Not talking about race as a kid

Slavic neighborhood

Talk-to-Your-Kids-About-RaceSince June 1, a week after George Floyd, I have had lengthy conversations about race with three of my oldest friends. And by “oldest,” I mean I met two of them in 1958, and the other much later, in 1960. Yet I don’t remember talking about it when we were growing up. When I noted this with one of them, they said, “You ought to blog about that!” The problem is that I can’t really explain why.

For those unfamiliar, I should explain that I grew up in the First Ward of Binghamton, NY in the 1950s and 1960s. The city consisted of many Irish, Italians, and especially Eastern Europeans, second- and third-generation folks. There were black people in other parts of the city, but north of Clinton Street, which was a demarcation for “the Ward,” most folks were Slavic – Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, primarily.

At my school for K-9, Daniel S. Dickinson, I was often the only black kid in my class. There was a black young woman named Bernadette in 7th grade, coming from one of the feeder schools to our junior high. But she was gone by 8th grade to who knows where. Robert in 5th grade, who I’ve mentioned, was so academically challenged that he eventually ended up in my sister Leslie’s class, and she was three semesters behind me.

Also, in kindergarten, there was a “mixed-race” girl. She’s one of my current Facebook friends. By her account, I was very nice to her, even as most of the other kids were not. I have no recollection of any of this. Incidentally, I believe we have the same great-grandfather.

So NOW we talk

When I told one of my friends how traumatized when I saw photos of Emmett Till’s dead body in a magazine in 1960, I was asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?” I dunno. Why didn’t they tell me how their father put a stop to some racist taunts directed toward a man I knew at my church?

Another friend was pretty shocked that there were any racial problems in Binghamton at all. I’ve noted that back in 1964, over 200 black people complained in an open letter in the paper problems, jobs, and even “common courtesies.” Yes, I was pretty insulated in that geography triangulated by Dickinson school, my grandmother Williams’ house at 13 Maple Street, and my house on 5 Gaines Street. But I knew there was more to the story in the rest of the city.

I had long talks not only with the third friend but also with the spouse. Much of it has been generated by the contents of my blog over the last two months. “We didn’t know you were going through things like that.”


Maybe it was that I didn’t want to point myself out as different. Perhaps I didn’t think they’d understand. I talked with my sister Leslie about this. She had a similar situation, except that she did have one black classmate, Bonnie for a few years. They didn’t talk about race either. It was assumed that they were going through the same, or similar things and there was no need to verbalize it.

It’s like when I’ve seen a black person in a sea of white faces. Inevitably, one of us will give a nod to the other. It’s an acknowledgment of assumed common experience.

I suppose I should be grateful that my old friends and I are talking about race now.

Bernie Massar, Barnyard (1953-2019)

The Professional Firefighter’s Cancer Fund is a non-profit 501(C)3 organization committed to raising funds for cancer research programs.

Bernard Massar.Jan KostyunKaren, Carol, Lois, Diane, Irene, Bill, Bernie and I all started kindergarten together at Daniel S. Dickinson, where we did K-9, and graduated from Binghamton (NY) Central High School together.

Because Bernie Massar lived in the opposite direction from most of us, down Clinton Street rather than up Mygatt Street, I spent less time with him outside of school than I did with most of the others. I’m not sure if I had even been to his house.

But he’d been to mine at least once. I had a birthday party when I was eight or nine. I don’t know if it was poor communication or something else, but only two people showed up, my Cub Scout buddy and classmate Ray, and Bernie.

He could be the life of the party, betraying his clean-cut look. I hadn’t seen him in a long time when he – and Karen, Carol, Lois, and Bill – attended a high school reunion c. 2006. I see this jocular fellow nicknamed Barnyard with a walrus mustache, who had been fighting fires for a living for 27 years.

Obviously, I have no current history with him. Yet however unconnected we had become, he’d show up unexpectedly in the back of my mind. Now, Bernie Massar, this guy I’d met when we were not quite five – his birthday is a couple weeks before mine, I still recall – has died at the age of 66 and I have this sense of wistfulness.

And from pancreatic cancer, making him the THIRD person I’ve known IRL who died from that dreadful disease in 2019, and the year’s not even half over.

It makes me want to donate to his designated charity, the Retired Professional Firefighter’s Cancer Fund, 4 Loretta Drive, Binghamton, NY 13905. It is a non-profit 501(C)3 organization committed to raising funds for cancer research programs, which has been doing great work, it appears.

Guide us our whole lives through

Back when I was in college, they tore down Daniel Dickinson school.

Carol’s wedding reception in 1979 with Vito, Karen, me, my friend Susan, Becky from DSD
My group from the K to 9 school Daniel S. Dickinson entered Binghamton Central in February of 1968, along with far more kids from West Junior and also MacArthur. I felt a bit overwhelmed.

But thanks in no small part to Karen, I found a whole coterie of new friends, left-of-center leaning, civil-rights-supporting, antiwar chums such as Vito, Jane, Michelle, Steve, Catherine and the two Georges.

It had been the tradition in student government that someone other than the candidate give the nominating speech. Apparently, my oratory for Karen when she ran for secretary was rip-roaring; I know it came from the heart.

The next year, they changed the rules, and candidates had to give their own speeches. Meh. I ran for student government president, gave what most thought was a mediocre speech, but won anyway. Carol was the vice-president. Dickinson rules!

But before my sister Leslie and her friend Christine, only a year and a half behind me, got to Central, they had to spend a year or two at West Junior.

The thing about old friends is that you don’t have to see them often to pick up on the relationship.

We went to our 10th high school reunion in 1981, and it wasn’t particularly interesting. But the afterparty was great. I DID get tired of Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones, however.

In 1982, Bill invited Karen, Lois, Carol and me over to his house. We stayed up nearly all night, talking. A year or two later, I went to Bill’s wedding as I had gone to Carol’s about a half decade earlier.

When I was at a low point in the fall of 1977, Karen came from the Boston area to New Paltz to proverbially kick my butt. We had some significant conversations when I’d visit her in the Boston area in the early 1980s. Though she had moved to New York City by then, she came to my 1998 taping of JEOPARDY! in Boston.

Karen has turned me on to music, always, from The Beatles to The Band to Los Lobos to latter Johnny Cash to Valerie June. She came to Albany to see Paul McCartney in 2014.

Carol lived in the Mid Hudson of New York State and I was working at FantaCo in Albany. Coming back from New York City, my colleague’s vehicle broke down on the Taconic, and Carol came to our rescue. Before she moved south, she went to one of the MidWinter’s parties I used to frequent.

When my high school class had a reunion – I want to say 32nd? – I went, primarily because Carol and Karen and Bill and Lois and Bernie were going to be there. Circa 2009, we discovered that Karen from NYC, and Carol from TX, and I from ALB would all be in Binghamton the same weekend, and of course got together.

In 2018, I’ve been in email contact with Carol and Karen. I spent two hours on the phone with Bill.

Back when I was in college, they tore down Daniel Dickinson school, which was weird because, by all accounts, it was better constructed than, for instance, Wilson.

But it was in that “bad” neighborhood. It never seemed that bad to me.

May all our words and deeds e’er uphold thy glory

In junior high, there was an infusion of new kids, from other elementary schools.

One of the great things about my k-9 school Daniel S. Dickinson was that it had a library. I’m pretty sure now, though I didn’t think about it then, that it was part of the Binghamton Public Library system. Not every school had such a facility.

One of the librarians was Mrs. Genevieve Taylor, who attended my church, Trinity A.M.E. Zion, less than two blocks from my house. She was a black woman, as was another church member, Beccye Fawcett, a librarian at the main branch downtown, where I worked as a page when I was in high school. I wonder if they had an effect on my future vocation.

At some point, there was this Peter Max poster at the Dickinson library, and I wondered who Die-lan was. Mrs. Taylor said, “It’s Dil-lin.” Oh yeah, I HAD heard of him, just didn’t recognize the name.

In sixth grade, Mr. Paul Peca, our favorite teacher, challenged us. I remember a class debate on whether the US should have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. He was pro, mostly of us were con. We also had a mock Presidential election. Lyndon Baines Johnson beat Barry Goldwater, 13-3. I still remember who two of those AuH2O voters were. The following year, several of us walked up to his house, near the airport, to visit him.

We had a class newspaper. Karen wrote an epic fantasy story story about meeting the Beatles. She later got into the music business and promoted John Lennon’s Double Fantasy in 1980. Later, she worked for a label that carried Paul McCartney’s albums. In 2015, around my birthday, she came up to a hearts party I was having and regaled my friends with wonderfully detailed stories about Paul and marmite, and also Johnny and June Carter Cash.

For what we then called junior high, Dickinson was a school that got kids from other schools, such as Oak Street; see Don Wheeler’s great report of his trek to Dickinson, a semester before I moved up to 7th grade.

In junior high, which was 7th through 9th grade, there was an infusion of new kids, from other elementary schools, including Oak Street, Wilson (I think), and the parochial school, St. Cyril, which was right behind our playground. In elementary school, we called them St. Cheerios and they called us Dixie Cups.

There was this black girl named Bernadette who passed me a note so blatantly that people thought something was going on between us. But she was merely a conduit for her friend, a redhead named Dawn. But I was too holy/naive to respond to her overture.

(Dawn and her boyfriend/husband moved next door to my family on Gaines Street a few years later. There’s a Stupid Physics Tale to tell, if you’re interested.)

We had Mr. Frenchko (the assistant principal) and Miss Gertrude Kane, of the purple hair, for English. Mr. Stone was a social studies teacher; friend Karen boldly corrected him when he referred to the band Cream as The Cream.

I can’t remember the shop teacher – Mr. Williams, I’ve been told – but I recall being really bad at wood shop, and I was always blowing up ceramics in the kiln. But I was surprisingly good at metal shop.

We had a junior varsity basketball team, and I was the “manager”, which meant I schlepped equipment. Our team with David, Ray, a kid named Lonnie and others, was pretty good. We lost to East Junior High, 60-58. Afterwards, the East girls beat up some of the Dickinson girls.

Mr. Joseph was the 9th grade homeroom and biology teacher, who was married to Mrs. Joseph, the music teacher. He thought my father was “crazy” to quit the security of his boring IBM job, moving stuff on some sort of forklift, especially to take a job at Opportunities for Broome, a federal OEO program.

By the time we finished 9th grade in January 1968, there were again only 16 of us, I believe: Carol, Lois, Karen, Irene, Diane, Bill, Bernie, David and I, together since kindergarten, and Ray and Jim, but there were Walter, Joanne, Pamela, Richard, Chad, and two girls named Marlene at SOME point in junior high.

Ugh, memory fails.

More soon.
Someone in this narrative is having a birthday today! HB, Sara Lee.

IN response to a previous post: It’s four o’clock somewhere

May we e’er our praises sing, with loyal hearts and true

The one time in my whole life I intentionally entered a fight was in fifth grade.

“…IN A TROUBLED NEIGHBORHOOD” -Binghamton Press May 25, 1967

By fifth grade at Daniel Dickinson, my classmates and I had a routine after school. We walked Bill home on Mygatt Street. This was less than two blocks away, and right across the street from the store, Miss Ellis’, where I usually bought red licorice “shoelaces” from her big glass case. Then to Lois’ at Mygatt and Meadow, and to Karen’s at Mygatt and Spring Forest Avenue, across the street from the cemetery, where some of my ancestors are buried.

If I were going to my grandma’s, I’d split off and head to 13 Maple. But if I were heading home, I’d walk Carol to her house on Cypress Street, then go over to Ray’s house a few doors down, which was behind another house, cut through his yard, go via the Canny’s trucking lot back to Spring Forest, down Oak Street, and back to 5 Gaines.

We didn’t always all go together, but frequently enough for Christine, my sister’s best friend in those days, to acknowledge quite recently how much she admired our group. Christine, BTW, lived right next to my grandmother, so we got to swim in their family above-ground pool in the summer. There’s where I first saw color TV, in 1962 or 1963 – Disney and/or the western Bonanza.

Starting with 4th grade, we had gym with Mr. Lewis. EVERY semester, we had to do marching drills – “column left – MARCH” – before we could do anything fun, like volleyball. I always felt he was training us to be fodder for some war.

The first teacher we had for a full year since kindergarten was Miss Marie Oberlik, who lived on Meadow Street, less than three short blocks away. She taught us how to count to 19 in Russian, which I still remember. It was in her class where we learned about JFK’s assassination.

Neville Smith was the principal of the school, a well-dessed man, as I recall, and Pat Gritman was the secretary. For a number of years, starting when i was in fourth or fifth grade, both Leslie and I went to her home on Front Street for Friday night Bible club.

The girls in sister Leslie’s 4th-grade class. She’s to the left, partially behind Christine

My father, Les Green, would come and sing folk music at my class every semester from about 3rd to 6th grade. And he did the same for Leslie. He’d always sing Goodnight, Irene, which made some of the kids think I had a crush on the girl in the class by that name.

He DIDN’T do this for baby sister Marcia, and I remember that I went to her kindergarten class to sing. By that time, her teacher was Mrs. Burroughs.

The one time in my whole life I intentionally entered a fight was in fifth grade, when this kid Robert was pushing around David D, the one who was about a head shorter than most of the other kids. The fracas didn’t last long, though, because Mr. Frenchko, the assistant principal, and later my English teacher, yelled out of a school window and we scattered.

The drag about Robert was that he was the ONLY other black kid in my class. He was so academically challenged that he eventually failed three semesters in two or three years and ended up in the class of sister Leslie. (There’s a Stupid Crime Story I could tell you, if you want.)

Even then, I occasionally wondered if our school was getting all the resources it should. Specifically, the music book we used in Mrs. Joseph’s class, which I took for six or seven years, was ancient even then. I remember a time in fifth grade when she allowed us to pick songs, and someone called out the number for Old Black Joe, which we had never sung. We didn’t sing it that day either, as she said, plainly, “Let’s pick something else.” And a good thing too, because I was ready to walk out of the classroom.

More soon.

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