The Moon Above: Part 21
Chapters 41 and 42
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The Wild Blue Yonder
I HAVE BEEN a little too focused on my own family situation and have failed to give the bigger picture. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said the United States should go to the moon “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” This came in the wake of the excitement of Sputnik, when it was feared that Russian children were ahead of our own and they would soon be raining down death from the sky. It was white people against white people, and I did not pay much attention. But with the moon race, I paid attention.
NASA went on high alert for years. Planes went back and forth to various centers, which had been Army centers not too long before but then became civilian. And our center was leading the way. Our Germans were leading the way. These people we had fought so hard to conquer — these people who had tried so hard to kill me — were leading the way. They flew all over the place, carried to and fro by the engines that I made sure were safe and functional. On the ground, they moved about in jeeps and trucks that were in better shape than anything else on the road. I was doing my part for the moon race by keeping our Germans safe and healthy. Just for the record, I never thought they’d do it. I knew we had enough trouble getting oxygen at high altitude in the cockpits of fighter planes, and I couldn’t imagine willingly going to a place where there was no oxygen, at all. I liked to look at the moon in the sky and was happy to leave it at that.
What also happened was that Huntsville was growing all around us. People were moving in all the time, from all over the place. Just walking around the arsenal sometimes you could hear accents that you would never hear in Tuskegee or anywhere else in Alabama. It was not cosmopolitan, not exactly, but its claim to fame wasn’t being the watercress capital of the world anymore. A sign at the city limits still declared that proud fact, but the city itself was moving on.
And everywhere, there were Germans. Constantly in my mind or in my line of vision or in the white newspaper. There were lots of them and they were very busy. And one of them was on my television. Dr. Wernher von Braun told us what spaceflight meant, what it would be like to live among the stars. He told us this in his German accent with his swept-back hair. And I remembered where I had seen him before. I had seen him in the underground camp. That had been his doing, and now our race to beat the Russians to the moon was his doing. He was coming up in the world.
All of this was happening in Huntsville while the civil rights movement was blooming everywhere else. Race people were trying to get the right to vote and to be treated like normal human beings but the heads of the white people in Huntsville were in space. All the teachers were trying to instill a love for math and science into the heads of the kids, but James wasn’t interested. He didn’t believe a Race man could ever go to the moon.
“How many Negro astronauts are there?” he asked me one time when I complained about his math grade and told him he was selling himself short. I tried to get him to use the word Race instead of Negro, but he wouldn’t do it, and he wouldn’t apply himself, either.
“This is your fault,” Virginia told me one night when we were still together. “Yours and Toussaint’s. Filling his head with this garbage about how he can be more violent than white folks and make himself better.”
“He’s just a kid,” I said, as if that answered anything, and we didn’t say any more about it.
We had long since stopped talking about Toussaint and his beliefs because it just made us fight. She believed that when I was with her, I would be swayed by her, and that when I was with Toussaint, I would be swayed by Toussaint. She believed that, on this issue, the issue of the very future of Race men and women in America, that I was weak. And it was true.
I could think about my weakness more clearly when I was by myself. I understood this fact more clearly when I was by myself. I understood it more clearly when Virginia was asleep and I was alone and on the edge of sleep, because that was when I dreamt I was back in the camp. That was when, in my half-awake dream, I returned to the state of living where you obeyed, or you died. Where you did what you were told or you found yourself at the end of a rope, or worse. Where you did what you were told, or your head was bashed in with a pipe. More than at any other time, that was when I realized they had drilled the very core out of me, made me into this weathervane.
I still went back and forth between them. I told Virginia that I was no longer associating with Toussaint, but that was a lie. She did not know my work schedule and did not check it, but I still got with him now and then. He was not around as much as he used to be. Toussaint was not burdened with a steady job so he was free to go where the action was, and if you look at old photographs of sit-ins and Race protests of almost any sort from those days, particularly ones where fires and fighting were involved, you’re likely to see him somewhere in the background.
I was not involving James with Toussaint anymore, not after his visit from the police, but it didn’t matter. It was too late. I had no influence on him, just like the Nazis lost influence on their missiles as they roared their way to London. James was a self-guiding missile. One Saturday night, he and his friends beat a man halfway to death, and this time they got caught. James was going to jail. The saddest thing was that it wasn’t a white man that they beat, it was another Race man. One of James’s friends thought this man knew what they had been up to and were going to tell on them, so they beat him down to teach him a lesson. James told me that it was all his friend’s idea, and I believed him because I wanted to believe him, and he wanted me to believe him.
He got arrested in the afternoon. He called me at the motor pool from the jail. I went to see him as soon as I could leave. We sat across from each other at a metal table, with a bored-looking cop watching us from nearby as he filled out some paperwork.
“James, what is going on here? Your mother is going to be devastated.”
He looked at me with eyes that were flat. I had never seen him look that way before. He was just a kid, but his eyes looked as cold as a snake’s.
“She won’t be devastated when the white folks give us what’s coming to us,” he said, his voice flat.
I kept looking into his eyes and they weakened. Tears pushed their way past his lids and ran down his cheeks, and then he put his head down on the desk and sobbed.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry. I let you down.”
I went to put my arms around him, but the policeman got up and steered me to the door. He was a pasty, rumpled man and I expected him to say something rude to get me out the door. Instead, he walked me outside, stood close and looked me in the eye.
“Your son seems like a good boy who made a mistake,” he said, his voice low as if James could hear. “I had that hunch and I let you in here so I could confirm it. I did. We’ll keep him for a while and get to the bottom of this, but I don’t think we’ll have him for too long. When we hand him back over, though, you need to be sure to keep an eye on him.”
I was so startled by his obvious concern that I could just nod my head in agreement and stammer.
They did have him for a while, though. They had him for the next eighteen months. The man he helped beat was not in a forgiving mood and did not see the same good character that this policeman did, and James did not have a good defense. We spent as much as we could for a lawyer, but no good lawyers wanted to spend time with a case like ours. The good Race lawyers were busy with the struggle and didn’t want to defend a Race man accused of a crime that, to them, was just a white stereotype of what Race men were like. Most white lawyers didn’t want to be bothered, at all. In the end, we got a public defender and paid him a little, but we got what we paid for — virtually nothing — and James was transferred to a juvenile facility outside Birmingham.
The chill in my house deepened into an ice age. Virginia believed that I had tried to move James away from violence, but she also blamed me for steering him in that direction in the first place, which was true. With James gone, I moved into his room, and my wife and I began sharing a house instead of continuing a marriage. We drove down to see James every weekend at first, then every other weekend as the chores and duties of everyday life crept back into the crevices on our calendar. James was always happy to see us and told us of how he had seen the light, how well he was doing in juvenile hall, and how he was studying hard so he would not fall too far behind. Although we always drove home in complete silence, his stories cheered us up. The only thing James was not telling us was the truth.
JAMES WAS hard when he got out. I started to say that he was a hard man, but he was still just a boy. He was a boy trying to be hard and tough. Virginia and I, and Rev. Scott, drove down to pick James up when he was released. He had on regular clothes, like he was just getting out of school. There was a difference about him, though, a lean and wary way of walking. An older boy was with him, a muscular boy who had some chunk on him, as well. His face was round, his head was almost conical, and his hair was shaved down to the nub. He looked like a human missile.
“This my friend Addis,” were the first words out of James’s mouth.
“This is my friend Addis,” Virginia said, unable to help herself.
“Ma’am,” Addis said, and nodded to me and to the Rev. Scott.
“I have to go now,” James said.
“You go then,” Addis said, and patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll be in touch.”
He walked off, heading along the side of the busy road. There was no one to greet him.
“Addis, would you like a ride?” Virginia called, but he turned and shook his head.
“No, thank you, ma’am.”
We each gave James a hug, which he endured stoically, his body tense. It was like hugging a fence post.
“Let’s get you home,” Virginia said.
The conversation on the way home was awkward. What do you say?
How was prison?
“You tell me that they treated you all right, son,” Rev. Scott said.
James nodded. “They treated me all right. I met some interesting people. We started looking out for each other.” “That boy Addis?” I asked.
“Addis, yes. Him and some others.”
“And they made you study?” the reverend asked. “And let you go to church? I would think that would be the best thing in the situation.”
“We studied. And they let us go to church. After a while I didn’t go to church, though.”
“After a while, I went to mosque.”
James tossed it out there lightly, but it landed like a hand grenade.
James’s grandfather looked like he was going to be sick.
“It’s something called the Nation of Islam,” James said. “A Negro man’s religion, not this white European stuff that’s been handed down. Authentic. Addis told me about it.”
Rev. Scott pushed himself back into the seat, exhaling with a grunt like someone had punched him. Virginia just stared at the back of James’s head.
I knew about the Nation of Islam. They were headquartered in Chicago and I would see some of them around here and there handing out newspapers and asking people to come to the mosque. They said white people were blue-eyed devils, and it was often hard to argue with them about that. Uncle Abe used to argue with them sometimes, about how they weren’t really Islamic and how they ought to try some Baptist preaching sometime. It was good-natured arguing, and they smiled and argued right back, accusing him of carrying the white man’s water by preaching his religion. It was the kind of arguing men do with smiles on their faces.
Aside from that, I didn’t know much about them, but I knew they were more hard-edged than some in the struggle. I just hadn’t realized they were in Alabama, and that specifically they were in a cell with my son.
“Son, are you…are you a Moslem?” Rev. Scott asked.
He tensed as he awaited the answer but allowed himself to relax when James said, “No. Not yet.”
“Why not?” Virginia asked, her anger evident in her voice. I glanced at her in the mirror and she was as tense as her father. “What’s keeping you from it?”
James’s face lost some of its hardness. He didn’t look at them as he answered, just looked at the passing scenery, the flat green landscape that whirled by. “I don’t know. I just wasn’t ready yet.”
“What is it about it that appeals to you, James?” I asked. After watching my Uncle Abe for so long, I wasn’t under the illusion that someone’s religion could tell you if they were a good person. I didn’t have a dog in the fight, so I could just ask my son some honest questions.
“It’s not handed down to us,” he said, turning to me and talking to me like I was the only one in the car. “It’s authentically Negro. Black people were the first people and everyone else came from us. The Bible always shows Adam and Eve as white, but it wasn’t like that. Dr. Muhammad tells it like it is. His teachings show us what we were, and that shows us what we can be.”
“Oh,” Rev. Scott groaned from the back, but I kept talking over him. I wanted the conversation to be civil for as long as possible.
The heat was on James after that. His mother kept an eye on him to keep up his studies and stay out of trouble. She was not happy with his flirtation with the Nation of Islam but that was not her first concern. He needed to stay alive and out of jail first, and then she could worry about what church he went to later.
With her on his back about his studies, her father was left with nothing to focus on but his grandson’s eternal soul. The Rev. Scott was not doing it to be annoying, although he was. He genuinely feared that James would roast forever in Hell if he didn’t turn from the false path of Mohammed, and he wanted to make sure that didn’t happen. He came to visit us even more but spent less time at civil rights events and more time reading the Bible with James. He pointed out that James was the name of the brother of Jesus, and it would be a shame to change it or add anything to it. When he wasn’t around, he sent tracts and pamphlets for James to read, some of which espoused things that the reverend didn’t even believe. He was willing to try anything.
James endured it all with good grace. He even seemed a little amused. He read the Bible with his grandfather, although I noticed he didn’t touch it when he was by himself, and he studied enough and got enough good grades that he wasn’t far behind in school, which made his mother happy. He started dressing better, too, wearing stiff cotton shirts and ironing them himself. His bearing was more upright, too. I didn’t recognize it at first but then I remembered where I had seen such a bearing, and where I continued to see it every day. He looked like a military man.
I asked him about it one day, when he came home from school wearing a crisp white shirt and creased black pants. His answer warmed my heart.
“I’m trying to be like you.”
He fixed his very serious face on me and said, “Like you.”
There is very little more a father needs to hear in this life than that.
“I thought about how you did things. You wanted to learn to fly so you learned to fly, even though Negro men weren’t allowed to fly for the military. But you wanted to fly for the military, so you found a way to do it. And now Negro men can fly for whoever they want.”
“I was just lucky,” I said. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
“No, you did what you wanted to do, and everyone gets to benefit from it. That’s what I want to do. You came back from over there, but things are still bad here. It’s my time to change it. I want to do it the way you did it. The right way.”
I think I had tears in my eyes when I hugged him. He was still a tough nut, but his mother and his grandfather were getting through to him. I acted like I was, but I don’t think I was really playing much of a part, except for being a role model years ago. I was proud of what he told me at first, but later I thought about it and felt ashamed. I had made a difference, it was true, but that had ended twenty years before, five years before James had been born. After I came back, or whatever version of me it was that came back, I wasn’t a role model for anything but how to get a menial job and work at it until you died.
I had seen cartoons and movies where old soldiers, reminiscing about their young, dashing days, went and poked through their memorabilia, which was usually stored in a moldy trunk in the attic. I didn’t have an attic or a trunk, and I didn’t even have any memorabilia. I had come through the war with nothing. At the time, I was happy just to be home, but now I wished I had something to look at, to point to, to convince myself that my son was right. I had my letter of acceptance to the Tuskegee flight training, and my letter of acceptance to the Coffey School, but that was it. I didn’t even know where they were. Virginia had wanted to frame them and put them up, but I said no, because, at the time, I didn’t want to think about what they had led me to.
I went for a walk later that day, after dinner and after the sun had gone down. The evening was refreshingly chilled and quiet, just the occasional sound of cars swooshing by or dogs barking. Cicadas shouted from the trees, a gentle wave of sound that washed against the hills. It was peaceful and quiet and yet I knew it was a war zone. It was a war zone for me and every other Race man and every Race woman and every Race child, and it always had been since we had been brought over from Africa, and it always would be. It made my heart heavy to think about it.
I thought about what James had said. Sometimes it is good for fathers to listen to the wisdom of their sons. I wished — not for the first time — that he had been able to meet his grandfather. I think he would have liked my dad. I think they would have laughed and gotten along, and I wish Father could have been stronger and held out longer. He had not been an old man when he died. He didn’t have to go when he did.
“I will be stronger,” I said out loud, to no one but myself.
I decided that I would rejoin the fight. I would show James that he was right, that I could still do things the right way. I got my chance to show my worthiness almost right away. Rev. Scott was waiting at the kitchen table when I got back in the door.
“Did you hear what happened in Selma?”
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