The television was on and I was playing with our fat, black poodle, Mickey. My father was in the living room and from my vantage point in the den, I could see him sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. Although I didn't look up or speak to him, I knew he was there. I was in my home and safe. I was with my dad and everything seemed right with the world. It was often like this at my house. My parents had me when they were forty years old, so my siblings were much older than me. In many ways it was like being an only child and I was accustomed to having my father all to myself. We were friends as much as father and son, and we spent a lot of time together and that made me feel good. My dad was a gentle man of great physical stature. A war hero, at least to me, he had served and was wounded in the battle for Luzon during World War II. He worked hard in a factory every day so that his children could feel the way that I felt, safe. We weren't wealthy folks but we weren't poor either. We always had food on the table and clean clothes to wear. I had a good life with a family who loved me, including a real life hero -- my dad.
The phone rang in the kitchen and I heard my mother, who was cleaning up after dinner, call for my dad. In that moment everything seemed to go silent except for my father's voice. I heard him ask if his Ma was alright and then he said he'd be right there. As he slammed down the phone he grunted some obscenity. My mother, who also sensed that something was wrong, asked what happened. "Some spook threw a rock through their window while they were sitting on the porch," he responded. I immediately knew that he was talking about my grandparents.
My grandparents lived on what was considered the black side of town. They had lived in their gray shingle sided home for over sixty-five years. Over those years, they had seen a cultural transition from a mostly white immigrant neighborhood to one that was now mostly inhabited by African Americans. However, it never seemed to be an issue that caused them any distress, as far as I knew. They loved their home and working in the yard, keeping manicured shrubs, large gardens and a grape arbor that always seemed to burst with enormous purple fruit. Despite being in his late eighties, my grandfather was a hard worker and kept active. They usually left their tiny kingdom only once every week. On Thursdays they would pull their 1957 primer colored Plymouth from the garage and cautiously inched their way to the Piggly Wiggly for groceries. But the one thing they enjoyed doing more than anything else in the whole world was listening the Chicago Cubs on WGN radio. They rarely missed a game and even if it was being broadcast on television, they still preferred to listen to it on the radio, especially in the evening. Grampa loved to sit in their enclosed front porch at night, with all of the lights out, listening to Jack Brickhouse and "watching the Negro's walk by." It seemed to be his avocation. That's just what he was doing when someone rode by on a bicycle and threw a rock through their window. Naturally grandpa and grandma were shaken. But the reaction that came from my father was not one that I expected. He was enraged. Two of my three much older brothers suddenly appeared and the three of them worked themselves into a frenzy. Even the dog was upset. I felt frightened and confused in all of the commotion. Then I heard someone say, "Let's get the nigger that did this," and off they went.
The year was 1967 and I had heard that word from my brothers and occasionally from my father, but never in such anger. Somehow, the difference in tone made that word scarier. Off they went -- to "get" one. Just what did that mean, I wondered. My mother was a worrier and I worried with her.
When we got my grandparents' house all of the lights were on. Grandpa had already placed a piece of wood over the small broken pane. I worried about where my father was and when he would arrive. I wondered if he was getting that nigger that did this terrible thing. Suddenly the headlights from our Ford station wagon shone in the driveway. Finally my dad was back. I stood just inside the front door with my mother. Ever since we had arrived at my grandparents' home, she had been fretting over my father's reaction to the incident. Meanwhile, my grandparents sat quietly next to each other on the sofa, watching the Chicago Cubs on their rarely used television. They seemed not affected by the mayhem which had besieged them. As my father entered the house I noticed the expression on his face. His eyes looked down toward the floor as though he was ashamed of himself. I wondered what had come of the "one" that had done this terrible thing. In a quiet tone he explained that they had discovered who the culprit was that tossed a stone through that small pane of glass. It turned out to be Stevie Rhode, a twelve year old from around the corner who had been caught snitchin' grapes earlier in the day. Stevie was white.
Today, in my home I have a wall where I display photographs and portraits of men and women from throughout history whose ideals have influenced me. On that wall there is a picture of a young soldier from World War II. That picture is of my father, who taught me lessons by his example. Sometimes through his strengths and sometimes through his shortcomings. He was my hero. But next to his picture hangs the portrait of another hero. A young man that also gave of himself so that we might live in a better nation: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.