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Grape Wars

The neighborhood was a haven for us. It still had many of the characteristics of the southern culture brought northward during the Great Migration when African Americans fled the south by the millions to escape the separate but unequal Jim Crow laws in hopes of better work and a better life.

I remember the truck farmer coming down the street on his mule-drawn wagon loaded with a rainbow of vegetables typical to down home cuisine. And the milkman dressed in white hopping out of the wrong side of his truck to deposit 2 bottles in the galvanized box on the front step and mark the delivery on the ticket beneath the lid.

Hog carcasses, after having been split, move along a chain to be "dressed."

We were poor though I didn’t know it and didn’t care. Dad worked swinging a heavy saw splitting hogs top to bottom at the Kingan & Company meatpacking plant downtown on Washington Street at White River. He would smell to high heaven when we picked him up after work. But it was the smell of money. Splitting hogs was backbreaking but it was what work he could find since jobs as phone linemen, for which he was trained during the war, were reserved for returning white vets. Mom became a secretary at Public School #26 on the east side after making tents for the war effort. The principal got a kick out of sitting my skinny, little butt in a waste can to watch me try to wiggle my way out. Her job allowed me to attend kindergarten all day making me the youngest first grader starting the second semester. But our little world had all it needed and what it didn’t have we created.

In the backyard was a large Maple tree with limbs perfect for lounging on out of the summer sun solving the problems of the world. Problems like how to avoid Lance, the bully down the street, who could throw a curve ball that would make you cry “momma” or launch a rock attack from a block away. But when a hornet would buzz through that tree, the pontification session came to an abrupt end and it would rain screaming brown bodies.

Further back in the backyard, was a fence dad had put up to create a play space for us and keep us from tearing up his cherished lawn. I don’t know what it was about a perfect lawn but he was committed to it and therefore so were we under threat of a tongue lashing. But on that fence grew a grape vine, Concord grapes in fact. Every year dad would make wine from the fruit in a large crock just inside the back door. It smelled bad and fruit flies swarmed the cloth that covered it. Dad, true to his mischievous personality, once offered me a taste to amuse himself at the faces he knew I would make. I had not yet developed a “nose” for wine and his didn't encourage one. Still, I’ve come to enjoy it in spite of my first “tasting.” But I did find a more enjoyable use for the fruit.

We had run out of things to do one hot afternoon when our creative minds came up with the idea that those bright green marble-sized bunches would make perfect ammunition for our sling shots. We each grabbed a bunch and ran for cover. Green balls flew through the air with great accuracy and stinging power. I let one fly back through the vine at Kenny. “Oww!” was confirmation it had found its mark. When we had tired of inflicting welts on each other we took fresh bunches and headed down the cinder paved alley looking for new targets.

At the end of the alley was a variety store where when we had some change, we would buy some hard candy. It faced Harding, a busy street where just a few blocks away lived my grandmother and my Aunt Betty. The walk to her house took us past Long’s Bakery and its intoxicating aromas. Though we often couldn’t afford the goods there, we would go in to stare at glazed heaven. But a fire in the kitchen forced them to move out of the neighborhood. To this day, I yearn for Long’s donuts, still the best I’ve ever had.

We took up positions in the alley next to the store and in the bushes on the other side. As cars would pass, we would let loose a fusillade of those green beauties. We would celebrate the explosion fruit against the car doors and windows. Then I drew back and launched one at a sedan coming up the street. It sailed through the air a bit higher than I had intended. It flew right through the open passenger side window. Pop! It exploded right against the side of the face of the driver, a white man wearing a brimmed hat. We heard him jam on the brakes and begin backing up. But by the time he got back to the alley all he saw was cinder dust.

It was time to find another way to amuse ourselves.


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