I thought the most beautiful houses in the world were those houses we shoveled snow from the 200 feet driveways in Shaker Heights. The houses, mansions, were huge white siding mansions with black Shutters on the windows; maybe one hundred windows, or so it seemed. The roofs were black asphalt shingles which set the house off even more than the dozens of trees, mostly pine, around the property. The lawns were so big you could play Hide the paddle, or It and never be found just hiding behind those massive trees. The grass, yes grass, in the yards looked like it had been carpeted with each blade the same height. In the winter the grass would be so white and pure looking you would think it was painted by Thomas Kinkade.
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When I Was Little I Used to Be ColoredThe Story of Life in a Real Village
By Carl A. Benson Sr.
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Carl A. Benson Sr.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn The Beginning
WHEN I WAS LITTLE I USED TO BE COLORED. I know that because when I talk about my childhood with other Black people, guess what, it's similar to their childhood. So similar you'd think we were all related. But we could have been raised in Cleveland or Los Angeles and the experiences are nearly the same. I guess poor people have poor ways where ever they live. And why not, it was our only exposure at the time. When we were colored.
I knew we were colored because the old folks used to refer to ourselves as "colored". My grandmother would talk about "the colored man over there or the colored lady with the blue hat, or colored people ought to do this or that". Once in a while she would talk about the "colored only" signs in the south. But my grandmother was not fazed or intimidated by any of that stuff. She would drag us "chilren" on a streetcar or bus without paying a fare and tell us to "gwon sit down". Even after the protests of the drivers Mama would just ignore them and pay one fare for herself and sit down next to us.
As a child, being colored didn't feel bad or different, it was what we were. And as long as we could have a scoop of orange sherbet in a cup once in a while, or a piece of candy occasionally, or a piece of sweet potato pie, being colored wasn't bad.
Cleveland was always grey. The sky never looked blue to me even when it was. I guess it was because in the part of town where we lived there were factories and steel mills near by and they kept the sky filled with smoke or other pollutants. When I went to visit my aunt on E. 31st street I could see the open flames from the coke mills burning 24 hours it seems.
Cleveland was like looking at an old black and white news reel every day. Our house was grey, all the cars were grey, the trees in our neighborhood were grey, and the children were grey. At least, that's the way it looked to me when I was a little boy. But as I grew older and ventured out to other neighborhoods, or to the once a year pilgrimage to the Cleveland Zoo, or Geauga Lake to the Weatherhead Annual Picnic for its workers, I would see that other parts of Cleveland were not grey like our neighborhood. But our neighborhood was a special place; a place where we could run around free from terror, or drugs, gangs or other outside influences that could cause a kid to develop bad habits.
Back in the forties and fifties we had a neighborhood. Just like Richard Pryor's drunk character said, it was a "neighborhood not a residential district." The cobblestone streets were laid out in numerical order. Ours happened to be E. 65th Street. Each street was separated by an alley, which served not only as a place to park your car, but for recreational purposes. We often played in the alley, and, the numbers people used it to play their illegal gambling games. Every now and then the police would raid a game and people would scatter like roaches in a cabinet when you turned a light on.
The houses were primarily wooden siding with front porches and back porches. Occasionally you would see a brick house, usually a two family house with a family upstairs and one downstairs. On our block there was a vacant lot halfway down the block which lent itself to a friendly softball game often.
To our detriment as kids, all of the neighbors knew all of the kids, and our parents. And often, a neighbor's call would precede your arrival at home where a parent would be waiting with a belt to "whup" you for something the neighbor had reported. Parents were grateful for the neighborhood lookouts and there was never a hint of litigation or threat of a fist fight for a neighbor dragging you home to report on your behavior. It often acted as a deterrent to us because we knew which neighbors would tell on us and we avoided doing anything questionable in those areas. You try this today and not only would you get sued, you will probably have to fight your way back home.
On the whole, the properties were pretty well maintained, even though most of them were not owned by the occupants. Some yards were fenced in and sported grass and shrubbery. Some yards had no grass and were usually where kids lived or played regularly. Our yard had no grass for as long as I can remember and was the gathering place for most of the neighborhood kids. Our yard was the ideal place to play. We had a big tree in the front yard, no grass so we could shoot marbles or play "chubby" there (Root a Peg or Mumbly Peg to some).There was a telephone pole on the side of the driveway which was perfect for Hide the Paddle. I can still hear the song we sang while leaning against the pole waiting for everyone to hide. It went "Last night and the night before, twenty-four robbers at my door. I got up to let them in, hit 'em in the head with a rolling pin. Ready or not here I come". Then, the count to ten. We would scatter and by the time the caller got to ten, there were no children in sight. There were so many hiding places in our two or three house area of play; you could never find all of the players. They were constantly running back to the pole before the caller could hit them with a paddle, or stick.
Chapter TwoPICTURE: THIS IS EAST 65TH STREET in Cleveland, Ohio where I was raised. This is our "village". The light post on the right is where we played Hide and Go Seek, Hide the Paddle, and It. Right in the middle of the street next to the post is where I had a fight with a kid from the next block over, and where he stuck me in the eye with a broken broom handle. We played stick ball, Set-Back and held track meets here. We also raised a PhD in Chemistry, several school teachers, an NCAA track hurdles champion, A Post Master of the Cleveland Branch of the U.S. Post Office, and me of course. If you look to the right sidewalk you can hear Mr. Bradley coming home on Saturday night, a little tipsy, singing, "It's a long way to Tipperary".
Our neighborhood was very colorful; we had very interesting families and characters up and down the block. All the way at the end of the street at the opposite direction as the picture shows was my best friend Nate. He lived by the gully at the end of the block that went down to the railroads tracks. The gully was an urban legend in itself having had the reputation that a killer lurked there. A story went around that a human head had been found there by children taking the shortcut through there on the way to school. We never knew who those children were incidentally but that never stopped us boys from using the shortcut while secretly looking for heads on the path down the gully.
The gully had a more useful purpose also. The coal trains that passed through there often dropped lumps of coal along the tracks and we would go down there and gather a bushel basket full to burn in our pot belly stoves in the winter. The trains would also drop pieces of iron or steel from the mills and we gathered them up for sale to the junk man.
Further up from the gully was a family I'll call the Harkins. It is said that Aaron Neville has the world's most beautiful voice, but the world never heard Eugene Harkins sing unfortunately. Eugene would lead all of the songs while we do wopped on the corner of 65th and Woodland. Still to this day I have never heard a more beautiful version of The Irish Lullaby sung by any professional, anywhere. Not even the Irish.
One of the most unique characteristics of our neighborhood was the Junk Yard on the west side of the street. This yard had a horse barn and the horse was used to pull the old wooden wagon full of junk up and down the street. I can still hear the junk man's cry of "Ehhh pa dehhp, ehhh pa dehhp". Upon hearing that call we would run out to the street to pet the huge horse that stood patiently as junk was loaded on the wagon. After a few years the horse and the old white man disappeared from the street and that call was never heard again until Oscar Brown, Jr. sang about Rags and Old Iron in his hit song years later.
In the middle of the block was a family with a boy and a girl. I think the boy's name was Earl, and the girl's name was Russia. What I do remember about the girl is that she was as black as night and every bit as beautiful. Her skin was flawless and the girl had back. Unfortunately she was easy and all of the boys on the block were pursuing her sweet caresses. I was one of them.
Three doors from the beauty lived the Simons family. There were four boys, Donnie, Billy, Arnet and Marvin, and one girl, Tina. Billy was my boy and we went everywhere together. Billy was light-skinned and good looking and was the best hand dancer I'd ever seen. We would go to the Blue Jean Dance at the roller rink every Saturday night and turn it out. You see, I was the second best dancer I ever saw. The girls would literally line up to dance with Billy and me and we took advantage of the attention it brought us. Billy could do a twirl which today would equate to a quadruple Sow Kow in figure skating, and catch the hand of the girl before she could turn one time. We had reputations and followings on both the east and west sides of Cleveland. I went to a near neighborhood block party once and entered the dance contest and won hands down, with a girlfriend from high school.
Billy Simons was my next door neighbor and our houses were so close together we used to open our side windows and pass funny books or other things to each other. It was in Billy's back yard that I learned how to wring a chicken's neck and kill a turtle to make turtle soup. Billy's Grandfather and Grandmother were the class of the neighborhood and brought experiences most of us never knew before. Mr. Simons took us fishing at Put In Bay on Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio and let us ride his horse named Copek which was stabled near Akron. The Simons' were like a Headstart Program in the fifties for our neighborhood. They grew their own vegetables and had the prettiest yards on the block.
Chapter ThreeMY HOUSE WAS A TWO FAMILY wood frame house with the landlady Mrs. Hawkins living upstairs with her son Howard. Howard was a nice guy and would let me pal around with him some even though he was a few years older than I. Once while looking for Howard up in his home, I had the scariest experience of my life. I still remember it today, vividly. I went upstairs to see Howard and the door was open and the lights were off in the house. I called and called and there was no answer. As I walked from the kitchen to the dining room I ran into a man's figure dressed in black. My mind immediately perceived the image of the Devil, black clothes, red silk lined cape, horny head. It scared me so badly I don't think I ever went upstairs again. To me then and to me now, it was real. It's making my hair stand up as I'm writing this.
Our house downstairs was a two bedroom with one bathroom. The bathroom was off the kitchen in the back of the house, and the formal dining room was off to the right corner of the kitchen. A bedroom was to the back of the dining room and that is where my Aunt Jeanette and Uncle William, whom we all called Daddy, slept. I had been raised by my aunt and uncle who were the only real parents I and my sister Barbara knew. Jen had four children of her own, Billy, Jackie, Jerry and Andy. We were all brothers and sister, one family, even today. My mother was living in Cincinnati with my Step-father Bishop O.W. Nickerson.
The living room was off the dining room in the front of the house and it had a magnificent fireplace which never worked and a mantel which held pictures of relatives. It also held a picture of a ship at sea. The sea was angry and the ship looked like was in trouble. When I asked Jen what the picture represented, she said, the Wreck of Hesperus. I didn't understand what that meant until later in life when I looked it up in an encyclopedia and found it was a famous picture from a famous piece of literature.
In the window of the living room hung a cardboard placard with three black stars on a white background. As a child I didn't understand what this meant until my grandmother explained it to me. Each star represented a family member, in this case uncles, who were serving in the military during World War II. Our three stars represented my three uncles James and Charles in the Army, and Fred in the Navy. When Charles came home he would tell us stories about his time in Italy as a member of the Transportation Division, truck drivers. Charles talked about the segregated Army and how colored soldiers were only allowed to cook or drive trucks. As a truck driver they were camped in Italy one night when gunfire rang out in the camp from a sniper. Not having been in combat the drivers scrambled like cats all over the camp looking for a place to hide. My uncle Charles being one of the scramblers considered himself lucky when he found a mound to hide in. The mound turned out to be a mound of human waste and he dove in head first. He said he didn't stop to analyze the make up of the mound of stuff at least until after the sniper fire ceased.
You can imagine what he smelled like when he extracted himself from the pile of crap but he was still alive. This must have been the time when someone said "War is hell."
When my uncles returned from the service in 1945 they still found America the same as when they left, segregated and racist. They did not return heroes with special treatment from the community or the nation; they were still unemployed and still "colored" in the eyes of white America.
It wasn't until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman, needing the colored vote integrated the Army in an effort to garnish the support of colored voters. It worked for him, he won the election. Ironically, this was not the first time in history that the American Army was integrated. Without giving you an American history lesson here I can tell you that unknowingly a colored man named Crispus Attucks became the first person to die in the Revolutionary War in 1775 outside a Boston bar, and the war that ensued would include thousands of colored participants.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry would fight valiantly and prove the capabilities of colored soldiers to participant further in the war. A colored woman, Deborah Gannett, disguised as a man would become a decorated soldier in that war and George Washington lifted the ban on the use of colored soldiers in 1776 which resulted in over 5,000 colored soldiers fighting beside white soldiers helping to win the war that created our United States of America.
In every war history record Colored, Negro, Black, or African Americans fought beside white soldiers and helped to keep America free. Even today our soldiers are prominent in the War against Terrorism, fighting, and dying to maintain our freedoms. And you know,the same thing happens today as it did when my uncle Charles returned from the World War II in 1945, we are still discriminated against and taken for granted by a major part of society.
No matter how many persons of color die or leave their blood on foreign soil, nothing changes when we get back home to America. I guess it will be the "next war" that gives us enough credits to be equal, real Americans. If we still put stars in the window for our sons, brothers and sisters who serve in wars, we couldn't see out of the window today. It would be covered with stars.
Chapter FourAS CHILDREN WE HUDDLED AROUND the floor model radio in the living room to listen to such shows as Happy Hank singing "Merci do and doci do a little lambsy lidy, afiddly diddly do wouldn't you?", Red Rider and Little Beaver, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, the Inner Sanctum, the Sheriff, My Friend Irma, Friday Night Fights, the Thin Man, Fibber McGhee and Molly, Amos and Andy, and The Shadow (who knows what lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow "do".).
The second bedroom was to the left of the living room and had a full bed by the front window and bunk beds on the wall. My Grandmother slept in the bed by the window and my sister slept in the top bunk. When I was little I slept with my Grandmother and it was a constant battle every night not to get crushed by big Momma when she turned over at night. The bottom bunk was occupied at different times by two of the other kids. Later on we got a Hide Away Bed for the dining room after Billy, the oldest and the athlete in the family moved out and got married.
Life was fairly normal, or at least felt normal when I was colored, until the rats chewed their way into the interior of the house. We would see them in the kitchen behind the water heater or in the bathroom. Every time we would patch up the holes they entered from they made new ones. It got so bad that before the two younger boys went to bed I made sure that they did not have food particles around their mouths so the rats would not nibble on them.
Excerpted from When I Was Little I Used to Be Colored by Carl A. Benson Sr. Copyright © 2012 by Carl A. Benson Sr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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