|This is the beach in Palau where I last met Freddy in 2001. This photo was taken in 2007 by my son.|
One day on my way to school I came upon a group of 3 or 4 fifth graders bullying a first grader. The were pushing him into a chainlink fence and kicking him. The first grader was scared and crying. I immediately called out “Leave him alone.” The 5th graders stopped and looked my way. As I approached them I said again with as much confidence and authority as I could “Leave him alone.” They left him alone at that point. They were probably about done beating him up anyways. They slowly walked off calling me and the first grader names. They were all a year older than me and they out numbered me. They could have easily done to me what they did to the first grader but they didn’t. They just called me a few names and were gone. I picked up the boy’s lunch sack that had been stomped on and completely flattened and handed it to him. I was sorry I didn’t have anything to share with him because I always ate school lunch and had nothing with me. I walked the rest of the way to school with him. I’m not sure what we talked about but I learned his name was Freddy.
Later in life I met a few other young boys while I was out walking. I never learned their names but collectively I think of all of them as Freddy.
The second time I met Freddy was in San Francisco. I was 16 and my dad was taking me to see the Dallas Cowboys play the 49ers on Monday Night Football. Most of the trip was paid for with beer cans. My dad and I would often walk along the side of the highways and pick up aluminum cans and take them to be recycled. We would get a few cents per pound. We saved up enough to pay the fares for a Greyhound bus to San Francisco and the game tickets. We stayed one night in a motel in San Francisco. We caught a city bus from the motel to Candlestick Park. We didn’t know which stop was closest to Candlestick so we asked the bus driver to let us know when to get off. When we could see the stadium the bus driver stopped and told us to just walk straight down this street as he pointed to the stadium. We got out and started walking down the street. We didn’t get very far before we felt out of place. It was a residential street with houses on both sides built very close together. The residence were staring at us. Soon some of them began yelling at us. “Hey mother f@#kers! What you doin’ here.” “Get your white asses atta here.” “You gonna die mother f&#kers.” We were scared but just tried to look straight ahead and walked as quickly as we could. The yelling must have gotten everyone’s attention. Men and women started yelling at us from windows. Those that weren’t yelling were staring at us with looks that could kill. Suddenly there was a young boy walking next to me.
“Are you going to the game?” he asked in a excited voice.
“Uh, yes.” I said.
“Wow, I wish I could go to a game. Have you been to a game before.”
The name calling stopped as soon as he started talking to us. The adults still gave us unhappy looks but they didn’t say anything. He was a curious 9 or 10 year old boy but we felt much safer walking with him by our side.
He continued asking questions and talking about football. He was very happy and was exited to hear about the football players I had seen. He stayed by our side until we got to the end of the street which was the start of the stadium parking lot. I remember him saying something like “Have fun at the game. I wish I could go to a game.”
Even as a young kid going to a few professional football games I felt something wasn’t right. I knew all the players. I knew their numbers, positions and their stats. I knew many if not most were black. But I didn’t see black people in the stands as fans. That always bothered me.
|This is a photo I took at the Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers in 1977.|
I began walking to school every morning with Freddy. I was his bodyguard. I’m sure no one who knows me now can picture me as a bodyguard but in fourth grade I was respected on the playground. I played football at recess and lunch with fourth and fifth graders. My nickname was Legs because my friends said I was the fastest kid in the school. I knew that wasn’t true. My older sister was faster than me and surely there were some other sixth graders who faster. But I wasn’t about to say anything. I liked the reputation and I liked being one of the dominate kids on the playground. When Freddy was with me he was safe. Every morning we met across the street from my house at the start of a short cut through a vacant lot then walked to school.
|Freddy's bodyguard, spring 1970.|
At the time I lived in San Bernardino, California. This was the time of Vietnam War protests and racial riots. Our house was next to San Gorgonio High School. That year there were days when I walked to school with the sidewalks lined with riot police with their helmets, shields and guns. I remember seeing fighting from our front window. I’m not sure how my parents did it, probably just by example, but I grew up with a compassion and empathy for black people. I didn’t know much about history then but I knew they were not treated good. I always wanted them to be treated equally and succeed in everything they did. It really upset me that Freddy was bullied and called names because of the color of his skin.
The next time I walked with Freddy was in Taiwan. I lived there for the summer of 1983 during college break. I didn’t really have much to do other than study Chinese on my own. Nearly every day I would go out walking around Taipei. This particular evening I went to the very southwest side of Taipei across the Tamsui River to Youghe. The Youghe District was famous for places that served breakfast all day long. I always called them 豆漿 (doujiang - soy milk) places. I love the cold 豆漿 they serve. After having breakfast for dinner I decided to walk home (with the help of Google Maps I just learned this is about 8 miles). It was already dark as I started to walk home. Back then it seemed Taipei fell asleep as soon as it got dark. There was much less traffic, fewer pedestrians and everything closed except night markets. By the time I passed the old baseball stadium the city was very quiet. Out of nowhere I heard a voice from behind me say in Chinese “What are you doing out so late?” I turned around to see a young boy with a dog on a leash.
“I’m walking home. What are you doing out this late?” I replied in Chinese.
“Walking my dog. Where do you live?”
We continued the conversation as we walked. We were the only two out and there were very few cars. Eventually an ambulance raced by with it’s lights flashing and siren blaring. It turned down a side street a few blocks in front of us and disappeared. A minute later it reappeared and went down one more block, turned and disappeared again. Soon it reappeared again and went one more block down, turned and disappeared. The ambulance repeated this pattern a few more times before it disappeared for good.
The conversation was very unusual for me. This young boy initiated the conversation in Chinese and was not surprised nor impressed with my response in Chinese. He didn’t even say “Oh, your Chinese is so good. Where did you learn to speak it.” He didn’t say anything about me being a foreigner. He didn’t acknowledge that I was a foreigner in anyway. He treated me like a neighbor that he saw everyday. It was great.
We walked a few blocks then he ended the conversation as abruptly as it began “I got to go now. 再見 (zaijian - goodbye).”
|The streets of Taipei in 1983.|
I was not a fighter. I had never been in a fist fight (I still haven’t) but I knew there was a possibility I would have to fight walking Freddy to school everyday. After all I was his body guard. Fortunately I never ran into any trouble while walking him to school. However, one evening I was out playing when I was confronted by a kid that lived down the street. He said “Why are you walking that n&#%^ to school?” He shoved me and I shoved him back. Luckily for me a friend who was a few years older stepped in a broke it up right then. There was no way for me to win this fight. If it ended any way other than me getting my ass totally kicked he would have come back with 2 or 3 of his older brothers and beat the shit out of me. I had seen them gang up to beat up kids then urinate on them. I’m sure that would have happened to me if I had hurt this kid in any way.
The last time I saw Freddy was June 13, 2001 in Palau. I was walking along a beach after dark watching lightning in the distance and faint bioluminescence in the waves. There was an opening in the clouds that I mistook for a light thin cloud. Once I realized it was an opening in the clouds I could see many stars through the opening. I had a small flash light to watch out for cane toads. There were many out in the evenings and I didn’t want to step on one. I noticed hermit crabs on the sand and then other crabs darting out of the light. A young Palauan boy approached me.
“Do you speak Palauan?” He asked.
“No, do you speak English?”
“No.” He said. But obviously he spoke a little.
I said “I do know how to say hello, ah lee.”
He then taught me how to say “Dong-o-long.” But I didn’t know what it meant. At first I thought it meant crab because he was pointing at one. But when I pointed at one and said “Dong-o-long” he acted as if I got it all wrong. Eventually I came to believe it meant “Yes.” Whatever it means the boy was very happy I learned to say it. I then asked him what his name was. He got frustrated because I just couldn’t say it right.
He then spotted a crab that was holding still in the light and he slowly crept closer to it. I held the light on it. When he got too close the crab started to run. The boy jumped towards it and reach out with his bare foot to stomp on it. He missed.
He then asked “Do you know splash?”
I said splash like the waves and pointed the light to the small waves crashing on the sand.
He looked confused and asked again. This time I just said “Splash?” Thinking I might be hearing him wrong. He pointed to a small building ahead on the beach and said “That is splash.” The building was the dive shop at the resort named Splash.
He then said something about “Mama” and turned to go. I asked him how to say good bye. He said “ May-ee-gong.” So I repeated it and waved as he turned and ran off.
One Spring morning late in the school year I saw a lady turn the corner with Freddy. I waited in the street in front of my house as they walked to our meeting spot. When they approached the lady said “I’m Freddy’s mother. You must be Ross. Thank you. Thank you for walking to school with Freddy.” I could tell she was sincerely grateful and it meant a lot to her.
Shortly after that school year ended we moved and I never saw Freddy again. Off and on I think of Freddy. I’ve thought of him more and more the last few years. I wonder if he got beat up walking to school again. I wonder if the police often pull him over and harass him for minor or made up violations. I wonder if he gets watched in stores like he’s some kind of criminal. Did he get treated as if he wasn’t smart in school. Does he get paid less than his white coworkers. Does he worry that his kids will get beat up walking to school.
I think about Freddy’s mom too. I now have kids of my own. They say I am over protective. I do want the best for them and worry a lot. However there is no way I can even imagine how Freddy’s mom must feel. I don’t know what I would do if I feared that my child would get bullied and beat up every time he left the house or if I knew my child would be discriminated against and treated unfairly in nearly every aspect of life. The “Thank you” Freddy’s mom gave me means more to me than any other “Thank you” I have ever received.