By Ernie McCray
When it comes to age I’m about to turn another page. I’ll be 76 if I’m still on the scene on April 18th, 2014.
Life, on the whole, has been very good to me. Somehow, I’ve managed, in my time, as I’ve evolved as a human being, to let the good moments override the moments when I’ve wanted to scream or just cold-cock some redneck yokel out of his misery into another galaxy or burn down the “system.” The hypocrisy of it all has always bothered me immensely.
So I just ride the high from the pretty moments, like the one the other day when Maria and I, on a little getaway, were walking along the main drag in Julian, enjoying a soothing sunny day, fully at ease with ourselves and with each other. While strolling through a group of boys, in front of a market, one of them said to me, “You’re tall,” to which I replied, “Yes, I am that” as we stepped through the threshold of the little store. “Can you dunk?” he continued. “At one time. Not anymore.” “Too old?” “You got it.”
“Did you ever play in the NBA?” I answered “No” and talked about how I gave it a try, though, how I was drafted in 1960 by the Cincinnati Royals who now are the Sacramento Kings. I told the boys how I had played with Oscar Robertson, the great Big-O. “Who is that?” they wanted to know. The next thing I knew I was autographing three basketballs and about five pairs of funky basketball shoes as grownups passed by with expressions on their faces that wondered “Who is that celebrity, dude? Bill Russell?” I get that all the time.
Those kids gave me such a glow. They got me to thinking about other idyllic moments in my life, like the very vision of Maria stretching her lovely bones on the bed reading, so still and so faraway from worries about her mentoring at SDSU.
I thought about a time when I sang on stage with Pete Seeger; a time when I hung out with “Satchmo,”; a time when I played catch with another Satch, Satchel Paige; a time when the aforementioned, Oscar Big-O Robertson, hit me with a no look pass for an easy basket that didn’t seem possible, a pass that would have taken my head off if I had not been looking as I ran through a passing lane, after a busted play; times when I laughed at the antics of Tim Moore, “Kingfish” on Amos ‘N’ Andy, a family friend, over barbecued ribs and handmade peach ice cream in bass playing Fess Jackson’s backyard .
I thought of less grandiose times, like when I ate the most pancakes a boy my age had ever eaten at the Tucson Y Camp; like when I danced as Mother Ginger in The Nutcracker with a host of tiny clowns hidden under my voluminous gown who exited this space enthusiastically and danced and cart-wheeled and scurried about and returned to their places under my gown.
I recalled winning a war bond as a prize for a story I had written about a dodo bird in 4th grade; jitterbugging on a truck in La Fiesta de los Vaqueros Parade while my dad tickled the ivories boogie-woogie slide piano style; joining church and getting baptized at age 9, freeing myself, in my mind, of the dark fearful thoughts I held about Hell and burning forever and ever and ever, so relieved that I was “saved” – and with the devil gone I phased out of religious life gradually as I aged except for the parts that ask us to love the world and one another much like the boys in Julian and I demonstrated in our brief moments together.
Of course some of the unappealing moments of my life begged for attention in my reminiscing. Like a day when I stood outside the Union, Mississippi train station waiting for my mother to take care of some kind of business inside. I watched as some local Jim Crow Aficionado threw one of our suitcases in the air into some mud as though it was an Olympic Games event – because I had placed the piece of luggage in front of his.
That ridiculousness, however, was rather benign compared to a trip my mother and I took to Detroit in 1949 and found ourselves escaping being burnt to a crisp by the KKK who set our cousin’s house on fire because he was “integrating” the neighborhood.
That they didn’t want that to happen they truly wanted understood.
But I had to lay those reflections aside because it just didn’t fit the setting, the quiet and the hilltops and chaparral forests and green grounds and blue sky with scattered clouds and Golden Hawks wooing one another that made up the scenery surrounding me. And, oh, did a wonderful memory come alive again in Surround Sound and Technicolor. I remember it, as they say, like it was yesterday. It was a celebration. The Sixth Grade Promotion at the end of my first year of teaching at Perry Elementary. The principal said “Let me introduce the sixth grade teachers.” I was last.
He went down the list and there was nice applause for everyone as would be expected especially since they were, each one of them, wonderful educators. He said, when he came to me, “And now the teacher in Room 22,” and I could feel a kind of vibrating energy suddenly build in the room, “Mr. Ernest McCray.” And the auditorium erupted. People were up on their feet clapping as though JFK or somebody had just graced the premises. I was startled. I had no idea I had made that kind of impact on a community, that my love and respect for those children in my room had been felt outside of our learning environment. I was just being myself, an athlete, a writer, a father, a husband, a social and political minded man, a lover, a friend, a dude who likes to have fun.
And through the years since then I’ve felt that they and all the other thousands of young people I’ve facilitated learning experiences for both 3R’s-wise and “how to get along as a human being-wise” – well, I’ve felt that they remain my students for the rest of my life. You can’t just drop some knowledge on somebody and take off. I’ve felt obligated to keep role-modeling how a learned citizen of the world should act. Because they could be watching me and many are as I run into students of mine all the time. And I’m so glad that I can face them with my head held up high, knowing that I’m still about what I encouraged them to be about, creating the world in which we’d like to live. I’ve managed to walk the talk. Somehow.
So at age 76 I’ll be up to my same old tricks.
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