Long Ago August

It was August 1955. Or maybe it was ’54, my memory is not perfect. But I’m going to go with ’55. We spent that entire summer in a rented house on a lake in Louisiana, fishing, swimming, waterskiing, and at night betting matchsticks on poker. Didn’t have a TV, paid no attention to the news. My twin brother and I were 12 years old. Our best friend that summer was the son of a maintenance man who took care of a lot of the lake houses. He was our age and the first black friend we’d ever had growing up in the segregated South. We gave him the nickname Stowpid, derived from stupid, never for a moment thinking that we were belittling him, or—horror of horrors in retrospect—thinking it was no big deal because he was black. We didn’t consciously think that; it was simply what society had drilled into our brains. Millions of black kids excepted their status as lesser and laughed along with us when we put them down; they grew up thinking of themselves as lesser. It is impossible now, 68 years after that summer, to imagine what that must have done to their self-image.

There was a lady who lived in a big house on the opposite shore of the lake who had a diving board on her pier. She said we could come over and swim off her pier whenever we wanted. One day we took her up on the offer and brought our friend with us. She said he wasn’t welcome because he was black. That pissed us off and confused us. Other than that incident and the time the inboard motor in the boat we named Au Phooey exploded, it was the best summer of my life. It was the summer Emmett Till was beaten to death. He was a little more than a year older than me. I didn’t know about him until years later.

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