New Res Life

Our new house was a tiny two-story, two-bedroom on a remote street with four other houses. The nearest houses sat one mile to the north. The next nearest were 5 miles south in a part of town called South Superior. East End settlement began 6 miles to the east and 7 miles to west lay Billings Park. I couldn’t help but wonder how we weren’t on the reservation any more. We started out just as poor as we were before, there were even fewer kids here my age than on Red Cliff, and we were farther from other people.

At age 12, this was the first actual house that I lived in with my parents. One welcome feature to this house was the indoor bathroom with a claw-foot cast iron bathtub. We didn’t have a bath tub in Desire. I would take sponge baths from a large copper pot heated by the kitchen stove. Of course, there was no hot water heater in this house just like our cold water flats in New Orleans. We still had to heat water on the kitchen range, but at least we could haul it to the tub.

Another great new feature was that the water that came out of the tap was drinkable. It was ice cold and didn’t smell like rotten eggs. I could actually drink the water straight from the tap without boiling it or turning it into iced tea. The ground water temperature is 42 degrees year round up there and the water filters down to a 300 foot aquifer. They didn’t need bubblers up there even though, ironically, bubblers had been invented in Milwaukee, which is on Lake Michigan. Some of the smallest things can be delightful when you’ve never had them.

There were only two kids my age on the block, both wasicu. Tad was the son of a retired Army captain. We had a ton in common. Larry’s dad drove a meat delivery truck. The only thing we had in common was skinniness. My dad became fast friends with the Army captain, but barely ever exchanged pleasantries with the meat driver.

Larry had an older brother named Harry, but Harry was too cool to hang out with us young kids plus he was a high school basketball star. Larry had a bunch of younger sisters but they were too young and girls.

Tad and I played together more: building snow forts, having snow ball fights, playing football in the snow, sliding, and um… well, that was about it. There isn’t a whole lot do in 5 degree weather with snow covering everything.

Larry’s folks wouldn’t let him out very often. They were very protective of him. His family was more than a little odd.

1965 was the first year that we’d ever celebrated Christmas as a family. I should explain that my mother wasn’t around much during my life. She spent most of her time in the hospital. The family would just say that she had female problems. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that most of that time she was in a mental institution, loony bin, nut house. Mental illness wasn’t talked about back then; not out loud. It was a subject that was discussed only when necessary and then in hushed voices. I was in my mid 20’s before I learned that her real illness was paranoid schizophrenia. That explained a ton about her behavior. For many years, I thought she hated me when in actuality it was just the illness. She was quite a loving mother when she was “in her right mind”, as dad would say, which wasn’t often.

As I started, 1965 was the first time we celebrated Christmas in a traditional way. My dad and I drove out into the country to a piney area and chopped two small trees, dragged them out of the woods, strapped them to the roof of our rusty Pontiac Wagon and delivered one to his mother’s house and the other to ours. Grandma gave us a load of decorations for our tree: strings of small coloured lights, fragile glass ornaments, and magically silvery tinsel. We even had an angel for the top of the tree.

I enjoyed sitting on the floor with the strings of lights testing for bad bulbs. I always liked electricity. I studied the subject on my own using Navy text books that a neighbor in Desire gave me. I even built a rudimentary binary computer out of spare diodes, lights and a 9-volt battery when I was 9. It wasn’t much, but it worked well enough to impress the neighbors. In no time at all we had 5 complete strings of lights to hang on our tree.

Once the tree was fully decorated it was a sight to behold. I’d seen decorated trees before but this one was special. I cut and hauled it myself and the three of us had decorated it. It was the most beautiful tree I’d ever seen.

My dad wasn’t a Christian. Whenever he was asked what he believed he would say that he had his own beliefs and that he kept them to himself. No further discussion on the subject was allowed. I follow the same credo. Only my children know what I believe and they aren’t telling.

~~~

Our Christmas tradition in New Orleans had been quite different. My dad was the first shirt (Sergeant Major) of his troops and he took up a collection each year. The collection was always impressive, particularly for coming from lowly military personnel. He gave the men a large incentive. The lowest contributors would be on duty guarding the pumping stations on Christmas day if the donations didn’t measure up. In all the years I remember, nobody ever served guard duty.

Dad’s troops were all engineers, all skilled in making things. They would labor for hours during December building toys, tiny cars, trucks, lathing baseball bats, repairing worn baseball mitts, dolls, etc.; anything that could be forged from wood or steel. The wives would sew doll clothes, and repair worn clothing, shoes, dresses, pants, blankets, and quilts.

But it didn’t stop with the gifts to the children. Every oven in our neighborhood was filled with turkeys, hams, and stuffing. Every burner was lit preparing the fixings for dozens of Christmas Eve feasts. The money that dad collected was used at a Post Commissary to buy bushels of potatoes, beets, cranberries, carrots, green beans and so on.

Schwegman’s Grocery store on St. Claude and Elysian Fields graciously donated the turkeys and hams each year.

The women would work all day preparing the food while the men drank, played cards, and spun stories.

Early on Christmas Eve, we would load it all into an Army truck that my dad called a Deuce-and-a-half and head to the Lower Ninth Ward. As poor as we were, the people in the Lower Ninth Ward were even poorer.

Block after block we distributed our bounty to the more needy. I stuffed myself with scrumptious cookies, cakes, and candies baked by Negro grandmothers, those that could afford such extravagances.

I believe we covered about a square mile of houses as our territory. We’d start around 5 PM and deliver until near midnight or after. The experience was exhausting, but oh so rewarding. Because we were delivering something more than toys and food, as my dad explained it. We were delivering kindness and hope. We were reassuring these wonderful people that they were not forgotten by all.

No feeling on Earth could ever replace the feeling that I had presenting toys to children who would not have had a Christmas if not for my dad’s outfit and others like it. The piping hot feast wrapped neatly in tin foil was an enormous treat to those who barely subsisted the rest of the year.

The joy that we brought lit the night sky. Hugs were all that most recipients could afford to give in return; millions of dollars worth of hugs in appreciation. Their tears fell like blessed rain, as did mine. My dad would never cry, couldn’t let his men see that emotion, but dad granted me rare permission to feel what I was feeling and spare no emotion. Big boys don’t cry, except on Christmas Eve.

Looking back, I see that their appreciation was magnified by the sincerity of our efforts. All recipients knew that we didn’t have much more than they had, sometimes less. What we did have was the power of the US Army behind us, lots of effort, and the power of caring for our fellow human beings.

The gratitude of those wonderful folks, their beaming faces, beautiful smiles, and tight hugs will live with me forever.

My father, Sunshine Blackwater, always said, “We are fulfilling the true meaning of Christmas. My only regret is that we can’t do this every day of the year.”

~~~

Christmas 1965 introduced me to a whole new tradition. The entire Blackwater Tribe convened on Christmas Eve at Grandmother Blackwater’s place in South Superior. It was a small house but somehow we all fit. Everyone brought various dishes to the feast. My grandmother always baked a huge ham that remains the best ham I’ve ever tasted.

The theme was different at this feast. Beyond the food and exchange of small gifts we were there to show how much we appreciated each other and pay tribute to the amazing woman who had created this large tribe of human beings. All differences of the year were set aside, .all grievances forgotten, all wounds healed. We celebrated our unity and survival.

I talked with cousins I’d never met before, yet our common bond as Blackwater’s made us friends immediately. The younger children played with their toys while we older kids talked and the adults toasted each other.

I found one cousin particularly fascinating because he was a singer in a rock and roll band. I forget the name of his group, but they were pretty popular in the Twin Ports area and played constantly. I talked with him about music. He was surprised to hear of my experiences down in New Orleans. He didn’t know that he had a cousin who was a gigging musician. Somehow, our conversation was picked up by one of my tipsy aunts who then told of how our grandmother had been a singer and dancer in Vaudeville. This was the first I’d heard of this. My grandmother was a performer, an entertainer? I was stunned. It explained so much. This was where my musical genes came from.

Grandmother tried to shush this talk, but other aunts chimed in and one produced a photo dated 1902. The picture was of my grandmother when she was young and incredibly beautiful. I’m talking movie star beauty. If she’d been in California she would have starred in silent pictures. With her high cheekbones, distinguished nose, and penetrating eyes she could easily have been another Clara Bow or Gloria Swanson. It was hard to correlate the wrinkled, kindly old woman of 70 or 80 (she didn’t know how old she was – Nakota Sioux didn’t have calendars) with the babe in the picture. She was seriously sexy back then.

The aunts continued on about how grandma used to sing all of the time around the house while they were growing up, that her singing brought great joy and comfort to her children.

In one of the few times I ever heard grandmother address the whole tribe about the old days she said,

“We danced and sang around the campfire in Canada all of the time. It was what we did, who we were. Our way of life, the old ways of living from the land, was rapidly disappearing and a job in the big city seemed a good way to adapt to the new world. My first job was as a waitress in Regina that paid very little but my needs were simple and it was enough.

“One day the manager of the beer hall heard me singing as I washed dishes. He said, ‘You have a great voice. What are you doing washing dishes and waiting tables?’ I told him that I was making a living. He then fired me from my job and hired me as a singer. He didn’t know that I could also dance, actually loved to dance, but he soon found that out. Before I could blink, I was making more money than I knew existed. It was easier and more fun than waiting tables. That’s how I met your grandfather.”

I stood with gaping mouth at this revelation.

She ended her tale with typical modesty, “That was a long time ago and didn’t last all that long.”

Conversation resumed with other topics and I soon went back to talking to this talented cousin that I barely knew. He was three years older than me, quite handsome, and exuded a confidence that I was yet to attain. Eventually, he invited me to attend an upcoming gig his band was playing at a place called the Id. I rapidly accepted.

~~~

The next day we prepared Christmas dinner at our house. A few of my mother’s strange relatives came to share in our feast. My mother’s relatives claimed to be full-blooded Italians, though my dad dispelled that myth to me by revealing that their mother had been born in Watertown, South Dakota and was part English and part Indian, a fact that was denied by all her children. They were ashamed of having Indian blood. Their family also had some other deep, dark secrets that I didn’t learn until many years later.

A knock came at our door. It was Kenny Black. He had just mustered out of the Army and made our house one of his first priority stops. It was wonderful to see Kenny again. I truly loved the man and on this day he was a ray of sunshine in an otherwise weird, dark day. The Italians didn’t get along like the Blackwater’s. They constantly picked and poked at each other’s weaknesses, argued incessantly, and basically treated each other like shit. What a contrast from the night before.

I stuck to Kenny who was happy to remain out of the fray. He talked about the new band he was starting in Superior that was going to be “shit hot”. He asked if I was interested in playing in the new group.

“Hell yes,” slipped out of my mouth. Fortunately, only Kenny heard me. He cracked that wide knowing grin of his and assured me we’d be gigging within a month. Finally, I was getting back to more familiar footing.

Then Kenny gave me the best present I had received that season: a 21-transistor AM radio. Kenny explained that the more transistors the better the reception and fidelity and this model was “shit hot”.

“Set it on 560, WEBC. That’s where the hits are played. That’s the only rock and roll station in Duluth,” Kenny instructed. I did as I was told.

After he left I escaped the mad Italian tragic-comedy to the quiet of my room, popped the ear piece into my ear and tuned to “W-E-B-C, Channel 56, Channel 56, Channel 56.”

I hadn’t heard any of the songs playing before. They didn’t play these songs on WWL in New Orleans. I listened intently, making notes as each new song played. The notebook is long since lost but I remember fairly well what I wrote. It went something like this:

They played Lightening Strikes by Lou Christie about every third or fourth song. I grew sick of the song in the first hour (and still cringe when I hear it). Crap.

These Boots Were Made for Walking by Nancy Sinatra. Frank’s daughter? She sure didn’t inherit his voice. Crap.

Barbara Ann by the Beach Boys. Cool. I’ve always been a sucker for harmonies.

Turn! Turn! Turn by The Byrds. Neat use of a 12-string guitar and great harmonies. Cool.

The Ballad of the Green Berets by Sgt. Barry Sadler. Real depressing, man. Crap.

A Must To Avoid by Herman’s Hermit’s. Steaming Crap.

Elusive Butterfly of Love by Bob Lind.

Puppet On A String by Elvis Presley. The king has lost it. Crap.

I See The Light by The Five Americans. Even harmonies can’t save this shitberg. Crap.

Love Makes The World Go Round by Deon Jackson. Smarmy Crapola.

Everyone’s Gone to the Moon by Jonathon King. Really? Everyone? Probably to escape this song. Crap.

This was getting depressing. Was this what rock radio was about?

A string of more crap drooled from the transistors.

Then, finally, thankfully, gloriously, a new DJ took over promising to spin the coolest platters going, daddy-o. And he did.

I Feel Good (I Got You) by James Brown. Great horn song, best soul I’ve heard thus far. Got to do this one.

Rescue Me by Fontella Bass. Oh baby, I’m on my way.

As Tears Roll By by the Rolling Stones. Very nice, tender but still edgy.

Crying Time by Ray Charles. Buck Owens never did it like this. Great soul. A must.

Jenny Take A Ride by Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. Great booming organ. We have to do this tune. Great soul.

Just Like Me by Paul Revere & the Raiders. Cool organ song. Must do.

I’m A Man by The Yardbirds. Great vibe, harmonies. No organ. Maybe.

I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore by The Young Rascals. Incredible Hammond and Leslie. A must do.

Get Off of My Cloud by the Rolling Stones. Neat trick with the vocals. Cool lyrics. No organ. Maybe.

I’ll Go Crazy by James Brown. This cat is great. Great horns, soul. A must.

 

The DJ, whose name I don’t remember, was playing his own favorites. Most of the songs would become hits in the coming months. I was hearing them first. I couldn’t wait to share my notes with Kenny. What a great present that radio was. I listened far into the night, falling asleep the gadget in my ear and the radio playing.