and the pedals of my bikes moved in unison. That was a bit tedious and restrictive for a little boy who wanted to fly. To be able to coast on my bike was so magical to me. I pushed the pedals just a few times and then cruised down the red brick sidewalk of Cleveland Street. I turned right onto Winthrop Street still coasting. Across the Street was the house of the girl I would have a crush on for seven years without ever mentioning it to her even once. That was my shy period. I kept rolling down Winthrop Street past the field that we often played in. It's official name was appropriately enough, "The Field". Inside the field was a large group of lilac bushes in the form of a circle. In the spring I would often stand in the middle of the bushes bathed in the aroma of their blossoms. I continued down Winthrop passing the home of the Pozehls. They were long time, very close friends of our family. The older sisters Paula and Jackie often babysat us. The younger sisters, Pam and Andrea, were closer in age to us and more like friends than guardians. We always enjoyed having them around. When their family moved, I felt terrible. Eventually they ended up in Alexandria Virginia. As a young man, I spent many enjoyable summers vacationing at their expense in the Washington D.C. area. To this day, we remain very close and I can always count on them to put up with me when I arrive unannounced on their doorstep. The bike rolled on. I couldn't believe how long it would coast without pushing the pedals. I might have just pedaled it two more times before I crossed Mt. Pleasant Avenue. That was the street St. Patrick’s School was on. As soon as I crossed that road, I was at Scobie Park. This park marked the unofficial end of our neighborhood. I now knew how to ride and was safe from my older siblings. 

Next to riding my bike, I have to say that playing marbles was one of my most favorite activities as a child. I would often roll some marbles up against one of the walls in my parents' bed room. I would have other marbles which I would “shoot” at the rolling ones preventing them from reaching me. You would “Shoot” the aggies by pressing one between your thumb and index finger. With a lot of practice, a kid could get pretty accurate and hit even moving targets. The marbles that were rolling toward me were, in my mind, Indians. The ones that I shot at them were the Cavalry. Sometimes I would change it around and I would shoot the cavalry as they charged the Indians. If any of the opposing force's marbles succeeded in rolling into me as I kneeled on the floor, I would lose the game. The one rigid rule was that the blue aggies, which were called "catseye" were always the cavalry and that the multi-colored marbles were the Indians in their distinctive native clothing. I would play this game for hours to the consternation of my grandmother who would be startled by the ringing noise the marbles made as they hit the pipe that ran up through the ceiling to her apartment. I had to wrap a towel around that pipe so as not to disturb her. It was a small price to pay for the many years of fun I had playing with those marbles. The game probably is most like today's video game "Galaga"

One day I introduced my cousins and some friends to an even more exciting game. We were on the front porch when I noticed that it sloped downward toward the street. I rolled one of my aggies up to the top of the porch and sure enough it rolled back. I asked everyone to pick a marble. They did, I then rolled them all together up the porch. Once they reached the top, they all, at varying speeds, turned and rolled back to us. As they rolled, some would increase in speed while others slowed, totally independent of the unbridled exhortations of the boys. I didn't have to inform anyone that whichever marble got back to us first was the winner. It was the Cleveland Street Kentucky Derby for aggies. It was a lot of fun for a few days, but the noise was just too much for my grandmother. We had to find a new game to play. That, of course, would be no problem. Now, before you get the wrong idea about my grandmother, there are a few things you should know. She lived through the Great Depression and two World Wars. She was about sixty at the time and like me, she couldn't stand loud noises. To this day, I am tremendously indebted to her for teaching me one of life's great lessons. One day, we were in Filenes' Basement, a fairly well known shopping place in the city of Boston. A cookie vendor offered me a cookie for free. Since I was only about six and very shy, I refused and hid behind my grandmother. In a flash, she grabbed me by the collar and shoved me across the floor toward the vendor saying, "Take it while the getting's good". It was a valuable lesson and one that I remember to this day.

During my youth, as I have said, I had more than my share of fun playing with my marbles. Though I treasured those aggies, there came a day when, for reasons unknown, I was down to only a handful of them. Our next-door neighbor, Mr. Dymond, found out and offered to take me to the store to buy some. Now Mr. Dymond, whose name was pronounced diamond, was a colored man who was so close and friendly to all of the children in the neighborhood that he had achieved almost mythical status. He seemed to be the biggest, strongest, happiest man that any of us ever knew. Often times, he would pick us up by our ears and lift us high over his head. Of course he didn't actually pick us up by our ears but rather we would grab hold of his massive forearms while he held his hands to the side of our heads. No matter how many times we pleaded with him to perform this or any other trick, he never refused. I have never known a man who was so enthralled with children. After we had gotten to know him for awhile, he had told us not to call him a Negro but rather a colored man. Years later when the equally nondescript title of "Black" came into vogue, Mr. Dymond informed us that he still considered himself a "Colored Man". Since he was the nicest kindest man we had ever met, we all agreed to call him whatever he wanted. When he and I arrived at the store that day, we went to the section where the marbles were. There were different sized bags of marbles. One was much larger than the other. He asked me which bag I wanted. I pointed to the smaller one. He laughed and insisted I get the big bag. I was overjoyed. I had never had so many marbles before in my life. I still remember getting home and opening the bag on the floor. The aggies rolled across the kitchen floor and seemed to cover the whole room. This was only one of countless gifts that Mr. Dymond would give to the neighborhood children. What was also unusual about these acts of kindness was that all of the neighborhood kids were "White". Of course, I don't think he really saw children in colors. To tell the truth, our neighborhood was considered white because most of the families with children were white. In an unusual twist, our house was bordered on three sides by black families whose children had either grown up or had not yet been born. The black men in those houses were the first ones we would get to know. They couldn't have been any more friendly, dignified or helpful to us. Mr. Mewitt, who lived in the apartment above The Dymonds, was the tallest man in the neighborhood. He always wore a suit and seemed to be a college professor or business executive. Mr. Wright, who lived on the other side of our house was also very friendly and possessed the biggest muscles we had ever seen. We were always pestering him to show us his huge arms. Then there was the Protestant Minister who lived behind us- Mr. McLoud, who was the biggest tipper in the neighborhood when it came to taking in the trash barrels. He, like the other three, was forever in a good mood and always concerned with our physical safety.  I think though, in the back of his mind he was actually inquiring about our moral safety. He was totally unlike our formal and stern priests. We were worried about him going to hell because he wasn't Catholic. That was a troubling paradox for such young children. How could such a nice man be going to hell just for being a minister in the wrong church? It was not long after that idea came to my mind that my father informed me that there was no such thing as hell. So it was that I grew up thinking that black men were more friendly, better dressed and calmer in demeanor than white men. As you might expect, it would not be long before I came to know that the truth was that neither black men nor white men were better than the other. The truth was that by a strange coincidence, the four gentle men who lived around our house happened to be colored.



The Tree of Heaven


It was always a treat each summer when we would climb the local pear trees and eat the green pears long before they were due to be harvested. By the end of the summer, only the pears on the very top of the trees would ripen. Those were the real sweet ones. Those were the treasures. There was only one kid around who had the sufficient combination of courage and carelessness to go after those beauties. We all knew that this was his time, his moment, his day in the sun. He was the "Daredevil"- my younger brother Dan. To the cheers, horror and admiration of our gang, Dan would scale the highest trees on the thinnest branches to throw down those precious pears. You could never count how many green pears we had eaten but the ripe yellow ones were only received through Danny's graces. Each yellow pear was a singular delicacy. Only a chosen few of us had ever eaten more than one or two each summer. The "Tree of Heaven" was not a pear tree or a cherry tree or any other fruit bearing tree. The "Tree of Heaven" in fact, is considered by many to be a weed. I believe its scientific name is "Aelanthus Altissima". It grows to about the same size as most other city trees but it has peculiar branches and leaves. Protruding from each branch are several long stem like appendages. On each stem there are about seven to ten long leaves, one on each side. I would often pull the leaves off of the stem and it could be used as a whip. Unfortunately, it was too effective as a whip and I couldn't bear to use it on any one. If you took all of the leaves off of one side, and then wrapped it around your head, it looked very much like a green American Indian headdress. If you took all but one or two of the leaves of, it would look like an Indian’s headband with eagle feathers on the back. I can still remember the scent of the leaves on my fingertips after I pulled the leaves from the stem. The most amazing thing about the tree of heaven was the fact that it seemed to be capable of growing absolutely anywhere. You could often see it protruding from beneath fences or even cracks in the pavement or brick sidewalks. It was an almost indestructible plant or tree depending on your point of view. As I said, I believe it is considered, by some, to be a weed. Still I am sure it provides as much oxygen for humans as most any other tree. In late summer the trees emitted a powerful but easily identifiable odor. It was then that their seeds would form in huge one foot diameter clumps. Each clump held hundreds of seeds. Each seed had two wing like appendages. When the seeds fell the “wings” would help to float them far from the tree. The sailing seeds, riding soft winds, signaled the coming end of another summer in heaven.


The Devil’s Music and the Voices Crying in the Wilderness


During my days in Roxbury a new kind of music was emerging in America. To most people, it was known as Rock& Roll. To really stupid people it was “The Devil’s Music. To them it was leading the youth of the country to hell. Anyhow, many politicians, religious leaders and sociologists thought that Rock&Roll was going to undermine the morals of young people. They were worried that it could make the youth rebellious and angry. Today it’s pretty difficult to think of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry as rebels. In those conservative times it was not so hard. I found the music to be pleasing and innocent and more like dance music than anything else. At that time there was some revolutionary music “In the wind” but it wasn’t coming from the rock and rollers. It was emerging from the most popular music of all- the peoples’ music- Folk Music. People like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were just now beginning to pen the lyrics of the truly revolutionary sounds of the times. They were the voices crying in the wilderness. The times were indeed changing. The Civil rights movement was exploding onto the scene and Folk Music was at the vanguard of that movement. Folk music had already been closely tied to the union movement. It should have been no surprise to the "Authorities", that it would be at the forefront of the Anti-war movement during Vietnam. It wasn’t the devil’s music any more than Rock&Roll but it was surely going to change the times.


The End of Heaven


As the fifties were drawing to a close, a couple of events occurred in my neighborhood that signaled the end on innocence and the arrival of reality. The first was the day my cousin Tommy went to the hospital. I remember a few days earlier asking him if he would ride me on his bike to the store. He told me that his knee was hurting and he couldn’t. Since we did not always get along even though his younger brother was my closest friend, I wasn’t totally convinced that his knee was really bothering him. I remember exactly where he was on his bike that day in Cleveland Park and exactly where I was when I asked him for the ride. I remember exactly how I felt and exactly which direction I walked off to go to the store. I turned and walked between Mr. Dymond’s house and my own and proceeded down Cleveland St. I remember this because not long after this I was told Tommy was coming home from the hospital and he would be missing a leg. This was an event so painful and profound as to mean the end of total happiness in the neighborhood. For the first time ever a child would be so hurt and so challenged that it would directly affect all of the other children. It took all of us a long time to get over Tommy’s loss. This was the single most negative moment of our thirteen years in Roxbury. Tommy would have to carry that burden for the rest of his life. Today he has completely survived that challenge and has a family, a full working career, and incredibly still performs as a magician and stand-up comic in the Boston area. 

The second event that helped bring about the end of our perfect life was the beginnings of racial hostility. I would learn years later that Mr. Dymond came to see my parents to warn them of the coming storm. He told them that people were moving into the neighborhood who didn’t like “Whites”. I’m sure that my father was already aware of the brewing hostilities for my parents were then planning a move to the suburbs. It must have been very hard on Mr. Dymond to have to do that. While acknowledging his gesture, I believe my father was well aware that for every black who blindly hated whites there would be a white to return the favor. He knew that there was racism on both sides. The times were changing in more ways than one.


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We Regret To Inform You
(Purple Heart - The Book)
By John Olivere
Copyright © 2007