The Field finally brought us togetherPublished 6:17pm Saturday, October 27, 2012
By Dennis Edwards
It was little more than a vacant lot in the middle of St. James Avenue. When a basketball court went up suddenly, it became our version of Madison Square Garden. After school and on weekends we made a beeline there to do our best imitations of Walt Frasier, Willis Reed and Jim Barnett with his mid-air-kick jump shot. We wore that old piece of ground out. But more than anything else we did some serious growing up there.
The Field was more than a playground. It was a shared friend. White kids played there. Black kids played there. But seldom together. We played every day where our worlds ended and another world began.
On the south side of the Field lived several families I’d known all my life. On the North were six families whose names I never knew. It was the mid ‘60s. Black and white youngsters like us didn’t quite know what to do with each other. So for the most part we went our separate ways.
But life had the most amazing way of happening while we were on the Field.
One day an explosion rocked the neighborhood. I looked up to see the roof of a house at 209 Wellons St. lifting and separating from its frame. Violent flames licked from beneath the roofline. All of us knew Rossie and Jean lived there with Rossie Jr.
Apparently, while making dinner Jean turned the gas stove on. Before she could light it the phone rang. She apparently lost track of time and the smell of propane. On her return, Jean struck the match, and the house literally blew up.
What a beautiful woman Jean had been. But we didn’t recognize her dying in her husband’s arms. Rossi, a gentle hard working man, rocked as he held on. Was she Jean or was she someone who’d stopped by at the wrong time? It was Jean, and the worst news was yet to register. Everybody thought little Rossie wasn’t home. But it turns out he was upstairs the whole time. At the age of 4, he died of smoke inhalation in his bedroom.
Rossie cried out in agony. But there was no sound. I never tried to forget the look on his face. Anyone forced to grieve like that should have a witness, someone who remembers what the Lord brought him through.
To this day I still ache when passing where the house once stood. The boy had a gentle spirit like his Dad. Since my father died when I was 4, it was a joy watching the two of them together. My spirit literally trembled with the realization that their moments were gone forever, too.
A day later we were back on The Field bouncing basketballs but not doing much shooting. The shell of that burned out house watched us from a distance. We stared back, talked about what we saw and how it happened. We tried to out-detail each other, talked about where we were and what we did. All we could do was retreat to our grassy refuge and talk it through.
On the other side of The Field, we were being watched. Folks were listening. Some white parents gathered in the nearest back yard. I realize now we were probably their only source of information. One woman openly cried as we talked.
The Field, the place where blacks and whites were together yet separate, was a source of intimacy that day. For that moment, they were our parents and we were their children. They wanted to hear what we had to say, and we needed someone to listen.
From that day on, whenever we crossed paths, the man whose family lived there always smiled at me. The moment we shared transcended something big, and I think we always felt good about that.
Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.