Thursday, July 06, 2006


I was young enough to be a bit naive about hate and prejudice. I was old enough to know the difference between right and wrong, even if I was just an unenlightened middle-class white kid from the suburbs.


It was during this summer that the first African-American staff member was hired. Kelvin was fourteen at the time and came from a very influential and somewhat wealthy family in Riverside. His father was a Doctor of Education working for the school district and his mother was an instructor at the local junior college. Kelvin became one of my friends at camp, but often kept to himself for reasons I did not understand at the time. Each week we would catch a ride together as our parents took turns hauling us up and down the mountain at the close of each weekly session. During the ninety minute trip we would speak of favorite music, TV shows, movies and books, compare hiking, school and girl stories. Kelvin went to a private boarding school which fascinated me.

Upon hearing that he spent most of the school year away from the watchful eyes of his parents, I began to envy his good fortune. He had his own dormitory room (complete with stereo and television - HEAVEN!), attended classes with the very best of teachers and participated in field trips to museums, historical monuments and other privileged events. How cool it must have been, I thought, to be able to come and go as you like, see the things he has seen and do the things he has done. But just underneath his stories I sensed a particular loneliness.

"My parents come up about once a quarter and we do things. They take me to dinner, we go shopping, maybe catch a movie. It's pretty neat," he said without a smile.

One weekend, his mother and father were going out of town and Kelvin was to spend the weekend alone at the camp. When my own mom heard this, she insisted that Kelvin spend the weekend with others. "Honey, you just come home with us. Make sure you grab your laundry and we'll take care of that as well."

I was a little surprised at this concern displayed by my mother, and pitied poor Kelvin that he would have to give up the chance to spend a couple of days of freedom at the insistence of a very stubborn woman. Kelvin seemed delighted at the prospect and was waiting in the car before I had even begun to find and pack all of the week's dirty underwear and tee shirts.

The weekend at home was very uneventful. Dad cooked greasy hamburgers on the grill, we rode bikes into a nearby orange grove, watched TV, teased my little sister, played fetch with my dog, threw dirt clods at the whiny, booger-eating neighbor kid, played with my slot car track, grabbed a Slurpee at the 7-11 store, looked at a dead cat on the road and read a couple of old "Doctor Solar" comic books. Your basic boring weekend.

On the way back to camp, Kelvin was more animated than I had ever seen. He wouldn't shut up. The entire hour and a half he talked about how great a cook my father was, how stupid the whiny neighbor kid proved to be, "He just stood there as we nailed him with that huge clod!" he roared and that he had won most of the slot car races.

As we unloaded our gear from the car, I gave my dad a hug and kissed my mother. They told us to be safe, call when we can and so forth. As I turned once more to wave good-bye, I saw Kelvin reach for my parents and gave both of them a long warm hug. Smiling, he turned away and later told me that he thought my mother was pretty and that my dad could tell a good joke. He then very quietly thanked me for the good times we had shared. Walking further from the cars he became quieter. Nothing more was said about the weekend.

It was late on Wednesday after the evening meal that the camp director made a very strange request. He asked each staff member to write and print the following words: "Keep Digging Son, A Bigger One Is Needed." Each person was given a felt tipped marker and instructed to sign their name at the bottom of the paper. All the slips were collected by the Camp Director who shut himself with two other adult staffers within an adjoining office. We were told to remain in the dining hall until called.

One by one, each boy was called for. No one could understand this strange exercise. It wasn't until an hour later that I was summoned. As I approached the office door, it suddenly struck me that Kelvin had not been present the entire meal.

The camp director, Marvin, and the other adults sat across from me at a long table. Marvin looked at me with a surprisingly stern look and asked me, "Why did you do it? We know you did and we have samples of your handwriting to prove it!"

Of course, I had no idea of what he was speaking and didn't know at first how to react. I smiled, thinking that this was some kind of bizarre joke or stupid Boy Scout test of which I had not been informed. When my smile was not returned I knew they were serious. "What are you talking about, Marvin?"

"Why did you write those words on the bathroom wall? We don't care how or what you think of Kelvin, but we want you to admit to the act and all will be forgiven," he continued. He then took me into a nearby bathroom and showed me their cause for concern.

On the wall of one of the toilet stalls was written in felt tipped marker,

"Kelvin is a Nigger."

I was dumbfounded. All at once, the cryptic message we wrote earlier made sense. My heart sank as I imagined my friend, Kelvin, finding these words written directly at him. It was if the real world was crashing in on our sequestered, safe and sheltered world in the mountains and the entire place was somehow in need of a cleaning.

My parents grew up in the south and because of that, were a product of another time. A time when that word was as common as clouds. But in spite of that, we were instructed at a very early age that this was a hateful and shameful word. My mother often referred to it as "the nastiest word in the world." Regardless of their conservative politics and indoctrination, hate is easy to see when it is worn on the outside. Words can hurt, we were told, and there are just some things that you never can say without hurting another. My father often reminded us to judge people by what was found inside and not how they seem to be by simply looking at them.

"The poorest man you may meet could turn out to be your best friend and the plainest looking girl may some day be your most beloved sweetheart," he would say. "I've met many people who may look like they don't have the sense to tie their own shoes who were the smartest humans walking this tired earth."

My protestations and declarations of innocence came stumbling out. Partially out of shock at the act of thoughtless hate another had committed, and partially from the fear that they suspected me of this terrible thing. Kelvin always seemed a little quiet for my taste in friends, smarter by far than most of the other staff members, had always been there to help me when I needed it and was the first to laugh at my stupid jokes. In other words, he wasn't my best friend, but as good a friend and better than most of the guys I called "friend." But before I could go on, I asked where Kelvin was.

With a touch of sadness, Marvin explained that his parents were told of this by a call from Kelvin. His parents were understandably and indignantly upset. They had driven up that afternoon and took Kelvin home for the rest of the summer. Without saying much more, I knew that one or perhaps many around me were capable of doing something very wrong to someone who did nothing wrong.

It was a long time later that I began to grasp the loneliness that Kelvin was experiencing. The only black kid among a bunch of white kids, parents who no doubt should have been more involved and other factors of which I can only imagine. All of which probably created a very lonely young man. It was also much later that I heard that Kelvin had become a successful computer programmer and software designer. Although I have long since lost contact with him, I hope that he is filthy rich, lives in a big house and is happy beyond imagination. Success is the most comforting forms of revenge.

We never did find out who placed those foul words on the bathroom wall. It didn't really matter, someone did and that was enough. From that day on, I listened for any hint of racism that might be displayed by my fellow staff members. There were some racial comments made now and again, generally weak attempts at humor. But when it surfaced, we quickly commented, "hey, that ain't cool..." or something along those lines.

From that day on, I trusted and called only a few others my real friends.

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