Mr. Wrestling

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

For many boys at the New York Institute, the man that made self-respect achievable was one Clyde L. Downs of Downsville, Maryland.

When Clyde Downs first came to the Institute in 1929 at age 21, the Institute did not have a wrestling program, and Downs did not come as a wrestling coach. He appears to have been a general physical education coach, engaging students in a variety of activities.

Overbrook School in Philadelphia has been credited with the first wrestling program for blind kids, started in 1929,[3] the very same year that NYI hired Clyde Downs. The Institute would sometimes compete against Overbrook. The Philadelphia-based program was an all-white program, while the New York Institute was integrated. When the two teams met, the Institute’s non-white players were not able to participate, so the Institute was subjected to a handicap. But it seems that in the early years Overbrook had a genuinely superior program. A February 1937 story in Time Magazine describes a 22–5 beating handed to the Institute by Overbrook. By 1942, however, New York Institute students and graduates began to appear at or near the top of regional and national tournaments to a degree that Overbrook never had.

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Personality Disorders

Sam Barber, sitting in the redwood parlor playing Adagio
for Strings on the Steinway, and Una’s in the bathtub
running the cold tap with a pistol in her hand and a bullet
in her breast, her black broth bleeding out, making warm
curlicues all around her, an arm reaching out
for more sleeping pills.

Behind the piano, the door to the guest room is closed
for J.R. and his guest, romping on the deathbed
and I’m seasick on the heaving edge, looking out
the west window—the reaper in the surf.

Yeats, J.R.’s comrade is fog-white with age
and madness and running naked through the poppies
singing for the tatters in his coat and brandishing
Una’s best cleaver at the star-eyed tourists.

© 2016 Kaweah

Hotel Jericho

Lowcountry, maybe twenty
upstream miles from the Battery
and a few feet above the sea;
the gators and the blackwater
patiently flow, and you can just about
hear the ghost-song of the ivory bill
echo off the cypress knees.

On the south bank, the land
swells forty or so feet
to lanky yellow pine stands
and narrow Old Jacksonboro Road,
holding to the rim till a finger
of the Caw Caw points to where
the road meets the Savannah Highway
and the tracks at Adams Run.

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Hotel Jericho

Old Jacksonboro Road crosses the Savannah Highway within a half hour of Charleston. The junction has a name: Jericho. Today it is considered part of the town of Adams Run (as though you know where that is).

The Notre Maison Boys Home

The Notre Maison Boys Home
Source: Rebecca Reconnu Biggs Grainger

 

As far as I know, Jericho was once the site of a hotel, a store with gas pumps named Caison’s Groceries, and a school annex for Coloreds. The store had a post office inside. Mom and Dad bought the old hotel in 1970, when we returned to South Carolina. I was just 5. We didn’t stay there long. Sometime after we left South Carolina again in 1972, it all burned down in a couple of fires (I have an alibi: I was out of state).

The hotel had three stories, if one counts the spacious attic with dormer windows and and old four-legged bathtub. It had exterior wooden stairways which functioned as fire escapes. It had ten bedrooms and four bathrooms. When we moved in, one of the bedrooms had a sagging floor. The bathrooms were equipped with showers, but none of them functioned. We all had to bathe in my sister Duska’s bedroom (the attic).

About six years before, the house had been converted to a boys’ home by David A Reconnu and his wife Nima. They operated the boys’ home for about four years.

NotreMaisonBoysHome1

Source: Thomas C. Hucks

The adjacent store (peeking through on the right edge of the above photo) came equipped with a soda vending machine that would allow a mischievous boy to yank a bottle out without paying. The trick to it was not to brag about snagging a free soda to one’s mom.

When Mom and Dad first found out about the hotel in Spring 1970, they saw it as a place that might serve well as a home for seven and a dog, a chiropractic office, and a Bahá’í center. I must confess that if I were driving down the Savannah Highway and I saw a FOR SALE sign posted in front of that old hotel, I would have been sorely tempted to stop for a look-see.

It seems they bought the house sight-unseen. When they actually laid eyes upon it, it was pretty badly trashed, featuring a trash pile in the front.

Among my favorite memories of Jericho was the the trash pile in the back, all blackened from the last fire and wet from the last rain. I can still smell the aroma of molten plastics, rotting food, and rusted scrap metal. I also remember when a crab, recently taken from the ocean, got a hold of a cat’s tail. I’m not sure how that happened, but now I suspect it probably got some help from a teenage boy.

Across the highway, there was a hotel of a different kind that was even more noteworthy: a maze of tunnels that some neighbor kids had dug out. My memory of that system of tunnels has endured in my mind as one of the great achievements of kidkind.

It turned out the Hotel Jericho had too many maintenance and repair issues, and it wasn’t easy to unload. Mom and Dad weren’t able to sell it for a year or two after we left Jericho.

Jericho School Annex for Coloreds
Jericho School Annex for Coloreds.

 

Epilogue

It turned out that the property was in worse shape than we’d thought. All the while we lived there, and for years before and after, going back to before the boys’ home, there had been a fertilizer plant operating behind the house, contaminating the soil and the groundwater. The area, including the site of the house, was later declared a superfund site. One of the companies that did the damage, Kerr-McGee, was infamously featured in the Karen Silkwood story. The sign of the company that ran the plant later still stands by the highway. Apparently, the fertilizer plant had been exporting fertilizer laced with quite a variety of toxic chemicals.

Links

Rochester Post-Bulletin: Companies indicted after lead, cadmium found in fertilizer

NY Times: 7 FACE U.S. CHARGES IN A WASTE SCHEME

The Charleston Post & Courier: Pact would clean up toxic Stoller Site

© 2006, 2013, 2015 Dan J. Jensen

Evolution Embraced in Dixie

Cultural evolution will have to suffice for the present.

The southern Atlantic seaboard is a remarkable sight to behold this morning. Barack Obama has demonstrated his broad appeal from the outskirts of DC, through the Carolinas and Georgia, all the way to Key West.

South Carolina flag

This is certainly a sign of a broad nationwide appeal, largely due to widespread dissatisfaction with Dubya and the Republican Party, but I think it’s just as much a sign of cultural progress specific to the Southeastern region. Obama didn’t do quite so well in Alabama, the lower Mississippi Valley, Appalachia, the southern Plains States, Utah, or the Northern Rockies.

Let’s hear it for East-Dixie!

I wouldn’t be betting on a counter reconstruction this time around.

Ty Cobb: All-American

Baseball “historian” Daniel Okrent righteously denounced American icon and baseball great Ty Cobb in Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries:

“Cobb is the great black mark on the history of baseball … he was a man of vile temperament and vile habit … I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball.”
—Third Inning, “The Black Mark”

Some people just have no sense of historical context; even some people who call themselves “historians”.

Coming home

I wonder whether Daniel Okrent realizes that there were a few other racists in America in Cobb’s time. Does he realize there might have been a few in Cobb’s home state of Georgia during the Post-Reconstruction Era? I wonder whether Okrent has seen the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. It might remind him just how racist a place America very recently was.

I wonder whether Okrent is aware that Major League Baseball was itself an all-white organization long before and long after Cobb.

I wonder whether Okrent has ever heard of the Black Sox scandal, and how it nearly ruined baseball. As far as I know, Cobb never threw a baseball game. It doesn’t really seem to have been his style, really. He was too competitive.

Cobb was a vile racist. Cobb was a violent bully. Cobb was a ruthless competitor. Cobb was a shameless self-promoter. Cobb was a Coca-cola investor.

Can one imagine a more All-American resume?

Cobb’s mother shot his father.

Good. Now we have guns in the story. Can one imagine a more All-American upbringing?

Yes, it’s true that Ty Cobb assaulted a handicapped heckler. How very politically incorrect of him! How insensitive to the underprivileged! I suppose he would also hit a girl or even a bespectacled girl! This was no “Christian gentleman”.

But it is also said that Ty Cobb paid Shoeless Joe Jackson a visit in Jackson’s hometown of Greenville, SC after Jackson had been expelled from Baseball. Imagine that: compassion? Could Cobb have been human after all?

Ty Cobb was a remarkable man. He wasn’t anybody’s hero, but he was an American phenomenon, and a phenomenon worthy of awe.

Further Reading

Tom Stanton: Cobb was nicer than most people think.

Curt Flood: American Hero

He could have contented himself with stardom, but he had to go out and try to break the last great American monopoly, Major League Baseball.

“I am pleased that God made my skin black — but I wish He had made it thicker.” —Curt Flood

As a kid I was, for some mysterious reason, a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. When I gave my heart to Baseball in the mid-1970s, I lived thousands of miles from Saint Louis and the Redbirds were mediocre, but it may be that I absorbed some subconscious reverence for the team from overhearing the San Francisco Giants games and sports talk shows playing on Dad’s radio.

Baseball's Best Centerfielder

“Baseball’s Best Centerfielder”

I was raised with the certain knowledge that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player ever, and that the Giants were miserably hopeless. That was just Dad’s way of being a baseball addict. It seems like baseball has always been a bad trip for him, but that rarely stopped him from listening in on a game.

It seemed like he had nothing bad to say about the Cardinals. Maybe that’s why I became a Cards fan rather than a Giants fan. Maybe it was those glowing red and white home uniforms. Names like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock shone in the firmament of my childhood; though not quite so brightly as Mays.

Some seem to have believed that Curt Flood was a better defensive centerfielder than Mays. That’s saying a lot.

I don’t remember hearing much if anything about Flood. He was a masterful centerfielder and embattled player activist, who left Major League Baseball long before my dad and little brother converted me. Until recently, I had no idea what he went through. The old stories of American racial hatred never cease to shock me.

By 1957, my second year in the South, I thought I was beyond crying, but one day we were playing a double-header…And…after the end of the first game you take your uniform off and you throw it into a big pile and the clubhouse manager, he comes and he gets your uniform and he drys them and he cleans them and then you play the second game with the same uniform…I, like everybody else, I threw my uniform right into the big pile with everybody else’s and the clubhouse guy came by with one of these long sticks with a nail on it and he very carefully picked my uniform out from the white guys uniforms and my little sweatshirt and my little jock strap and everything. Sent my uniform to the colored cleaners which was probably 20 minutes away and there I sat while all the other guys were on the field. [The crowd has] really been giving me hell all day long, and now I’m sitting there stark naked waiting for my uniform to come back from the cleaners and the other guys were out on the field. So finally they get my uniform back and I walk out on the field . . . boy you’d think that I had just burned the American Flag.

Curt Flood, Ken Burns’ Baseball, Seventh Inning.

Story: Flood Is at Peace With His Lost Career

The Two Souths

We had moved to South Carolina or South Africa four times by the time I turned fifteen. During those four stints, we lived in seven different towns. The principal motive for all this motion was to participate in mass conversion of Blacks to the Bahá’í Faith.

Mass conversion wasn’t just something that we were drawn to because it meant bringing God’s Word to lots of receptive souls. It was, and remains, an essential component of the Bahá’í “entry by troups” prophecy. It is vitally important to the Bahá’í Faith that it expand. For this reason, Bahá’ís have been pushed continuously to relocate to new places so that they might spread the Faith.

It may be that few Bahá’í families were uprooted as completely as ours, and I’m certain that Dad’s wanderlust played a part, but I have no doubt that our displacement was a direct result of directives of the Bahá’í leadership. We were not just spreading the Good Word; we were fulfilling prophecy.

Courthouse in Albany, GA

I think, leaving some room for doubt, that we would have stayed put if we could have afforded it. Our problem was that whenever we would go to these spiritual locales, Mom and Dad could never make a decent living. Either there just wasn’t enough of a market, or segregationists would do what they could to discourage Mom and Dad from running an integrated business. In Walterboro, South Carolina, Mom and Dad caught heat for serving both whites and blacks. After Walterboro, they opened a practice in Easley, which enjoys the dubious distinction of being near to the town of Piedmont, made so infamous by the film “Birth of a Nation” as being the fictional cradle of the Klu Klux Klan. Their luck was no better there.

Though I don’t harbor any sympathies for the whole enterprise of saving souls, I respect the effort that Mom and Dad made to live by their principles. I’ve not known many Bahá’ís who were so willing to dedicate their lives to their Cause, and how many Bahá’ís had the courage to take on the twin demons of segregation and apartheid at the business level?

I say courage, but maybe there was some naiveté as well. Still, courage and foolishness are old bedfellows. What I think may have been unfortunate is the price that my oldest sibling paid for our misadventures. Sometimes kids pay a price for their parents’ ambitions, but it’s not as though Mom and Dad abandoned any of us. Speaking for myself, I was too young to notice. Even when I was a teenager in the South—or in South Africa, I was too displaced to care, even when I found myself between the racist overtures of whites and the fists of blacks.

Born free

Dad’s blind, so it shouldn’t surprise anybody that he never was much for playing catch or bicycling with the kids, but you’d be surprised what he was willing to try on occasion. Of course, if you’d like to wrestle, he’d always be happy to take you on. As for Mom, she worked, of course. She worked and worked. She’s still working.

When all was said and done, we didn’t see much of Mom and Dad during the day. For one, they worked hard, Dad being the chiropractor and Mom being the jane-of-all-trades office manager. Then there were times when they’d go out for a well-deserved cup of coffee or tea. There was also all the Baha’i work, and on an odd day they might be planning our next move or house hunting.

Many of my boyhood memories of dealings with authority figures often involved my sisters, who were 11 and 5 years older than me. In general, there wasn’t a lot to stop me from doing as I pleased.

I remember quite clearly going out for a walk when I was about age four, and getting a ride home in a police cruiser.

The Walterboro that I remember was just a crossing of a pair of dirt roads, with a church and a couple houses. There’s more to the town than that, but that’s all I can recall. Back behind our neighbor’s house, across a field, I remember an outdoor freezer that was stuffed with juice pops. It must have been behind a store, but that didn’t matter. I only remember the freezer and the pops. Long, slender bags full of sweet, frozen punch.

The dirt roads were full of ruts, and there was a big hole between the houses. I don’t know what it was for. Garbage, perhaps. I remember pieces of newsprint tumbling around it. At dusk, there was the truck that would drive through, dusting the neighborhood’s mosquitoes with DDT. What an unearthly memory.

There were pranks, makeshift go carts, a bb gun, a pig attack, plenty of spankings, and a bush fire. There was nothing quite so scary as when my big brother got pneumonia, and no thrill quite like getting a hold of one of his model cars or erector set creations.

Then there was the sexual exploration, the likes of which I wouldn’t experience again until adulthood. Just good clean interracial intercourse among consenting children. Just doing our bit for racial unity, I guess.

We moved to Liberty after I graduated from kindergarten. I then matriculated to playing with fire in the crawlspace under our house, getting beat up at school, and being cajoled by playmates into throwing pebbles at cars.

After school, I would often show myself into town to partake in some window shopping (I don’t think I ever stole until I was seven). One time while dashing off to the five and dime, I got hit by a car. I was knocked out cold, rolling, I was told, down the street. My collar bone was broken. The lady that clobbered me bribed me good. I’d never seen so many cool toys in my life, but man did it hurt. I didn’t dare cross a street for years, unless no cars could be seen on it.

King of the World

The Bahá’í Faith drove many of the big decisions in our family, and I’m certain that much of Mom and Dad’s time was dedicated to the Faith, yet I can’t remember much, if anything, about the Bahá’í Faith from our time in Walterboro. Maybe I was too young to be involved in all that.

I do remember that one of the neighbor kids had been named Jesse Owens.

Perhaps the most prominent event from our time in Walterboro, as far as my five-year-old mind could gather, was the day when everybody seemed to be talking about Joe Frazier, a local boy from Beaufort, and Cassius Clay (who had taken the name “Muhammad Ali” years before). As far as I can recall, there was a fight between the two names, and the name “Cassius Clay” had won the fight, but I later discovered that I had got it wrong.

Cassius Clay, 1964
New York Journal-American Staff Photo (De Lucia)
Source: HRHRC, University of Texas

I used to shrug at that memory, thinking of it as a historically meaningless sporting event, bemused by the fact that I had remembered the loser as the winner, but over the years I have come to realize that Ali may have been among the most influential men of the time. What could we Bahá’ís, with all of our enlightened racial profiling and spiritual bureaucracy, do for Black America that this man could not do with his skill, intelligence, adaptability, toughness, political courage, and poetic hubris? Here was a new breed of exemplar for the ever-so-humble American Negro: “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

By the way, you may be wondering where Ali got his quick step and gift of gab. You guessed it: he’s Irish.