Saturday, February 20, 2016
To Kill a Mockingbird
It was fifty-four years ago that To Kill a Mockingbird hit the silver screens across America and later the world. I had read the book by Harper Lee in my high school college prep English class so I knew the story line. Watching the funny and terribly sad episodes unfold, the characters came to life. I was fifteen that year. A pipsqueak. I had lived a sheltered life in Wheat Ridge and later Lakewood, Colorado - lily white suburbs just west of Denver where the Great Plains meet the Colorado Rockies.
There were no Negros in my school and none anywhere near where I lived. There were no Mexicans either. A neighbor boy my same age lived in the next block. He was Catholic and went to Holy Family School about a mile away from where we lived. I didn't understand why he went to a special school. My sister, who was seventeen years older than I, married a Catholic. He in turn was ten years older than my sister. He lost a lung during World War II. My dad stayed at home. My mother refused to go to my sister's wedding. My grandmother, who I loved deeply, said all Catholics were sinners and would go to hell. My grandmother told me that I was a sinner as well. I remember questioning her statement because even at the age of five or six, I reasoned that while I might have lied or done some little things that were 'wrong', I certainly was not a sinner. And then I question her about Joe, my sister's new husband. I distinctly remember asking her if she liked Joe. Yes, she admitted. I asked her if Joe was a good man. Yes, she said. Then I asked her why God would make Joe go to hell. She said it was because he was a Catholic and a sinner. Her logic. Not mine.
I heard my mother say some terrible things about Negros. Utterances so horrible I won't tell them to living persons and which I refuse to commit to the Internet. She was my sweet grandmother's daughter - the product of prejudice and bigotry. Maybe I was adopted as my brother had said. That must be it.
We had a Christmas play at my elementary school when I was probably in the third grade. Children from each grade in my school were supposed to be orphans awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. My character was a negro boy. My teacher rubbed burned cork on my freckled face and tiny hands to make me look like a Negro boy. She coached me on how to speak my two lines in a Negro dialect. I remember the audience guffawing when I spoke my lines - a Negro in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. Fat chance of that ever happening.
In 1960 my mother and I went to see Psycho at the old Golden Theater in Golden, Colorado, the place where Coors beer is made. We went to the Holland House cafe to eat dinner before the movie. I remember my mother not wanting to eat her food because the cook was a Negro. I remember looking at my food with skepticism and wondering a bit whether some of what she said was true. But I ate anyway. Then we saw the movie. That was something to really fear.
During the summer of 1963 I got to go on the best vacation of my life: a summer trip to Europe with seventeen other kids from my school district and two chaperons. We did the grand tour for six weeks. There were many memorable stops and events. I got drunk for the very first time at the Moulin Rouge in Paris where I saw a couple of nearly naked women except for pasties and a G-string. We ran wild in the rainy streets of Salzburg, and we swam in the Mediterranean west of Rome. But it was in Berlin that two events became etched in my memory card.
On June 26th 1963 three other kids and I left our group to see if we could get a glimpse of President John F. Kennedy. He spoke at two different locations on his famous trip to Berlin. He gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at the Schöneberg Rathaus (City Hall) in Berlin. We went to the other location - the Free University of Berlin. We got to our location quite early so that we could get
get a good view of the Presidential motorcade. We stood in the hot sun for what seemed like an eternity. The longer we waited, the more people arrived. By the time the motorcade arrived the sidewalks were crowded with Germans. As he approached the crowds roared with applause. The limousine got near and I raised my camera above the assholes that had crowded in front of me to snap a couple of photos of My President. I as so excited to see him that I took four very blurry photos. But more than the photos I remember the adulation the German people had for Our President. So many of the people who lined that section had brought American flags. And they screamed in delight of the man who symbolized America. It was a feeling I will never forget. Equally amazing was the reaction of my often bunk-mate, Bill Phillips. He was a waspish little Republican if there ever was one. We lived only a few blocks apart back in Lakewood, Colorado. He, like me, was Irish and freckled, and as I later found out, gay. Only his family was Republican and against anything Democrat. How surprised I was to see Bill scream and yell for Kennedy. Bill is retired now and lives in the California with his partner of over 36 years. We exchange Christmas cards each year. I wonder if he is still a Republican.
One day our group took a bus ride into East Berlin which then was locked behind the Berlin Wall. As we drove around we saw buildings that had been bombed into rubble maybe twenty years earlier during World War II. There were blocks upon blocks of rubble. I remember the sky being so clear blue and the landscape being so blah and devoid of color. It was like a movie. Only it was real. I felt so sorry for the East Germans being trapped there. Unable to leave that horrid place.
I think it was the same night we went to a movie theater on the Kurfürstendamm. We watched To Kill a Mockingbird which had been dubbed into German. No matter what language you heard, the story was so easy to understand. The imagery as I said before is etched into my memory. The images of 1930s south. Of poverty and of privilege. Of Scout and Jem and Boo Radley. Of Atticus Finch defending an innocent Negro accused of violating a white girl. Of intolerance and prejudice. Of a lynch mob.
My exposure to non-whites was very limited. I am thankful that my high school college prep and civil studies teachers opened my eyes and my heart to accepting a wider universe than my parents or grandparents were willing to accept.
I am glad I voted with my feet and left the big city of Denver (big to me, at least). I moved to a place where One Human Family is the motto. There is no place like home, especially if home is Key West.
Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, passed away this week. She wrote one of the best if not the best books of the Twentieth Century. The racial intolerance about which she wrote was not isolated to the South nor to the first half of the last century. It lives on strong all over America.
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Gary Thomas in a Nutshell
- Gary Thomas
- Key West, Florida, United States
- I first read about Key West in a magazine called "After Dark" sometime in the mid 1970's. But it wasn't until March 1984 that I made my first visit to the island that would become my home. I had two weeks for a vacation and reserved a room at Colours Guesthouse (now Marrero's Guest House) for one week. I thought that if I didn't like Key West, I could always go back to Miami or Ft. Lauderdale for the rest of my trip. But after a couple of days in Key West, that was no longer a consideration. But when I wanted to extend my stay for the extra week I found there was no room at the inn. The guesthouse owner did find me a room at LaTeDa, the infamous guesthouse/restaurant. That's a story I'll write another day. But those two weeks in Key West gave me the realization that I had found Paradise. Key West has been my home since 1993 and my only regret is that it took me so long to get here. I am a full time Realtor at Preferred Properties CRI. Let me help you find your new home or business in Paradise. Living in Paradise is not a slogan, it's a way of life.