I Once Walked in Oscar Robertson’s Shoes

This was the exact same shoebox

This was the exact same shoebox

The big news on television these past many days has been the shootings in a Charleston church attended by blacks, the shooter of course was some misled white kid.  People are calling it a racist hate crime and calling for the removal of the Confederate flag above the state’s capital building.

When I write these stories, I usually try to figure out what the tale will be before I write; sort of a mental outline.  Sometimes there might also be an underlying theme or learning lesson.  I think the underlying theme on this one is going to be the topic of blacks and whites embracing each other, (or at least not killing each other).  Hold on, hold on…before you click on the ‘Back’ button, read some more please.  I’ll try to keep this tale light, (and hopefully, sometimes funny).  Keep in mind that this story’s written by a guy who grew up in a family that was about as diversified as they can get in Hamiltucky.

In the early elementary years, (kindergarten and first grade), I don’t think we had an official lunch recess.  I seem to recall those classes being down at one end of the school building and each having their own door which lead to a small portion of the outside world – I seem to recall we had breaks, ‘playtime’.  I think actual physical education, (we just called it gym class), began in either second or third grade.
A shot at the rear exits for the younger grades

A shot at the rear exits for the younger grades

Our cafeteria doubled as the place where school assemblies were held.  It had the standard construction of the time with those tables that folded up into the walls.  I don’t know this for fact but I suspect our gymnasium once was used as a theater because it had a stage.  When I attended however, it was a full fledged gym complete with two sets of swinging doors in the front, hardwood floor, basketball goals, teacher’s office up front and the mysterious equipment room padlocked on the right. The dressing rooms were up on the converted stage, boys on the left, girls on the right.
The arch of the stage area was walled off for privacy and the divider between the two changing areas was likewise a solid wall.  It was not a folding wall but a permanent construction that only went up about 12-15 feet, so enough for modesty but not enough to keep us from imagining our female companions changing into their own gym outfits.  The wall was not so solid because for a few-day period there was a small hole that had been bored completely through it.  Yes, I confess I was one of the lucky boys who got to peer through and I have a vague memory of getting to see glimpses of female flesh bustling about, rushing to get dressed.  After a few days, someone, (probably some dumb teacher), had come along and screwed a piece of wood over our mystic portal.
You remember the kid in your class who wasn’t afraid to be caught doing anything he shouldn’t be?  He was always getting into trouble for his escapades.  Well ours was a little guy named Boyd Winkler.  His nickname was Pee Wee (given to him by his older brothers I think).   One day While we were all getting changed out of our street clothes and into our gym clothes, Pee Wee ran across the dressing room floor, (aka our half of the stage), quickly picked up Allen’s clothes and tossed them all over the divider wall into the girls side.
Ok, so we all started laughing at that, but it gets worse.  Let me tell you a little bit about Allen.  Allen was the kid who was incessantly teased in elementary school and then loved by everyone by the time he got to high school.  Allen wasn’t the smartest kid in school or the fastest or the strongest or the most popular.  Allen was different.  Allen had heart.  But in elementary school, none of us boys were smart or sensitive enough to recognize that Allen had heart…so Allen got teased.
And now, back to why it gets worse.  Now, imagine that you are Allen and your clothes just got tossed over the wall.  What would you do?  Would you yell through the wall and ask the girls to toss your clothes back?  Would you ask one of the other boys to go outside and ask the female gym teacher to get your clothes for you?  Would you instead just stick your head out the curtain and tell a teacher what had just happened?  Maybe.  Allen, however, walked down the steps and out to the gym floor in his tighty whities to tell the teacher that Pee Wee had thrown all his clothes into the girls dressing area.
That only made it better, or worse depending on the point of view.  For Allen, it should have made things worse.  But like I said, Allen had heart so I don’t think he gave it another thought later, (I hope not anyway).  It made it better though for all us adolescent boys who couldn’t stop laughing; that is until our gym teacher came in to lecture us.  I don’t remember what was said, but I remember feeling a little guilty for laughing.
When gym class began, we were told we had to buy black shorts, a white tee shirt and appropriate shoes.  In my day where I grew up, we had only two names for those shoes; gym shoes or tennis shoes.  I went home that day and handed my gym note to my mom.  In the next day or so, Mom went shopping, (probably at K-Mart), but luckily she didn’t come home with K-Mart specials.  For a 7-year old little white boy who’d never been exposed to black people, she brought home something I thought was worse; a pair of shoes with some black guy on the shoe box.  You have to keep in mind that my dad’s family grew up using the N-word, it was a normal part of their vocabulary, so I was confused.
I was embarrassed.  Who the heck was Oscar Robertson anyway?  You get the picture of how little my dad followed professional sports?  I was pretty much the Sgt. Schultz of sports knowledge – I know nothing, nothing.  We were all supposed to transport our gym clothes and shoes in our shoe boxes.  We kept them in our classes and then carried them with us to the gym class.  Being afraid of becoming Pee Wee’s next victim, I carried my box against my side with the picture of Oscar against my body.  I was afraid I’d be teased for having shoes some black guy wore.
When we got to the makeshift dressing room, I remember taking the lid off quickly and turning it upside down.  The sides had Oscar on them too, but there was no way to cover up everything until I was fully undressed and could put my clothes on top of the box, thwarting teasing and embarrassment.  It either worked or no one paid attention.  Perhaps most of the boys knew that Oscar Robertson was only the best ball player on the local Cincinnati professional basketball team, the Royals.  Maybe I was the only kid whose dad used the N-word…but I doubt it.  Hamiltucky was very segregated in those days, might still be for all I know.
Fillmore's Facade

Fillmore’s Facade

Second, (or third grade, whichever it was), came and went very quickly and I soon grew out of my Big O tennis shoes, escaping Pee Wee’s tossing my famous shoes over to the girls’ dressing area and my having to walk out in my tighty whities and loafers to report to the teacher.
When I joined the ranks of the working and started attending big city college, I naturally became more exposed to more races and colors.  While an employee with P&G I must have attended 15 or so seminars on the subject of diversity.  For the most part, diversity there was mainly about Directors having employment numbers that matched the demographics of the region.  In my experience, I didn’t really feel like we really tried to make everyone feel comfortable enough to perform at their full potential, (what I thought valuing differences was supposed to be).  This showed up especially in a couple of demographics, namely females.
Around the late 90’s, I was working in Louisiana.  Once when it was lunchtime, three black males I worked with were headed out to lunch and I called out to them to hold up as I would join them.  The reaction on their faces was one of a bit of surprise and one of them said, “if you think you can hang with us, sure”.  When we got to the car, the driver turned up the CD which was playing one of those songs I’d call ‘kill the whities tunes’.  The reason I called them this was because sometime during the song, they usually called out to kill the whities.  I’m sure that was for my benefit.  I was hoping I could repay the favor one day with some Donny Osmond Puppy Love but never got the chance.  We drove to the local catfish restaurant, (mm, I really miss that food), and after ten minutes or so, they all got a little more relaxed or comfortable around me.  Hey, I was hungry and just wanted to join them for lunch.
At the time, the plant there was run by a black plant manager, a guy named Andy.  Andy was, (in my opinion), a lot more comfortable around other blacks and much less comfortable around whites.  During a private conversation with him one day, he shared with me his perspective on the topic of diversity.  This is almost verbatim – “we all need to get comfortable with the fact that blacks like to hang out with blacks, whites with whites, Mexicans with Mexicans” (yes, he said Mexicans).  He further went on to say, “it should be ok for us blacks here at the plant to sit all together at lunchtime if we want or if we don’t want to spend time with white people, that should be ok”.
After twenty years, I still don’t know how to fully internalize those statements. Until he said those words, I hadn’t really previously given much thought to how blacks really thought of white people or how comfortable I felt around blacks.  Fast forward now to just a couple of years ago.  Again, I am working for a black plant manager.  I really like him and he seems to like me.  However, I have asked him out on two separate occasions to join my wife and me, thinking we’d have a good time.  Both times he found ways to dodge the topic so I can only assume that he has a good reason.  Perhaps his wife is not comfortable with whites?
What is a friend?  Is a friend someone whose company you enjoy?  If so, this guy is my friend.  I like spending time with him and we still pick up the phone now and again to chat with each other.  I gave up though the idea that we’d ever do anything together outside our work environment and I guess that’s ok.  We don’t all have to golf together.  I have only a very few people in my life that I’d call a friend.  I have worked with a lot of black people in my life, many at the foundry and then many at P&G.  In my own personal little microcosm of the world, I’d have to say that blacks and whites are the same – they each feel more comfortable around people who are just like them and neither works all that hard to break down the barriers.  This I’m sure explains why the confederate flag is flying over a capital building 150 years after our Civil War.
Maybe if this Dylann Roof guy had a mom who had made him wear some Oscar Robertson tennis shoes when he was a kid, he wouldn’t have felt the need to go on a shooting spree?  I don’t have the answers….(most of the time I don’t even know what the questions are).  All I really know is what I write about; my own experiences – and once upon a time, I walked in the shoes of The Big O, Oscar Robertson.

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