Monday, December 8, 2014

A walk with Jesse

A close friend of mine recently told me a story from his childhood that upon hearing, I felt needed to be shared.

It's a story about race relations but instead of tearing at the nation's fabric like the sad events in Ferguson or New York it inspires hope. 

It's about the clarity of  innocence and embracing instead of fearing our differences.  

It's about a child meeting a hero that he'd never heard of before who looked different than anyone he'd ever known.  

It's a story about how we should be and not what we are. In his own words, I bring you a story from my friend Thomas...

 My most awesome early memory: meeting Jessie Owens.

My name is Thomas and I have lived, for most of my life, in Phoenix, Arizona. I was originally born in Illinois, but our family moved to Phoenix in 1969. I had been only a little over 1 year old when we moved.

According to this website:, Jessie Owens settled in at Heritage Heights, a subdivision of northeast Phoenix. Our house had been at 32nd street and Cortez which is a little north of Heritage Heights.

I thought it important to note where he had lived to try to correlate the location. My parents had said that he lived in the area, but didn’t know exactly where.

The events I can remember are nebulous at best because I was so young when it happened. None of this could ever hold up in court, but I’m convinced it was him.

I’d been walking around the neighborhood in what seemed to me to be late-afternoon. I don’t remember it being cold, and I had been walking alone. I’d walked to the corner of 30th street and Sierra, and I believe I’d decided it was time to go home. I must have been a little bit on Sierra street because I remember turning around to get back to the corner. The route back to my house had been 1 block south on 30th street to Cortez. When I turned around to get back to 30th street, I saw him.

I had been so young that nothing like fear or panic or anything like that ever entered my mind. The best guess of my age would have to be about 4 or 5 years old, and my concern at the time was just to get home. I know I began to walk towards the corner, and we started talking. I think I was curious more than anything else because he was African-American. I’m a white as can be Caucasian. The concept of skin color hadn’t registered yet.

I can’t say he had been the first African-American I’d ever seen, but he’s the first one I remember. I’m unable to remember how the conversation began, but I might have asked him about what he did. I had been familiar with the concept of work since my dad went there every day.

So the first thing I can remember is that he said that he ran very fast. He said he received a medal. I know he talked a little about running, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember much about that part. But, I asked how he did that. And, he said he drank a lot of milk. I then rather quizzically asked if it had been chocolate milk. It made sense to me that his skin color must have been from drinking a lot of chocolate milk. He laughed pretty good on that one. He then asked me if he had been the first black man I’d ever seen. (He actually did use the term black and not African-American.) I’m not sure what I may have said; I’m sure I was terribly confused. He said that was the color of his skin. He stretched out his long arm, and let me look at his hand.

I grabbed on to his huge hand, and he rotated it around a bit. Naturally, his palms were a lighter color than most of the rest of him. He said, “See? This is just how my skin is.” And, again, a lighter colored palm meant, to me, that it got lighter from washing his hands. So, I asked if he could just wash it off. And, again, he just smiled and laughed some more. He just said in a soft voice that it doesn’t wash off and that the color of his skin was natural.

I think it pretty much ended there. This might be in error, but I thought I heard him say he was going to see some friends. Although I wish I had been old enough to figure out what he had meant at the time. Back then, he made no real impression on me. I didn’t know he was Jessie Owens, and won gold in the Berlin summer Olympics. I’m sure I just went on home, ate dinner, and forgot all about it. The memory of that day didn’t come up again until my parents had said he’d lived near our area in my teenage years. I told them what I remembered though I’m not sure they believed me.

Now, forty years later, what I do know is that he was very gentle, smiled and laughed at what I said, and wanted me to drink milk. I think he also figured out, right quick, that I wasn’t going to get down the idea of skin color no matter how much he tried to explain. It is one of the earliest memories I have, and it most certainly is truly awesome. He had been truly an ambassador of goodwill because that sums up, exactly, how I feel about my memory of him.