A message I didn’t deliverPublished 8:17pm Saturday, December 1, 2012
By Dennis Edwards
Things changed a little after Jeannie and Rossie Jr. died when their home exploded on the south side of a vacant lot in the middle of St. James Avenue back in the ‘60s.
There were fewer complaints about the noise we kids made while playing on “The Field,” which separated a group of white families to the North from a group of black families to the south. The glances and looks exchanged from north to south and back again were more cordial, more kind.
An exception involved times when kids from other neighborhoods showed up to play. They didn’t know the relationships. They didn’t know the rules. But when death intrudes violently on a neighborhood, rules about getting too loud and minor skirmishes don’t seem quite as important anymore.
We knew a little more about each other after the tragedy, and folks on both sides knew the differences between how their children played and how strangers from other streets behaved. Maybe trust had sprung up in a strange place, in the shadow of a burned-out house, during the dinner hour when every family was vulnerable. Maybe we all realized, “If not for the grace of god, there go I.”
Maybe that’s why the only conversation I ever had with a teenager who lived next to The Field took place after the fire. She was one of a policeman’s two lovely daughters, and she cautiously called me over by name one day to ask about my brother. He was five years older and practiced playing his trumpet in our backyard.
Frank Caballo, band director at Booker T. Washington High School, had him learn a haunting melody of some sort for a concert. It was one of those emotional tunes. The kind that floats, it seems, on the uncertainty of the moment. I liked it, because even after the fire it made me feel better.
But for years I’d turn down the radio when the Supremes hit “I Hear a Symphony” came on. Great song but it had the misfortune of coming out the day before the fire.
“I Hear A Symphony” had one meaning for me. The trumpet solo apparently struck a different chord for the girl with the winsome look. I don’t know how she figured out we were brothers. But she pretty much knew the details when she called me over to the boxer shrubs that separated her yard from The Field.
“Tell your brother I like the way he plays the trumpet” she said. So I quickly bicycled home to deliver that message and to add how dreamy her eyes looked when she asked about him.
Mama was in the kitchen as I burst through the back door. “What in heavens name are you so excited about?”
The explanation produced the oddest smile, a strange mixture of admiration and caution. It was as if she were thinking something like “Hmmm, smart girl”. Then Mama gave me one of those patiently firm looks. She said “Dennis, don’t tell your brother what she said.”
What sobering instructions from a mother to a son. The words were a warning, a plea and a command. They just hovered there kind of between her face and mine. And you know what? I didn’t tell him.
There was really no need to say more. In the ‘60s, innocence could get you killed. Especially if the boy were black and the girl white. I always thought it a shame, though, the way things turned out. She seemed to genuinely enjoy the trumpeter and his song. But I didn’t say a word. Not until about 30 years later, after Mama died and when it couldn’t possibly matter.
It’s amazing how so much happened, how so much didn’t happen and how so much almost happened while we were playing on The Field.
Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchorman, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.