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“‘Chillen,’ that’s what they call them”

I walked up a long rise toward the edge of town. The grass between the road and fences turned from gold and green to silver as the wind laid it over. They sky had become a hazy baby blue in the midday heat. There was nothing in the air that hinted at what was to come.

A Chevrolet rocketed by and pulled onto an easement at the top of a long rise about a mile ahead. As the driver rolled the car back onto the concrete to turn around, he pulled his car into another traveling toward me. Shiny splinters sprayed across the pavement. A hubcap pitched into the ditch. The men got out of their cars and were talking as I passed. I gave the hubcap to a tall, older man dressed in a long-sleeve western shirt and bolo tie. He was surveying the damage to the bumper of the Chevrolet.

“Anybody hurt?” I asked.

“Naw, everything’s all right,” he said. He took the hubcap with one hand and adjusted his horn-rim glasses with the other. His wrists and hands were mere bone and tendon under papery skin. He had run his full-sized Chevy into a smallish, beat-up Chrysler. The man who drove it was short and stocky. He smiled shyly and tugged the bill of a cap with the words “Jacobsen Seed” emblazoned across the front. I moved on. A while later, the big Chevrolet rolled by, the tall man waved. He drove about a mile and turned onto another easement and backed out just as before, this time safely, and pulled up in front of me.

“Say, son, let me take you up the road,” the tall man said from behind the wheel through the passenger-side window. “Me and my missus’re headed into Beatrice (ba-AT-riss). I think it’s a hell of a thing for a man to walk a road like this. Whadya say?” He pointed to a woman sitting in the passenger seat.

“Well, thanks. But I’d like to walk.”

“Come on, son. Let us take you up the road a piece. The missus’d like it.” He again indicated the woman, who sat passively and staring forward. Friendliness did not reside in his voice, but what person who just wrecked his or her car really could sound friendly? It occurred to me he had been turning his car around to offer me a ride when he got into the crash with the stocky man in the old Chrysler. I climbed in the back seat behind the missus. The tall stranger looked ahead, both hands on top of the steering wheel. He said he had retired from the oil business in Wyoming and become a Mormon missionary. As a younger man, he had hitchhiked from San Francisco to Kansas City, from Malta, Montana, to Juarez, Mexico. His starched collar rubbed against his leathery neck. He adjusted his bolo tie from time to time.

“Poor hayseed,” he said after a few minutes, referring to the man in the Jacobsen Seed cap. “I talked him outta calling the cops for fifty bucks…Beatrice is filled with ‘em, hayseeds just like that one. But it’s better than being in a big town filled with culluds and spics.”

The taste of metal and electricity filled my mouth. I felt like I was floating in a dream; the car and scenery became two-dimensional, as if on a postcard. I didn’t know what to say. My working-class Kansas City was a place where whites, blacks, and Hispanics called each other neighbors. Having grown up in an overly white suburb, I was glad to escape undercurrents of racial prejudice that suffused my family home and the place we lived. Since that time, over a decade previous, I had lived in Midtown Kansas City, a checkerboard of urban neighborhoods where race was less important than class and income. Certainly, race mattered, but it didn’t constitute separation and otherness in the way it did to the old missionary. It hurt now, after so many years of having to work through the racism I grew up with, to hear the man talk this way.

“Not that I got anything against ‘em, you know,” he said over his shoulder. “Just feel better with my own kind.”

“What kind is that?” My face was hot, and, I supposed, red.

“You know, like us.” He was calm, matter of fact. He assumed I felt the same as he. I felt my face burn. My hands were shaking. I turned and watched the fencerows and corn shift in wide arcs as they marched toward the horizon. Once in a while, a clapboard house and a couple of silos popped out of the landscape, and a broken fence occasionally marked an old property line. I wanted to tell the man to stop the car and let me out. But the world outside was suddenly as large, strange, and depressing as the interior of that car. There was nowhere for me to go.

“Where were you going to stay?” he said.

“Wymore.” I kept my face to the window to hide tears welling up.

“What the hell’s in Wymore? There ain’t nothing there.”

“Well, it’s a dot on the map,” I said as calmly as I could. “A dot usually has a park.”

Wymore rolled by on a hill to the right. The stranger rolled his eyes. “I’ll get you to Beatrice,” he said.

Mormon articles and tracts lay on the back seat. A Book of Mormon and a Holy Bible were on top of a stack of official-looking books and spiral notebooks. I tried to separate the man from his faith. The tall stranger didn’t say much more, contenting himself to drive. He looked grandfatherly—neatly dressed and well-kept with a straight back. His wife, a matronly and quiet woman, said nothing and never moved. She could have been a corpse. The contradictions and stereotypes were too hard to sort through, and I slumped against the back seat, my face to the window.

At the edge of Beatrice I bid the man and his wife goodbye, glad to be rid of them. The sun was setting. My pack, at first, felt too heavy to lift. I felt better once I started walking again. The bump-a-bump rhythm of my steps rose up through my legs and back and settled into my shoulders. The old missionary had never really been able to see others except through the lens of race, I said to myself. Maybe, he had not examined the miserable order underneath the generations-old thought that produced utterances like “culluds and spics.” I had heard friends, parents’, relatives’, and strangers’ conversations over when “those negroes” were going to start moving into our neighborhood. Among the kids in our all-white Catholic school, there were constant jokes about doormen, janitors and elevator operators.

One time, when I was just a little kid, Fred, the man who lived across the street, had his car broken into. He and my dad loved guns. Fred came over and asked my dad what kind of gun he would use if he were to go on a “nigger hunt.” I asked my dad what a nigger hunt was. It sounded fun, this hunt, and I wanted to go. To Fred, he said he wasn’t going hunting, but he would keep his eye out for “them.”

But the most hurtful racial incident I was involved in was my own fault. One fall, after a game of Cub Scout hardball where we played a team of black Cub Scouts, I threw the ball with a friendly kid from the other team.

My team captain asked me what I was doing with the “nigger.” I was stunned. The kid looked confused. I desperately wanted my teammates to leave, so I could say I was sorry to the kid and go back to playing catch. But I was the fat kid, and I wanted them to like me.

“‘Chillen,’ that’s what they call them, ‘chillen’ and ‘chillens,'” another of my teammates said. “They can’t even talk right. ‘ Ol’ Man River,’ and all that, with lots of chillens in there.”

My teammates laughed. It was the kind of laughter that echoes for decades. I fought back tears. Suddenly, I wanted that kid, with whom I was having so much fun, to be hurt.

“Yeah, chile,” I screamed. “What do you want for Christmas, chile? What are you gonna get for Christmas, chile? Black dollies? Huh, chile?”

I said it over and over, poking the kid in the side with my ball glove. Saying things I had heard my friends say, I hoped, would make me feel whole and bring me admiration. But my throat hurt; there was gravel and razor blades in my voice. Cicadas buzzed in the trees, and yellow and orange sunset rays fell in the park. I kept it up, with my teammates behind me, until that kid started to cry. It didn’t make me feel better. My friends began laughing at me. I jeered even harder. I never felt so empty.

I never made fun of anyone like that again. But having been inundated in racism—explicit and implicit—for decades, I understood the beliefs and feelings of the racist. Being sensitive to the pain of others, I had to face the contradiction of hating and fearing someone because of their race or ethnicity and understanding them as human. It was a painful process, as leap into trusting oneself must be. I had to learn to have faith in my human intuition when everything I had learned cried out against it. I had to stand up for what I thought was right at the risk of rejection and ridicule from those I loved.

A version of this essay appeared in Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. The book is available here.

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One Comment

  1. Jan Wheeler Jan Wheeler

    A difficult confession.

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