We All Have A History

Mike Shelton

© Copyright 2007 by Mike Shelton 

Photo of Arizona landscape.

 As we finished 6th grade at Adeline Gray, our choices were clear. We were either going to Herrera or Lowell. They had junior highs. Gray did not. There was a lot of negotiating among my classmates as to who was going to what school. Which girls were going to Herrera. What sports did they have at Lowell. I never got into that, nor worried about the choices made by my friends. I knew where Lowell was. I didn’t really know where Herrera was. So, Lowell was it. Such is the way great decisions are made.

 Having entered kindergarten at the age of 4, my entrance into 7th grade would be at 11, turning 12 in December, anywhere from months to over a year younger than most 7th graders. Had a brief early promotion from first to second grade stuck, I would have been only ten. The promoting teachers changed their mind after only a day, for while I was smart enough to do the work, I was too small to navigate with the big boys.

 Every kid walking into a new school brings a history. I was an only child living in a junkyard business (scrap metal in polite company) owned by his grandfather, Isaac Hammons. He and my uncle Boots, otherwise known by his real name Sylvester, made it a living hauling thrown away metal from the nearby Phoenix City Dump. I called my grandfather “Daddy” because everybody else did. It was an easy drive. We were on the last house on 15th Avenue and Magnolia with 15th dead-ending a couple hundred yards north. Take a right next to the tannery down a narrow, potmarked winding road, maneuver by all manner of city dump trucks, private pick up trucks, bulldozers, earthmovers, , hold your nose passing by the fields of home made waste, and you were there. Right in front of the newest, not yet buried mountain sized pile of odorous garbage was where Daddy and Boots, joined by workers who were more fellow long time survivors of a hard life than employees. Together, they’d load the 1950’s faded gray Ford truck to the top of it’s wooden slacks with copper, brass, tin, copper, aluminum, tire rims, phone wires, mattresses, whatever was sellable. The goods would be taken back down the street to our land, where I lived. An acre and a half lot had our house and living yard to the center and facing 15th avenue, surrounded like a horseshoe by mountains, many thousands of tons, of metal varieties. Some in discernable stacks. Others not. All connected with curving road trails just wide enough to kick the junk off our trucks.

Daddy bought the land during the 1930’s when he and my grandmother Ada migrated from Louisiana to Arizona, defying with others the pattern of black journeys from the South to the North or Midwest. He was extremely hard working, never a drinker, and liked to gently share a sense of humor. Sometimes he’d knock on the front door for me to answer, pretending he was a stranger. On the other hand, he had a tendency to lie and manipulate his children and speak in terms of being “The Ruler” of his home.

Ada made the house into a home. The land between the house and the junkyard was buffered by small gardens, a large lawn, and a variety of shade trees and fruit trees. An unbroken row of pink and white flowering oleanders lined the ditch from the Magnolia dirt road street corner, a ditch that was there long before I was born, giving way to chinaberry trees, weeping willows, Palo Verdes, a variety of flowers, bushes, and trees whose names I never knew, finally ending with two giant landmark tamarack trees. On summer evenings she could be heard humming relaxing hymns while quilting under the soft porch light, or shucking green beans with a friend. In addition to loving plants, she raised animals. Pigeons were fed in two pigeon coops, the rabbits in their roomy pens, ducks, turkeys, guinea hens, and chickens and roosters clucking and craning behind encircled pens. No one made better peach cobbler than she did. And no one loaded their plate with higher portions of her fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy than I did. The house and the inner yard with its gardens were run by my grandmother. The outer junkyard was run by my grandfather.

Key to daddy’s success in the yard was Boots. In my eyes there was nothing he couldn’t do. He could fix any car, climb tall trees and saw overgrown limbs, and take me to any movie. From my earliest years he’d read to me, and on every Thursday, late afternoon or early evening, we’d make a special trip to Pete’s Newstand in downtown Phoenix to buy the latest comic books. He’s tell me stories, talk about his hopes for my future and for the family, and try to share lessons to live by. We enjoyed stopping by Tastee Freeze burgers on Broadway and 7th Avenue, or Hodges BBQ on Washington Street. Sometimes he’d just play with me, arm wrestling, water-hose fights, taking me to local baseball games next to Harmon Park.

Unfortunately, the situation that would shape the rest of our lives was finding himself in the position of my protector. The threat was from his sister, my mother. Never far from my mind, and very much near it in the summer before 7th grade, was my mother Ruth Shelton’s mental condition. Four years earlier, during October, 1962, Boots received a call from my mother when we lived in Berkeley, California. The conservation so unnerved him that he took a flight from Phoenix that very evening to check up on me. In the early morning hours of the next day, while it was still dark, ma woke me up from a deep sleep and beckoned me to join her in the bathroom. I didn’t know what was going on, but I moved my 7-year old body in her direction. We went into the bathroom. I turned on the light switch. She slapped my hand, turning off the light. Without any pause, gripped by a fear I’d never known, I yelled, screamed, and kicked the door, refusing to be restrained by her. A torrent of words flowed from her mouth, none of which made any sense to me. Fortunately the door was not locked. Boots rushed in and took her into the living room, now filling with morning light, but with a feeling so strange, so confused, I did not, and do not, have words to describe. He asked “Ruth, what’s wrong with you?” From her small frame came a shriek so frightening, so insane, that we were frozen in horror. My Aunt Fay, their sister, was living with us, her sleep broken to pieces. She was as mystified as Boots by what she witnessed. For minutes that seemed like eternities, Ma struggled away from Boots, ranted, and raved. Mercifully, I do not remember exactly what she said, nor did I see her forced extraction by the mental health authorities from the apartment.

Days later, I would move from Berkeley to live with Boots, Daddy, and Ada in Phoenix. Ma would be in a California mental institution. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I am now in third grade.

As hard as it may be for the reader to believe, when I was separated from my mother, I never missed her. There was none of the separation anxiety you see on television. When she was released seven months later, I was filled with dread. Boots’ explanation that he could not legally prevent her from taking me back only drove me into a deeper depression. Sitting on the dented roof of the 1950’s Ford truck, staring at the peaks, the glowing television antenna towers on top of South Mountain, I wondered what I would do now? Where would I go? What would she do to me? Would I die?

 When she picked me up at the end of my third grade year, it was clear her mental health had improved and I would not be harmed. Though I never stopped looking for clues to the contrary. Between June 1963 and February 1965, we lived in Oakland, Washington, D.C., Coral Hills, Maryland, then briefly in St. Louis, Missouri. We only spent 2 weeks in St. Louis, which was fine with me. I hated it. The school was crowded with kids much bigger than I. Her ears were filled with my demands to return to Arizona. Why were we in Missouri? The answer came in the second week. She took me by the hand to some man’s private home in a nice neighborhood. That man turned out to be her divorced husband, my father. He’s someone I had no memory of meeting, no memory of hearing. There was no feeling, except this was a clue of her mental condition and I did not want to be here. Answering her knock at the door was his wife. He was gone, out with his children. She and Ma exchanged angry words, including Ma shouting “I loved him!” Then it was over and we left. Three days later, she agreed to return to Phoenix. On February 10, 1965, I’m back on familiar ground, re-entering Adeline Gray, now as a fifth grader. I’d spent fourth and fifth grades divided among California, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Missouri, and now Phoenix. This time, here to stay.

 By the summer of 1966, between 6th and 7th grades, Ma’s illness returns, with all of its dark shadows. “Take these to the mailbox”, she’d ordered. They were letters threatening the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. Our home would get the attention of the post-Kennedy assassination Secret Service. When she was out of her room, I’d peek in and see scrawls written around the margins of books and newspapers, lines of words scribbled continuously to the sides, top, and bottom.

Ada would be the growing target of Ma’s words, days of profanities stretching into the nights. Finally on one June Sunday afternoon, Ada had enough. In front of the dining room refrigerator, my grandmother’s hands locked around my mother’s throat, her voice filled with tragic sorrow. “I’m sorry Ruth. I have to kill you.” Without thinking, I jumped on the back of my grandmother to protect my mother. We both fell to the floor. I could see the hurt in her eyes. She got up and walked out of the house. There hasn’t been a day I did not regret climbing on her back and stopping her.

July and August would prove unbearably hot months. Ada could not stand the heat. Drained by the Phoenix sun, with no relief provided by our poorly functioning one-room swamp cooler, my grandmother would be taken to Memorial Hospital, where, two days later, August 9, 1966, she would die from low blood pressure. Among her last words was a plea to Boots to protect me. Ma did not cry at her funeral.

 Boots would later tell me that he believed Ma deliberately hid Ada’s medication, contributing to her death, but there was no way to prove it.

When I entered 7th grade less than a month later, the events surrounding my grandmother’s death and my mother’s resurgent illness weighed me down like a battleship’s anchors on a tugboat.

There was so much.

 We all have a history. This was my history. Every child enters a new school with their own sets of histories. Adults tend to believe kids haven’t lived long enough to have a history worth telling. How little they know. How little they remember.

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