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Mon Apr 29, 2019, 09:30 AM

A Long, Strange Walk [View all]


“We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return; prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only, as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk.”
– Henry David Thoreau; Walking


There was snow in the air and on the ground this morning. As I prepared for my daily walk, I thought of a line from one of Rubin Carter's letters 45 years ago, when he stated, “Everything under the sun is exactly as it should be, or it wouldn't be.” Had he anticipated this weather?

Since my dogs were intent upon sleeping late inside our warm house, I decided that I would drive to an area near where I grew up, and walk along the river on a path I had enjoyed as a youth. As an old man, I find myself thinking, “This isn't the country I grew up in” frequently. I thought of a quote from Sitting Bull as I drove: “If a man loses anything and goes back and carefully looks for it, he will find it.”

I parked near the house that my childhood “best friend” grew up, and walked through a field where we used to box and play football and baseball. When I got to the river, I could look across to see my parents' house, now empty. When my father started building the house, several neighbors put up “For Sale” signs, as the were upset that an Irish-Catholic family was moving in.

Nearby was the spot where my friend and I, around the ages of 4 and 5, would sneak to in order to watch our older brothers; they had formed a “club” that they called the Swamp Kings. In more recent years, I found some scattered Indian artifacts on the site.

From where I stood, I could see the road that my siblings and I used to walk upon. One day, when I was ten, a guy driving a station wagon swerved across the double lines, towards my oldest brother, then 17. He stopped to confront my brother about his hair, as he found it highly offensive. Itching for a fight, this large hostile man grabbed my brother by the shirt collar, and asked, “What are you going to do about it?” My brother, who was about 125 pounds, likely looked too small to do much. There was a pause, and then my brother said, “This,” as he staggered the fellow with a left hook. A vicious fight took place, and my brother – a top amateur boxer at the time – beat the fellow unconscious. Then he tossed the limp body into the ditch. “Guess his kids won't be afraid of him any more,” my other brother said as we walked away.

About a quarter of a mile further, and I came to a spot where, along with a few flint chips, some long-broken items from the contact/colonial era. During the Revolutionary War, Colonel Jacob Klock had written to Governor Clinton about the camp of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant in this area. Brant had an estimated total of 1,700 men there that summer.As Klock noted, this included a number of runaway slaves.

Growing up, I learned that the black people who had joined Brant's ranks had camped on the bank where I was now standing. Looking across the river, I could see my sister and brother-in-law's house. When my father and I started building it, the same neighbors again put up “For Sale” signs, upset that a black man and his family were moving in.

No houses sold, and within a few years, those people had come to like and respect their black neighbors. When, two decades ago, a racist hate group attacked my nephew because they resented media coverage of a black high school scholar-athlete, leaving him unconscious and seriously injured in a dark field, those neighbors were among the most vocal opponents of the racist gang.

A half-mile further, and I began to come across a few flint chips and shattered red sandstone fragments. Soon, I came across the hearth, with several of the stones that had been heated in a fire long ago. Among them was the fire-pocked base of a projectile point known as a Brewerton, dating approximately 2,000 bc. It was not an artifact most collectors would treasure, by any means, much less of museum quality. But I was happy to encounter it. I was happy for the rest of my walk, and then for the drive home.

Shortly after arriving home, I learned of the hate crime at the synagogue. I felt sick. A bit later came a report about some white nationalists disrupting a presentation at a bookstore. I felt anger. But then I got an e-mail from Stosh Cotler, the CEO of Bend the Arc.

“We will not accept an America where massacres in synagogues become normal,” the first sentence of this powerful message read. It gave me confidence. Here is a link to the web site:

https://www.bendthearc.us/

I laid down to take a rest, as old men often do. As I closed my eyes, I remembered a couple of people I remember from where I lived, before my father completed our house. We lived in an apartment in a neighborhood known as the “Project.” Our neighbors included a king old man named Erik Sonnefeld. He had lost all of his family in the Nazi death camps. He gave my siblings and I gifts, ranging from a coin collection to a stuffed animal.

One morning, I overheard a neighbor telling my mother, “Erik was really climbing the walls last night.” In my small child's mind, I tried to picture that literally. I recently asked another neighborhood resident if she knew what ever became of him? She did not know either, but noted that he was a talented artist, who gave her a painting that she still has.

And I thought of one of my brothers' friends, who visted us often. His being black did not seem strange to me. But finding out, years later, how a school teacher beat him in her classroom seemed unacceptable. She beat him until he was bloody once, yet remained employed as a 3rd grade teacher.
His brother and him, along with a friend, were murdered at a local bar in the late 1970s. The guy with the shotgun was frustrated that he lost a card game. He had been friends with the three for years. I often saw them at his house when I was out on walks.

Last year, my friend's son contacted me. I hadn't seen him since he was a little boy, 40 years ago. His mother moved far away then. I look forward to getting to know him. I have some good stories to tell him about his father.

I think of my reaction, 45 years ago, to Rubin's message. There was so much wrong in America then, including a criminal in the White House. I was young and confident – perhaps overconfident – that my generation was going to right the wrongs in our country. It's been a long, strange walk since then. And we still have a long ways to go.

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