WHEN I WAS A YOUNG BOY my family lived between Salt Lake City, Utah and the base of the Wasatch Mountains that surrounded the city. I think even at a young age I was able to appreciate the beauty that was immediately outside my front door. Perhaps at that time, around the age of four or five, I didn’t exactly know God, but I was on my way. One thing I knew is that those mountains didn’t get there by themselves. Someone, or someone causing something, purposed those mountains to exist.
I heard a song on the radio the other day with a refrain that repeated, “God gives us mountains so we can learn how to climb.” I like that, and I don’t doubt it either.
When I was about eight years old my family was living in a very small town in southeastern Iowa called Tipton. I remember a few things about Tipton. One, is I don’t think our family was very happy there. But I also remember my mother taking me for walks to the little town square where the public library was. She would check out books for her to read, and books for me to read. During those days my mother was trying to simultaneously teach me Latin and its bastard relative Pig Latin. I remember one time she also tried to hypnotize me. I don’t know why, but I remember it was funny to me. It didn’t work. I don’t know why she tried to hypnotize me. It really made no never mind. Mom was fun. I knew she loved me. She spent time with me.
While we lived in Tipton my mother would read to me from a little box given to her when she was a young girl by her grandmother. The box was about two inches by four inches. It was made out of heavy duty cardboard. It was worn and gray in color. The corners of the box were tattered. Inside the box were scriptures from the Bible. The box was called the Bread of Life. A little bread box it was. Every morning at the breakfast table she would let me pick a piece of bread out of that box and she would read to me the words written down. She would just read them. She didn’t ask me questions about what I thought she had just read. She let the words speak for themselves. One morning she read to me a scripture that said, “If you have enough faith, you can move a mountain. You can say to this mountain, ‘fall into the sea’ and it will be done.”
Out in the parking lot of the apartment complex we were living in at the time there was a mountain of snow. A snowplow had come by earlier in the morning and cleared away the Iowa snow leaving it in a massive pile in the corner. So, with that scripture fresh in my mind, I went out that early morning to the snowy mountain in the corner of the parking lot. I tried to move that snowy mountain. I spoke to it. I commanded it. In the end, I put my shoulder to it and tried to shove it myself. I don’t know, I think maybe God was pleased with the effort. I came back a few hours later with red cheeks, wet knees and soaked cloth mittens. My mother didn’t say anything; she only smiled and asked if I would like some hot chocolate.
I believed the Words of Jesus then and I believe them now.
Even when I still try to push the mountains myself.
What I remember about living in Utah so close to the Wasatch Mountains is that the sky was blue and the breezes were cool. I had a Border collie dog, his name was Shep, and we would play outside for hours on end. Shep would pull me the length of our yard by the hem of my pant legs. When he would let go his grip I would stand up and run. Shep would chase me, I would slide down in the grass, perfectly, like a baseball hero, and Shep would then hurtle over me like an Olympic hero. He would circle around and do it again. I was yet to start school when my mom brought that stray puppy home one winter night. We put Shep to sleep my freshman year of college. A boy and his dog; together we would search the grass for four leaf clovers and leprechauns. I would lie on my back, with my head on Shep’s belly and watch the clouds. They were shape changers. Sometimes I would just close my eyes and listen to mothers’ laundry blowing dry on the line. I liked it when she hung the sheets. They would ripple in the wind and sounded like waves rolling. White sheets set against a blue sky are all it takes for a five year old boy to see the ocean. I remember the white sheets smelled clean and fresh, maybe even salty. For reasons unknown those sheets hanging out to dry brought to me a sense of comfort. They told me I was being taken care of. That someone was watching out for me and cared for my well being. The white sheets hung out to dry often. This of course probably had something to do with the fact that I was a five year old boy who literally lived outside playing with a sixty pound dog who slept with me in my bed every night.
Clean white sheets have all sorts of purposes I suppose.
In the inner-city projects white sheets are used primarily for two things; One; is that they are make shift curtains covering living room windows. Secondly, and mostly, they are used for advertisements. Many times you will see a white sheet hung along a fence line advertising some sort of rap concert or party. Hanging on the fence across the street from 16th and Jo Johnston, the white sheets are used solely as make shift memorials.
An obituary rippling in the wind.
Once or twice every month or two, especially in the summer, I would turn the corner on my daily visit to the families in the neighborhood, only to see a white sheet hanging on the fence. The top of these sheets always read the same.
“R.I. P.” Rest In Peace.
R.I.P. followed by someone’s name. Usually always a young man or teenage boys name.
R.I.P. ‘Meat Head’
R.I.P. ‘Baby Cool’
Those mornings that I would turn the corner with the sky an innocent blue and the breezes true, the day fresh with the promise of hope; to see a white sheet blowing against a blue sky, would sadden and grip me tight in my chest. I would think of how eternal our decisions and the waves of the sea could be. I would recognize the name written on the sheet. My throat would thicken. I would kick at the broken green and brown glass beneath my feet. I understood the realities of the neighborhood I was spending my life in, but, I would still find myself confused and dazed with every clean white sheet I would see hanging on that fence. I would be hard pressed to remember those feelings of comfort and security from my childhood days spent in the shadow of the mountains. What mountains were these young men unable to climb? Who was giving to them, comfort and security? Why were their lives condensed to a name on a sheet?
These white sheets would hang along the fence for three or four days. Folks from the neighborhood would stop by and write something on the sheet. I always thought that they should be writing their farewells in a high school yearbook and not on a five dollar sheet for the remembrance of life taken and given in violence. Different mementos would appear and gather at the base of the wire fence where the remembrance of life hung; flowers, teddy bears, a red bandanna, a blue bandanna, and without fail, every time, someone would write these words on the clean white sheet;
“Jo Johnston’s Finest”.
Given the opportunity I have no doubt that they could have been.
There they hung. Memorials. Nothing etched in stone. No marble monument. No bronze plaque.
This is inner-city style.
A white sheet; that by the end of the week would be taken down by a grieving mother who would lay awake at night wrapped in the memories of a life not taken, but wrapped in the guilt of her own shortcomings, and of a life not given. None of which is anyone’s fault.
One morning I turned the corner only to see another clean white sheet on the fence. My heart and legs grew heavy as I continued walking to the corner. Limping really, only wanting to turn around and come back tomorrow when the sky would be bluer and the breezes blowing truer. The young men on the corner were laughing and gambling on the steps as they typically do after the morning sales were complete. Not all of the time, but most of the time, the first day a sheet finds itself on the fence there is a sense of somberness. Perhaps it is quiet relief that the young men left standing realize that they will be seeing another day; that, it isn’t their name on the sheet, yet.
This morning was different though. It was apathy as normal. I didn’t recognize the name on the clean white sheet. I asked one of the men who it was and what had happened. He told me. Apparently, a little boy about five years old went to the bottom basketball court early the morning prior and found this man on one of the benches with bullet hole in the middle of his forehead and a gapping hole in the back of his head. Nice way to start the day for a little boy with a basketball in his hands. The man shot and killed was a longtime regular in the neighborhood. I simply didn’t know him. He was a little older. In these parts that could qualify as thirty years of age. The man I was getting the story from finished his report by shrugging his shoulders and telling me that nobody cared for the dead man much anyway.
Really? Could that be true? No one cared for him much anyway? I looked across the street at the clean white sheet.
R.I.P. “Lil’ G”
The next morning I made my way across the street into the neighborhood. I noticed the clean white sheet. It was still clean. Still white. Still unsullied. Quite different from the life it represented.
R.I.P. “Lil’ G”
That is all it said. No one had written anything on it. No farewells. No fond remembrance. No teddy bears. No flowers. No doo-rags. A clean white sheet. Yet, someone had the mind, or the heart, to at least put up the sheet and to write, R.I.P. “Lil’ G”. Who did that? A brother? A cousin? An aunty? Who?
I was taken back. No one had anything to say about this long time member of the community? A life lived and tossed as quickly as the dice and money that were being rolled and exchanged in the craps game taking place not six feet away from my reach. Could it be true that nobody cared for him much anyway?
The evidence was there before me, clean and white, rippling in the wind.