The town where I grew up was odd. Most small towns in my part of the world had three sections. There was the “right” side of town (in our case the East side) where the wealthier people lived and where the commercial district with its mom and pop stores existing next to chain stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward’s. I didn’t live there. Then there was the “wrong” side of town (the West side in our case), which was always just across the railroad tracks from the “right” side of town. The poorer people lived there and walked or drove to the “other side of the tracks” to shop. That was my bailiwick. The third section of town generally abutted upon the ‘wrong” side of town and was politely called “colored town” (and impolitely called something worse). That was where the local black community lived and went to school.
My town was odd because we also had a fourth section of town. As the community grew, it moved West and ran up against the local creek. This creek wasn’t very wide and except for spring wasn’t very deep either. The west bank was much higher than the east bank, so flooding tended to go east toward the town. The city fathers were smart enough to get the state to build up the main road so that it was always above flood level and traffic could cross even in May, our wettest month. A section of town had grown up just west of the creek and took over as the truly poorest section of town, leaving the “wrong side of the tracks” split into two by this big field that was the flood plain of the creek. Our house was the last house in town on the east side of the big field, which meant we lived on “the wrong side of the tracks” but weren’t in the poorest section of town. There was this embankment about five foot high, then the field stretched off into the distance toward the creek.
Our neighborhood was fairly typical. Across from our house were a row of small wooden homes, a couple with big covered porches, that stretched up toward the tracks. Next to us lived the lady who ran the local feed and grain business. She was a great neighbor because sometimes the local kids could go into her store and she’d take us into the back where they had incubators that served as hatcheries for baby chicks or ducks. You could look through this big glass window and marvel at the furry yellow birds. There was an older widow who lived next to the feed store lady. She was a crab and was always yelling at us to stay off her lawn. There was no sidewalk, so it was either her lawn or the highway and everyone had been told to stay out of the street. After her there were two rent places that generally contained at least one or two kids, then a small mom and pop store that served the neighborhood. You could get a popsicle or candy bar there and my grandparents sent me up to the store occasionally to buy an item my grandmother needed to cook dinner.
Directly behind our house, extending up almost to the cross street was a small woodlot of elm trees. It was only a few feet thick and the trees were still small. There wasn’t much undergrowth so if you studied the lot carefully, you could tell the trees weren’t there by accident. They weren’t exactly in a line, but there was too much of a pattern to make the woodlot accidental. When you walked through the woodlot from my backyard you came out at the rear of the schoolyard for the black kids in town. That small green and brown line marked the boundary between the white and black worlds.
The black section of town extended several blocks but from the woodlot you could see a few houses with their small backyards and peeling wooden walls running in a line up at the cross street all the way to the far corner. The black school was down a dirt street directly behind my house. There were a couple of playground items like a swing set and a teeter totter in the yard. The school itself was an old one-story natural stone building that doubled as the local black Baptist church on Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday night. Or maybe it was the local black Baptist church and the parishioners let the community use it for a school. I never knew which. The place had no air conditioning so in the summer the windows were open and you could hear much of the service from our house. We had this old folding aluminum lawn chair with plastic slats that sat on our back porch. My grandmother would, when the weather was warm, occasionally take it out into the back yard on Sunday or Wednesday after dark. She’d sit there listening to the church song service then wait to hear the first few words of the minister’s sermon. If it was going to be a real stem-winder she’d sit through it lost in a moment of sermon and prayer. If she decided it was not going to be worth listening to, she’d fold up the chair, put it back on the porch, and come inside. If she didn’t like the sermon, she’d frequently dismiss it with the comment, “A white preacher coulda preached that.”
The guy who owned the field adjacent to the house was a rancher, so he used the field, and the one across the road, to grow hay for his cattle. He’d plow one half of each field in hay and leave the other half fallow. The next year he’d reverse the halves and do it all over again. For some reason he divided both fields north-south rather than east-west like the rest of the town ran. So one year the part of the field just next to my home would be fallow, the next year it would be in green glory as a hay-field.
He didn’t mind if we played ball in the field as long as we stayed on the fallow side. So every other year we could run down the embankment by the house, set up the plate next to the embankment so we’d have a built-in backstop, then play ball out in the field. We’d play all afternoon until we began to hear mothers and grandmothers calling us home for dinner. If we got real lucky, we could end up with four or five guys a side which gave us a pitcher, a couple of infielders, and an outfielder or two. We tried to keep score, but usually ended up with four or five different versions of the number of runs.
The next year, we’d cut through the woodlot, cut the corner of the black schoolyard, head down the embankment, and again set up home plate near the cliff so we’d have a backstop and again play all afternoon until the inevitable call came for supper. On a good day we might have seven or eight guys to a side and if we were real lucky you could put together two full teams, minus a catcher (the embankment did the catcher’s job for us) and then we would have a great time.
Why the difference in numbers? In the years we played on the south side of the field, the side nearest my house, the black kids didn’t come over to play. When we were on the north side of the field, the side furthest from the white community, the black kids would wander down and help us fill out teams. The teams were generally integrated because kids would show up late and, black or white, the late comers would go into whichever team was short a player. Several of the black kids didn’t have a glove and a few of the white guys weren’t real sure about sharing their gloves with a black kid, but as a rule we managed to work it out.
It took a while to figure out why the black kids didn’t play ball with us when we were on the South Field and I was an adult before I realized the irony of a segregated South Field and an integrated North Field. To us it was just a game and the more players the better. But apparently the adults didn’t see it that way. My grandparents may have been the only white adults who knew we were playing with the black kids. When we played on the North Field my grandmother would step out to the embankment, which gave a great view all the way to the end of the field, and call me for supper. She had to see what was going on. She never said a thing to me.
I was 10 when I moved to a new town. Ultimately I lost contact with all the kids, white or black, who played out in the field. The town and the Corps of Engineers figured out how to channel the creek so that it no longer flooded, then they paved over the field. The old hay-field across the road is now the town mall. Our field is a long row of small shops and gas stations. The old black school (or church, whichever it was first), is still there, but they tore down my old house (and the others on my block) and put a parking lot where it used to stand. It’s the lot for a fast food place that now sits where the woodlot stood. I ate there once with my wife and son. Typical fast food, but I couldn’t help but notice there were both white and black faces in the place. I wondered if any were kids I’d played with. I didn’t ask, but I did grin when I realized the woodlot and what it meant were gone and the school still stood.
Tags: small town baseball