The classroom erupted as we poured into the hallways, eager to begin our summer vacations.
I waited beside the bike racks for my friends. Art Johnston came first, high-fiving me. He had begun his growth spurt and was several inches taller than I was. As a result, he was sort of awkward and uncoordinated. His voice was also changing, and he couldn’t always trust it not to crack.
Vincent DiNardo arrived next, beaming happily to be free. Vinny always seemed to be happy. He laughed a lot and never appeared angry, even when someone dissed him or pushed him around.
Oliver Talbott and Pete Allen arrived together, and soon we were all biking towards Pete’s house, shouting and laughing on the way. His house was in one of the higher priced areas in town. Dad described it as ‘the high rent district’. We were going there because Pete was the only one of us who had a swimming pool. True, there was a town pool, but we preferred Pete’s.
As soon as we arrived, we ditched our bikes in the front yard and ran through the gate to the back, where the pool sparkled in the sunlight. We stripped down to our boxers and jumped in. Well, Oliver used the diving board but the rest of us jumped.
Oliver was the most athletic of us. He had been in Little League and, in the fall, in Pop Warner football. He seemed to have no fear of getting hurt but took everything as it came.
Then there was me, the fraidy-cat. I hated pain and did whatever I could to avoid it. I was the only one who stuck his toes in the water before entering.
“C’mon, Trevor, get with the program,” yelled Oliver.
At last I jumped in at the shallow end and stood, shivering slightly before slowly, an inch at a time, lowering myself into the water and getting wet all over.
It was, of course, still June. It was a beautiful spring day, but the air was a little cool, even in Wallaceville, Tennessee. Wallaceville is east of Knoxville, nestled in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Oh, I could swim and had little fear of the water. I was just cautious.
“Trevor,” Oliver called me again, “let’s play tag.”
I had to admit to having a crush on Oliver. He was cute and had a gorgeous smile. His dark skin, shining like freshly polished wood, seemed to glow in the sun, and his short, curly hair set off his face beautifully. Because of the sports he played he was well-developed for a thirteen-year-old.
Oliver wasn’t my first crush. He was the latest in a string of them, going all the way back to first grade. Usually, I got over a crush pretty quickly and moved on to another one. I hadn’t thought anything about the crushes I’d had. I mean, I didn’t think I was gay or anything. I just enjoyed being with my current crush, talking, playing, but seldom actually touching. However, tag was a game made for touching.
I swam over to the rest of the group. Art said I was ‘it’ because I was the last one in the water. No problem, I turned and tagged Oliver before swimming away. Our rules said that there was no tagging back, so I was safe until Oliver caught someone else.
We laughed and splashed and paddled about until we grew tired. Then we got out of the water and sat on the patio lounge chairs, letting the sun dry us off. The wind was a little cool, but the sun was warm and pleasant.
Pete’s mom, Mrs. Allen, brought out some drinks and snacks. It didn’t take long for both the snacks and the drinks to disappear.
“What do you guys wanna do this summer?” Vinny asked.
We all shrugged before Art said, “This.”
“But we can’t just hang out at the pool all summer. What else do you wanna do?”
“I’m going to a tennis camp for two weeks, starting next Sunday,” said Pete.
“You see,” said Vinny, “that rules out the pool for a couple of weeks. So then what?”
Various suggestions were made. Art had a basketball hoop. There was a park near my house with baseball diamonds, tennis courts, and soccer fields.
“How about going camping?” asked Pete.
“Yeah, we could do that after you get back,” said Vinny.
“Where?” I asked, a little tentatively. I wasn’t too sure I would be into camping in the woods overnight.
After a while of discussing that and other momentous questions, we all put our clothes back on and separated, biking to our homes.
I lived in a two-story house with Dad and my younger brother, Walter, aka Wally. He was three years younger than I was and had just finished fourth grade. He and I got along pretty well. We had our share of brotherly arguments, but when all was said and done, we enjoyed each other. Dad would have said we loved each other, but that was too icky a word for us.
Dad owned a company which sold and installed security equipment. Mom? Well, who knew where she was? Two months after Wally was born, she walked out the front door one day and we never heard from her again. Since I was just three then, I didn’t even really remember her. And a long time ago I decided that I didn’t care. If she walked out on us, good riddance.
Because Dad’s business was security, our house was probably the most secure home in town, maybe even in the city. We had outdoor motion detector lights, an alarm system that was connected to all the doors and windows, and outdoor perimeter sensors that let us know if anybody came onto the property. All of these except the lights were wired into the police department. Sure, occasionally there was a false alarm when one of my friends came over or a deer wandered through our yard and the sensors were on, but the police always laughed and said it was good to keep them on their toes.
When I was eight, Dad gave me a big box of electrical stuff for my birthday. Then he taught me how to use electricity safely ̶ how to wire things, how to build an electromagnet, even how to build a crystal radio.
Wally and I had always had free access to each other’s rooms, and we walked in even if the door was closed. But when I was twelve, I began some activities on my bed that I wanted to keep private, so I rigged an alarm on my doorknob. If the alarm was on, it was activated if someone even moved the knob slightly.
One night I was lying on me bed, doing what boys do, and the alarm went off ̶ WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! It kept going until I turned it off. By then I had my boxers on. I opened the door to see Wally, his eyes and mouth wide open.
“Geez, Trevor, I damn near wet my pants!”
I laughed and suggested that, from then on, he should knock if the door was closed instead of walking right in.
He grinned and said he’d try to remember that. Then he asked, “What were you doing in there that was so private?”
“Just testing the alarm,” I grinned back, not wanting to tell him what I was really doing.
Back when Mom left, Wally and I had been too young to stay on our own, so Dad had hired a sitter, a woman named Bonnie, for us. Well, she was more than a sitter because she cooked the meals, did the grocery shopping and generally took care of us. I guess some people might have called her a nanny or some other fancy word, but she wasn’t fancy, she was down to earth and just did her job with never a complaint. She was always there when we got home from school. If Dad had to get to work early, she came before he left, got us up, and gave us breakfast before we went to school. If he had to work late, she stayed until he got home. Oh yeah, she also packed our lunches so we didn’t have to eat the garbage the schools served.
There was never anything romantic between Bonnie and Dad. Sure, they became good friends; there was respect between them, but romance? No way.
The day we got out of school, Dad was home by the time I got there from swimming at Pete’s house. Bonnie had fixed supper for us and then gone to her own home before we ate. Oddly enough, at that time I had no idea where she lived or whether she had a family.
When Dad got home, the first thing he did ̶ always ̶ was head to the fridge and pull out a bottle of Bud. Then he went into the living room, sat in his recliner, took off his shoes, and watched the early news. When he got home late, he did the same things but watched the late news.
Anyway, that night, after the early news, Wally, Dad, and I had supper in the kitchen where we all talked about our days. I talked about swimming at Pete’s, Wally talked about shooting baskets at his friend Roger’s house, and Dad talked about a new installation he was working on. I kidded Wally some about his basket shooting. I knew that he was really good, but I couldn’t admit that to him. Dad and I knew it didn’t really matter what Wally and Roger did as long as they were doing something together. They’d been inseparable ever since first grade.
That first week of vacation, I stayed up at night and slept really late in the morning. After all, I was a growing teenager and I needed my sleep, but I had always been something of a night owl. During the school year, Dad or Bonnie made sure I was in bed on time, but on vacation I had the luxury of not having any restrictions on my time.
Sometimes Dad, Wally, and I watched a night baseball game. Wally usually stayed up past his regular bedtime until Dad told him to go to bed. Dad never said that to me. I guess he knew I caught up on my sleep in the mornings.
We all loved baseball, but only Wally played it. He was on a minor league team and had dreams of getting to the Little League World Series in two years. I had tried to play the game when I was little, but face it, I’m a klutz. I made more errors than runs. Wally was the opposite. He played the game almost as though it was a ballet. He was so graceful around second base, he almost never made an error, and he could hit really well. Even at nine, he was a switch hitter and a good one.
In the days that followed, Wally and I did our own things. Often we ate lunch together, but other than that we seldom saw each other from breakfast to supper. Until Pete went to summer camp, I went to his house each day and swam and fooled around with the guys. Sometimes we went to the park in the early afternoon and just kicked a soccer ball around or challenged each other to tennis matches. Tennis was the only game I could play at all well, so I occasionally won a match, but more often we played doubles. Of course, Oliver was the best athlete and, when he and I were a doubles team, he often saved my bacon.
Sometimes, sitting around in the park we began making plans for our camping trip. Pete had a tent that could easily sleep four and I had a two-man tent. We all had sleeping bags which we used when we slept over at friends’ houses. Sometimes three or four of us would sleep over together. For some reason, Oliver never joined us.
We decided that we could go camping at the state park, which was not too far away. There were campsites there, as well as toilet and shower facilities ̶ necessities for young teen boys ̶ and a good stream, almost a river, for swimming. I still felt some of my prior reservations, but I thought a state park would be pretty safe.
Most of our talk was about food ̶ another necessity for growing boys. Since none of us had cooked over an open fire before, we decided to keep it simple, settling on hamburgers, hot dogs, and, for the last night, steaks. Of course the list grew long with snacks, veggies, sandwiches for lunches, and eggs and bacon for breakfasts. We usually got hungry just talking about it, so Pete supplied us with sodas and snacks.
One day, I invited Oliver for a sleepover. I was surprised when he said it would be the first time he’d slept over at a friend’s house. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I was having sleepovers by the time I was seven. Oliver had only lived in town for about a year, so I guess I could understand why he hadn’t had one here, but what about where he lived before?
“Never,” was all he said. He wouldn’t tell me why, but he seemed happy with the invitation.
Two nights later, Oliver came home with me after we left the park. Wally knew who Oliver was, but he’d never really talked with him. After all, as far as my friends and I were concerned, Wally was just a little kid.
When Dad arrived home and I introduced him to Oliver. Dad gave me a funny little look, but I didn’t think much of it. Anyway, after that look, Dad was his usual, cordial self.
Dad had his beer, and then we all went into the kitchen for supper. Bonnie had known I was having a friend over. so she had cooked a special meal ̶ delicious steaks with French fries and apple pie with ice cream for dessert.
After dinner, Oliver and I played a few video games until we decided it was time to go to bed. In my room, we stripped down to our boxers before going into the bathroom, where we peed and brushed our teeth.
Oliver had his sleeping bag and I gave him a couple of pillows. I offered to let him sleep in my bed while I used a sleeping bag, but he turned me down.
As I lay in bed, waiting for sleep to come, I wondered if Oliver jerked off. I knew from sex-ed class that just about all boys did it and that it was okay, but I didn’t know whether he had begun or not. I thought about asking him but decided that was getting a little too private, so I didn’t.
After breakfast the next morning, Oliver and I talked about what to do. He suggested tennis, so we went to the park with our rackets, tennis balls, and water bottles.
We played a set, which of course Oliver won easily. As I said earlier, I could play the game, but I didn’t say I was great at it. He was. In the second set he took it a little easier so I didn’t lose as badly.
We went over to the bleachers by a baseball diamond and watched kids playing there for a while. I thought it was odd that none of them invited us to play. Usually, if it was just a pickup game and not a Little League game, I got invited to play, even though all the boys knew I wasn’t very good.
Later, as we walked back to my house for lunch, I said, “I wonder why they didn’t invite us to play.”
“Don’t you know?” Oliver asked.
“You really don’t know?”
“How long have you lived in this town?”
“All my life.”
“And you can’t figure it out?”
“Think about it.”
I did. I thought all through lunch and into the afternoon while Oliver and I played video games.
When it was time for Oliver to leave for home, I said, “Oliver, please tell me. I have no idea why they didn’t invite us to play.”
“Look at me. What do you see?”
“Umm, I see a good friend, a smart kid, and,” I blushed a bit, “a really nice-looking boy.”
“You still don’t get it?”
“I’m Black, Trevor. That’s why.”
“Oh, shit,” I said, “but that has nothing to do with what kind of a person you are. I thought we’d moved on from thinking about that.”
“Well, some have, but I can tell you that many haven’t. Maybe if we lived in California or Massachusetts, it wouldn’t be a big deal, but in Tennessee it still is, whether White folk will admit it or not.”
I was devastated. One of my best friends was a victim of racism and it had never even occurred to me.
“I gotta go,” he said, and as he reached for the door, he added, “and by the way, you’re cute when you blush.”
Then he was gone. I stood by the door for a while, just thinking. I really didn’t think I was prejudiced, but was I? Sometimes, when I was walking in the city with Wally, I’d begin to get nervous if we met a group of Black kids. Was that because they were Black or because they were kids? Bigger kids tended to make me nervous anyway. And what about the funny look that Dad had when he first met Oliver? Was he prejudiced? I resolved to find out at dinner that night.