(Note: this blog post will change as memories come back to me and i seek to fill the spaces. You may want to check back after a few days.)
Today’s American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Daily Media Digest (July 8, 2020) is teasing us in a fascinating way. Scroll down, past the News and Articles and past Opinions and Blogs and there is a section called Odds and Ends. What’s this? Is my friend Diplopundit now editing the Daily Media Digest? She’s known for playing tricks like this from her hideaway at that consulate in Australia.
So what’s the trick? There is a very subtle juxtaposition of almost poetic dimensions there at the bottom of the page. The first submission, from the 25-Year Apprentice website, is an article/interview by/with T. Pickering, the Grand Old Man of the Department of State who has weathered storms and blasts, and yes, scandals, and lived to tell about it. The second submission, by T. Spears (note the parallelity! Is that a word? Yes!) is a missive and a blog post that should have been in the upper Blogs and Opinions section, a letter from a potential careerist drummed out of the service way too early. Wrong sex, wrong race, wrong state of mind to serve in this hallowed and highly sought after apprenticeship. You see where I’m going, so I really don’t even need to go into too much detail. It’s just another tautology. Like Black Lives Matter. (I know, but I couldn’t resist!)
OK, I’ll not spoil it for you. But there is obviously a higher intelligence and a creative design at work at AFSA Daily Media Digest. I follow it religiously.
Different plate. My series of blog posts on my career transition is crying out for a prologue, in the classic Greek drama Euripidean sense, and perhaps a witty piece of verse that serves as a scene setter, a note from the playwright. That would be me!
The prologue might include an account of the fourteen years of my life before I got shipped off for the integration experiment. Life in my village. Life in the tribe, among my kinsmen, a fitting prelude to the Section #10 Epilogue and beyond. We will see. Apparently time is on my side.
“Thou knowest my years entire, my life,
(My long and crowded life of active work—not adoration merely;)
Thou knowest the prayers and vigils of my youth;
Thou knowest my manhood’s solemn and visionary meditations;
Thou knowest how, before I commenced, I devoted all to come to Thee;
Thou knowest I have in age ratified all those vows, and strictly kept them;
Thou knowest I have not once lost nor faith nor ecstasy in Thee;
(In shackles, prison’d, in disgrace, repining not,
Accepting all from Thee—as duly come from Thee.)”
— Walt Whitman, Prayer of Columbus
I’ll begin with this: I cannot remember a time in my life when I couldn’t read and write. There must’ve been a time, but I certainly do not remember it. I remember reading bible verses in Sunday school and writing letters to my aunts and cousins, all before first grade. Then I remember helping Mrs. Cooke, my first grade teacher at Bluford, with other students with their first reading lessons. See Dick run with Spot and all that.
I should also mention that everything described here took place in Greensboro, NC, mainly in the Dudley Heights community. On Sundays we’d take road trips to see my father’s family folks in the Jackson community of Brown Summit, NC, just a few miles up US 29, or to see my mom’s folks in Draper, NC, a few more miles up US 29. Our whole lives existed within that one hour radius.
I remember weekly trips with my Dad, my sister, Sheila, and I to Carnegie Library to check out books. I developed an early love for the library and for librarians. Then Daddy bought me the 24-in-1 electronics kit (Norelco) where you could build projects on a peg board. That was third grade. (Just checked and that kit is still available on Ebay in the original box. Amazing!) I fell in love with building electronics stuff, radios, musical keyboards, light and moisture detectors, etc., which was probably the point! Also in the third grade I began playing viola and did that right up through 8th grade jayvee football.
It was the 4th grade when I started reading whole books. I don’t mean kiddie books, but what would now be considered young adult fiction. There was the book about the puff snake, and the book about the time-traveling boy who came back for a baseball game. That year I also started with the classics: I, Juan de Pareja; A Wrinkle in Time; Shadow of a Bull; and my favorite, cover to cover, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In the fifth grade I discovered the black classics, no doubt assisted by my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Lillian Jeffries Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy and my father grew up together out in Brown Summit, just 16 miles away. I always suspected something had gone on between them back in the day. She brought me dog-eared copies of the Richard Wright novels, Black Boy and Native Son. I didn’t understand everything i read, but plowed through it nonetheless. Then she kept us for the 6th grade, she said she loved us so much, and graduated me to Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and all the James Baldwin paperbacks at the time, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Notes to a Native Son, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time (the mother of a gal pal who was also a teacher would later introduce me to Giovanni’s Room and Blues for Mr. Charlie. I read though both with a more mature relish). And poetry. Mrs. Kennedy taught us poetry that we would memorize, and monologues from plays and famous speeches and writings like the Declaration of Independence. And there was viola twice a week and private lessons with Mr. Scott and practicing at home.
Meanwhile, on the weekends, I would go with Daddy on electrical jobs. I’d be the one to crawl into attics and underground crawl spaces and between walls and pull the wires. Daddy would say “Don’t be scared now,” but truth be told, I was often terrified in some of those dark and damp spaces. Terrified. But I told myself I could do it and I wanted to help my dad and be a real electrician’s helper! Then after we were done, he’d take me fishing out in the country (most of the jobs were in rural areas in Guilford County) and that made it all worthwhile.
At some point we, that is, the boys in our block, Kenny, Pete, Rodney, Larry and me discovered the wonder of riding our bikes down to Buffalo Creek to catch tadpoles and guppies and the occasional salamander. Then we’d transfer the tadpoles to a big tub in the backyard and watch everyday as they turned into little frogs and escaped. One day we discovered that the stream at the end of our street was just a runoff tributary to the real Buffalo Creek. As we walked along the side of the stream, all of a sudden the grass got higher and the water got deeper and we got scareder and scareder and begin to backtrack to safety. When I told my father about it, he drove me out to a bridge out Willow Road that crossed the real Buffalo Creek and showed me how water moccasins skimmed the surface and copperheads hung out on the shore. Never again would we “discover” Buffalo Creek tributaries!
It was also the 6th grade when I joined the Boy Scouts. It was Camp Wenasa every summer and sometimes twice a summer. (Note: Camp Wenasa had just integrated and black troops were allowed to participate. Occasionally, my troop alone, Troop #442 sponsored by Grace Lutheran Church, would go to Camp Carlson, an old abandoned camp where black troops could go on weekend camping trips before integration. End note.) I would lug books with me for reading between camping and hiking and campsite projects and merit badge meetings. Every merit badge dealing with nature and conservation, and every one related to electronics, radio and computers was on my sash, along with a few of the required ones. And Camp Wenasa had the best blueberry pancakes for breakfast in the dining hall.
I think this was the same summer that I got three yards to cut during the summer. Mr. Foster on Lincoln Street and Mr. Speight on Benbow Road had their own lawnmowers and I just had to show up and push. And there were always nice snacks. For Mrs. Whitehead on Lincoln Street I had to bring the lawnmower from home, but it was just a block away. And paid a bit better. And no snacks! It could have been an every summer gig had I stuck with it, but in the 7th grade I chose to go out and got a summer job with an outfit called the Neighborhood Youth Corp (or something like that) where I started out with library work at Gillespie School and finished the summer doing windows and janitorial work at UNC-G. This would have been around 1968, and the UNC-G counterculture was at its height – bookshops, used record stores, funky restaurants. I remember buying my first John Coltrane album, Sunship, and I discovered in a bookshop on Tate Street the Franz Fanon’s trio, The Wretched of the Earth, Black Skin White Masks, and A Dying Colonialism. Heady reading for a rising 8th grader.
I was headed to Eagle when time ran out. I quit Scouting and the viola in exchange for 8th grade football. Not sure why but at the time it was one or the other. I “went out” for Lincoln’s jayvee team and survived summer training. Coach Kanoy made me jayvee captain and I played offense and defense and every special team. We only had five games but we went undefeated and unscored upon. I knew I had a future in the NFL! We’ll come back to that in a subsequent post.
We learned all our sex education from the older girls and guys at weekly Jr. Usher Board meetings. They really should not have left us without adult supervision in that church! I often wondered if they had the same fun in the junior choir. I somehow doubt it.
And always, beginning in the fourth grade, fleeting little crushes. Marian, and Pearlita, and Linda, and Karen, and then in junior high, Denise, and Janice, and Sylvia. Innocent, fun, special.
The Carnegie Library moved from Bennett College to the new Southeast branch after integration. Hanging out with the big boys, Reggie, Skip, Rodney and Bobby, we biked downtown to get library cards when integration came. I didn’t tell my parents until we got back. I got in a bit of trouble for that. The librarians all transferred from the Carnegie Library to the Southeast branch of Greensboro Public Library so we already knew them and they knew us. We’d go every afternoon for homework and flirting with girls who went to different schools, evenings during football season.
Kenny and I took over the newspaper route in the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year. We had about 100 customers across Dudley Heights. Kenny did Pichard and Dunbar Streets and I covered Lincoln and Hook Streets. The 4 or 5 dollars a week we cleared after paying the weekly paper bill kept us in comic books, a summer that began with innocently enough with Superman and Batman and the Fantastic Four and ended with Daredevil, Spiderman, and, wait for it, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandoes (the Vietnam influence). And the occasional movie at the National Theatre (where blacks still had to sit in the balcony), and french fries from a downtown Greensboro bar where we should not have been going.
And the reading never stopped. Not that I understood everything I read, but a lot of it was beginning to make sense. I especially loved reading the steamy stuff in the coming of age books, Manchild in the Promised Land, Down These Mean Streets, and The Learning Tree. We passed that stuff around like it was pornography. For us it was pornography.
It was the summer between 8th and 9th grade when I met the Baha’i people and the Black Muslims, folks going door-to-door proselytizing. It was the same summer that I got my first summer reading list for Woodberry Forest and chose to read The Greening of America, Future Shock, Silent Spring, and Soul on Ice. Soul on Ice was, frankly, a tough read for a 14 year old! Thus armed, I packed my belongings in a trunk and made the trip to Woodberry Forest.
A “catching up” email on a similar subject:
It’s been a busy summer, even though the lockdown has us teleworking 99% at the memory factory (but I’ll get to that later).
50 years ago this summer I was girding up for what would become the signature experience of my life, the integration of Woodberry Forest School. Here’s the interesting story in a nutshell. Ex-Confederate Captain Robert Walker acquired a mansion and a large plot of land in central Virginia from President James Madison’s ne-er do well baby brother, Willey, designed and architected by Madison’s partner in crime, Thomas Jefferson (though we now forgive them all). Walker started a school to educate his sons, pulling his oldest son out of UVA law school and installing him as headmaster, a post he held until his death 50 years later. (p.s. James Madison was a leading proponent of Negro repatriation, and we have Liberia (Americans), Sierra Leone (British) and Nigeria (Brazilians) to show for that brain fart.)
In the 60’s, the great white fathers of Woodberry decided that their boys needed a more “multi-cultured” exposure because the world, she was a-changing. They called up an alum who ran a foundation in North Carolina to dispose of the fortune of another alum who had been huge in North Carolina textiles and said, “We need to integrate. Find us some worthy colored students.” But not yet. Wait until after the capital fund-raising project in 1968 so as not to scare off big donors. In 1969 the school also admitted their first Asian student, their first Jewish student, and their first known Native-American.
Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, Houston, and Washington, DC would provide that black human fodder. And off we marched.
This year we lost one of the original crew to ALS. That event has served to reconnect the remaining few. My re-entry to the Woodberry orbit came in 2013, when, you guessed it, one of my classmates made the connection between me and that guy involved in that Benghazi mess. Good guy, did a stint in the Marine Corps and returned home to run the family pipe business, found me and called me up. “Ray, are you that guy? What can we do to help?” Small world.
Impossible to make this all up, I am turning my hand to fiction-writing after penning a two-act play I buried and over a thousand pages of poetry my grand nephew has been instructed to publish posthumously.
And the memory factory. While on extended admin leave, I started taking classes in the Library and Information Science program at Catholic U. After finishing it i worked a series of librarian and archivist jobs, settling on archiving as my calling. While serving as town archivist in the tony Maryland suburb of Garrett Park, I got a call from Howard University’s famed Moorland Spingarn Research Center, where I have been for the past two years. Y’all would not believe the stuff they have. But I am fairly certain that after the vandals take down all the statues, they’ll be coming after the libraries, archives and museums next. America’s Cultural Revolution. So, as we speak, I’m planning my next caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis.
Afterthoughts become Prologue and beginnings
Part 1 – Foreign Service Exam and Oral Assessment
Part 2 – A-100 and reassignment training
Part 3 – Embassy Bissau – the first year
Part 4 – Embassy Bissau – the second year
Part 5 – The London Embassy
Part 6 – The Ops Center
Part 7 – Embassy Luanda, Angola
Part 8 – Embassy Accra, Ghana
Part 9 – Domestic Assignment – AF/EX
Part 10 – Epilogue: the final eight years
Part 11 – Bonus: Reflections on War and Peace in Iraq