America Up Close and Personal

My Real Memoir

From the Big Orange to the Big Apple! It’s still the longest road trip I’ve ever taken. Our YMCA leaders were a married couple who, along with their two young children Brian and Judy, had signed on to see the New York World’s Fair. Most of the dozen teenagers stayed kippered into the van singing Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” But I often rode in the RV with Brian and Judy, where I could stretch out and watch the scenery from the big picture window in the back. We saw so many tumbleweeds I began to think of us as tumbleweeds.

But once we hit Oklahoma City, we veered north into the Ozarks’ deep piney greens. We also saw blacks and whites. People, that is–carefully separated. I was stunned to find “White” and “Colored” bathrooms at a little mountain general store. I also saw boxes of leftover 4th of July firecrackers, including one brand featuring a crude caricature of a “colored boy” on a split-rail fence scarfing down stolen watermelon while an angry white farmer brandished his pitch fork.

The Voting Rights Act had passed into law just before we left, but no one here seemed to have heard of it. It was the first time I’d seen racism openly displayed, and it preyed on my mind for the rest of the trip. Later that day, as we passed the two towering halves of St. Louis’s not-yet-connected Gateway Arch, it seemed a more apt metaphor for America than the single, completed arch would be.

We stayed in the basement of a Baptist church in Queens, rolling out our sleeping bags on the hard linoleum floor, just blocks away from where West Side Story had been filmed. “Walk in threes,” they warned us. “One or two is an invitation to a mugging; more than three is an invitation to a rumble.” The gangs here were defined by ethnicity, we were told: Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, Asians. The church was making progress in ethnic reconciliation, but there was so much left to be done.

The World’s Fair was a short ride away, and yet in another galaxy. The motto on the iconic Unisphere read, “Peace Through Understanding.” This is the way the world should be! I thought, full of cool new cars (the Mustang was introduced here), push-button phones (!), know-it-all computers (a bedroom-sized mainframe analyzed my handwriting and told me I was “moody” and “opinionated”), and singing children. But then those children only got along, I suspected, because they were animatronic.

We squeezed in everything we could, Rory and I: the Empire State Building, Nathan’s hotdogs, Lindy’s cheesecake, the cheapest sandwiches on the menu at Sardi’s, the Radio City Rockettes. I loved NYC. But the most indelible moment came at the end of a train ride to Connecticut.

Rory had promised to visit his aunt. She was dignified and gracious, serving the New England version of high tea. Everything went swimmingly until I mentioned the segregation we’d seen in the south. Her husband quietly informed me that the only solution was to “send those people back to Africa where they belong.” Once I realized what he’d said, everything I’d been chewing on rose like bile in my brain. I jumped up and shouted, “This is their country too, as much as it is yours!” He shouted back. It got worse, much worse. Rory’s aunt began to cry. So Rory quickly thanked her and dragged me out of the house.

Later, on our way back to California, we slept under a prairie sky exploding with stars, and I realized that America was both uglier and more beautiful…

Than I’d ever imagined.

My Real Memoir is a series. To read the next one, click here.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
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37 Responses to America Up Close and Personal

  1. Harshi says:

    You have a style of narration and a way with words, Mitch! Look, at your closing line. Astounding!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Those life-altering realizations when we’re young leave an indelible impression.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Discover and Explore says:

    Wow, I felt like I was riding shotgun with you. Great writing! Thank you

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Definitely an educational eye-opener of a road trip!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Victoria says:

    The experience of a lifetime, Mitch, told so beautifully in just a few paragraphs. Thank you so much for sharing. I wish we were further along in so many respects. Your closing thought, “America was both uglier and more beautiful” than you’d imagined. I FELT that in your generous account.
    Thank you. ❤

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’m glad you were opinionated enough to speak the truth to Rory’s uncle. I hope he eventually had a heart change.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. rwfrohlich says:

    That same year I came back to my country after a two and a half year tour of duty in France, and I did not recognize it. The hope expressed at the fair did not match what I saw with my own eyes. Thanks for speaking truth.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Moody and opinionated, huh, Wired to speak truth.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. revruss1220 says:

    Wow! What an amazing story and experience. We must have passed one another somewhere on the midway because I also visited the NY World’s Fair As those cute robots reminded us, “It’s a Small World After All!” My favorite memories from the fair were the Belgian Waffles (dripping with strawberries and whipped cream), and the Pieta statue. It brought me to tears. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Mitch!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Everyone should see the world through the eyes of a child. Thanks for sharing, Mitch.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. What a great experience that was and your narrative was excellent. I remember going to the fair shortly after opening day. It was quite a marvel back then! Thanks for the memories!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I always enjoy reading your memories, Mitch.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. C.A. Post says:

    I struggled with racism in my family as a teen. Some of the characterizations seemed true to stereotype; more blacks committing violent crimes than whites, poorer schools in “their part” of town, blacks dressed to the nines driving Cadillacs and BMWs while living in tenements, etc.
    Yet when I asked a girl out who lived in “their part” of town, I was told not to date her anymore. I wondered why we supported missionaries in Africa when we could reach the lost in our own city? Spence and Carl in college educated me to the discrimination they and their families had endured, even from “Christians.”
    By the time Dad died at 73 he had several black friends he had befriended as coworkers at his business, and Mother seemed to have lost the attitude that had plagued us as children, inviting people into our home without considering their socio-economic status nor pigmentation. They, like me, were works in progress until the Lord took them Home.
    “We are all actually the same color . . . from our melanin; we’re just different shades of the same color. Just because you don’t have as much melanin as I do, don’t you dare think God does not love you as much as he loves me, just because He gave me more!” (Voddie Baucham)
    ❤️&🙏, c.a.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Rory Cooper says:

    What about the trouble we had getting back to queens. Couldn’t find a taxi to take us over the bridge at 10pm. And it was just the two of us in Times Square at 10pm. Not the sanitized Times Square but the gritty 1964 Times Square. Fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Nancy Ruegg says:

    I admire your courage, Mitch, to speak hard truth to an elder. I’ve often wondered, if Abraham Lincoln had lived to serve out another term, what progress would have made toward racial equality and integration? We had to wait 100 years for the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. to achieve the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But of course, even that didn’t change people’s hearts. Only Jesus can do that.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Ann Coleman says:

    My immediately family always taught me that people prejudice is wrong, but I do remember, when I was a child, friend who told me that her mother told her never to drink out of the drinking fountains at the zoo, because “negroes drank out of them too.” I didn’t have your courage to say anything back, but I remember being shocked that her mother, a woman I liked an admired, would say something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. LindaCat says:

    I grew up in a suburb of Rochester NY. A small, Erie canal town west of the city. It’s now somewhat exclusive. Cracks me up. I have a vivid memory of a time after the riots happened in Rochester. My dad drove me into the city to show me what ni**ers did to the neighborhood where he grew up. Graffiti on the plywood that boarded up the houses whose windows were smashed. Some houses were burned to the ground. Broken glass everywhere, people’s torn, bloody clothes on front porches and stray dogs roaming around. It was so sad. Standing up in the front seat, a sucker in my mouth, Dad drove up and down several streets of his childhood “hood.” Shaking his head. I guess I was nine? Was it 1965? I guess I have to google it…I just did. It was July 24th of 1964 and lasted days. That was the same summer Mom and Joanne and I went to the World’s Fair. I already shared my best memory of that with you. Running down the city streets in the pouring rain after midnight to get footlong hotdogs. What were we thinking? In our pj’s no less! With all that racist tension and unrest. Ignorance truly is bliss. I’m positive we never told Dad we did that. And how come he didn’t come with us? Hm. Maybe they fought about that. My mom loved people. Like I do. She was probably like you, Mitch. She was not a racist. My whole point is this: I’m not sure if I told my dad off then, at the tender age of eight, or if it was the same year I told him and Father Hester to stick the catechism where the sun don’t shine. I was twelve by then, and had just made my confirmation, then stopped going to church with my dad. But I remember saying this in response to a racist remark by my Italian father whose family came from Italy just before he was born in 1915: “How can you discriminate against black people the way you do? Your own people were treated the same way when they came to this country, weren’t they?!” Yeah, I must have been twelve. I was pretty mouthy by then. The whole catechism thing…another story. But at the age of 22, living a wild life in Key West, I dated my first black man, a bold move in 1978. Honestly, it was to prove to my father that his racism did not infect me, only I never told him. We never communicated after I stopped going to church with him. Especially after I started going to prayer meetings held by my Jesusfreak health teacher in 1972. How he hated that. He wrote me off after that. I was a hopeless cause. Discrimination against color, against Christians, against anything that wasn’t what he thought was right…It breaks my heart for my dad. He died when I was 27 and we never reconciled. He was never proud of me. I often wonder what went through his head. When I look around today, I don’t see much improvement in our tolerance. Those riots in Rochester happened over police brutality of a black man. What has changed? I shake my head, and praise God I have Jesus or I really would be a lost cause

    Liked by 1 person

    • mitchteemley says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Linda, and so sorry to hear you and your father never reconciled. I do believe prayer can change legacies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • LindaCat says:

        Me too. I’ve healed from it all. I took the advice of Charles Stanley. If you need to reconcile with a deceased loved one, sit in a chair with another across from you. Place their photo in that empty chair if it helps. And spew!! I did that. It worked for me. And I know my Abba forgives me. I just wish I hadn’t hurt my earthly daddy.

        Liked by 1 person

  18. LindaCat says:

    By the way, the “N” word above was what he said, not what I’m saying. I should have put that in quotations and specified. No offense intended here. Guess I shouldn’t be up writing this at 3:00 am. Sorry.

    Liked by 1 person

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