Long, Hot Summer

Long, hot summer

In summer 1967, poetry and music were my obsessions. I read Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle and listened endlessly to Sgt. Pepper. That spring I’d begun my drift away from straight A’s to B’s, for Boys. In June, when school let out, I was looking forward to reading, playing chess and slamming the tetherball round a pole every day with Rob Tarantino. We all had a crush on Rob Tarantino, with his Mediterranean gold hair and deep-tanned skin. His eyes weren’t green and weren’t brown, but somewhere in between—a fathomless topaz that was impossible for us to look into without feeling him touching us where we’d never been touched.

The season of summer itself, with so much bloom and change, became my main companion. I felt a slow, steady explosion of cells overtaking me. And I wasn’t the only one changing. So was our neighborhood. North Street Playground, our small cosmos of drama and neighborhood gossip, was abuzz with news: A colored family had moved in on the same block as the Koones. They were living in a house that had just been built, one so new that the lawn grass was still fragile and weed-free. Even though they lived there, we never saw them. It seemed as if they deliberately kept a low profile. The kids were toddlers, and we could hear them as we passed by, playing in a fenced-in back yard none of us could see. If their mother shopped, it wasn’t in our local grocery store.

The hottest weather came in late July. Bad heat. Mid-90s heat. It rose off street surfaces into the air we breathed, and it agitated our thoughts. One by one, colored neighborhoods in cities across America broke out in riots, and Rockford was no exception. A traffic arrest spawned people to take to the streets. A white cop was killed; two colored men were killed. North Street Playground closed and the whole city went under quarantine for four days. My brother Allan and I were stuck at home, helping Mom bundle stacks of old magazines and Dad clean his exterminating equipment. We sat in our small concrete yard with buckets of vinegar solution, listening to our transistor radios as we washed the equipment and wiped poison off the nozzles. A news report came on every hour with tales of arrests and destruction.

“What are they mad about?” I asked Dad.

“They don’t even know,” Dad said. “They’re just crazed. Like cockroaches.”

I wasn’t settled by his answer. People were dead and injured. There were burned-out stores, a burnt-down house, and streets filled with barricades and armed cops and the National Guard. Going outside, the mayor said, could be a threat to your life. I’d seen firsthand, working with Dad, how poor people lived in the inner city. There were no homeowners, only renters. A lot of the families he serviced didn’t have fathers in the house; mothers raised sons and daughters alone.

When the curfew lifted, I went to the library and took out a book that had been a movie. Black Like Me. A journalist had darkened his skin and traveled through the deep South in 1960. Was that how colored people in the South had been treated? Belittled. Taunted. Insulted. Barred from using restrooms when there wasn’t one for ‘Coloreds.’ Reading late into the evening, I couldn’t stand the things the people had said and done to them. At home, I pulled a 1964 Life Magazine out of the bundles we’d made for Mom. It covered Dr. King’s march to the Washington Monument. I looked at the pictures and read the captions. ‘The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty.

Dad’s cousin Gregor was a policeman. Two weeks after the riots, he came by for a beer one evening. He told us he’d been out there trying to keep our streets safe, risking his life. Rioters had thrown bottles at him, spit on his partner. I sat quietly, listening to him confess that he hadn’t been that scared in 15 years on the force, especially after a colleague had been killed. Animals, he said. And what’s their point? Don’t they see they’re destroying their own communities? My dad agreed.

“This isn’t the South,” Dad said. “And Johnson’s been taking care of them. Why’re they so destructive?”

I pictured the many flats I’d been in with dad while we exterminated. Pest fogging brought out all the ugliness that colored people lived with if they were poor. Roaches ran from behind baseboards, frantic for a pocket of fresh air. Mice died under the sink. Rats fled basements and migrated into the yards. Maybe the people rioting weren’t ‘crazed. Like cockroaches’ but were tired of living with them. Maybe they wanted better houses and cleaner yards, like the new people who’d moved in down the street. Maybe they wanted jobs where they could be a boss instead of a laborer, or a nothing. Maybe they felt like they were slowly being poisoned. Maybe they were destroying their communities because they wanted out and couldn’t find an escape. And they just didn’t care anymore.

Dad, Mom, Cousin Gregor, they seemed sure of how the world was meant to be. But, like my summer, my world was filled with restless and rapid change, and a certainty that things were not the way they believed.

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