Many years ago in Columbus, Mississippi, at the corner of Fourth Street South and Ninth Avenue South there was a large colonial style two-story house with stately columns and a balcony, a house converted into apartments during World War II to accommodate the influx of military personnel from Columbus Air Force Base, a pilot training center. I haven’t been in that section of town for many years—it may still be standing, or it may have been razed and a modern brick structure erected on that lot.
I lived there for several months with my mother, my youngest sister Dot—short for Doris—and my stepfather. Jessie, my oldest sister, also lived there in a one-room apartment that shared a bathroom with another tenant. That house holds many memories for me, several of which I have posted on my blog—some of those memories are pleasant and some are not so pleasant. Click here to read about The tomato tempest, a story that includes a visit to Alabama, a sharecropper family, a suicide, an Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, a recalcitrant young girl and a stepfather with a vicious temper.
The house was only two or three blocks from a section of the city that was called by many names, mostly names that are not used in polite society today. In these modern times of political correctness, certain words are voiced only by their first letter and the word word added, as in the N-word or the F-word or the R–word—the R stands for Republican, a word that some are reluctant to use in fear that they will looked upon as such.
I suppose that in today’s parlance, the neighborhood just beyond where I lived as a boy would be referred to as N-town, an area primarily comprised of black families—the term African-American was unknown then, unknown at least in the circles in which I moved. I’ve never understood the rationale for expressing something like that—if it is true that the thought is as bad as the deed, then saying the N-word instead of the actual word in nothing more than an attempt to cover up the real word, and it’s not covered up—try it—just say the N-word to yourself and check the mental image it creates, both in the speaker and the listener. Let’s face it—it’s a cop out—if you’re going to think it, you might as well say it.
I knew only one person that lived in N-town, a black lady that came to the house every weekday to care for my niece, Jessie’s young daughter, then just a toddler. Millie also cleaned, cooked and ironed for Jessie over a period of many years at several different locations in the city. I never knew Millie’s last name—we simply called her Millie, possibly the diminutive form of Millicent. An unmarried lady, she lived with her family just a short walk from our house. I vividly remember numerous Saturday nights when Dot and I walked with Jessie and our mother to Millie’s house. Jessie and our mother, along with Millie and her mother formed a quartet and sang church hymns, A Capella, all the old favorites and they sometimes belted out fast-paced tunes that contrasted sharply with the well-known songs—I suppose they were songs popular at the time—pop tunes, so to speak.
The group stayed in the house in inclement weather and neighbors came and sat and listened, and in fair weather they formed on the front porch and neighbors came and sat and listened. My sister and I stayed outside, both in inclement and fair weather, playing all the games children play in the evening—Kick the Can, Pussy in the Corner, Tag, Hide and Seek and others, and sometimes we sat on the porch and told stories, mostly ghost tales—and I’m here to say that those kids could spin some very scary stories!
Now that I’ve laid the scene, I’ll progress to the when, where, why and how I lost my marbles. I arrived home from school and Millie and my niece, Millie’s charge, were the only ones there. Left to my own devices, I swept an area of the front yard clean, drew a circle and began playing marbles. Soon after I began one of the kids from Millie’s neighborhood came by, watched my shooting for a few minutes and asked if he could play. I said yes, and the battle was joined—we played for keeps, meaning that when a shooter knocked one of the other shooter’s marble out of the ring, that marble changed ownership—it now belonged to the one that caused it to go outside the ring. At first I seemed to be in control, but as the game progressed I realized that I had agreed to a play-for-keeps game with a kid that was a much better shooter than I.
So did I call off the game? Not on your life! I had a reputation to support and I worked very hard to reclaim some of my marbles that now resided in the black kid’s pockets. I was almost marbleless when Jessie came home from work. She briefly watched us at play and then entered the house, and a short time later Millie came out and headed for home. Then Jessie returned to the front yard—Jessie, my oldest sister and the sister that often gave orders that I was required to obey. She ordered me into the house, and I told my new friend—my adversary—that I had to go in, and he headed for home also, his pockets bulging with marbles that earlier had been in my pockets.
Jessie told me later that it was not seemly for me to be seen playing with a N-word child, that it would look odd to our neighbors. I pointed out to her that I had lost most of my marbles, and that I appeared to be on a winning streak at the time she stopped the game. Her response to that? You shouldn’t have been playing for keeps—that’s gambling, and gambling’s a sin. I didn’t bother to argue that I played with the black kids on Saturday evenings. I knew that the difference was the difference between day and night, between light and dark. I was in full view during daylight hours, subject to the stares of disapproving blacks as well as whites, and in the darkness of the evening I was not subjected to such stares.
That’s it—that’s how I lost my marbles, a loss that I was never to recoup. I never saw that kid again—sometimes I think that he may have been a ringer, a professional sent in from another area to pick up some easy loot in the form of marbles, similar to what Paul Newman did in his movie, The Hustler—bummer!
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!