It was a Thursday in a year gone mad. The Viet Nam war was in full swing, and as predicted when John was struck down, it was escalating by the day. The evening news scrolled the names every night, something that would be unthinkable now. I thought it was a good thing to do though; bring the war home into the living rooms of those of us comfortably watching Cronkite on the seven o’clock news. Remind us there were men dying in a far-off unknowable land, and somehow they were doing something for us, as we watched our normal line up of TV shows. But Thursday, April 4th that year was different. That was the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. And more than a good man died.
I was attending IS70 which I think you would call a middle school now; it was where we all went after Elementary School and before High School. It was located across the street from Charles Evans Hughes High School, a predominately African American High School. And even given the events of the day and the general atmosphere that permeated the society then; unsettled, angry, and at times desperate, someone decided it would be no problem for us little kids to attend classes the next day.
The day started ok; I evaded the usual bullies and muggers that took whatever change Mom had given me for lunch, and settled into the wooden desk chair in my homeroom, thinking it would just be another boring day of classes I wasn’t interested in. But like the knucklehead who thought it would be ok to hold classes, I too was wrong.
It started out with just some noise from the street below, and as it got louder, I saw my homeroom teacher start to pale a little bit. Something was brewing and it didn’t seem good. And when the brick smashed through the window and flew over my head to bounce on the next desk and hit the floor, I was convinced of it. It wasn’t going to be a normal day.
The students from the neighboring High School were coming into our school and no one was stopping them. We were the kids from the Village who had graduated from PS41 and were now sitting ducks as kids much older than us, after the events of the previous day, decided they wanted to vent some understandable anger. And we were convenient. Frantic calls were made to the 20th Precinct a few blocks away and soon the air was filled with the sound of sirens. We had a math teacher, Mr. Tsufaura (I am sure I spelled that wrong), a black belt in Karate, who ran down to the first floor and confronted the attacking teenagers. A group of them had grabbed one of our students, a young girl who was looking increasingly like she was going to faint from fear, and I remember watching as Mr. Tsufaura stood ramrod straight, facing them down and shouted at them to let her go. The response was a bottle thrown right in his face. But they hadn’t reckoned on a teacher with a Black Belt. In a flash too quick for the human eye to follow he parried the bottle with his bare hand, sending it flying off harmlessly down the hallway. That gave the intruders pause. Cleary they must have thought, this wasn’t your average IS70 teacher. If he could do that to a bottle hurled at him, what could he do to them, one on one? Making an intelligent decision, they released the girl and ran down the hallways screaming obscenities, mob mentality always being the same. But we were not out of the woods. Police cars screeched to a halt every which way on the streets below, and officers with batons made for the crowds entering our school, and a major confrontation ensued. Well, let’s be real. It was a riot. And sure enough, the Riot Squad followed in large vans, pouring out officers with shields and batons and pepper spray. Order was eventually restored but the problem wasn’t solved. The school had been secured, but the streets themselves were not safe. So school and police officials decided we would all be sent home right away, and the police would provide a screen of officers to protect us from the crowds still gathered throughout the neighborhood. They came up with a plan that took all the students east to 8th Avenue then north to 23rd Street where a protected perimeter had been established. We would be released there, as it was considered out of the “danger zone” and supposedly already notified parents could meet us. The only problem was I lived across 9th Avenue, one block from the school at the time. So instead of navigating one block to safety, I was going to have to navigate six blocks and two avenues to get home as Mom never got the word.
Remember now, this was before cell phones, and I had already been robbed of my money earlier in the day by the normal bullies I went to school with, so I couldn’t even use a pay phone. And God Forbid I ask a stranger for help. We had been taught never to do that. So I had nothing.
We dutifully marched with our book bags through the channel the policemen had made for us, and when we got to the release point I realized I was scared. Really scared. But I had to make it home; we all needed to make it home in the end, no matter how hard the journey would be. So I started off, walking back into the danger zone. I had the idea I would walk west on 23rd street, pass over Ninth Avenue to Tenth Avenue, a normally deserted part of the city. I could make my way back to 17th Street by way of 10th Avenue with hopefully no problem, forgetting, of course, the thugs that lived in my building, but I thought, deal with that when you get there – if you do.
And for the most part, my plan worked. I made it all the way to 18th street and 10th Avenue, one blessed block from home when out of the shadows emerged four or five high school kids from Charles Evans Hughes. Gulp. Immediately I started looking for weapons…anything…a full garbage bag, a piece of crumbled curb, anything. They approached and easily surrounded me, one lone little kid who really wanted nothing more at that moment than his mother. I can’t really remember what the teenagers were saying to me, but I can guess it wasn’t pleasant. Hopefully, they really didn’t mean to kill me; maybe just hurt me. But being the kid whose life was lived in the movies, I remembered a line from a Clint Eastwood western. I thought, honestly at this point I had nothing to lose, right? …well actually no…I could lose my life…that would be considerable…but better to go down swinging right? And cool, I always had to strive for coolness. So I dropped my bag to my feet, careful to keep the strap in my hand as I would be in need of it in a moment, and said with as much sneer as I could muster….
“All at once?….Or one at a time?”
There was a moment of hesitation on their part which is what I had counted on. I used it, swinging my book bag as hard as I could and gratefully, I felt it connect with something. But now they were upon me. I ran for a nearby trash can and grabbed a tin lid, and swung that too as hard as I could, connecting again. Two down I thought – or prayed. But it was a losing battle, and I knew that from the beginning. They proceeded to beat the shit out of me, and the next thing I remember was looking up into Mom’s worried and angry face, as I lay on my bed, bandaged, bleeding and hurting.
It would be a bad summer, with riots in all major cities; Newark and Detroit burned to the ground, and there was yet another assassination later that year, this one John’s brother Bobby, another voice of reason and peace silenced.
John, Martin, and Bobby. All gone. We were royally fucked.
The war in Southeast Asia went on, and those scrolls of names on the evening news continued. The cities continued to burn, the injustices continued, the Coup was complete.
It was a horrible year.
Somehow we survived it, though many didn’t.
I think about that walk home whenever I start to think of my “wonderful” childhood, and I have to remember to take off the rose-colored glasses.
Some things were better, but a whole lot of things, the majority of things in the world, were way worse.
It is worth remembering: Some of those Cobblestone Dreams were nightmares.