Saturday, February 15, 2014

Born in Montclair but forever a Caldwell Chief

With the summer of 1968 drawing to a close, I had no place to return to other than back at the Bellville Children’s Shelter.  It remained unclear then where I would be going to school during my forthcoming freshmen year of junior high school.

Going back home was no longer a viable option. I had officially become a foster child.

My first preference was to return to Caldwell where my closest friends were: John, Brian, Mark, Eddie, Glen, Ricky, Richie, Dave, Glenn, Frank, Ken and others. I had an incredible psychosocial attachment to my community. It is there that I felt the most connected, loved and safe. I was also determined to some how right my past, make good, and stand tall alongside my friends as a fellow champion either in some sport or other arena of life before having to move on.

Back then, even when we weren’t all involved in the same activities we still made it a point to support our buddies like Richie, Glen and Dave Rice with their wrestling and we were able to empathize with them and their crazy dieting practices along with those hot showers that they would resort to walking through in their wet suits all in an effort to get themselves down to their correct weight level just in time for the upcoming wrestling match of that day.

At one point, in the late summer of 1968, I recall telephoning and begging a couple of male teachers to take me in for just one year so that I could at least complete ninth grade in Caldwell. However, it was not going to be possible because in each case neither of these men were deemed to be able to provide a suitable family atmosphere for a teenager.

Soon thereafter, it was my Mother who contacted the Garlette family to ask them if it might be possible for me to live with them. Their son John and I had been the best of friends all throughout elementary school.

In my view, what my Mother did was very loving and sadly I never found a way or the time to thank her. I wish that I had. She deserved to know that her love was appreciated by me.

Thankfully, the Garlettes said yes making a second stay in the Bellville shelter a very brief one.

I then became enrolled at Grover Cleveland Junior High School a week or two into the school year and I could not have been a happier camper.

John and I shared a bedroom together and it was awesome being at the Garlette dining room table for every meal with Mom, Dad and five other kids (i.e., Bill, Janet, John, James and Eddie) from which their parents wanted to hear each kid regularly recap the special events of their day.

The amount of milk, bread, cookies and other food items that we all went through every day would absolutely blow your mind. Everyone was sure to see to it that I had enough to eat.

There were times during my childhood that I would go into a supermarket and open bags of chips and cookies and eat them in the store mostly because I was hungry. As a family living on welfare assistance it was rare for us to regularly have a refrigerator full of food throughout the entire month.

Mrs. Garlette’s French toast and stuffed peppers and Spanish rice were among some of my most favorite meals. In fact, she served Spanish rice and stuffed peppers once a week just for me. She was a very kind and special lady!!!

Mrs. Garlette would bring home clothes for me to try on regularly.  I have no idea where they came from but they ususally were a good fit. Those that were not became quickly gathered up by the rest of the guys in the house. No questions asked.

On occasion, Mr. Garlette would personally take me shopping for clothes with the then very small clothing allowance that the state provided on a quarterly basis.

The Garlette family made sure that I never wanted for anything that year. I was very, very happy and I know that I was loved by my new family. It was evident to me that having two parents: Mother and Father created a completely different dynamic in the home. The household operated more like a team.  As kids, we all had two coaches and one or the other was always present and we were equally accountable to both. Things ran more smoothly and you had the luxury of getting two different perspectives on almost anything that came up. Consequently, you found needed reassurance and really didn't have to look outside the house for it.

John loved music and so did Bill a trumpet player.  John introduced me to Sly Stone, Blood, Sweat and Tears, all of the Beatles albums, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, and the incredibly talented group YES. Even now, I am still very fond of music because it is something that can be shared with others and it truly does sooth the soul. Listening to enjoyable music helps me to escape from the problems of the day.

Janet was and I am sure still is a very pretty, sweet, quiet and smart lady. She served as a ‘Candy Striper’ at a nearby hospital on Sunday afternoons and I always admired her for the compassion that she displayed by becoming a dedicated volunteer.

Ever evening, Mrs. Garlette made herself available for anyone that needed help with their homework. There would be no excuse on anyone’s part for receiving poor grades. We knew where to find the help that we needed and Bill as the oldest and Janet as an A-student both pitched in where needed as well.

If my memory serves me well, I remember how Mr. Garlette used to enjoy watching cartoons early on Saturday mornings, sitting in a folding chair laughing out loud like Santa Claus which I thought was a little strangle at the time. Though now, having become a senior citizen myself, I see his deliberate actions quite differently. They look far more like an important chosen end of week release: a kind of ‘humor therapy.’ What a very wise man Mr. Garlette showed himself to be?

Yes, I was also blessed to be able to experience becoming a Caldwell ‘Chief’ by playing football that fall for the first time in my life which was all the more special for me given that my Mother had always refused to let me do so.  She felt that I was to frail to play football. In reality, I probably was too skinny but I found it really difficult to accept that I couldn’t do something especially if it in any way involved my friends.

Our Coach Ken Trimmer used to let Sal LaDonne and I race each other along with the rest of the team at the end of every day’s football practice.

We were the two fastest kids on the team back then. I guess like every other boy I just wanted to know and I wanted to prove to everyone else that I could measure up.

Honestly, I don’t think that I ever actually beat Sal in a foot race but it was one great thrill for me being the only kid who ever came close to keeping up with him.

Boy, could he move his feet.

Something else that I remember is Coach Trimmer making me run "sweep right 26 on 1" at least a dozen times in a row during football practice. I didn't know it then but he was trying to help me overcome the fear of getting tackled and at the same time to widen my vision when running. During the next game that we played he sent me in to run you guessed it the "sweep right" and I actually gained yardage for the team. In that special moment I could feel and hear the whole team pulling for me and I wanted to do my very best. On that day someone gave me a chance and they trusted me to do well. That day, I learned that more than anything else all I really needed was a chance and to be trusted by others. After that, I could take it from there. Thank you Coach Trimmer for teaching me that invaluable lesson.

By now, I am pretty sure that you have begun to see how much I loved what was and continues to be a very multi-ethnic and working class community less than 40 miles west of Manhattan, New York.

Although I was black, being an athlete afforded me an opportunity to break down some barriers to acceptance from my peers as well as other members of the wider community. This fortunately extended to the rather delicate area of dating outside my race. This was still forbidden at the time.

Either I would have to invent a strategy for dating white girls or there would be no dating girls at all for me. There were no black or Hispanic girls my age in my school or elsewhere in the neighborhood at the time.

There were some white girls and their parents that would permit us to go to a dance or maybe even a movie together and of course there were others who wouldn’t think of allowing such a think to take place. Their concern was probably more out of what others might think of them rather than their own outright dislike of black people or a mistrust of me in particular.

Those were simply the times that everyone was living in. However, the race issue was never big enough in my life to make me feel less than anyone else. Thank you to Allison, Toby, Nancy, and Karen for the courage, friendship and kindness that you all showed me.

For my age, I had become a fairly skilled basketball player. As a result, both Jeff Edwards and I were invited by Coach Trimmer to practice with the Varsity players at James Caldwell High School at the end of our freshman season. This was a special honor that Coach extended to at least one or two freshman players every year.

Coach Trimmer kept a pretty watchful eye on me all of the time as all truly caring coaches tend to do with their up and coming athletic prospects. This is certainly another very good reason for young boys and girls to become actively involved in sports.