I was six years old in the summer of 1956. It was a very good time in my life. Our family lived in a beautiful home within walking distance of my school. My best friend, Lynda, lived right across the street and from the time that we awoke each morning we rode our bicycles and played in the woods at the edges of our neighborhood. That summer my family traveled to Arkansas to visit my grandparents’ farm. It was a season of plenty in which all of my childhood dreams were beautiful. I had little idea that storms were brewing for me and that life was already difficult for others that I did not know. I reveled in the gloriousness of that time while ignoring the signs that something was not quite right.
Life with my grandparents was deliciously fun. We helped my grandfather milk his cow each morning and I vividly remember how velvety the warm milk looked as it filled the tin bucket with a foamy white mixture. I recall the feel of the cow’s utter and my amazement that my brother’s favorite drink didn’t actually come from the glass bottles that the milkman delivered to our doorstep each week. I can still smell the sweetness of the hay in the barn and hear the chickens raising a ruckus in their pen as the rooster strutted from hen to hen crowing for attention. How I loved being part of that scene and watching my grandpa’s strong hands do his work while he puffed on a pipe that hung from his lips and sent a lovely aroma into the air.
My grandmother took us on tours of her gardens and into the hills on their property wearing overalls, rubber boots, a long sleeved shirt and a huge wide brimmed hat. I thought it strange that she covered her skin in ninety degree weather but back then I did not yet know about skin cancer or the fact that her folk knowledge was so wise. She taught me and my brothers about the birds that we saw along our trek and instructed us on the kind of rocks that were strewn along our path. She demonstrated how to pick berries while checking for the presence snakes and showed us the proper way to drink the cooling waters from the creek. We learned about the land and how to protect it for future generations.
My brothers and I picked peaches alongside my grandparents, ignoring their warnings that we should protect ourselves with clothing that covered our arms and legs. We soon enough learned why our shorts and sandals were insufficient protection from the furry texture of the fruit that made our limbs itch as though we had been attacked by a thousand mosquitoes. At night we caught fireflies in jars with holes in the lids that Grandma had prepared. Our glass containers became nature’s flashlights until we freed the insects at the end of our play. Our grandmother created butterfly nets out of coat hangers and cloth. She taught us how to surprise the lovely winged creatures and catch them so that we might better observe them. Always she insisted that we let them fly free once we had watched them for a few minutes.
Grandpa took us into town to check his mail each day. We rode on the leather seats of his Plymouth which smelled of his tobacco and soap. He always wore a clean white shirt, polished black boots, suspenders and a big straw hat. He visited with his neighbors at the post office and bragged about us as grandfathers have been doing for generations. If we were especially good he took us to the grocery store and bought us each a cold soda that we selected from a big metal box filled with chunks of ice. I always noticed how much the townspeople respected him and I felt so proud and happy with him.
I had little idea back then how much the world was already changing. I overheard the discussions between my father and grandfather as they wondered what the governor of Arkansas was going to do about the order to integrate the schools in the coming fall. I didn’t totally understand what they were saying but their serious demeanors told me that it was something important. I didn’t know then that my family would soon embark on a nomadic adventure that would take us to California and back or that my father would be dead in less than a year. I had little warning that I would begin to see things happening in our country that somehow felt wrong even to my innocent and childish mind. On those hot summer days in Arkansas I saw only the bounty of the season. I felt as though I had landed in a kind of paradise.
All hell would break lose in the coming months when Governor Faubus would vow to never allow black children to integrate the Arkansas schools. My father would announce that we were moving to San Jose, California and I would grudgingly leave my extended family and my friends. I would watch as civil unrest took hold across the country and I would observe racism with naive confusion. I began to formulate a belief system that was far more generous than that of most of the adults that I observed. For the first time in my life I began to question their behavior as I realized that the bounty that I enjoyed was not shared equally by everyone. I was pushed by events into an early onset of maturity that felt uncomfortable and challenged the status quo.
Sixty years later I look back on that summer with mixed emotions. It was a joyful time that somehow masked the realities that were looming all around me. In a year I would feel like a different person but my lovely memories of that time with my grandparents would keep the light of optimism alive inside my soul. I would forever love the simplicity and honesty of nature while understanding the complex nature of human beings. I would see that I had been blessed by the random act of my birth. But for luck I might have been one of those nine students who had to endure violence just to go to school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I would watch as death, wars, assassinations and violence served as a backdrop for the years of my coming of age. I would witness the contradictions and hardships of the human experience always understanding how many blessings invariably came my way.
I still remember that wonderful summer of 1956 and cherish my recollections with all of my heart. I would ultimately find my way after the death of my father and learn how to find the bounty of even the most difficult seasons of my life. I had realized in that time just how soothing Mother nature may be. I had realized the depth of my grandparents’ love for me. I understood that I have always been part of something much bigger than myself and that I have never really been alone in my struggles. I found strength before I even knew that I possessed it. That summer would serve me well to this very day. I would find the bounty in life again and again and work to extend it to those who had not always shared it with me. Life has been good.