Cornbread Memories

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta

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Here are just a few Sample Stories by Ron Kattawar

The YMCA. A small chunk of my youth was spent in that building. I swam, played some heated, do or die ping pong games, made new friends, enjoyed old friends and for a period of time was a frequent visitor.

The musty, strong chlorine smell, indoor swimming pool was a place for young and old alike to learn to swim. I was a non-swimmer, scared of the water. Fear can keep you from some of the best times of your life.

Joining the Y program I worked like crazy to earn "Minnow" then worked my way up the fish chain. I slowly overcame my fear of going off the diving board and joined in the double dog dares that followed anyone that raced to go off the diving board next.

Ping pong was another matter. It may seem silly but it was a major, bragging rights game that challenged every fiber of your being. You had to be fast, often very gentle of hand and sometimes when the moment was right a perfect, solid whack would win the game. After a really good game you could be as tired as if you had just ran a marathon. No air conditioner, just sweat and pure energy.

I loved my summers at the Y. It was a great place for a kid to learn about responsibility, belonging to a group and self reliance in individual pursuits like swimming. No doubt the Y shaped a lot of fine young men and women.

As an adult in my mid-thirties I rejoined the Y. They offered a karate class and I figured, why not? I signed up Carol, our oldest son and myself. A family thing we could all do together. It seemed like a good idea. Carol and our son became ferocious. I tried to be mister cool.

As in anything new, the moves were awkward and throwing a punch with a loud "Ke-I" all felt a bit strange and silly. But as we progressed in class, we understood the purpose, learned the moves and became acclimated to our new sport.

One segment of class towards the end was sparring. We were instructed to utilize our newest move; a back leg sweep or a back hand punch. The instructor would have us sit in a circle and as he spun around in the center he would pick two people to spar.

Now I can be as scrappy as anyone but I never got the purpose of pairing me with eight foot giants. Goliath seemed to always show up for class. He was an awkward guy, hardly nimble or speedy...just tall enough to bump his head on the ceiling.

The instructor points to me...then Goliath. It almost became a family joke. My son would ask before class if I was going to take Goliath down that night. It was least until we were facing each other in the ring and I was looking straight into his navel.

Seems old Goliath got the back foot sweep down pretty fast and seconds into our sparring session, the lights went out. He back swept me with a strong arm to my shoulder pushing me down onto the extremely solid hardwood floor. I recall seeing stars. No joke...I literally saw stars. That was just before I lost conscience.

I'm not sure how long I was out but when I woke up Goliath was a few feet away. Now he could have been laughing about what he saw on the Jackie Gleason show, but somehow the timing told me he was tickled that he took me out.

I scrambled to my feet and climbed up that old boy like he was a tree at Delta Pineland. When I was up high enough that my fist could reach his nose, it was my intent to re-arrange it for him. Fist built, heart pumping, adrenalin flowing in full force, I released the wrath of a drunk in a dirt-floor bar.

Inches within his nose my fist stopped dead cold. It took me a second to realize that my fist was being held in someone's hand. Goliath, had shock on his face. I won't say I scared him, but his face was better than a four hundred page action/adventure novel. I was pulled off that old boy by a very disgusted karate instructor. It was my instructor's hand that prevented the nose punch. He stopped my punch mid-air.

"We're here to learn control! Now give me 100 knuckle push ups!"

Funny thing happens to you when you are being punished. Forget the hardwood floor and how tough it was on my knuckles. It's the mind and how it reacts. When you realize you've done something wrong you have to answer to you. I re-played Goliath's nasty back leg sweep. His execution was perfect. My preparedness was lacking. The fall was my fault. Worse, I went after him in anger.

Thinking back, I can say I've never allowed my anger to reach that boiling point, since. I learned that when something goes wrong, the first person I have to inspect, is myself.

Goliath and I never did become good friends. He's probably a pretty good guy. An oaf, but a good guy. We were made to shake hands at the end of class.

Later that night the instructor told me he had never seen a person climb up a man like that before. I was never sure if that was a compliment or a dig.

I thank my instructor; my brother, for one of life's toughest lessons. Look to yourself and you will usually find where things went wrong.
I was in the second grade when Dad bought our first TV. I remember it was a high gloss, wooden console with a white glow light around the picture. We were the first in our neighborhood to have a TV and my Dad being the generous person that he was, invited some of the neighbors over to watch. That invitation grew and before we knew it, our living room was full of people, some I'm not so sure were neighbors. With six kids, we were already well populated, but when the neighbors came over every evening, our living room was shoulder to shoulder, sitting Indian style, on the crowded floor.

A few weeks into the new TV adventure, Dad being an ardent fan of gizmos and gadgets, proudly announced he had bought the newest thing that would convert our black and white TV to color. It was a thin colored film, much like an x-ray slide that fit over the black and white screen. It had a deep, lush blue at the top, grass green color at the bottom and yellow in the middle, which of course turned all the people into an odd looking yellow. The rainbow film lasted about a week before it was retired into the, "almost successful" gizmos/gadget drawer. We went back to black and white and the TV people no longer looked so weird with blue hair and green bodies.

There were not many choices, I think three networks that played mostly variety shows with the likes of Imogene Coca and Phil Silvers. The TV people inside that wonderful box knew when it was bed time because an American flag would wave in a breeze and the National Anthem played...followed by a picture of an American Indian head and a high pitched sound that reminded the American audience of Ben Franklin's, "early to bed."

The next gizmo Dad bought was a TV antennae. If you stood at the bottom of the pole and turned it just could pick up another station. There was a lot of shouting from the living room to outdoors. The grate at the top of the TV antennae looked like four long silver fingers pointing in all four directions.

One of my older brothers pondered if the antennae could pick up air waves, that would mean we were surrounded by mysterious air waves everywhere. He asked how the air waves would effect our bodies. That was the same brother that was always three feet behind the mosquito spray truck, in an open run, breathing deep. He's also the same brother that caught our home on fire with his Christmas chemistry set. No one paid much attention to his air wave theory, except me. I wondered then and wonder now if the air waves does something bad to us. We had a neighbor that could pick up a radio station through her teeth fillings. If you turned her just so, she was better than a transistor radio. To change channels, you just turned her, kind of like turning the TV antennae. She was pretty popular, for a while.

Dad's next gizmo was the rabbit ears. You no longer had to twist and turn the antennae pole. I'm not sure where the aluminum foil thing came in but I remember the rabbit ears were later covered in foil, I guess like that neighbor girl with the teeth fillings that picked up air waves.... those same air waves that are all around us that send picture and sound through the air...and probably through our bodies if you stood too close to the girl with all of those teeth fillings. Buck Rogers and Dick Tracy futuristic stuff.

As the world moved through all of the technology changes, Dad was there at the leading edge buying one of the first color TVs. Our home had become the movie theater for our family and neighbors until one by one our neighbors bought their own TV.

And then it happened! Of all of the innovations and progress towards better TV, Dad brought home the best invention, ever, Jiffy Pop!

Big brothers. Sometimes means big trouble. Constant picking, nagging and testing. Big brothers also mean someone you can go to and share inner-most secrets or get advice. Don't expect tears and hugs. That's what big sisters do.

My brother two years older than I, was put on this earth to aggravate and irritate me. At least at times I sure felt like it. He was the A&I master. Maybe I was an easy target because in spite of his never-ending harassing, I followed him around like a little puppy. He would put on his pair of skates and let out in a hearty stride from Walnut Street to Poplar on the bumpy Alexander Street sidewalk. I was usually on my one skate fifteen feet behind, pumping twice as hard. I often wondered if he hid my other skate out of boyish meanness, or to make sure I couldn't keep up with him.

His friends would come by, bat and glove in hand and invite him to play baseball under a large tree this side of Susie Trigg, on the levee side. Ball had been played there so often the baselines were ingrain into the dirt. There was literally a permanent baseball diamond worn into the earth. The large tree was one of those Goliaths we were accustomed to seeing in childhood. The limbs were bigger than the trees we see today. Eight of us hooked hands and we couldn't reach around that massive tree. It was a Grand Goliath.

As brother and his buddies headed off to the ball field, I kept a distance and tagged along. I was too little and too young to play but I still went. It's what little brothers do no matter how may rocks are thrown.

The guys would warm up, some bat while others fielded. Now if you aren't from Greenville, you may have some difficulty understanding. Early 1960s, racial strife and the bad rap our State had for racial tensions were not in our vocabulary or in our hearts. Here's the story, you decide how you want to react to it.

As the guys warmed up, a group of black kids would show up from the close-by neighborhood. Yes, they had their own neighborhood. Greenville was segregated. Schools, churches, town and neighborhoods were either black or white.

There would be a coin toss, deciding first bat...and the game was on. It was us against them, but not in the sense one may think. I chose to believe it was our neighborhood against another. There was no anger, no name calling, no fighting. It was simply athlete pitted against athlete. Sometimes my brother's team won, sometimes not. What you could count on was a spirited game where both teams gave their all.

Now before you allow your mind to go wandering off and thinking that one team had better equipment, I should stop here and tell you that we were all poor, black and white. Well, except for the one kid that owned the bat. We all thought he was rich because he had a bat. So don't think it was a game of best equipment. The team that brought the most energy and talent to the field, won.

In our home we were not allowed to use the N bomb. We were taught respect for everyone and my Mom, Bless her, told us all early-on to judge the fruit, not the tree. Of course I was near-adult before I understood what that meant.

An odd thing happened at one of those ballgames. For a lack of better words, I'll simply call it the "little brothers club." Short, too young to play kids gathered and watched the older brothers play ball. Little did we realize in a couple of years we would be the ones on the ball field, playing our own games. Friendships grew as we taught and learned the basics of baseball. Watching our older brothers play was better than what any coach could teach. To become a good player you have to have the passion and love of the game...and that's where it all begins. Little brothers, both black and white absorbed baseball and we learned from each other.

As we got older, girls began showing up to watch the big brother's game and that's the time the older brothers started acting weird. Doing stupid things. My brother was no exception. He climbed up Goliath's massive trunk and onto one of her arms. Maybe thinking that wasn't enough to impress, he walked out onto her limb as if he were a circus tightrope acrobat. He stumbled and fell flat on his back, knocking the air out of him. I was the first one there. He wasn't breathing and was purple around his lips. I can't remember ever being so scared. When he opened his eyes, I wanted to hit him.

One of the colored boys ran to his home and got a jug of water and a cloth. My brother more embarrassed than hurt, recognized the injury as an interesting attention getter and played it to the hilt for his concerned female audience. Ten minutes later he was hitting a double bringing in one runner.

I never knew that boy's name that went for water, but I would like to thank him for what he did for my brother. My mama would say his tree bears good fruit.

As an adult and looking back on those days, I have to say I didn't see anger and hate. I did see a divided community and never gave it any thought. It was the world as it was and certainly not as the news media wanted to convey. I remember the coming years were troubling to me. My experience of playing baseball, white against black never developed into nothing more and nothing less that a spirited ball game that ended in a friendly handshake-hand slap with each of the opposing team members. Due respect earned and acknowledged.

A lot has changed since. Decades later Carol and I had just moved to Cincinnati. Great timing: from four years in beautiful Bermuda to a four foot snow, didn't start our experience of living up North as a good start. The first week of clear weather, we decided to explore the "city." It is there in the main street of Cincinnati, we became trapped in the traffic flow because of a parade. That was the first time I had witnessed a KKK parade, seen a white hood or seen the anger and hatred.

There I am in sure-nuff Yankee-land and what is before me? I couldn't wait to get out of there. I grew up in the bosom of the South; The heart of Dixie, the Divine Delta and never ever...

So much has been heaped on my great State of Mississippi that simply isn't true. So much hate had to be directed and to direct hate you need a target...and that target became Mississippi. It's unjustifiable. It's a lie that will probably never die.

Sometimes it takes a while for the world to make any sense. Sometimes that never happens. I never understood why my older brother was destined to be my tormentor back then and is one of my best friends today. Or how a community that gently co-existed without hatred was understood as an oppressor. Or how a self-righteous group that has never been saddled with hatred by the media, allowed hooded KKK marchers walk down their main a parade.

To get any sense of it all, I rely on my Mom's sage advice. "Judge the fruit, not the tree....and stop pestering your little brother."

Copyright 2014 by Ron Kattawar. All rights reserved.