The Old Black Man and The White Kid

Once upon a time, long long ago…

I was about 18. A 1/2 decade or so prior, maybe 1959? my Dad had saved the life of a man. The Man had a medical issue. I think it involved falling off a roof and / or a heart attack, but frankly, it’s a 1/2 century old memory of a story I’d not paid attention to in the telling. Dad scooped him up and took him to Hospital. And he lived.

Just accept that My Dad had picked up this guy and hauled him off to the hospital in time to keep him alive. Needless to say, he was grateful and had said “if you ever need anything…”.

So Dad had this kid. Me. And I needed a job out of High School. This being a very poor farm town and prior to the era of “Borrow $100,000 to make a professor rich” and go to school… I was expected to earn some money to apply to anything I wanted when over 18 years old. So I needed a job. The local economy was farm town. Peaches, rice, and kids, all for export… Libby’s ran the local cannery. It was “good wages” at about $3.75 /hour for the good jobs. Union, too. (Yes. FWIW, I am a registered member of The Teamsters Union. Big Juju then, and not so bad now… So call me a Union Guy.)

Dad told me:

Go to the Libby’s Hiring booth and sit there. Don’t leave. Be there 8 to 8. Period.

Every day, from 8 am to 8 pm, I was sitting on the bench. Some days I’d stay to 9 P.M. I’d checked in with the Hiring Window (a small window in a wooden building of about 8 x 10 feet) and so was “on line” to be hired. Union folks got hired first. New guys, like me, only if there were NO union guys on the bench. So I sat. For days.

There was an Old Black Man on the bench.

We Talked.

I don’t know his name.

It is almost 1/2 a Century ago, and I am not sure I caught it then.

He was ancient anyway… maybe 64? About as old as I am now…

But you spend 40 or 60 hours sitting on a bench with someone, sun up, sun down, lunch and dinner from a box, 100 F in the shade and you are not in the shade… well, you get to talking. We talked. Kid to old man.

He had gone off of South America for a couple of decades and learned Spanish. I talked some Spanish too.

He had come back. I’d never left.
… we talked some more…

He wore old overalls with the vertical stripes. I’d later wear them in college remembering him, and others…. But then I was in blue jeans and shirt. Tennis shoes, even though I never played tennis…

We talked some more… About 3 days worth.

One day I asked him “What is it like to be black?” The innocent question of a lily white kid sitting next to an Old Black Man who had seen far more in his life that I would ever see in mine (and I can confirm now, at his age, that what he had seen was far more than I’ve seen at the same age…). He looked at me. That kind understanding look of an Old Guy at a kid without clue that says “I will be kind to you, for you are ignorant, and perhaps some good can come from this…” and he said something like “Well, life is a lot easier for white folks, but I have had a good life. I started {somewhere in the south} I went to {somewhere in South America} and had a wife and a family. I have traveled and now I’m here. I have lived an interesting life.”

I said something stupid like “Well, that must have been interesting, living in South America”…

Time passed….

I think it was the 3rd? or maybe the 4th day of sitting on The Bench from start to end of the day.

But Dad had told me to sit there, all day…

And the call came. About 9 PM.

A good 13 hours after all of us showed up on The Bench.
After dozens had arrived later, and left earlier.

“We need THREE Right Now for the warehouse!!”.

And on the bench sat three.

Some Guy, The Old Black Man, and me…

We were all hired “on the spot” and got Union Numbers.

Now we three were ALL ahead of anyone sitting on The Bench. A bench I’d come to understand and know as a friend.

Papers filled, signed, whatever… then we were all conducted back to The Warehouse…

Where I saw The Foreman. A man I new by sight, but not by name. The man I’d known as “the guy my Dad had saved”. A man who was vaguely Italian or some dark heavy set race in nature.

We worked about 4 hours that night. But we worked….

Now a peach cannery is an interesting thing. Peaches do not all ripen at once. It is a bell curve. So we’d gotten hired about 1/3 of the way to the top of the bell curve. Or maybe 75%… I’m not sure… but we were now hired and ahead of all who followed. The season starts at 3 hours / day. It eventually rises to 20 hours a day and a 4 hour cleaning crew. Longest “shift” I had was 12 hours. Or maybe 12 and a bit…

So would I have been hired anyway if I sat on The Bench long enough? It was near peak season when I was hired. I suspect, but can’t prove, “maybe not”. There were a LOT of poor folks who sat on that bench as much as me. Just not from 8 AM to 9 PM. Not able to tough it out as much from sun up to sun down and then a few hours. I can’t say for certain that the order for “Three NOW!” was because Dad had saved the life of the Foreman and he’d looked out and seen three on the bench. But I suspect…

And, frankly, if Some Dumb White Kid with a bit of pull got The Old Black Man hired ’cause there were three of us on the bench and I’d made friends with The Old Black Man and we came and left together, well, maybe that’s a good thing.

I’d like to think so.

For the next few years, every summer (peach canning happens during the summer canning season) we’d meet again. We’d nod and talk again. But it wasn’t the same. It was “Two guys with jobs” not “the kid and the Old Black Man on the bench”. Cordial. Connected. But no longer questions like “What is it like to be black?”… Naivety was gone, as was “we’re all in this together”. We were two equals, but not quite equals. He had a lifetime of experience, me not so much… I had “station” and “being white” (in an town and a time when racism was real… anyone who thinks there is real racism today has no clue what it was really like) and he had “age and experience”. Looking back on it, it is more clear. He was humoring the Little White Kid. I was “cute and innocent”. But I liked him. I did “stupid things” like asking if he would like to have lunch together… and treating him like a revered elder. I saw people noticing, and I didn’t care. I think he appreciated that.

Time passed. Eventually I graduated college and didn’t need to work summers in the cannery to make money to pay for the extravagance of 9 months reading books and talking philosophical BS.

I’ve often wondered what happened to The Old Black Man who shared a bench with me. Who taught me about living in other lands, about moving between continents and learning to live in new languages. About having a wife, a life, a world away, and moving on. About being kind to The Young Dumb Kid of privilege asking stupid questions like “What is is like to be black?”…

IFF, and it is a very big IF, my Dad saving the life of Some Other Guy, got a job for The Old Black Man as we together would not leave the bench, sun up to sun down, well, I think that a Very Good Thing. I’m happy to have shared that particular bounty. I learned a great deal from him. Some reflected here. Some lost in the mists of time as I can’t give proper attribution. It entered my mind and stayed, but at this point I can’t separate it from the rest of me. All I can say is that sharing a bench for a few days with The Old Black Man forever changed me. We Shared. He is a part of me. Forever and inseparable. The Old Black Man and Me, the kid. Even as I am old now, I’m forever The Kid to him.

There are times I think about his patience, being more than mine. I KNEW as I’d been told, that if I was persistent enough,, the call would come. He did not know that, but was there when I showed up and left with me, never before. I knew that nobody depended on me and a warm meal would be waiting at home. He was all alone. The simple fact is that I admired him every day on The Bench. I had more, needed less, and had reason to be positive. He had less, needed more, and was more positive despite all else. I grew a lot on that bench.

I just wish to God there were some way to tell The Old Black Man that he had a very large impact on the world, one summer in 1971, through one dumb ass white kid. I think maybe he knew. Maybe as the Stupid Ass Questions showed a bit of clue had been learned. Maybe as the Dumb Ass White Kid asked different questions that showed he’d “caught a clue” and was coming along. Maybe having someone interested in his life, what it was like, and asking ‘questions with clue’ gave him a bit of hope for the future. Maybe…

All I can say with certainty was that in 1971 July there was an Old Black Man and a White Kid who spent about 36 hours or more on a bench together. We talked. We shared life stories (though mine was far shorter and insipid in comparison) and we “connected”. Then late one night we were hired and joined the Union together. Over the next few years we shared cafeteria time and worked together, but never quite as close. And now that I’m an Old White Man, I miss him. I’d like to spend time talking with him about all that has changed. All that is better, and worse. I’d like to ask him about his Hispanic wife and kids somewhere in South America. (by now grand kids or great grand kids) Frankly, I’d like to have him sit on a bench next to my kids for a week and “connect”. But it can not be. A few too many decades have past.

So now I find myself thinking “Maybe I can find a bench somewhere and sit on it for week or two… waiting for a young black kid to ask ‘what is it like to be white?’… and then talking about wife, and kids, and futures we can share and the miracle of youth…” Maybe…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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15 Responses to The Old Black Man and The White Kid

  1. Heber Rizzo says:

    I really enjoyed this. Maybe because I am 64 too, maybe because I am 11 000 km away from my original home, maybe because I have my own stories and memories of growing… Anyway, I think you are a good man, and that is why I follow your blog.

  2. Tony Hansen says:

    Thanks EM

  3. philjourdan says:

    My bench was a Marine Mess hall at Camp Pendleton. Between selling papers, the mess Sergeant, an “ancient” man (probably in his 40s) liked my tenacity and spunk. Latino. Tough as nails (he was a Marine). So he was kind of my mentor and did not let the other paper boys (I was selling for the LA Herald, but the San Diego Tribune and LA Times were there as well) mess with me. I sometimes wonder about him as well. That was during the height of the Vietnam war, and the mess hall was in the final staging area – Las Pulgas. A lot of the Marines I sold papers to probably never came home.

  4. andysaurus says:

    Thank you EM. I move over the cliff to 65 tomorrow, so I take this as a birthday present. Mine was a big guy from the south of England in the cast-iron drainage company where I worked to get the cash to cycle round France when I was 16. They called him ‘Hoss’ after the character from Bonanza, and he had a similar drawl. I thought he was probably a bit dumb, manhandling great iron pipes for a living. I quote him from a discussion in the lunch-room “I think Picasso is bloody fantastic!” Let’s say I had to reconsider my preconceptions.

  5. Larry Ledwick says:

    Great story EM. it is funny how people we only knew for a few hours or days sometimes leave tracks in our lives that last a life time. A little lesson here, a kindly warning there. Your story brought back memories for me too.

    Once when I was younger I needed work. My brother worked as a driver for a moving company and he had told me that they hired day labor if you went down to their office and waited early in the morning. Drivers would come in a pickup a couple people to help them off load or load the trucks. I spent a few days sitting on a bench waiting to be picked. On I think it was the second day a driver came in and asked for 2 people to help him load. I got picked along with an older guy in his late 30’s or so, and we rode down to the house in the cab of the rig. The move was a big adventure, the guy we were moving was retired Air Force, had been all over the world and had lots of stuff he had picked up over time. Two items come to mind, a mounted sword fish which when crated was about 1/2 inch too long to get up the stairs (we had to “modify” the crate by sawing off about 1/4 inch of wood on opposite ends of the crate it was in to get it up the basement stairs), and two big cast iron pots full of sand on his patio which must have weighed 400# which we struggled to get into the truck. The older guy who was picked with me showed me some tricks to pickup and move heavy items and lots of simple practical tips, like thinking about where you were going to be when you got to the top of the stairs before you started up the stairs.

    Not as personally significant as your story, but I distinctly remember the event 50+ years ago and the fact that the truck driver thanked us profusely for our help and bought us dinner after we finished the load out. By the end of the day we had become a team, and it felt good to feel like I belonged and was treated as an equal by the two older men.

  6. cdquarles says:

    Great story, there.

    I, too, am a born and bred Southerner. I’m of your typical American mutt variety. I lot of one kind from various spots and a little of other kinds from other various spots. I was born in the 50s. As bad as ‘racism’ was, it was dying out. There is every shade of skin pigmentation and probably every subtype of melanin in it. My family is just as mixed up and sinful as its heritage.

    Anyway, I was a young buck working summer jobs back in the early and mid 70s. One summer, I got a job landscaping, In The South!. The foreman was a very old man. 92, I think he said was his age. That old man had seen a lot, too. His crew was all young bucks some white, some mixed, some not. That old man could shame us all working. He’d seen a lot and didn’t talk much; but when he did, it had an impact. He reminded me of my grandfather, who’d passed a few years earlier. Said grandfather had seen lynchings and would talk about them as a cautionary tale. My other grandfather passed around the time I was born and my father died shortly after my sister was born.

    Being a military family, I’d been shipped from one end of the US to the other. When dad died, my remaining grandfather took my mom back home to the South. There were times when I’d wondered how much different my life would have been if my dad hadn’t died. Having seen what has happened to that part of the US where my father’s family settled to (moved West), I have no doubts that I’m better off having grown up in a more sane South than out West.

    Desegregation happened without incident in my mom’s home town because everyone, well nearly everyone, sought that. No riots, no lynchings, no violence, next to no trouble, despite rabble-rousing by “radicals”, who were mainly racist sides of the same coin.

    My grandfather served in Wilson’s segregated Army. He became a quartermaster. He also saw combat, which he *never* spoke of. He learned ‘soldier French’ and exposed us to that. Don’t think that my grandmother didn’t know what he was saying. ;)

    We old folk need to talk to the young, truthfully, about racial bigotry and racism in America. If we don’t, the true history will go down the memory hole. “Don’t think so?”, listen to the junk spouted by said young who have never been taught anything but the tripe fed to them in ‘school’. I’ve had to correct my own kids about that based on my own family history.

    Oh yeah, I did get to meet George Corey Wallace and some of the people around him. He was not what his portrayals have made of him recently.

  7. DonM says:

    This time of year is when I am also reminded of sitting on a bench … “Alice’s Restaurant” starts to play on the radio.

    Your bench story is just as entertaining as Arlo’s. (although maybe not as humorous).

    Thanks

  8. philjourdan says:

    @CD – Yes, we do need to talk to the young folks. While our children did not listen too well to us when we were raising them, I have found the grandkids kind of listen to us more than they do their parents. But then we are not lecturing them constantly, and of course to them, we are that “92 year old man”. ;-)

  9. Larry Ledwick says:

    I have found the grandkids kind of listen to us more than they do their parents.

    My uncle’s father served that function for me. He and his wife would come over and visit after my Aunt married his son and moved away to the eastern sea board. He would sit in the living room for hours telling interesting stories to my Father while my Mom and his wife chatted about “girl stuff”, I sat there quietly listening to those stories, and learned an awful lot about all sorts of things. I never really knew both my biological grandfathers, one died before I was born and the other lived in California and I only met him as a very young child, but never spent any time with him, so “John” acted as a surrogate grandfather. I don’t think he even realized it but I greatly valued listening to his stories. He was a steel fitter at a local steel company and was the guy who actually decided how to fit up the steel to make up bridge beams and all sorts of large fabrications that they did. He told stories (which I later confirmed as a machinist) that often the real work of design was done on the factory floor. The engineer drew pictures of what he wanted but skilled seasoned old men like John where the ones who actually made those pictures come to life as a finished product. Often using tricks of the trade and well honed rules of thumb to get the job done. For example you have a bridge beam 80′ long and when set in place with a bridge deck on it you want it to be flat. How much camber (curve) do you build into the beam so when carrying its own weight and the weight of the bridge deck it will be flat do you build into the bare beam? How do you weld it up so it does not warp due to the contraction forces of the welding process and ends up straight? How do you straighten an 80′ beam if it develops an unwanted distortion during fabrication? It was old guys like John who knew how to do that and made it happen. That “gray ware” knowledge is a precious commodity and needs to be passed down generation to generation just like snippits of history that never find their way into history books.

    If you are an old guy (like it appears many on this site are) share your stories willingly with the young who will listen. You may be leaving tracks in their lives you do not appreciate, and only they will recognize when they get to be 40+ themselves.

  10. John Howard says:

    I also write stories to my family, but my son doesn’t seem to get the point. However, I have a nephew who reads every detail and then calls me to talk more. He is fascinated about the days when we left home in the morning with a sandwich, can of worms and cane pole. No one worried that we might be snatched away.

  11. philjourdan says:

    @John Howard,

    My dad is long dead, and only one Uncle remains, who also happens to have been an Archivist before he retired. Now he is doing the family genealogy. He has his own kids, but his wife told me that I am the only one that reads his findings, places the people and keeps asking questions. SO I guess I am that nephew. (and yes, they do include stories about those ancestors).

  12. p.g.sharrow says:

    @John Howard; the point is, that some did disappear. The “Good Old Days” were just as dangerous as now, maybe even more so. The media just makes a big deal, all of the time, about things that in the old days we never heard of. Living has always been a risky business. In the old days parents worried, they just knew we needed the space to grow up self sufficient and had no mob of government do-gooders to terrorize them into locking up their children from all danger. A no risk society of know nothings is the result. Judgment and common sense is the result taking chances and sometimes getting burnt fingers or a bloody nose. There are times I am amazed that most children become valued adults in-spite of the conditions that they have grown up in…pg

  13. gareth says:

    A couple of days late to the comments, but I thought (& felt – engineery distinction there) this was a well written and crafted post with a good and worthwhile story to tell. I much rate Willis Eschenbach’s writing at WUWT and I thought that this was of at least that quality.
    Best regards,
    gareth

  14. E.M.Smith says:

    @Gareth:

    I have comments set to stay open on articles for something like 6 months by default.. so what’s a couple of days? ;-)

    Thanks for the compliment. I can do “creative writing” but usually try to stick to the more tech / analytical side of things. Probably an artificial self imposed restriction that has no need …

    In any case, glad you enjoyed it. W. and I have a fair number of common paths in life. Kind of surprised we never met in the process. He was on a boat in a place near where I was living, then I was on a boat when he was further north. He road a train through towns where I lived and where I was thinking about riding the rails… but didn’t as I had finals ;-) A lot of things “shared at a distance”.

  15. Hifast says:

    EM,
    Great story, and thanks for keeping the comments open.
    GF

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