Leroy “Satchel” Paige was committed as a 12-year-old to the Alabama Reform School for Juvenile Negro Law-Breakers.
“If You Were Only White” by Gary Ashwill
I guess I knew I was headed for trouble when I got down out of the chair of the barber named “Frosty” in the Bothwell Hotel Barber Shop at the tender age of 8 and was told that I looked “pretty sharp.”
“Unlike you,” I replied as I stuck my complimentary piece of Juicy Fruit or Wrigley’s Spearmint gum in my mouth. There was an audible gasp from the assorted customers, loafers and hanger-ons as my dad opened his wallet and paid for my crew cut. “That boy’s headed for trouble,” a hare-lipped regular said, and I knew he was right. But I just didn’t care.
“You shouldn’t talk so fresh to grown-ups,” my dad said as we got into our ’57 Oldsmobile.
“Why not?” I asked, genuinely ingenuous.
“Because . . . because they’re grown-ups,” he said.
“So . . . you should respect them.”
“Because . . . they’re . . . adults.”
“So, I should respect somebody whose only accomplishment in life is that he hasn’t died yet?”
I was giving my old man a hard time, and he was irritated. “You’d better watch your mouth.”
“You’re the one who pays for my Mad and Cracked Magazines, and my Wonder Wart Hog comics. You’re responsible for my actions.”
“I’m just saying,” he said–duh–”You keep going down the path you’ve chosen, you could end up in the Mid-Missouri Home for Diffident White Smart-Alecks.”
I gulped, involuntarily. I didn’t know I was that far gone.
Still, I couldn’t help myself. I don’t know if it was the firecrackers that Pam McCaffree’s brother put in the box turtle’s shell, or the mailbox that I blew up with Dr. Lambec’s son, or the street sign I bent down to the ground with Wade Dunham, or the civics teacher’s woodpile I set fire to with Tommy Prilosec, or the Photoplay Magazine that I read with donut-sticky fingers in the Safeway that the manager told me I’d have to pay for or get out, or the 45 rpm records that I smashed by throwing baseballs at them, along with my buddy DeWayne Anthes.
“What’s it like there?” I asked, genuinely scared now.
“How’d you like to be surrounded by kids like yourself–making smart remarks all day long with no feelings for other people’s feelings.”
“Sounds like fun,” I said.
“See–there you go again,” my dad replied as he spun the big mother-of-pearl steering wheel around to make a left turn off of West Broadway. “Always smarting off.”
“So . . . what does ‘diffident’ mean?” I asked.
“It’s the opposite of ‘confident.’ It explains why you say the things you say. If you were confident you wouldn’t make the Sign of the Cross when you went up to bat in T-ball. You wouldn’t gulp and ask ‘Use in a sentence, please,’ when it was your turn in the Pettis County Spelling Bee. You wouldn’t . . .”
“All right, all right,” I said, growing weary of his recitation of my many faults. Also “Smock, Smock!” which I’d learned by watching the Steve Allen Show on sleep-overs at incorrigible friends’ houses.
He allowed this nonce word to sink in, and sink it did. He looked at me, clucked his tongue, and shook his head. “It might actually be a good thing for you to spend some time at the Mid-Missouri Home for Diffident White Smart-Alecks.”
“I understand that they can inculcate character.”
“What does ‘inculcate’ mean?”
“How should I know? You’re the vocab king. I just read it in the brochure.”