Prejudice is a funny thing. We are all prejudiced in our own way. Some of us like chocolate ice cream. Some like vanilla. Me? Well, I like frozen pudding and pistachio flavored ice cream. But, then again, I always was different.
Growing up here, in the smallest town, in the smallest state, in the greatest country in the world, third rock from the sun, I was exposed to a lot of ethnicity.
Not diversity, which I didn’t encounter until I traveled out West,but ethnicity. A small world granted, but a world still of Italians, Irish, French, Germans. Polish, Swedish, Jewish, African-Americans, WASPs and the like.
East Greenwich was a true melting pot and I don’t think I ever encountered real prejudice until I got to college.
I was also lucky to have a friend who was wise beyond his years and who was a beacon of tolerance. His ideas were way ahead of not only his peers, but the town as a whole, including a lot of adults.
His nickname was Picks. He was the son of the Episcopalian pastor in town and he was the model for who you might want your child to be. He was gifted in every area, be it athletics, academics, art, music, the whole kit and kaboodle.
Of course, we did not always look at him as “perfect” like our parents did, as he had a devilish side to him, and a bit of rebelliousness too.
But, we did appreciate the things he brought into our lives.
He introduced us to the Cape (Provincetown, in particular), a quiet reflection on things, the mysteries of the hooded monk, and books we never would have thought to read on our own.
He was kind of a crew-cut hippie. A boy ahead of his time. He practiced acceptance and tolerance, and love your neighbor, and freedom of thought and action, way before they ever became the buzzwords of the day.
Girls were on his mind constantly, and even though he was the son of the pastor of St.Luke’s, he had a different outlook on religion and death and dying. He died too young himself, before I ever really thanked him for all the gifts he gave to me.
With Picks, there was always more than one way to skin a cat, and he explored all of them in just about everything he did.
So, I dedicate this particular story to Gyppy, the last Earth Mother of their clan, and also to Bertha C., Ella M., Strunge, Bubba Jay, and to Ruthie, my first date, and to anyone who can remember going to a Sweetheart Dance at Eldredge, or even at the Swift Gym.
February, Valentine’s month. Usually a cold, wet, muddy month replete with more than enough storms for Rhode Islanders. It is a month for a lot of indoor activity. As students at Eldredge, we could stay in for the hour-long noon recess period and watch movies and cartoons that Mr. Cole (principal-superintendent) used to get to while away that hour on a cold, dreary winter day. Or, on other days we participated in indoor, low-org games like dodgeball, basketball and such. Eldredge was a grade 1-7 school. The high school held grades 8-12. From grades 1-4, maybe even grade 5, boys did not give much thought to girls. But, all that soon changed in grades 6 and 7.
From kindergarten up, you observed the older kids from the relative safety of the upper playground as they cavorted on the big field below. Not only did you hope to one day access that turf, but as you advanced grade by grade, you began to notice a difference in the sexes.
Dances were acceptable forms of recreation once you reached the sixth grade.
You went from harassing girls to eating lunch with them, and maybe, if you were lucky, walking your favorite, hand in hand, home from school.
In the seventh grade, dances were not only acceptable, but also much anticipated – a case of emerging hormonal buildup I guess, and the school obliged with events like the Welcome Dance, the Harvest Dance, the Christmas Ball, and in February, the Sweetheart Dance.
I don’t know why Picks decided, in our seventh grade year, to go stag to the Sweetheart Dance, but he did. He had his reasons, I guess.
I had a girlfriend (if that’s what you call a seventh grade crush) and had taken her to a couple of dances already, but Picks wanted to go stag, so go stag we did, me not being the fearless, take charge guy that I am today.
When we got to the dance we found almost everyone else paired up. However, we were determined that was not going to stop us, or slow us down a bit. We just jumped in with both feet and went about having ourselves a good time. Besides, you don’t have to have a date to fill up on cookies and punch, and I was definitely top notch in that department.
Not long into the evening Picks noticed that no one was dancing with Lillian Johnson, who had also come stag. He mentioned it to me and said he was going to ask her to dance. After he danced with her, he asked me to dance with her. I was a little reluctant, but agreed to do it.
We danced with Lillian. We danced with other girls. We danced in the group dances. We went back and danced with Lillian. We all had a great time, and, because of Picks’ unselfishness, Lillian had a great time too.
Oh, we spread ourselves around! But, we made sure that not too many dances went by before we included Lillian again. We did the Hokey Pokey, the North-South-East-West, the Bunny Hop, the Box and a few others.
In short, we had a good time and we were more than a little disappointed when the witching hour of 10 p.m. came. Still, we had a great night and went home full of ourselves and happy.
The next day my mother received several phone calls. Picks’ father did too.
Remember, it was the early ‘50s, and even though we were up north, it did not mean that everyone clung to the same ideas of what was considered right and proper. We had our rednecks too, even if some of them were blue bloods.
People called to tell my mother. Or, tell her off. The Reverend Pickells got the same. My mother said nothing to me at the time, but Picks told me later what it was all about.
You see, though we as kids had never really seen, or experienced prejudice, we were not privy to the thoughts and actions of the adult world. Behind their Sunday smiles and friendly handshakes, some people still fell prey to the seven sins and the devil’s thoughts.
Picks told me that the reason people called was because we had done something unthinkable, even here in peaceful, quiet East Greenwich! People called to ask my mother and his father why we had danced with Lillian Johnson.
You see, Lillian Johnson was the only black girl in our class!
So, there you have it. A true story. Happened right here in little, old East Greenwich. Whatever people thought. Picks and I always thought it was the right thing to do. I still think that.
I never got to thank Picks for that. He drowned off the Cape on a cold winter day, very much like the ones we get in February. Had he lived, I eventually would have thanked him for that lesson.
He’s probably up there now looking down at me and smiling.
We never have friends like those we have when we’re 12. Or do we?
Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrel full.