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Willy and the picnic

What was happening in the Black community was a world apart from our white neighborhood. School went on as planned. We went to church on Sunday mornings, a ritual enacted every week the same way. My dad went to work every day before we woke and made ready for school. He came home every night to the excitement of the children. We mobbed him as he came in the door and he always said something to the tune of, “All right. All right. Let me get in the house.”

Nothing seemed out of order and I didn’t give much thought to Black people, except when “Black males” appeared on the television or were mentioned on my mom’s radio, which she listened to as she mended or folded clothes. We weren’t well off but were comfortable. I lacked for nothing, though we wore second-hand clothes and shopped the department-store bargain aisles for ill-fitting shoes, coats, winter hats, and school supplies. We lived a middle-class existence. My parents skimped and sacrificed to pay tuition for three kids to parochial school and my mom stayed home to tend to my youngest sister.

Several years later, in the early 70s, the Dobsons had four kids in Catholic school. The Black world seemed very far away. We didn’t see Black people except when we went out in public for say, shopping or groceries. But even then, there were so few Blacks in our orbits that I noticed them. Usually, my parents didn’t talk to Black people, as there were none in our world to talk to. I continued to hear about Blacks in school, mostly as subjects of jokes and derisive screeds by other kids about how “they” were different, “they” committed crimes, and “they” wanted “special treatment.” Black Americans served as an important foil for the American story I was learning. Something about “them” seemed different, out of the ordinary, and always less than. This kind of language sunk into my head and affect the way I thought about the world around me.

Every summer, my dad took us to his company picnic. I remember one in particular, not because it was out of the ordinary but because of a Black man. The children of the National Cash Register Company’s Kansas City office workers, who I remember as mostly men, played games and ran amok as the spouses gathered for conversation and drinks and food in the picnic shelter at Minor Park, a large city park south of where we lived on Stateline Road. My father, as usual, provided the 55-gallon drums in which beer kegs were iced. Coolers of pop and other drinks were arranged in neat lines along the edge of the concrete of the shelter. Between the kids playing and the adults drinking and talking, the littlest children, toddlers and kindergartners bounced about under the watchful eye of a matron or two.

We always stayed a long time at these picnics, well into the evening and toward sunset. Dad had to retrieve his drums, which during the week served as trash receptacles in our garage. (It seems odd to me now that the dirty bins wound up as centers of the company picnic, something I would never put my hands in now. But I do remember my father directing my brother and me as we washed and scrubbed the drums in preparation for the annual event.) And he liked, it seemed, being in the center of this throng of people.

At this picnic, a Black man was in attendance. I noticed him and wondered about his presence among this white crowd. Seeing a Black man in the crowd and remembering my positive interactions with Raymond and Lewis, I hoped the man brought his kids, if he had any, to the picnic. But there were no Black children and asked my dad about this man sometime that afternoon. My dad said he worked at NCR but didn’t mention what he did. My father went back to the business of drinking and socializing and my siblings and I played with each other and the other children at the swings and with a baseball and gloves.

As the evening leaned toward twilight, the Black man, who wore dark, somewhat formal clothing and an Irish tweed driving hat, approached me. I was scared and unsure of myself. What was I supposed to do? Black Americans had been portrayed in the front parlor and the back rooms at school as dangerous and sneaky.

“You’re Billy’s boy, aren’t you?” he said.

“Yes,” I said warily but hopefully.

“Will you clean up around here?” he said, waving his hand toward the shelter. “Pick up some of this litter and put it in the bins over there. When you’re done, come back and see me. I have something for you.”

The promise of a gift was too much for me to pass up. I dutifully picked up the pop cans and paper plates, the napkins and other trash. I was thorough as I could be, throwing away even the cigarette butts and the beer pop-tabs from previous picnics.

When I thought I was through, I found the man again and told him I picked up the place. He pulled bills in a money clip from his pocket. What a fortunate man he was, I thought. I had never seen my father or anyone else carry a money clip or so many bills in one place. He opened the clip and peeled off a five-dollar bill and gave it to me. “Good job, son,” he said and held his hand out for me to shake, which I did, noting that his hand didn’t feel any different from anyone else’s. It was calloused and rough but gentle and accommodating.

When the man turned, I immediately ran up to my dad.

“Dad. Dad.” I said. “That man gave me this for picking up the trash.”

“Which man?”

“That Black man,” I said, pointing to him, who now had his back to us.

“Willy gave you that money?”

“Yeah . . . for picking up the pop cans and stuff.”

“Now, that’s a good boy,” he said. “Put it in your pocket and we’ll put it away when we get home. Don’t worry about it this time. But next time, don’t take money from strangers.”

And that was it. I continued to pick up trash even as it fell, feeling proud to have done well enough to gain what seemed to me to be a fortune. I wanted to draw attention from the Willy, the dark stranger, and from my dad. Before Willy left the picnic, he came up to me and said, “You did a good job, son. You ought to be proud of yourself.” He pulled out his roll and gave me another fiver and patted me on the shoulder. I never heard of or saw Willy again.

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