Shadow on a sunny day

November 13, 1996|By Jack L. Levin

FOR AN 8-YEAR-OLD child in east Baltimore some 76 years ago, the season of joy, good cheer and good will was not Christmas, but July.

We looked forward weeks ahead to our trip down the bay. The family prepared happily for the big event. My mother took me and my sister, a toddler of 3, to the early sales to shop for summer clothes. A white, blue-trimmed sailor's uniform puffed me with pride because my father had worn a sailor's uniform for four years as a coal-passer on the battleship Pennsylvania, flagship of Fightin' Bob Evans' Great White Fleet.

Marvelous dishes were prepared for the outing. My mother pickled beets in a jug of vinegar, sugar, cinnamon, salt, clove and sliced onions. Then she put in hard boiled eggs to redden for weeks in the beet juice. Everybody glowed with anticipation.

When the great day dawned, my father awakened us with, ''Rise and Shine! Up and at 'em!'' He carried the heaviest picnic baskets, my grandmother and I two lighter ones. My mother carried my half-asleep sister.

When the street-car conductor called, ''Pier Six,'' we all hurried off to the ticket line, then up the gangplank to stake out a choice spot at the rail.

I opened an extra folding chair for my friend, Donald. He had said he would not come, but I still hoped he might show up at the last minute. But the boat's whistle blew, the attendant called, ''All aboard,'' the side wheels started churning and we were off without Donald.

The air whetted our appetites. We were scarcely out of sight of the big yellow McCormick Building when we were already sampling some of the luncheon goodies. My mother scolded and snatched away the pickled eggs so that we would have some left for lunch and dinner.

Down to the engine room

Donald loved pickled eggs; how I wished he were here. Father took me down to the engine room and explained the big pumping pistons that drove the big wheels. He talked shop with the coal-passer who was doing the same job my father had done in the Navy. Donald would have enjoyed all that, and would have asked a lot of questions.

As the Eastern Shore approached and the western shore receded, I wondered if we were passing Carr's Beach and Brown's Grove, where Donald went to swim.

He and I used to meet on weekends when my family visited my paternal grandmother in her second-hand furniture store on Pennsylvania Avenue, then Baltimore's Harlem. Next door, Donald's grandmother had a small cafe. He lived with her because his parents had disappeared. Donald said he had never met them, but expected to one day.

We played marbles and mumblety-peg in the back yard. Donald always won. He was 2 years older than I, a good athlete and a role model for me although he was a Negro.

"We don't go there"

When I asked him to come along with us to Tolchester Beach, he rTC said, ''We don't go there. We go to Carr's Beach or Brown's Grove or to Highland Beach. They got better stuff than Tolchester.'' Not till years later, did I learn that they had only picnic tables and trees and a ramshackle racer-dip at Brown's Grove.

Now we were approaching Tolchester, with its lush greenery and Chinese Pagoda entrance. As soon as the gangplank was lowered, we all raced off with our basket to claim a table in the shade and devour luncheon goodies with some cold sarsaparilla bought from a vendor.

My father bought ticket for the goat-cart ride. He strapped in my sister and lifted me into the driver's seat. I assumed command, grasping the reins and feeling proud and masterful -- like Donald, who told me he had driven a horse and wagon for his uncle, a fruit peddler.

The goat stopped suddenly and slowly headed back toward the stable. The keeper had to swat it with his folded newspaper to complete the journey around the tiny track. My father took a Brownie picture of me in my moment of triumph, a snapshot which later became a family treasure.

My father and I put on our bathing suits and raced down into the water, whooping and splashing because it was chilly. I asked him why some people were just lying on the beach, not getting wet.

''To get a suntan,'' said my father. ''They must want to look like Donald,'' I said.

I asked my father if it were true that Carr's Beach and Brown's Grove had more rides than Tolchester.

'' 'Course not,'' he laughed. ''They're for black people.''

A different shade

''But Donald's not black, he's brown,'' I protested.

''Don't matter -- he ain't allowed.''

I couldn't figure it out.

Seventy-six years later, I still can't.

Despite racial taboos, my friendship with Donald continued through the years. As juveniles and adolescents, in our grandmothers' backyards, surrounded by a high wooden fence, we had virtually a private playground for many games; boxing, wrestling, cards, checkers and goofing off.

With my parents' consent, I invited Donald to my Bar Mitzvah party in the kitchen of our row house, and he was a hit with my friends.

As adults, we met occasionally in the park. During World War II, we kept up a correspondence.

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