By Ernie McCray
A little while back I spent some time with friends of mine in Tucson who, like me, went to Dunbar, the “colored” school.
My girlfriend, Maria, said to me, as we were re-living the trip, “You all have such interesting faces.” And it’s true. We do. For us it would be hard not to. We’ve had the kinds of lives that go into making interesting faces.
For one thing we had to swim on top of each other when we sought relief from the frying heat of summer in the “colored” pool, a water hole no bigger than some I’ve seen in backyards in middle class neighborhoods. On the deck a sign said “No Running” and that wasn’t just a mere suggestion as it was hard to slowly tip toe on that ice-like surface without your feet spinning rapidly beneath you like the roadrunner’s. A cracked head will make your face look extremely interesting, let me tell you.
And speaking of crowded conditions, those of us who lived close to Dunbar would get up early in the morning just so we could get to the bus stop to see what seemed like a gazillion kids from the “colored” section of A Mountain disembark from their bus, “The Sardine Can.” They poured off that bus like jigsaw pieces, angry as all get out, gasping for air and dignity, ready to kick the crap out of any witnesses to their misery who dared to as much as snicker or even look like they’re about to. Extrapolate that experience over several school years for both the performers and the audience and you’ve got the making of some very interesting faces, indeed.
There was at least a fight or two every morning after that ride and I’m not referring to those “I double-dare you to cross this line” or “Knock this chip off my shoulder” lightweight scuffle. Naw, I’m talking about an “I’m go’ crawl down your throat, tap dance on yo’ liver and dare yo’ f—–n’ bowels to move!” bone crunching body slamming old fashioned fistfight – same routine when some lousy poet went against a master wordsmith in a “Yo Mama” (aka “the dozens”) rhyming contest and tried to make up for the loss by tearing into the better poet’s chest.
Oh, were there ever some battles and one was hailed as the very best: Willie Frank versus Turkey Red. I remember the sounds so vividly. They were cartoon-like and echoed all over the lunch-court: “Ka-Pow-Yow! Wham! Splat! Zap!” Turkey’s foot got stuck in the school fence and you could hear our collective bloodthirsty wince as a warrior is left with no defense. But we all learned something that day. Willie Frank helped his foe untangle and get back up on his feet and they went off as though they were going trick-or-treating. Every time I hear the term “good sportsmanship” my mind goes back to that day. Whatever is interesting in our faces had to be influenced by this display of love where moments ago there was hatred and anger that had gone awry.
It was love that got us through it all. It showed: when the Whites and the Andrews and Eva Bazy and Harvey Adams and Richard Scott and the Winbush sisters sang and we melted in the beauty of their voices; when we listened to Richard Wells and Doris Ann Brown and Joyce Bell tickle the ivories, from Bach to Boogie Woogie; when we looked on as Fennimo and Jimmy Smith and Willie Ray and Doris Jean Scurlock filled canvases with their exquisite art; when we were awed by Eddie Gentry’s car designs; when Cass Preston and Charles Butler blew their trumpets to our cheers.
We even doled out our nicknames in a spirit of love, our love of playing with words. We called Charles Green Turkey Red because of his skin coloring. We had an old classmate whose B.O. was out of control and we called him Musk Rat. Harry Rainey was Ash Cat for his ashy skin which, to us, was a mortal sin. There was Bee Bop because “he just knew he was hip.” Pat Benson was Bread and Clarence Ward was Dip and I never knew why. Our principal, Mr. Morgan Maxwell, who wore thick glasses, was Eagle Eye. There was Pot Brother, named because his brother was heavy into both the sale of and the use of weed. Jimmy Smith was Star as he would stick his chest out far every time he scored no matter what the game. And there was Pee Hole who, rightfully so, no longer appreciates that nickname.
My dearly departed old friend, Roy Jr. Walls, and I used to call each other Bupsy which to us meant we were cool. And he truly was. One of my all time favorite people on the planet. He could dance like he was born to shake his booty and he would come up with a statement out of the air that would make you drop to your knees laughing. Like when we were posing for a picture at an earlier Dunbar Reunion and he, because the photographer was taking much too long to capture us on film, said: “Damn, the ‘Evolution of Man’ was faster than this motherf_____r and that camera.” I miss my buddy. He put laugh-lines on my face that will last an eternity.
And there we were, gathered together, having jumped, in our lives, through more hoops than Shamu, in our 60’s and 70’s and 80’s and 90’s, laughing and partying in a room bursting with love, with smiles, with contentment, with faces made interesting by the lives we’ve lived along the way – and with each new breath we draw our faces will likely become more and more interesting down the way.