The Closet
A Summer In ’53

by Doug Holloway

My mother and father were on their way to Memphis in 1948, the year I was born. They were moving into their first house as a married couple. I was the second of five. An older sister Willie Jean, born in ‘43, being the first. I wanted to be named after daddy but my sister beat me to it so to satisfy me my nickname was W, short for Willie. My dad was a WWII veteran and when he came home he took this opportunity to buy a home on the GI bill, in a Black GI subdivision. I’m not real clear about my mother and father’s family background. I think mom came from a family of 11 and dad from 6.

Various stories surfaced over the years to shed some light on some things and possibly as explanations for other things. There was the one story about one of my father's brothers killing my grandmother accidentally. It seems that during an argument with his wife one of my uncles pulled a pistol and shot at her. His mother stepped in front of the girl and was killed. My father was the youngest of the family at the time and had been out in the field working. He heard the shot and came home to find his mother dead at the hands of his brother. After a huge fight the authorities were called but by the time they arrived, my uncle had fled Mississippi for Michigan where he changed his name and settled in. The sheriff, made light of the tragedy and an incident occurred between my father and him that resulted in my father having to leave the state also. I think it was about this time that dad joined the Army and went to Europe.

My mother Iola was the youngest of 11 kids. She was very close to her younger brothers, Uncle Etthell, Uncle “Buddie,” whose real name was Jerry and Uncle Louis, a sharecropper who lived in Robinsonville, MS. We would go to his farm in the summers for vacations sometimes. I remember he had this old noisy, smoky tractor that he would take us for rides on. We had a good time out there in the country and it was here that I learned about death and killing things. My father bought my brother and I a daisy bb gun to share. One summer we took it to the country with us and shot at lots of things. I remember shooting this sparrow and when my brother and I went to see what it looked like, we found him still alive. I had shot his eye out and he looked so pitiful that I cried over him and took him back to the house with us. I never, unpurposefully killed another living thing after that. My aunt Alene and I nursed this bird back to health and we released him at the appropriate time. She was a very kind woman and her and Uncle Louis made the annual two week trek to the country a lot of fun for us big city kids. The following summer Uncle Louis died trying to save his tractor. It seems the old tractor caught fire while he was on it and he inhaled a lot of the burning fumes that scorched his lungs. After about a week he succumbed to scorched lungs and burns over 60% of his body. Aunt Alene, now a widow, had to leave the farm and I never saw her again.

Growing up for me in this type of atmosphere was fun most of the time. I liked people and people seemed to like me. I was a bright or red complexioned child with red hair, this earned me lots of attention and a nickname that I came to hate, “Cherry,” or “Red.”

In an attempt to blend in with the rest of the family I would spend hours on end sitting in direct sunlight. As a young child being different from everybody makes you feel special and feeling special is the best feeling in the world. When you get older you still want to feel special but you don’t necessarily want to be different from everybody. Older people would take me walking with them when I was 4 or 5 years old and I enjoyed their company and learned as much from them as I could. Women would take me with them because I was smart, well mannered and good company even at that age. I learned to taste good red dirt, pick blueberries, sip honey from honeysuckle and cut sassafrass roots for tea along with lots of other natural things from these women. Men on the other hand would take me with them to attract women. Most of the men that took me with them bought me some type of treat as a reward so the trip was always worth it to me. Even today there are few sights more endearing and touching to a woman than a man with a child. It was a great time to be a kid, even a kid like me.

Uncle Buddie and Uncle Etthell came down from Chicago every summer to spend their vacation with our family. They both worked at US Steel and everyone thought they were hot stuff so to speak because they were from Chicago. Uncle Etthell always drove what seemed like a shiny, brand new Ford down here every year and Uncle Buddie rode with him. Uncle Etthell was our favorite because he played with us, while Uncle Buddie was the more serious of the two. Uncle Etthell snapped his fingers, smiled and hummed all the time it seemed. He was also a favorite with the ladies and when he was in town, the phone never stopped ringing so he was never around us very much. We all loved him.

This one particular summer when they were getting ready to go back to Chicago, Uncle Buddie asked Mom if I could spend the summer with him and his wife in Chicago. She agreed that it would be a great experience for me and said if I wanted to go I could. With visions of all the candy I could eat, new clothes and spending everyday at the biggest carnival in the world, I didn’t give it a second thought and was ready to go right then. When the time came for us to leave, Mama gave me a couple of brown paper bags with some clothes and things, two dollars in change, a big hug and kiss and told me to be a good boy and mind my manners. I had taken it on my own to put a couple of my favorite toys in one of the bags just in case. My brother and sister made themselves scarce, jealous I suppose. In any event it was time for my big adventure to begin and off we went.

When we were just outside of Chicago Uncle Buddie pointed at the carnival alongside the highway and said “You gon’ be going there real soon W, you ready for it?” I couldn’t wait and that was all I thought about for the rest of the ride. When we got to Uncle Buddie’s house I thought it was some kind of castle even though it was a one bedroom flat. He lived in an apartment in a multi-storied high rise apartment building. It seemed like his was on the 26th floor, but it may have been higher than that. We took the elevator to get to his floor and the elevator was covered with graffiti and smelled terrible. I think people had been pissing in it or something. Someone had punched every floor so I had plenty of time to read a lot of the graffiti. I remember seeing pussy and dick and nigger and covering my eyes and mouth and snickering because those were words we kids never wrote in public. When the elevator finally lumbered to his floor, we got off and went down this dark hallway to his apartment. We put our stuff down and while I sat at the kitchen table, Uncle Buddie asked me if was hungry and said he would go and get me something to eat. I only saw him three or four times during my whole stay in Chicago after that and I never saw Uncle Etthell again.

I sat there looking around the room in the predawn light when I heard a noise from one of the rooms and I found myself face to face with the biggest, blackest and (later I was to learn), meanest, woman I had ever met. She leaned over the table, almost nose to nose and slowly asked me, “Who Are You, and What You Doing In My House?” I was terrified to the point of speechlessness. This was my introduction to Aunt Saintie. When I finally was able to speak, the only thing that came out was “I don’t know.” That gave her the chance to say “you dumb country ass niggers don’t know nothing do you?” I had never been spoken to like that before so of course my response again was “I don’t know.” About this time she looked over and saw my bags sitting there in the floor and said “what you got in here boy?” She dumped everything out into the floor and told me to go stand over by a door way. She purposefully broke one of my toys and I started to cry, so she told me to get into the closet and shut up. After I did, she locked the closet door behind me. This was the first, but far from the last time she would repeat this act.

That first day in the closet I lay down in a corner and tried to be quiet and go to sleep when I heard this scratching noise coming from somewhere within the walls. At the time I didn’t know it, but it was those infamous Chicago rats. The closet door had some small louvered vents at the bottom of it and I would try to look through them. That first day in there I stood up almost the entire time. Late in the evening my legs finally gave out and I collapsed in a heap. Aunt Saintie came to investigate the noise and asked me what was I doing. She unlocked and opened the closet door and screamed at me for peeing in her closet. I was soaking wet. She grabbed me by the nape of my neck and threw me out into the floor. I sat there terrified and crying while she mopped out the closet with bleach or something, cursing me all the time. When she finished she had me get back in there and after a little while she gave me a pie pan with something to eat in it and a jug with water and a rag in it and told me to wash myself up. I did the best I knew how and in a few minutes she came and got the jug. After she poured it in the sink she brought it back to me and said that was my pot. She fed me twice a day and bathed me once a week, just like that. After a couple of days Uncle Buddie made his first appearance since going to get me something to eat. I thought he had come to save me, but as far as I could tell he didn’t even ask about me. Later I figured out that the only reason Uncle Buddie had brought me back with him was to get Aunt Saintie off his ass, because she was as mean to him as she was to me.

When Sunday morning came Aunt Saintie got me out of the closet and bathed me standing there and got me ready for church. She put the suit on me that moma had packed and we went to the elevated, or el train station. On the train there was an ad for a monster movie that would soon be coming and as we sat there, with a squeeze of my hand, she warned me not to say a word to anyone or that monster would come into MY closet and get me. When we got to church there was white everywhere. I think it was usher day so all the women wore white uniforms. They all seemed to gather around us asking Aunt Saintie about me and tying to make small talk with me. Aunt Saintie never let my hand go and reminded me of her warning with a harsh squeeze of my hand every time someone came near us. I just smiled and never said a word as she explained to them that I was some dumb country boy that Jerry, “Uncle Buddie,” had befriended and brought back with him from Memphis. Aunt Saintie was sanctified I later learned and perhaps this was a revival or something because we went to church every morning and every evening for a week. Sometimes she would get full of something and start to jump around in the church with the other people. I just sat there looking in wideeyed wonder, scared to death. When she had gotten over her possession and calmed down she would sit back next to me and squeeze my hand until the service was over. I would say my “Now I lay me’s,” when I got back to my closet every night after church. I thought GOD had forgotten about me and I had a real dislike for him and church for years.

After awhile Aunt Saintie got a little lax with the closet security and left the apartment with the closet door unlocked once. I lay there for hours peering through those slats and listening for any sound in the apartment other than those of the scratching in the walls. When I got the nerve I went over to the window by the fire escape over the alley. All this was new to me because I had never seen the apartment since I’d been there. I had never seen a fire escape or an alley so I was fascinated with this and when I opened the window and stepped out there I thought I could fly for a moment. I always kept a wary eye on the front door though just in case. While I sat out there thinking, singing and daydreaming about home I was startled by another kids voice saying “you can’t sing!“ It was a little boy about my age who lived in the apartment below. We talked and played little games and sang for what seemed like hours. It was so good to have contact with someone else that I forgot to watch the door and when Aunt Saintie snatched me in and then the boy, I knew I had made a fatal error. She picked up this long stick and whipped the boy unmercifully while I sat there crying and watched. I remember him looking at me as she beat him and I felt so sorry for him because it was all my fault. When she finished with him she threw him out on the fire escape and said, “If you ever brang yo ass up here again I’ll try my best to kill you!” He was my one pleasant memory of Chicago and I never saw him again. Over the years I have often thought of that little boy and even today I wonder what happened to him. Now she turned her attention to me and to my surprise she simply glared at me, told me to get back in the closet, locked it and never said a word. When she finally did speak to me she told me to write a note to my folks and tell them that I was fine and I would see them soon. She also told me if I mentioned any of these things in my letter I would never see my family again, reminding me that they didn’t care anyway cause if they did they would’ve come up there and got me by now.

After five or six weeks of this apparently it was time for me to go back home and register for the first grade. We packed my bags and “Uncle Buddie” took me to the bus station, bought me a one way ticket and sent me home, alone. I like to think he didn’t want to face the wrath of my mom and dad so he said his goodbyes at the bus station. In reality he probably had to work and couldn’t take off to bring me back home. I didn’t say a word for almost half of the first grade school term and until I did, my teacher, Ms Swingler thought I was a mute.

These are my memories of Chicago, The Summer of 53 and The Closet. To this day I see Chicago as a dark, dank and dusky city with little to offer except memories of Al Capone and the violence of that era. Although I later became a Bears fan during the Walter Payton and the “Superbowl Shuffling Crew” era, I have found little to miss about the beloved “Windy City.” With the exception of a visit there with a friend in the 90’s, I have never been back to Chicago, not mentally, physically or spiritually.

The Closet by Doug Holloway

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