When Tim was a senior in high school, I was ten years old and small for my age. Yet I did not feel that young or that small. Tim was the reason. He was my second cousin, and a star football player at our local high school. To me his success as an athlete was not just a promise of what I might one day achieve. In some mysterious family way that I could sense, even if no one else could, Tim’s success was mine already.
I couldn’t really say that Tim and I were friends. He was, after all, seven years older, and at our ages, that was a big gap. Still, when we saw each other at the family’s weddings and baptisms and graduations and wakes, we were reminded that we were related to each other, and so whenever we met, we said hello. Those greetings may not have been very important to Tim, but they were very important to me. Tim was good that way; even in a casual encounter on the street, he always singled me out from my friends. “Hey, Bill,” he would say. “How’s it goin’?” He never waited for an answer, but that didn’t matter to me. It was enough that my second cousin, an all-league tailback, said hello to me. Tim’s greeting confirmed my belief that he was not only a great athlete but a good person too. It also confirmed me in my secret belief that I was a special person too. With Tim as my second cousin, I was very pleased with who I was.
I always described Tim to my friends as my “cousin,” but that was not quite correct. I knew that it would have been more accurate to say “second cousin” – Tim’s mother and my mother were the real first cousins – but I felt that the more accurate term would slight the connection between Tim and me, would diminish what was, for me, a very important association. So, in the absence of close questioning, Tim and I were simply “cousins.”
For two years, Tim’s junior and senior years in high school, when he was playing tailback for his high school, my friends and I went to every one of his home football games. My friends said that when they grew up they wanted to play for Penn State or the Eagles. My ambition was to go to Tim’s school and play tailback.
In all those games, Tim never disappointed me. Oh, he fumbled a few times, but those mistakes were as nothing compared to the dozens of times he took a handoff or a pitchout from his quarterback and followed his blockers around right end for a long gain, sometimes even a touchdown. I loved to watch Tim run those sweeps: his whole team, huge in their gold helmets and purple jerseys, swinging to the right; the opposing players dripping like felled trees before Tim’s blockers; Tim taking those long strides over the parched brown grass, gobbling up the yardage; the shrill screams of the girls in the stands ripping though the cool autumn air. Sometimes, after a game in which Tim had played well, and that was almost always, it took a full half hour for me to calm down. I was not surprised when the newspapers picked Tim for the all-league team as a junior; he had earned it. When he repeated on the same team as a senior, I allowed myself only a small smile. It was a foregone conclusion; as the story in the Inquirer said, Tim was a “consensus choice.”
The game I remembered best was against the traditional rival of Tim’s school, on Thanksgiving morning in Tim’s senior year. It was a fierce rivalry. Every year, extra police officers were assigned to the game to keep the fans from the schools apart, but there were usually fights anyway. After the game, the fans of the winning school would drive their cars, decorated with streamers in the school’s colors, through the surrounding neighborhoods, leaning on their horns. On Thanksgiving afternoon, you could tell who won by the colors of the streamers on the cars with the honking horns, purple and gold for Tim’s school, red and white for their opponents.
The game in Tim’s senior year was especially memorable because on the Monday before the game, four boys jumped Tim on his way home from football practice and tried to beat him up. Tim fought them off and they ran away, but not before they had punched him in the face, dragged him to the ground, and kicked him while he was down.
I found out about the attack from a brief item in the sports pages of the next morning’s newspaper. It described Tim as an all-league running back and said that he had been assaulted the night before by four unidentified young men. I heard the rest of the story from a friend whose brother went to Tim’s school. The word there was that the boys who jumped Tim were black kids who played for the rival school, and that Tim had run away from them, rather than the other way around. I could believe that Tim’s attackers were black; there was a lot of racial hostility on both sides in the neighborhoods around us. But I couldn’t believe that Tim had run away. My Tim wouldn’t run away from anybody.
My parents talked about the attack at dinner that night. My father shook his head and said that if in fact Tim’s attackers were black, it was very sad. “That won’t help,” he said. My parents didn’t talk about black people the way some of our neighbors did. I used the word “nigger” once, and my father told me I’d better never use it again in his presence.
The Inquirer did not say how badly Tim was hurt, so on Thanksgiving morning I stationed myself outside the dressing room before the team came out to warm up for the ten o’clock game. At nine-thirty sharp, the door to the dressing room opened, and the players began to file out. I had already decided not to try to attract Tim’s attention. This was no time for distractions. Maybe I could say hello to him after the game.
Tim was near the end of the long line of players. His eyes were fixed on the field in front of him as he trotted past me. He hadn’t yet put his helmet on, so I could see that he had a black eye, a puffy upper lip, and a purple bruise on one of his cheekbones. But he wasn’t limping or anything, and for that I was grateful. It was too bad about his face, but the important thing was that he was dressed for the game, ready to play.
So was the rest of Tim’s team. They must have decided that their opponents were responsible for the attack on Tim, and had made up their minds to avenge him. That’s what I thought, anyway, because I had never seen the team play so well. On the first play from scrimmage, the quarterback handed Tim the ball, Tim’s teammates knocked down every opponent who got in Tim’s way, and Tim sprinted sixty-four yards for a touchdown. It was like that the rest of the game. Tim scored two more touchdowns, and his team won, 39-0.
With two minutes remaining in the game, I left my seat in the top row of the bleachers and hurried down to the gate in the fence around the field where the players would come off. When Tim passed by, he was surrounded by teammates who were yelling and pounding him on the back; he didn’t notice me beside the gate. That was all right with me; the game had shown that you couldn’t scare off a member of my family.
In the parking lot across the street from the field, the horns of the cars decorated in purple and gold were already honking. As I walked away from the field, I felt good about the rest of the day. When I got home from the game, I would have a bowl of soup my mother made from turkey giblets; I would have plenty of time during the afternoon, as I watched the pro game on television from Detroit, to savor Tim’s triumph; and then there would be the big turkey dinner afterwards. It looked to be maybe my best Thanksgiving ever.
The next summer, soon after school let out, I found my good luck hard to believe. Tim, who had won a scholarship to play football at the University of Delaware, would be working as a lifeguard for the city, and he had been assigned to the public pool only three blocks from my house.
Where I lived, no one called the pool anything but “the swimmies.” There was the pool area itself, all gray cement underfoot, both in the pool and on the deck around it, and then, behind the pool, the lockers and the showers. A long, covered, brick-walled room stood on one side of the pool; people waited there for the next swim to begin. The swims were fifty minutes long, starting at nine o’clock every day, every hour on the hour until seven o’clock at night, every day but Sunday, from the middle of June to the Labor Day weekend.
Along the pool side of the covered room were screened windows that looked out onto the pool. Sometimes, on girls’ days – Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays – my friends and I went to the swimmies to look through the windows at the girls who were swimming. My friends especially wanted to see if any girls from our school were in the pool; they wanted to see what the girls looked like in bathing suits instead of the clothes they wore to school. Some of my friends talked about how the girls would look without their bathing suits. I felt more comfortable talking about sports.
Before that summer, I hadn’t gone very often to the swimmies. A lot of boys I didn’t know very well came there, boys who were louder and rougher than my friends from school, and they liked to pull mean little tricks like sneaking up on someone in the shower room and taking a leak on him. The chlorine in the water made my eyes sting too. That was another reason not to go to the swimmies. But when I heard that Tim would be one of the lifeguards, I knew I would be going to the swimmies every chance I got.
My chances to go to the pool came along two or three times a week that summer, and I saw Tim there almost every time. Whenever I did see him, I made sure to move to a place in the pool where Tim could see me, and Tim never once neglected to say hello. A couple of times, when the pool wasn’t crowded, Tim talked to me for as much as ten minutes about playing football for Delaware. He laughed when he talked about the school’s nickname, “the Fighting Blue Hens.” “Sounds pretty tough, doesn’t it, Bill?” Tim would say. On those days, I was hardly aware of my feet touching the ground as I walked home.
One day, a baking hot Saturday towards the end of July, I decided to go to the swimmies for maybe the fifteenth time that summer. At a quarter to two in the afternoon, I rolled up my bathing suit in a clean towel and walked the three blocks to the pool. The sun was very bright and made me squint. It was so hot that I thought the two o’clock swim would not be enough for me, that I would have to return to the pool for the four o’clock swim too.
A couple of dozen boys were waiting in the long room next to the pool for the two o’clock swim. As always, it was damp and gloomy in that room. The voices of the boys echoed off the brick walls. I looked through one of the screened windows and grinned. Tim was the lifeguard on duty, sitting on a high wooden chair at the deep end of the pool. He was wearing green sunglasses, a white sailor’s hat with the edges turned down all around, and he had a dab of white cream on the end of his nose to protect it from the sun. He looked exactly the way I wanted to look when I was his age.
The door to the locker room was thrown open. With the other boys, I filed through it, grabbed a numbered wire basket from a thin, bald-headed, old man sitting behind a raised counter, and ran along the aisles of green wooden cubicles, looking for an empty one where I could change my clothes. I undressed, put on my bathing suit, and threw my clothes and towel in to the basket. I slipped a loop of elastic cord with a numbered brass tag on it over one of my feet and onto my ankle; the number on the tag matched the number on the basked. Then I brought the basket back to the old man.
A sign on the wall said: “You must shower before entering the pool.” I dreaded that shower; the water was always ice cold to start with, and my flesh shrank away from the first stinging shock. But I forced myself to walk into the shower room: four nozzles high on the brick wall, knobs on the wall below to control the flow of the water, the rough cement floor sloping to a circular drain. The space under one of the nozzles was open; I lunged into it and turned on the water, spinning around awkwardly, gasping for breath, as a cone of ice water came down around me. That’s wet enough, I thought, and dashed out to the pool. I ran halfway up the length of the pool, then veered out into the air beyond the edge of the pool, my weight carrying me down into the cool, chlorine-smelling water with a ragged splash. Get over it right away, I told myself.
When I was at the pool and not looking for a chance to talk to Tim, I spent most of every swim leaping into the water, paddling back to the side of the pool, hauling myself out, and then taking another running jump into the water. That was what I began to do during this swim until, as I was climbing out of the water for the third or fourth time, I heard the word “niggers.” I was puzzled. I had never seen a black kid at the pool; I assumed they went to pools in their own neighborhoods. Why was someone talking about “niggers”? The boy who said the word was standing at the edge of the pool. When he saw the look on my face, he decided to explain.
“Niggers, two of them. They’re back in the lockers, putting their suits on. They’re gonna try to go swimming.” Then the boy moved on, to tell other boys about the “niggers.”
I knew from the way the boy was talking that something bad was about to happen. I wished I weren’t afraid, but I was. I felt the way I felt when two boys fought in the schoolyard at recess, a real fight, not merely wrestling for fun. I didn’t mind, indeed I liked, the controlled violence of football, the kind I saw when Tim was carrying the ball, but the kind of violence where two people tried to hurt each other, real violence, that frightened me a lot, frightened me so much that I could barely move.
I looked around. Word had spread. The pool was quiet now, no diving, no splashing, no horsing around. Most of the boys were looking at the doorway from the shower room to the pool. Two black boys soon came through the door. One was tall and lean, with very dark, almost blue-black skin; he was maybe my age. The other was younger, short and chunky, with lighter skin the color of milky coffee and a roll of baby fat around his middle. In the bright sunlight, the shower water glistened in their kinky hair. They must have known that everybody was looking at them, but they didn’t let on. They ran down the side of the pool, as I had, and jumped into the water. Maybe they thought that everyone would forget about them once they were in the water. They came up gasping, shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes, as everybody else did the first time they went underwater during a swim.
I was ready to go back to what I had been doing when I noticed two boys, brothers named Mullen I had seen around. They were kind of crazy, crazy enough to take a leak on you in the shower if you didn’t watch out. They were wading through the waist-deep water towards the black kids, who were busy splashing water on each other and didn’t see them coming. I wondered what they were up to. Their lips and cheeks were working furiously. Then, suddenly, I realized that in their mouths they were collecting what we called “lungers,” big gobs of spit. They were going to spit on the black kids.
At first, the black kids must have thought that the spit from the two brothers was only some of the loose spray that was always flying around a swimming pool; they paid no attention to it. Then something, maybe the contrast between the warmth of the spit and the cold of the pool water, made the black kids pause in their splashing. The tall one turned around; a lunger from one of the Mullens hit him in the face. He spoke to the two brothers, but I couldn’t hear what he said. The brothers kept working their cheeks and lips, kept spitting. Other boys closed in behind the black kids, spitting. The black kids turned from side to side. They saw they were surrounded. They began to wade towards the side of the pool. A dozen boys clustered around them, all spitting. The black kids were twenty feet away from me, but I still winced as the spit rained down on them. The tall black kid put his hands up, motioned to the white boys nearest him; he wanted to fight. The white boys laughed and jumped back. It was all so cruel. I looked for Tim. He would know what to do.
Tim was striding along the side of the pool, towards the spot the black kids were making for. A group of younger boys trailed along behind him. The black kids reached the side of the pool and started to pull themselves out. When Tim got close to them, he stopped and the younger boys clustered around him. Tim began to wave his right arm and hand as though he were leading a band. “A one, and a two, and a three,” Tim said, pausing after each count. On three, the younger kids spit at the black kids, all at the same time. The black kids ducked back into the water to get away from the volley of spit. They started to wade back across the pool to the other side, the circle of spitting white boys still around them. The white boys were jumping up and down in the water, in a kind of frenzy. They were chanting: “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!”
At a trot, Tim led his group of boys over the wet cement, around the edge of the pool. When the black kids reached the other side, Tim and his boys were waiting. Another volley of spit. The shorter black kid was crying. He and his friend began to wade towards the shallow end of the pool. The white boys near them stopped and watched them scramble up the ladder at the end of the pool and disappear into the shower room. The boys around Tim cheered him. Smiling behind his sunglasses, he took a mock bow, then clasped his hands over his head like a champion prize fighter.
I sat at the edge of the pool, dangling my feet in the water. I thought I would go home early, before the swim ended, but I wanted to give the black kids time to dress and get out of the lockers. Out in the center of the pool, in four feet of water, the two Mullen brothers who had started the spitting were spitting at each other.
After a while, I stood up. I walked through the shower room, into the lockers, and looked around. The black kids were gone. It was only two-thirty in the afternoon, but as I retrieved my basket from the bald-headed old man and put my clothes back on, I felt very tired. After wringing out my bathing suit as tight as I could, I rolled it into my soggy towel, gave my wire basket back to the old man, and went out into the street, where the sun still burned whitely in the high pale sky.
As I walked home, my hands and arms were so weak that I was afraid I would drop my rolled-up towel. My eyes sung from the chlorine, and hurt even more when I rubbed them with my knuckles. It didn’t much matter. I knew it would be a while before my eyes would be stinging from the chlorine again.