David and Me, pt. 1
I went to elementary school in Bloomfield, Connecticut. Bloomfield borders Hartford to the north, and the north end of Hartford in the 1960’s was poor and almost exclusively minority. Bloomfield was the escape hatch for families looking for a little more space, better schools, and a little more safety. For whatever reasons, and I’m sure there were a few, Blacks were not moving to the other Hartford suburbs. Bloomfield was their preferred choice. Or more than likely, knowing what I know now about redlining, their only choice. I bring this up to give you some context. However, none of it was even remotely known to David and me at the time. David was Black and I was white, still am. And while I can’t speak for him, I can say for me the fact that we both had a major lust for reptiles, and if pressed amphibians, was 99% of what mattered. Anything else, to us, had little relevance. I suspect the fixation started with dinosaurs, but if it did, it quickly evolved towards more easily attainable critters like snakes and turtles. David wasn’t my first friend - we met in first grade - but he was certainly my best friend. Every day of the school year, we were doing something together. Summers I spent with relatives in Maine, but we’d write. Me in barely decipherable big block letters about crabs, and snails and sea urchins. He, in the tight neat script of the artist he was, about the aforementioned snakes and turtles. Occasionally we were allowed the extreme privilege, and those of you as gray as me will understand the gravity of this, of a long distance phone call. Come September we were back at it though. The Gods miraculously always put us in the same class. And whatever class that was had the best terrarium in the school. Or perhaps, if we had some species that might consume each other, terrariums. The teachers in those days had the freedom, and insight, to let us go after it. Just beyond our school playing fields was a small shallow brook which was technically off limits. Our teachers would be shocked, yes shocked, at the amount and variety of wildlife David and I were able to discover and capture while confined to the worn athletic fields and blacktop. Once, with the help of of a broomstick and our janitor Mr. Smiley - that’s right, Mr. Smiley - we were allowed to parade a 30 lb. snapping turtle around the school. There is perhaps nothing that gives two turtle toting boys more street-cred than that. Our school was located on the Hartford side of town in a racially mixed neighborhood of small ranches alongside double and triple decker apartment buildings. That was David’s turf. I was bused from the far side of town which was formerly rural, but rapidly becoming suburbia. In my neighborhood, there were plenty of woods, fields, swamps, but unless David came to visit no Blacks. It was a luxury, but we did visit as much as we could convince our one car families to play pick-up-the-kid. Going to David’s, I got to walk home from school with him. Here I first experienced the utter joy of walking away from school with a pack of friends on a perfect fall day. I generally did fine in David’s neighborhood because there was always a football or baseball game and I was a pretty good athlete. In fact, even though one of our favorite pastimes was cutting on each other (and I was not known for my sensitivity), I never brought up that, in choosing teams, I’d get picked before him. For David, coming to my space was totally different yet just as good. One, he got to ride the bus; something he only got to do on our once- or twice yearly field trips. Two, there was plenty of hunting ground. After a quick snack, it was off to the woods where we stayed until whenever his appointed time of departure was. I had more habitat than David did in his neighborhood, but less humans. However, David got along just fine with whomever we happened to bump into or run with. He’d tell me that because his last name was Shaw, he had the Irish gift of gab. Later on, when girls entered the picture, he’d like brag about his rap. Whatever he’d want to call it, it was there. If he were a salesman and you were looking to hold onto whatever was in you wallet, you’d be in peril. Elementary school went on basically like this. Snakes and turtles transitioned to fishing, then girls. Whatever the attraction, we went together. Middle school is a time of change and it certainly was for us. I’ll leave that to the next post.