Obama, the Porch, and Grandpa Roscoe

Yesterday, I drove to my 89 year-old grandfather’s house. He lives just a few blocks from Florence and Normandie, the flashpoint of the ’94 riots. Grandpa Roscoe was born and raised in 1919 in Marshall, TX. He was nearly killed twice, once when the Japanese torpedoed his attack cargo ship, the Alhena, at Guadal Canal, and again when his ship crashed and sank off the Farallon Islands near the end of the war.

In 1941, he enlisted in the Navy. He stood atop the platform at the train station, waiting for the North-bound train to boot camp. “Do a dance for us,” he heard. He was alone on the platform with two white men. They were talking to him. Roscoe stood tall and said “I don’t dance.” “Well sing a song for us, then,” they insisted. “No,” he answered. The train arrived. The two men and Roscoe climbed aboard. They took their seats. Roscoe continued through the aisle, through the dividing doors, and into the car reserved for black soldiers. Someone told the car to keep the curtains drawn until they reached the North.

In the 1930’s, he walked into town to vote for the first time. Doesn’t remember who it was for. He passed a house with a weathered picket fence. A dog ran out of the open fence and jumped on him, biting and tearing at his clothes and his flesh. A white man wearing brown pants and a beige shirt sat on the porch of the house, slowly dragging on a cigarette. After a while, the man called the dog off and it let go, and ambled back through the fence. It settled down next to the man on the porch, who stared at Grandpa Roscoe while he patted the dog’s head. Roscoe went to town with torn pants, bleeding, and voted.

He returned to the house in the passenger seat of a sheriff’s car and pointed out the man, who was still sitting on his porch, still smoking. The deputy sighed, got out of the car, and approached the man. Roscoe opened his door and rose from the car, standing in the dirt outside the white picket fence with his arms folded. After a few seconds of conversation with the man on the porch, the officer walked around to peer through a gate into the back yard. Roscoe heard barking, loud and resounding, coming from the yard. The deputy turned and marched back toward the police car. “Says he doesn’t even own a dog,” the deputy said, before slipping behind the wheel and driving away.

Roscoe watched the car disappear through the trees, turning up dirt and gravel as it rounded a turn. The barking stopped and started again. The man on the porch smiled. Or maybe he didn’t; it didn’t matter. Roscoe turned and slowly walked away from the house. The walk home was slow, as if he were walking through ankle-deep mud. Trees, Gravel. Crickets chirping somewhere in the woods. Frogs. Butterflies. They all sounded and looked too intense.

Yesterday I sat on his plush white couch, the couch I’d struggled to climb onto 30+ years ago. It was still covered in the same plastic it arrived in a few years before I was born. I watched him sitting in his worn, brown chair, watching his TV. Not moving. Barely blinking. Not smiling, not daring to believe it even when CNN called Pennsylvania, and then Ohio, for Obama. Even as I swore to him McCain couldn’t win without one of those states. I saw him fidget a little in his seat and rub his knee absentmindedly with his hand when they called Florida for Obama. His chair began to rock a little, and at every commercial break he would slowly pick up the remote, look at it closely, and with a shaking hand, change it to another news channel.

I noticed the black oval clock with gray and white painted swans, ticking atop his old, non-working TV in the other corner. That clock was maybe 20 years older than I am. The photo next to it, of him at 30, wearing his starched grey bus driver uniform. The photo albums stacked next to it with images of my grandmother and him at a colored’s-only night club, looking smooth and classy, and eternally young, like they stepped right out of a 1940’s movie. Him in his battle fatigues, at boot camp in late 1941, carrying a gun they would never let him carry during the war. Him, barbecuing in the driveway of the house he bought a decade later. Him, marrying his second wife years after my grandmother passed.

I saw him sit up straight, as straight as I’ve ever seen him be, when Keith Olbermann said “Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.” And when they cut to scenes of jubilation all around the world, in Kenya, in Europe, in Time Square, at a black college, in Chicago, I saw him smile the way I’ve only ever seen him smile when he met his great grandson for the first time. “Look at all those people,” he said over and over again.

I noticed the time, it was hours past his bedtime and I asked if he wanted to go to sleep, but he wasn’t tired. Not at all. We watched Obama speak. We watched people cry. We knew who Jesse Jackson was thinking about when the cameras caught him weeping. We watched millions of people cheering as if a war was just won. We heard firecrackers right outside, coming from the house next door, and the house two doors down. Then the house across the street. I thanked him for watching the election with me, gathered my things, gave him a hug, and walked to my car. Palm trees in the distance were swaying and leaves and bushes were rustling in the suddenly-fierce Santa Ana winds. He stood on his porch and waved to me as I backed out of the driveway. Even when I was so small I had to climb onto his couch, I had never seen him look so tall.

Discussion (6)¬

  1. Ed Fyffe says:

    Mr. Bell, I tried today to write something in your Grandpa's honor, and to acknowledge you as well. I had trouble finding where to post it (it's now being reviewed), and while searching, came upon "Obama, the Porch, and Grandpa Roscoe." I have two things to say: I'm coming to that story you wrote nearly five years late, and I thought YOU were supposed to be a cartoonist! Well, whether used to pen lines you DO draw, or as an instrument with which to scribe words, you have a great gift, and I am so pleased to see you exercise it for the rights of all people, and in memory of and with love for your dear Grandpa Roscoe. (How lucky we all are that he is NOT "Grandfather Bell.") All the best.

  2. PeaceZGood says:

    That was beautiful writing, Darrin, and a beautiful experience.

  3. karenjoycekleinman says:

    I also heard the stories of people of color who did die before being able to see this day come. The man I spoke of had a wife, and their love story was very touching. The wife also told me of her experiences, and that was also horrific. She was a sweet person and – ironically – an artist. But, her art was always private. Black artists back then had it very difficult to make any name for themselves. I think and correct me if I am mistaken, Darrin, you are the FIRST Black cartoonist to be syndicated by TWO different syndicates in America? You also have the Rudy Park series, right? I’d like to know how it was for YOU to see this day come? You also must have had some pretty touching stories. Again I say, why not write an autobiography? You could certainly illustrate it- I guess. (Tongue in cheek humor, or as my grandkids call it, “Groaners”).

  4. karenjoycekleinman says:

    I, too am proud of Roscoe. I knew someone like him but he didn’t have the exact same story. I heard the story of how his ancestors were house slaves and then railroad workers, hammering stakes into the ground for the first train tracks. This person I knew was sad that his ancestry was mixed with American Indian but that because Black people were not allowed birth certificates that show that, he could never prove it. But, you could see it in his calm demeanor and cheekbones. The person I knew did say something about the military, but emphasized how much he loved his wife and how far he traveled to get her. When I think of how he must have felt on election night, that also brings tears to my eyes. I wonder how that man is. I lost track of him many decades ago, but I still remember his enthralling tales of how it was for a person of color back “in the days” before the 60’s. (That was my era of exposure to social injustice and discrimination). Please tell your grandpa Roscoe that all your readers love him, and are very happy that he was able to see this day come. There is a song with words of that effect. It’s been a long time coming, but I know my days were gonna come. This will go down in history books for children who will marvel that the terrible things that happened ever could have really existed. Unbelievable.

  5. Darrin Bell says:

    He is a great man. And I could see that when Obama told the story of the 106 year-old woman, my grandpa felt as if he was talking about him. Thanks, I’ll let him know what you thought!

  6. Ken says:

    Roscoe sounds like a great man. America has a lot of heroes like your grandfather. I often thought about those heroes during the election when people repeated stories about McCain’s service. I’ve always respected McCain’s service but was uneasy about the argument that heroism qualified him for high office. Too many men and women of color served their country only to be denied the right to vote, move into the neighborhood of their choice or even dine in a restaurant.
    It’s already been noted that Obama rose to the presidency on the shoulders of people like Roscoe. I admire Martin Luther King but I’m always frustrated that my students fail to note the role of countless citizens who faced dogs, fire hoses, police batons and other intimidation but never yielded their right to vote. I loved that Obama paid homage to these small soldiers in the civil rights movement. On the surface those heroes are hard to recognize and often overlooked. I they enjoyed the moment last night.
    Pilots make a contribution but the battle is often won on a much less glamorous field of battle.

    Let your grandfather know he’s got a least one fan back in east Texas.