What was it like growing up in a small town in the deep South in the 60’s & 70’s? Well, this is what it was like for me.
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I grew up in the South in the 1960’s and 70’s, in a small town in North Florida (that is east of the panhandle, south of Georgia and north of Ocala for all non-Floridians). Just as most communities in the United States were at that time, we were more segregated than the country is today. There was considerable mistrust at that time. This was a period of assassinations, riots, protests and counter-protests, murder, an unpopular war (the first war televised, live, as it happened, into our homes), and forced school busing; the young did not trust the government because of the war, the bundled Warren Commission investigation, long lists of injustices, and the apparent unwillingness of the government to respond. The older people did not trust the government because of the unrest sweeping the nation. Young did not trust old, old did not trust young, black did not trust white, white did not trust black, Americans did not trust immigrants, and immigrants did not trust Americans. At a time when there was so much mistrust and danger, there was some comfort in living in a neighborhood with people who were like you. There were little Italy’s and China towns all across the nation. There were also black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. The segregation was not mandatory, as you will see, that had ended a few years before. In my town as an elementary school boy I was oblivious to all of the danger, stress, and tension of the times I lived in.
The year Florida started mandatory busing of schoolchildren was the year my family moved to a new school district. My parents were happy about this, my new school had a newer building, smaller classes of children, newer books (which we did not have to share with our classmates), and the roof did not leak.
Before forced school busing, you went to school in your neighborhood. We were very poor, and so was our neighborhood and school. We moved to a new middle class neighborhood with a new middle class school, and I was not happy. I did not know any of the students or teachers at my new school and my new surroundings were strange to me. At my old school, I had friends, I knew my teachers, and I knew my surroundings. There were bullies at my old school, but all schools have bullies. Some of the bullies would call me names because of my skin color, but bullies always find some difference to pick at; ask anyone with freckles, red hair, or a weight problem. I just ignored what the bullies said. As the only white kid in my class, all my friends were black and they didn’t mind that I was white, they treated me like everyone else. We traded food from our lunch bags at lunchtime, played cowboy and Indians at recess, and got into mischief during class. I was comfortable where I was, and I did not like going to a different school.
My first day at Silver Lake Elementary School I came home happy and excited, many of my friends from my old school were at my new school too. I was in third grade, I didn’t know what mandatory school busing was, and I did not know about the court battles and fighting that had gone on, or the protests. What I knew was that I went to school thinking I was going to be alone in a strange school, and I wasn’t. I had many of my friends in class with me. I could not wait to tell my parents. My mother was happy for me. All I remember of my dad was that he said, “We moved him out of that school.” I did not understand what he meant and did not know why he was upset, but I was happy.
That is how things were when I grew up in that little north Florida town. In public people were respectful of each other and kids were taught to say sir and ma’am. Yes, we had white people that did not like people because they were black. We also had black people who did not like people because they were white. But, it was considered to be rude and uncivilized to display your prejudices in public in front of children, and those who did were looked down on by the community, both black and white.
We owe this, in part, to the man who was our sheriff for more than four decades. On the surface, he seemed like the stereotypical southern sheriff Yankees like to make fun of. Walt had the slow southern drawl and didn’t seem to get excited about very many things, but he made it his business to know what was going on in his county. Walt also did not tolerate disturbances of the peace in his county. If you thought you were going to go to the north side of the town and light up the sky with burning crosses, you had better think again. Walt would come down like a ton of bricks on anyone trying to cause trouble in his county.
I remember the one time we had a big protest march at our courthouse. I was a sophomore in high school. At a school pep rally, we had a disturbance between a black boy and a white girl and the boy was suspended from school. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) said the boy accidentally brushed up against the girl in a hallway. The school rednecks said the boy took inappropriate liberties with the girl using his hands. The kids I knew near the incident (both black and white) said the boy shoved the girl while they were standing in the bleachers.
The SCLC was in town all week picketing the high school and had scheduled a protest march downtown, to start from the courthouse, on Saturday. The white racists in town were already talking about starting a riot with the protesters at the courthouse. All week we had news agencies from all around interviewing our sheriff, including television stations from Jacksonville.
The reporters would ask, “Sheriff what are you going to do?”
Walt would answer, in a slow southern drawl, “Well, if they have their permit I am going to let them march.”
“But sheriff what are you going to do about the anti-protest people?”
Walt would answer, “Well, if they have a permit, I am going to let them march too.”
The whole town was talking all week long about how this was going to be bad. Most people were planning staying at home or avoiding the downtown area. It seemed like the sheriff was going to treat Saturday like any other Saturday, and this could get real bad, real fast. Our town had never seen this kind of trouble before. While cities all over the country burned in race riots, Walt had kept the peace between the blacks and whites in our county. This just didn’t seem like Walt. The general opinion was that Walt was greatly under estimating the potential for disaster at this protest march.
Saturday came and the SCLC and their followers gathered at the courthouse, the white racists gather at the courthouse, and Walt and his deputies gathered at the courthouse. Also, at Walt’s request, police, deputies, and swat teams from every surrounding county and from as far away as Duval county (Jacksonville, Florida) gathered at the courthouse.
A friend of mine, much braver than me, went down to see what was going to happen. He said, Walt checked the permit of the SCLC, then after he was satisfied their permit was in order, he told them to go ahead with their march. Mike said Walt then turned to the crowd of troublemakers and asked them for their permit. When they didn’t present a permit, he told them they were violating the law and if they didn’t break up and go home he was going to run them all in. The SCLC had their march, and the troublemakers went home. Mike said the only trouble was when someone’s dog bit someone. A few words passed and then nothing.
Walt kept our county safe and quiet, the whole county not just part of the county. Walt was rewarded for that by both the blacks and the whites in our county. Every four years Walt ran for re-election. Every four years the county voted for Walt again, except for the family of a republican from Crescent City that ran against Walt, every four years. If Walt had served out different forms of justice for different sides of town we would have had the same problems they had in places like Birmingham, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago, and Los Angeles By having one law for all and enforcing one law for all, Walt kept the peace in our small town. There was a tolerance and a mutual respect that America has lost in the last forty years.
Now, I told you that story to tell you this story.
Several years before Palatka’s brush with state wide celebrity status. My family moved again. This time we moved into town and my new school was Moseley Elementary School. That first summer I would ride my bicycle down to the St. Johns River, fishing pole tied to my handlebars.
I had found a nice quiet place to fish under the shade of an old live oak tree. Just south of the boat marina was a long row of nice houses from Palatka’s heyday as a steamboat town in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that earlier time Palatka had more hotels than Jacksonville and paddlewheelers on the river were still the easiest form of travel in the area. The row of houses reflected that earlier time. The stretch of land between the road and the river, across from the houses, had no structures on it. Grass and a few live oak trees with the river for a background was the only view from the porches of those big houses. If you minded your own business, were well behaved, and cleaned up after yourself you could sit on the breakwater, in the shade of a live oak tree, dangle your feet in the mighty St. Johns River, and fish to your heart’s content.
That was where I met my fishing buddy. He was old enough to be my grandfather. He taught me about fishing the St. Johns River, and how to cook mullet without it tasting muddy (but that is another story).
I never knew his name, I always called him sir, and he never called me by my name he always called me sir. That bothered me. I was taught that children always call grownups sir or ma’am, and here was a man old enough to be my grandfather calling me sir. I talked with my mother about it. She explained to me that a long time ago, black men always said sir to white people. He did not mean anything by it, it was how his parents raised him. I did not understand any of this; I was just an elementary school boy spending my summer fishing. My mother suggested I let it go and I did. Now, I wish I knew his name, but I guess in a way there is some kind of poetry in not knowing. He taught me more about fishing than anyone has, before or since, and I have had some good teachers (but that is another story). More important he taught me about life. He taught me to accept people as I find them and to accept them as they are. He taught me that no matter what life throws your way, there is good in people, trust them. He taught me that there are always people coming up behind you, teach them. And, he taught me that life’s greatest pleasures come in the smallest things, like dangling your bare feet in the St. Johns River.
There were things that he did not teach me too. He did not teach me about the bad side of life. A side of life that he saw with his own eyes. He did not teach me about a society that expected a grown man to call a boy “sir.” Instead of passing on hate to yet another generation, he took me under his arm. He treated me as the grandson I could have been. When I looked into his eyes, I saw a wise and loving grandfatherly figure. I never knew, from him, the pain those same eyes had also witnessed.
You say African-American, I say Black, the generation before me said Negro, and the generation before them said Colored. You see we are not perfect, and we carry the wounds of life with us, but you do the best you can and you keep moving forward. Palatka was not perfect, it had its problems. Sheriff Walt was not perfect and had many problems to deal with, both as sheriff and as a man. But, that was a community in a time and place that protected its children as best as it could, all its children; while the rest of the world seemed to be burning itself down in rage. It was a community that in some cases presented a much more tolerant image to its children than really existed. But is that a bad thing? Our children are our future, and we want them to be better than we were, so why wouldn’t we put our best in front of them. Why wouldn’t we show our children what we want them to be, what we wished we were, and not what we are?
To all those people in that little river town who put their best image in front of me … thank you. To Mr. O’Rourke, Hosea, John the mailman, John the art teacher, to the crab lady, and to big Pete, Gadabout Gaddis, “uncle” John, Mr. P, Mr. V, and Bill Turnbull, and to so many others I cannot name, thank you. Lastly, thank you to my fishing buddy, wherever you are.
Actually I should have called it every father’s wish. But I shy away from people who speak for people. That said … I think you dads out there will agree with me. I hope you had a great Father’s Day last week, I did.
Father’s Day 2012 was a warm, sunny day in central Ohio. We started our fishing trip by going out for lunch. As we drove the 45 minutes to Slate Run Park, we talked about the past week, and the many items pressing on the mind of a seven year old girl. I was amazed, Elizabeth is only seven years old, but I caught a glimpse into how she thinks. I saw how, as a woman, Elizabeth with solve problems and rationalize. After solving the problems of the world, we arrived at the park and made our way to the second dock at the fishing pond.
The first dock was full of people, and the second dock had a grandfather with his grandson using live bait. We were going to use lures. Elizabeth has gotten good at casting and I was looking forward to seeing her catch her first fish on a lure. I tell her where to put the lure, and she calculates the wind and places the lure just right. All she needs from dad is where to cast too and she does the rest in her head, while we are talking about Barbie dolls and puppy dogs.
Today though, the wind was high, moving from our left to our right, and the water choppy. Even the live bait fishermen were having no luck. I changed Elizabeth’s lure a few times, when she spotted my fly-fishing lures. Fly-fishing is a different style of fishing. Sport fishing is the most popular form of recreational fishing, the easiest, and most economical (though some people spend quite a bit of money on their sport fishing equipment). Fly-fishing is difficult and requires specialized equipment and techniques. Fly-fishing is art.
In fly-fishing the lure looks like an insect, and weighs about the same. Sport fishing you use weights to get your bait or lure to the depth you want and to cast the line. But, fly-fishing lures are fished on the surface like the insects they imitate. If you put weights on the line to cast it, the lures sink. Therefore, fly-fishing line is tapered and coated so that the line weighs enough to cast the lure. (I have included a video clip example of fly-fishing at the bottom of the article.)
Elizabeth wanted to try the fly. Well, it was too choppy to catch anything. If she has a good time that is what counts. I tied the fly on her line.
“I tried that when I was kid,” said the grandfather beside us. “It didn’t work, I couldn’t cast the line, not enough weight.”
“I tried it too,” I said. “I think we all do as kids, ha ha ha.”
The laugh was on us. I pulled about seven feet of line out and handed my Shakespeare rod and reel to Elizabeth. Standing looking at the water for a few minutes, she held the pole out in one hand and the line in the other. Then, letting the wind take the lure, she dropped the bait on the surface. In three attempts she had three Bluegill, two eight inch and one seven inch.
“I have never seen anyone do that before,” said the grandfather. “Catching fish with a fly on a sport rod and reel, she must be pretty good.”
“I’ve never seen it either,” I said.
Soon, we had people from the first dock asking us what Elizabeth was using to catch fish with (they still had not caught anything). They repeated the grandfather’s sentiments and walked away saying, “She’s pretty good.”
We then left for the playground and a few hours on the swings and monkey bars. I loved the pictures and fishing pole Elizabeth made for me, but today I received the best Father’s Day gift of all. No, not the compliments my daughter received, though I did like that. The gift I received was more precious than a mere compliment.
Every father wishes for his children to be better than he was. Alexandra had more courage and strength than I ever did. Elizabeth has the wisdom and empathy. Not the wisdom we usually think of, a wisdom of knowledge. Elizabeth has a wisdom of seeing and understanding. Elizabeth can see where the lure lands and understand where she needs to aim to get the lure where she wants it. She does this time and time again. More important, she does this in other things as well, not just while she is fishing. Elizabeth can see the things that are not and ask why. Quite often, she also understands how to make those things a reality, or at least she is trying to work out the problem in her mind.
Almost all children have empathy at a young age. They see someone who is hungry and they want to feed them. Elizabeth does the same. Then she will ask, “Papa, what about tomorrow?”
“What do you mean Sweetheart?”
“Well Papa, she will be hungry tomorrow too.”
Empathy with foresight. Too bad more of our political leaders do not have this kind of empathy.
Yes, I can say that my children are better than I am. No one knows how much time we have left. But, when my time comes I will be at peace in the knowledge that no matter what life may bring, Elizabeth will surpass her father.
Is there a better gift a father can receive on Father’s Day?
Follow this link to see an example of fly-fishing http://youtu.be/oc2PQljqAXw
- Download Fly-Fishing Pressured Water (uyrdovn.typepad.com)
- Fly Fishing Adventure: Alaska Rainbows Movie Download Full Movie (bdikpaba.typepad.com)
- High-tech angling: The one that didn’t get away (economist.com)
- Full Fly Fishing: The Lifetime Sport Film High Quality (eoohdzi.typepad.com)
- Download FLY FISHING TIPS & TECHNIQUES Movie Online (alodlry.typepad.com)
- Willoughby: Mentors key to fly-fishing nirvana (denverpost.com)
- Montana Angler Fly Fishing to Offer New Cabin Rental in the Madison River Valley (prweb.com)
- Download Pocket Guide to Nymph Fishing e-book (mkffyaeu.typepad.com)
Father’s Day was great, and I hope your weekend was too. I have a few photographs I will share with you. I also want to tell you about the amazing thing my little fisher-person did. Something I have never seen anyone do before, while fishing. Until then, have a great week and remember your perfect moments.
- Happy Father’s Day (where’s my mimosa?) (tryphoon.com)
- Momfession #34: Father’s Day (themomfessional.com)
- Mad Libs for Father’s Day (dadpoet.wordpress.com)
- Jim’s First Father’s Day (rtwgirl.typepad.com)
- Father’s Day (christineura.wordpress.com)
- See All the New Celebrity Dads in Honor of Father’s Day! (popsugar.com)
- Happy Father’s Day 2012 – Songs, Poems, Messages Honoring Fathers (rodiagnusdei.wordpress.com)
- My first fathers day (thestarvingoutdoorsman.wordpress.com)