Monday, January 19th, 2004 • 1 Comment on Remembering Fred
This is a story about another boy I once knew, but this is a different kind of story. This is a story about Fred. I lost track of him three or four years ago, but he has a habit of reappearing in my life when I least expect it. It always surprises me when I get a letter, phone call or e-mail out of the blue that says, “This is your old friend Fred.” I’m thinking about Fred today and hoping, where ever he is, his life is good.
I was a senior in high school and Fred was a junior when we met while working at a grocery store (my bakery job). Fred was smart and funny and cute and we became friends even though we traveled in different circles (he was, after all, a junior). Fred lived with his grandmother in a not-so-great part of town. He would lecture me not to stop at the stop signs and to keep going if I heard gunshots whenever I drove him home.
Fred was very popular and had a million friends, but for some reason he would talk to me about things he couldn’t talk about to anyone else. Sometimes we would drive to Pompano Beach after work, sit on the beach and talk for hours. He had family problems that were far worse than my family problems and I felt helpless to do anything but listen to him and be sympathetic. He had plans and goals and dreams and, thankfully, a grandmother to keep him in line.
One night Fred asked if we could drive to the beach because he had girl problems and needed to talk. We parked where we usually parked and walked parallel to the beach toward the stoplight where we needed to cross. It was a week night so there weren’t many cars on the strip, but that didn’t seem like a bad thing at the time. I noticed a big truck with a rebel flag on the antennae coming toward us. Nothing unusual really, just some redneck boys out for a drive.
The truck slowed as it passed us on the opposite side of the road. The guys in the truck were watching us and the driver yelled something I couldn’t hear. Whatever it was sounded hostile and that made me a little nervous. I hung on to Fred’s arm, feeling a little better I was with a guy rather than one of my girlfriends. The truck made a U-turn at the light and came up very slowly behind us on our side of the street. I glanced over my shoulder to see how close they were and Fred tensed up.
I suddenly realized I wasn’t the target of their attention. It was Fred they were watching and when I could finally hear what they were yelling, I was afraid for him. You see, Fred is black. And Fred was with a white girl and those two jerks had a problem with that. Fred looked at me, looked at the truck that was now right next to us and kept walking. I jumped when they gunned the engine and took off down the street. All I could say was, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” over and over again. I was still holding on to Fred’s arm and I had started to cry. Fred shrugged it off and started telling me his girlfriend troubles.
When I think of Fred, I think of the sweet, funny guy who maybe had a crush on me (because I definitely had a crush on him) and how he made me feel special. And I think of that night on Pompano Beach when I was slapped in the face with the reality of racism. It was one of the worst experiences of my life and what scares me even now is how much worse it could have been. I wanted to drag those boys out of that truck and beat the crap out of them, but all I could do was say, “I’m sorry.” Up until that night, I thought racism was something horrible from my parents’ generation. Up until that night, I thought racism was a dying thing on it’s way to becoming extinct. Up until that night, I hadn’t ever considered the consequences of walking on the beach with a friend.
There are people who think Martin Luther King doesn’t deserve his own holiday. They complain about Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays being compressed into one ubiquitous President’s Day when King’s birthday became a holiday. Still, I think our founding fathers would approve of celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday because what King stood for, believed in and hoped for the future deserves a holiday. More than that, my friend Fred deserves for it to be a reality.