The Black Beret
It's easy to spot Charles "Chuck" Boone on the streets of our homespun community. A black beret tips across the right side of his face, Parisian style, at a near perfect ninety-degree angle. He is bean tall and whatever the season his pants are always skinny black denim jeans that match his legs. In the summer, on the front of his T-shirts, he displays his favorite musicians. Each of his T-shirts are modified by him with tidily cut holes to make them sleeveless. Today's musical group is "The Beatles." A silver chain hangs across The Beetles’ faces. Charles would blend in SoHo, but he is a contrast here where the only culture is blue collar.
I know his walk, long, slow strides, to take in as much of the landscape as his senses filter in. Under the street lined canopies, he pauses in front of my family's homestead talking to its current occupant. I am on my way to Mass, but now when I see Charles I make an effort to talk to him. He is a widow married to one of my first "colored" girl friends from elementary school. I met Cathy in second grade and our lives have interspersed since. Cathy introduced me to him in high school. He was cool then. Different. I sensed different, though it would take forty more years to know why.
I avoid viewing the dead and mourning them at funerals as much as I can. One exception is that I don't miss a last time with any of my elementary school classmates. Hers was an unexpected death, bronchitis gone badly wrong. Each time one of my childhood classmates dies, newfound urgency rises within. When Freddie died, I went to France. For Cathy, I am headed to Cuba. I don't know why the phonetics of my classmates' first names and the country I choose seem to match. Maybe, my choice is based on their personas.
I'm early for Mass and jolt across the street to greet him. "Do you know who owns that house?" I inquire. "Bob," he says. "That was my great-grandfather's house. We lived there. He came over from Germany." Charles didn't know, only his wife knew because she grew up here. Our conversation moved then from family roots to our departures from our artistic endeavors. Almost as soft as a whisper, Charles told me he closed his band. "I kept playing after Cathy died. It wasn't the same. A part of me was lost. I'm recording now and painting once more."
I understood redefinition. I left photography for twenty years consumed by a life in politics. After the magic moments of politics wore off, I found my way back. A visual arts scholarship, with a Master Photographer, paved my way as a street photographer. Finally, I became whole again as Charles eventually will discover himself.
You think you know someone because you have lived in the same town, gone to the same schools, and lived in the same place for so many years that you become gray-haired together. Every family has a story to tell. Charles's story wasn't the kind you tell to his girlfriend's sixteen-year old friend from elementary school. It's the kind of story that has to wait for perception and compassion to mature.
Our conversation meanders from the photography darkroom I left behind and travels across the Atlantic Ocean to my ancestral roots in Germany and Sicily. There is a sense of completeness after you breathe the air of your great-grandfather in the Black Forest or smell the aromas of a Sicilian kitchen your grandfather knew as a boy. "I want to go to Ireland," Charles shares with me in our conversation. "Ireland? Wouldn't you rather see the art in Italy or France? You're an artist after all." "I'm Irish, I've got some Irish in me." I don't expect the DNA of an Irish immigrant. I expect the DNA of a Southern white Master like Thomas Jefferson.
There is a brief recitation by Charles. He doesn't know much of the detail, but knows the first and last name of the Irishman who was his great-great grandfather and his surname of a runaway slave, his great-grandfather. How you start as a white man and turn into a black man is like being a wealthy German shopkeeper one day and being forced to wear the Star of David the next, stripped of all humanity.
The small amount of detail was just enough for someone like me to see vignettes of his four generations. I wish it wouldn't happen, but I could not stop it when I was a juror on a murder trial. There was too much descriptive testimony, graphic photos, and physical evidence. With the accused killer in the courtroom, the murder event streamed before me in dimensional real life. Guilty.
Now, there is a runaway slave gnashing his way through the wood thickets of the South. Blood surrounds his Master left in the field by him. On a run for his life, drawling voices and sounds of bloodhounds seem to nip at him in the dark. His bean like torso, with extended ardent strides, edges him further away, and he hears only his steps. He does not know that one with his physique and otherwise gentle manner will eventually be born and wear a black beret. He only knows his will to survive. A will that does not understand the boundaries of skin color.
Too much teaching American History has brought them all to life. Too many readings and studying of primary documents, graphic images of slavery, and their lives are three- dimensional again. I can't stop it. I don't want to. I want to live this moment and try to hide my distraction from Charles.
Red-haired, blue-eyed David Kelly left Ireland for the United States in the 1800's. Short and stocky built, he would meet a maven with sleek black hair, cheekbones that rose like mountains, and skin a paler color than his hair. He would marry her and in their union a daughter, half Irish, half Cherokee was born. She would not know the branding of being interracial. Such unions were encouraged to westernize the Cherokees. Their daughter would meet a man with the last name of Boone. In Dutch, translated bean, meaning a tall lean man much like Charles "Chuck" Boone of today.
Being Cherokee and white wasn't a problem. Being white and Irish was. Irish were low on the totem pole in the white world and she was viewed as today's trailer trash. She would be attracted to him, kindred in spirit, and marry. Their daughter's hair would be black like her mother's, but wiry instead of the silken sheen of a Cherokee. Cherokee descent would become Negro fathered by a dark skinned African descendant who killed his Master and found freedom in the North. At Mass the transubstantiation of wine and water into the Blood of Christ reminds me of the transformation of a family from white to black. It's a belief that requires Catholics to accept at face value. I grasp the difference between them.
One day he will follow his ancestral roots to Ireland. He'll skip the Louvre Museum in Paris, the artist hangouts of Berlin, and the frescos of Michelangelo in Italy. I imagine him, taking long slow strides across the rolling emerald green hills. Pausing, he'll approach the Blarney Stone. He'll remove his black beret, to show his respect, and tuck it between his arm and side. On his back, he will slide under the stone with lips poised. He will feel the cool ancient rock reach for his lips. Eyes closed, senses absorbed, a moment only he can have as an Irishman.
About the author:
P. M. Merlot lives in a small town in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. She writes creative non-fiction. Patricia is of Sicilian descent and recently traveled to Sicily. Since then, words have flowed like the lava at Mt. Etna.
Her writing has been published in Red Fez, Clever Magazine, Specter, Black Mirror, The Circle Review (forthcoming), Blue Lake Review, The Monarch Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer