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.