East Mountain Street--less than a quarter-mile in my memory--was off limits to me and the Bowman brothers. We were white kids and East Mountain was an unpaved road through thick woods with a few small, tottering houses owned by black folks. My parents absolutely forbid me from walking on East Mountain for the back and forth to school. Walking three extra blocks around a big square of white-folks’ houses to avoid East Mountain seemed stupid to me, but my segregated culture was intensely held in the eyes and words of my parents’ rules. Eddie and his brother Marty dared me to join them that warm afternoon in May, 1965, and walk home on East Mountain. I was glad to have a reason to take the short route home, and I disobeyed my parents with a distinct thrill, sharp as a switchblade’s edge.
We were about halfway through the woods along the forbidden road, when I spotted the four black boys walking toward us. Immediately I knew by their size, they were older than the three of us. My companions had seen them, too; and they had seen us. Our jokes went silent.
Marty whispered forcefully, “Walk slow and look straight ahead.”
A dare accepted with smiling bravado among ten year-olds ten minutes prior became a weight around my neck pulling me into a whirlpool of trouble. In my mind’s eye, the next twenty-five steps would bring me face to face with four black hoodlums who would trip us, swing at us while swearing thickly and their canine teeth grew into razor points jutting out of their mouths. There would be no denying before my parents what wrong I had done as they patched my soon-to-be swollen face.
Before I could plan the lies I would use deflecting my parents’ anger, we two groups of boys were within only a few steps of one another. As if rehearsed, each opposing rank spread apart, eyes steeled forward, and all seven of us strained to not make eye contact. A last few steps placed us shoulder to shoulder and alternating colors in a line. For a split second, I was only inches from the boy on either side of me, who both seemed as tense as me in their forward, silent march.
A few steps enough away to make our whispers unclear to them, and we recounted among us what passing those black boys had felt like. We spoke of our fear; I remember it snarling in my chest and gulping my air away from me. We noted how the “enemy” had behaved--just like us—and they had done nothing to frighten or harm us as I expected.
In that short, disobedient walk down East Mountain Street, I had gone from feeling happily brave to risk it, through a despairing fear of having brought the most terrible moment imaginable upon myself, which then settled out as an odd place of wonder. Those black boys had been just boys, foreign to me perhaps, but neither mean nor dangerous as I had been warned. Something was wrong with my parents’ truth.
Ever had a moment in your life, when all your identified parameters of "truth" shifted?