Walter Cronkite

Water Hosing 1963
Birmingham Protest 1963

We sat at the kitchen table having supper. Walter Cronkite was on in the living room, and my parents watched the TV through our kitchen wall cutout. “More trouble,” Dad said.

I glanced up from my book, The Shy Stegosaurus. The news reel showed colored men, women and children marching in a street down south. Policemen with sticks were hitting them. Next, firemen spraying them with water hoses. They were bigger kids than me, and hard sprays hit them right in the ribs. It knocked them onto the streets and pushed them along. Hats and eyeglasses flew off as they twisted away from the spray. A group of them were pressed against a brick building, trapped and crouching. Why were firemen still hosing them when they couldn’t move? They need to stay where they belong, a bystander told a newsman. Behind them, growling wolf-dogs strained against their leashes.

Dad watched silently, mixing his peas with bits of mashed potato. I put a forkful of wax beans into my mouth and went back to my book: George, the only stegosaurus left in the world, longed for a friend. “Frank, put on Huntley and Brinkley,” Mom said.

 “It’s on every channel, Nora.”

 Mom rose from the table and walked to the TV, turning it to a different station. The Reverend King that everyone was talking about was shaking his head and pointing somewhere, and when Mom started to change the channel again, Dad told her to leave it. “He’s educated. He knows how to talk. I want to hear it.”

King talked slow, and talked about God given rights and ending discrimination.

“What’s discrimination?” I asked.  Allan, my older brother, leaned over and whispered, “It’s when Dad gets frozen peas while we’re stuck with canned yellow beans.”

 “Say it out loud, son,” Dad raised his voice. “Or don’t say it.” It seemed that Dad didn’t like Allan, now that he was 12.

 Dad told Mom to turn up the TV so he could hear what King was saying. He was talking about the “march in peace.”  Dad cut a piece of stewed chicken with his fork edge as Mom gave Allan and me the slit eye. “You’ll get no TV tonight unless eat your vegetables.” Allan said he didn’t care, so I ate up his wax beans when Mom wasn’t looking so I could watch The Flinstones.

Dad lifted his knife and cut the last meat from the bone, pausing when King’s voice went high like a preacher’s.

“It’s too bad,” Dad said. “The more they protest, the more they’re gonna get hurt.”

That night, lying on my bed in the dark, I stared out my second-floor window at our quiet street. Rows of Elms stood in formation on either side, just like policemen holding sticks. Their branches curved over our sidewalks, reaching to the other side and creating a soft green canopy above our street. We jumped hopscotch in that street underneath them; where we lived, it was safe to come out and play. In the dark, squares of yellow light were portholes into the neighbors’ houses. Through a half-lowered bathroom window across our driveway, I saw the bare shoulders and chest of the old man next door as he brushed his teeth. He bent toward the sink and slipped out of view, then rose again, looking into his mirror, raising a wet cloth and scrubbing his face and chest clean. He was a mean Norwegian, and when I was little I used to be afraid of him because he’d yell if our ball went on his lawn. In the pale light, his flesh looked saggy, and his oldness melted my fears. I turned onto my side and closed my eyes, and saw Walter Cronkite. In our kitchen, I heard the faint sound of Dad talking with Mom at the sink, where the spray hose pushed our dinner scraps down the garbage disposal to be ground up. Our world was clean, yes, but our dirt, our scraps, our things we didn’t want to see lived somewhere. They didn’t disappear from our lives, even if we couldn’t see them. They lurked in our brains and sometimes came up in our thoughts and feelings. It’s why we feared God. I rolled onto my back, blocking out not just light, but sound. And sifted through the images I’d seen that day, wondering where they fit in my world. The firemen were hosing them. Even the children. Why were they trying to wash them away?

I imagined a blast of hard hose water splitting my ribs. I opened my eyes.

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