The day after Labor Day in 1962, as a newly minted 12 year old, I headed off to a new school. With my clear plastic bag containing my baloney and mustard sandwich and a little bag of chips as well as a cookie, I headed to Forsyth Junior High. It was a fairly new school to served some of the feeder schools on the west side of Maple and some of the older schools from the east side of Maple.
In addition to a new school, junior high was an new format. Instead of one teacher in one room, you had a bunch of teachers and you went to their room. At first it was confusing arrangement and I had the great fear of not being able to find my next class in 3 minutes.
Those kids from the other side of Maple street were different. It didn’t take long before I realized they had a much different school experience than I did.
I watched them for a while then figured out they were just kids. Soon I was joking around with and learning the connections they had with each other and with me. Buster Hunter was a strong bully that if he liked you – you were his friend forever. Donnie Davis was one of the most gifted athlete I had ever known. Jo Jo Everett liked to hear me sing “King of the Road.” Mary Johnson was the funniest girl I had known up to that point. And, they were all a different color than I was.
I also experienced for the first time the fact of life I couldn’t have known about in East Ann Arbor.
It didn’t matter if I was not as smart as Donnie. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do more pull-ups than Jo Jo. So what Buster was far more popular than I was. None of this mattered. I had a golden ticket that none of them ever would possess: I was white.
Teachers liked me better. I got the benefit of the doubt on tests. I could walk into any classroom and a teacher would be relaxed and answer my question. It was a privilege none of my black friends had. Something about this struck me, I kept it to myself and contemplated it.
I knew my black friends had a life that I didn’t know about. They came across the street. Their home, their churches, their neighborhoods and families were different than mine. But they were still people who had moms and dads. They had grandparents who loved them. They went to grocery stores to buy food, ok, not my grocery store, but they must buy stuff somewhere. It was the beginning of my interest in people who were just trying to live life.
The summer between 7th and 8th grade I experienced another new sensation. I turned 13 on July 13th and all of a sudden I got noticed. A girl from around the block, one who was a year younger than I was, decided that I was the one. She went whole hog to let me know that she liked me.
Gail Thomas was cute and very ‘perky’. I had never experienced perky, so I was intrigued. Mostly it was a nice feeling to think that someone noticed and and liked me. We spent that summer doing the young adolescent ‘I like you dance’. I liked Gail, it was a fun time. Little did I know that the true love of my life was living about 45 miles to the south. She was doing her own dancing and it would take 8 years for us to catch each other.
The subject of like into love became something new to wonder about. In my family I knew there was love, first of all at my grandma and grandpa’s. I could feel it. I don’t recall much verbal affirmation, but I could feel what it was to be loved.
Van was grandma and grandpa’s kid. They raised him for a couple of years. He was theirs. I came along and was more Bill and Betty’s kid. But they never let that interfere with being warm and welcoming. Now that I think about it, I was always warm in their house. It was palpable. And they kind of played along with me, allowing me to be the goofy kid.
I also began to learn that love could be complicated. We all went to grandmas and grandpas and Van was the royal favored child and my Dad was the outsider – the interloper – the one who stole their little girl. Bonnie was the little girl, and everyone likes the little girl. I was the odd one and so I identified more with my Dad. How could love not be fully accepting and whole scale? Time to think some more.
My Dad was never what you would call verbal with his love either. (Not speaking for Bonnie, she had a different Dad than I did. And the whole Dad-Daughter thing comes into play.) But, he was the one who took me to my Little League games. He was more of a love is a verb instead of a verbal thing kind of guy.
Now, I completely agree with Yogi Berra. Little League ruined baseball. I could go outside and just yell, ‘anyone want to play baseball?’ and 15 kids would come running our of their houses. And during the course of the next 6-7 hours I could get 75 at bats, pitch 30 innings, field 50 fly balls, and run the bases until I couldn’t run anymore.
But put that damned uniform on me and make me sit and wait to bat 3 times in 2 hours, and I was lousy. Organized baseball ended my baseball playing career. But, Dad took me to every Little League game. I don’t ever recall Mom coming to one. She was too busy. I don’t ever recall my grandparents coming to one of my games. But Dad was there and on the way home he would always say, “You’ll get the hang of it next game.”
The day after Labor Day in 1963, I headed off to the 8th grade. I had the school routine mastered. I was also playing football. Since I rode a bike 5 miles everyday with 125 newspapers in gigantic baskets, I was pretty strong. I could load Jo Jo Everette and 2 other kids on one of those carts you practice football with and and push them the length of the field. Jo Jo would laugh and laugh as he cheered me on.
With all of the money from my paper routes I had the proverbial discretionary income to afford to look for records I wanted to buy. Music was at an strange point in 1962. You had to hunt for good stuff.
The music was not exactly changing into anything exciting. Music on the radio was still tame and mundane.
The Cascades had nice harmony on “Listen to the Rhythm of the Pouring Rain”
The Seekers were safely doing their folksy catchy tunes.
Every-so-often something cool would come along. Something different enough to catch my ear. I would make sure I found “Green Onions” by an odd sounding group called ‘Booker T and the MGs’. Of course the record company didn’t dare put a picture of the group on that 45. A plain brown wrapper.
In late 1963 music and the whole world was about to change. In those days, in Ann Arbor, junior high was 7; 8 and 9th grade. In the 10th grade I would be going to Pioneer High School. I never made it.
It was a historic event that happens once or twice in a life. One that you never forget. You can close your eyes and see the scene. You can hear the voices. You can feel what it was like to be there.
I was sitting in my English class on November 22, 1963. We had just sat down and were about to take a test. We had a young teacher, one who decided that she needed to be tough and rule her classroom. As she was passing out the test, the principle came on the PA and simpling said, “I am sorry to interrupt, but President Kennedy has just been shot.” We did not know that at home everyone in the country saw this:
It was only a few minutes later after we all sat their in stunned silence that the principal came back on and said, “President Kennedy is dead.”
When Buddy Holly died, it was different. We just were sad as music lovers. No more Buddy Holly songs. This time it was different. Your stomach sank and didn’t recover for days. There was a dulling hum in your head that gave you a bad headache. Everyone cried. The questions now were serious. Who did this? It had to be the Russians. How could this happen? What will happen now? Who in the hell was Lyndon Johnson? This isn’t 1863, it is 1963.
Questions that had no answer. Could one person do this? Are there more horrible things that will happen soon? Are we in an evil world?
Is the world a safe place? How will we ever laugh again? How will we ever listen to music and get some relief? Does this mean everything is going to be this awful?
A week or two later, while arguing with my Dad about Steve Allen and Jack Parr (Obviously Steve Allen was funnier than Jack Parr), since Dad had seniority , we were watching Jack Parr. At the very end of his show, he said, ‘I have to show you this clip of something happening in England. Kids have gone absolutely crazy about four musicians. I kid you not, this is a real scene at a music venue in London.’
Kids were screaming, chasing a car, throwing themselves on the road in front of the car. Four guys get out of the car and barely make it into a door.
Yup, the world had changed. Music was soon to be completely changed also. 1964 was going to be all change, all the time. What a wonderful, scary, fun time it was.