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The Brothers I Never Had

We are social creatures. Once we venture out from the nuclear family, we look for relationships that will provide us shelter as we move through the tangle of the world before us. We need to belong. I wasn’t invited to join a social club and that was just as well. The weakest link in a chain defines the strength and value of the entire chain. I began to understand the same was true of groups and group mentality. Belonging is good but only if you are very discerning about what you belong to. Consequently, I've never had much interest in joining anything to which my name or reputation would be attached.

Junior year. Homeroom first day. We took our seats in alphabetical order by last name. The room was full of faces I’d never seen before except for George. From the loud chatter, it was obvious that many of these kids knew each other from their previous schools. Except behind me sat a white kid whose parents had just moved to Indianapolis from Reading, Pennsylvania who knew even fewer people than me. His name was Jack Russell, curly haired and freckled face. Having our last names in common was just the beginning of a lifetime of shared experiences. He became my blue-eyed soul brother and to this day we address each other as Brother.

Becoming a part of Jack’s family was a perfect point of entry, a typical white, middle-class, suburban household. The contrast to my earlier years was stark materially but the dynamics were the same. We would hang out at his home doing what teenagers would do to kill time. John, Jack’s dad, was a robust businessman with a personality that commanded the room. Jack’s mom, Kathy, was a nurse with striking beauty and sparkling eyes that told of her spirit. Then there were the sibs, Jeff and Jane. Freckles ran in the family.

We called Jeff “Tuff” because in a lot of ways he was like his dad, a head of steam ready to go through walls if he had to. Jeff got a degree in Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management from Michigan State before starting Pied Piper, a bakery in Chicago providing wares to restaurants across the city. Like much of what Jeff put his mind to, it did very well. He later sold the business to Wesson Foods for a fortune. Later he opened Cross Rhodes Greek Restaurant in Evanston with his Greek wife. Tragically, Jeff died as the result of a fall. Jack stepped in and helped Jeff's daughter, Maria, carry on. And carry on she did! In 2020, Cross Rhodes Greek Restaurant was named the best in Chicago!

I gave Jane the nickname “Ears” for obvious reasons. It was funny at the time but I regret it now. However, she referred to herself by that name when we spoke recently. Jane personified the expression "cute as a button." If the author of the Dick and Jane reading primers had needed someone to greet children at the bookstore, Jane would have been the direct out of casting.

Jack was my Leif Erickson who guided me deeper into discovery of the white world in which I was still a new immigrant. He introduced me to hockey that still resembles more of a bar fight than a sport. We once went to a big-time wrestling match where I witnessed an intensity on the spectators’ faces that went beyond entertainment into a possessed psychosis over something that was so obviously a farce. Afterwards that night, we went to the Huddle restaurant on Meridian Street where, when Betty K’s closed, gay men and women poured in. Generally, the Black community had no tolerance for homosexuals. You could be ridiculed for the slightest hint of something that did not conform to the status quo. And that was my reaction that night in the Huddle. Jack hustled me out before we got our asses kicked. Mark that up as another lesson on my way to adulthood and maturity.

All this while, it wasn’t just Jack and me. Richard was another black kid Jack had also befriended. Richard had an outrageous, spontaneous wit that made all of these experiences uproariously hysterical, a talent we put to good use. There was nothing Richard couldn't make hysterical. Absolutely nothing! Richard’s mom and dad had moved into the township years before we had. He was their only child. Though we had attended junior high in the same school, it was Jack who brought us together. Richard knew many of the kids I was meeting for the first time from the earlier grades. He was further along in his assimilation than was I. His insightful humor was also educating in the ways of this culture. Because of Richard, I was beginning to see patterns that have helped me navigate my entire life. How humor was a useful tool to make your way a bit easier.

It was also Richard who brought me out of the shadows of my shyness our senior year. Every year the school would hold the Senior Talent Show. Richard said we should produce a skit for the show. It was only because of his talent and persuasiveness that I agreed. Jack encouraged us but being on stage was not his idea of a good time. So we put my creative skills and his ability to split people’s sides to work.

The Long, Hot Summer of 1967 as it was called provided one of the deadliest summers in American history, 159 race riots across the country. Civil Rights marches through the south put lives on the line for equality. Martin Luther King delivers his "Beyond Vietnam" speech, calling for defeat of "the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism". A jury convicted 7 of 18 men accused in the murders of civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964. Richard and I settle on a script in response to the turmoil roiling through the south. Johnny Walker was the main character in a parody of James Meredith's 1966 220 mile walk from Memphis, TN to Jackson, MS. I agreed to be Walker and led a march into the classroom protesting unfair treatment at the hands of our teachers. Richard's script was a hit! Kids were rolling in their seats. Unfortunately, no copies of the script survive and my memory of the details are long gone. But the act was a hit and the cast included many members of the in-crowd dancing on desktops on the stage. It was voted the best act of the 1967 show.

I had arrived and was awakening. But at what cost? Had our performance been another example of black men "shuckin' n' jivin'" to entertain the master to win his favor or spare themselves from his ire? Was it another Bojangles moment tap dancing down the staircase? Did the sight of two black boys regaling the largely white audience with laughter change any perceptions of "negroes." Or did it just underline a long promoted stereotype? The white kids who had proven to be true friends drew closer. But it was the close of our senior year and there was no time left to measure any wider effect.

Upon graduation, Jack headed to Michigan State, Richard to Indiana University and me to Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. I was enrolled into the School of Architecture. My dad’s dream was coming to be. But there were hurdles to clear first. As I said, I started in the township school system far behind my peers. Over the four years in this deeper pool, I was able to finish in the top half of a class of upcoming leaders in the community, the arts, business and the nation. My guidance counselor, looking at my transcript apparently did not factor in where I started in relation to how I finished. He advised me not to pursue a college education. I don't recall what reasoning he offered, perhaps too stunned to hear one. All the work for all those years and still come up short? This was my first encounter with a white man who likely saw me as just another stereotypical black kid who wasn’t good enough, closing a door I thought I had opened. But the dream was set and I stayed on the path. After making the Dean's List twice, I was tempted to pay him a visit. His admonition became clearer over the years of reflection. He wouldn’t be the last to try to discourage me.

With Marcia and Jack in California in 1997.

Through the years, Jack and I have remained closer than I have been with Richard. We lost touch with him for most of the years since, reconnecting occasionally. He wandered off into his career of social service in northern Indiana and returned home to care for his mother when his father passed away never losing that incredible wit. But Jack and I have remained close even after he moved to pursue an industrial engineering career in southern California. We shared similar personal life experiences and would console each other as they flowed by. He would be my first call when things got dark. He “sat” with me long distance as I cried over the loss of my relationship with Marcia. I shared his pain of his divorce from Kathy and the tragic death of his brother, Jeff.

Years separated our times together. But we Russell boys take over whosever kitchen we find ourselves in and make magic. Mom would sometimes say I always wanted a brother. And I do. Love you Bro now and forever.

1 Comment

Jun 24, 2020

Charlie, I just want you to know how much I appreciate your blog. I’m learning a lot that was right in front of my eyes.

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