Sometimes events which seem to be of little import at the time can affect us afterwards in significant ways; long after the moments themselves fade from memory their effects may continue to circulate in our subconscious and shape our lives.
In 1965 I was a thirteen year-old in the junior school at Carson Long, a military boarding school for around 200 boys in Perry County Pennsylvania in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. We did not have television or video games so we found our fun outdoors; sometimes we hiked to the fossil pits, where a highway cut had exposed 400 million year-old seashells from the Silurian period which could be easily lifted out of the sandstone; or we might walk to the ice pond to go skating in winter. We had a rope swing from a giant tree on the slope of Dynamite Mountain and sometimes we climbed to the top just to gaze down on our school’s bell tower and the town of New Bloomfield. There was also a covered bridge on the other side of Dynamite and it was to there that I hiked one April afternoon with a small group of classmates. We climbed on the posts and beams of the structure and sat on the banks of the creek underneath to hear the tires of passing cars rattle the wood planks of the roadbed like a colossal xylophone over our heads, until we became bored and elected to hike back to school. A friend named Aron wanted to walk on a road rather than across the fields and I knew the way so he and I parted with the group and set off on a narrow country road. The day was warm and bright and the scenery was bucolic pastureland between rolling hills and we talked about all the silly and serious things that perk up from boys’ souls and come out of their mouths unfiltered at such times. We passed working farms with well-kept barns adorned with hex signs and sturdy stone farmhouses and the afternoon was brilliant until we walked past a run-down house which was perched on a slight rise close to the road. It looked as if it had been painted a long time ago in the buff and tan colors that the Pennsylvania Railroad used on their track-side buildings and there were broken boards in the facade and a scrapped cars and rusty farm machinery in the yard. We were fairly past this hovel when two boys half our ages came to the front door and began to yell at us, “Go away nigger! We don’t want no tar babies here!” These little boys were barefoot and clothed in filthy tee-shirts and their voices were high and nasally when they screeched “Ni-i-gger! Ni-i-i-gger!” like excited chipmunks.
This was confusing to me–a white boy from Long Island–since I had hardly noticed that Aron was a black boy from Miami. To a thirteen year-old the color of his skin didn’t seem any more significant than the color of other boys’ hair and eyes and the tones of their complexions, and I wanted to keep walking away. But Aron stopped and looked straight ahead for a short time before he turned around and went back to the house. He was a big kid, soft-spoken and articulate–I think his father was a doctor–and I was terrified for what might happen but I followed my friend onto the porch of the house anyway. My knees were shaking when a man came to the door and Aron calmly told him that he wanted to speak with those boys. This was refused, and the man said something like, “Go ahead and walk on the road, I ain’t going to stop you, you got a right to walk on that road and we got a right to say whatever we want in our own house, so you just keep on walking, boy.” Not much was said between us as we walked back to our dormitory. I don’t remember telling anyone about our roadside encounter and even though his dignity was intact, I believe that Aron was too embarrassed and humiliated by the event to speak of it again. I was sorry that he did not return to Carson Long the following year; he was a good kid.
I had completely forgotten that day until I was searching my memories while writing The Old Cadet, my spooky novel about a boy who is missing from a military school, so it wasn’t until that moment of reflection five decades later that I realized that those forgotten seconds on a country road were the exact genesis of lifetime of unshakable convictions about race, hate, and civility.