Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Of Chinamen and Tramps

Grandson Joe and his Grandma Mac were looking at Halloween costumes, he said, “My favorite holiday is the one that’s coming next.” That’s pretty much his attitude toward life. That’s one of the reasons he’s my hero. I want to be like him when I grow up.

When I was Joe’s age, we had just moved from Indianapolis to the country near Oakland City, IN. We lived on a dirt farm without indoor plumbing or a car or money, three miles from town if you walked, five if you drove. My social life consisted of the school bus, school, and church. My usual seat-mate on the bus was Donald Gene Taylor.

Donald Gene lived with his grandparents, Carson and Dora Blair. [1] He had parents, in Indianapolis, and they came to see him every once in a while, but they both worked and apparently felt it cramped their style to raise a child. Being raised by grandparents, Don, as we called him in later years, was a bit immature in those school years, but he went on to have a very successful career as a Navy pilot.

He and his grandparents were very nice to me, the new kid. When the Heathmans, our nearest neighbors, with whom I normally rode to church, were out of town on a Sunday, which wasn’t very often, the Blairs would even drive down our long dead-end road to pick me up to go to church.

They took Donald Gene to events in town, too, things I couldn’t go to because I didn’t have any way to get there. So they took me, too. The first of those was a Halloween parade and costume contest, when I was ten.

Grandson Joe has a purchased costume for his favorite holiday, this one that’s coming next. It’s very scary. I think he’s the grim reaper. [2] He has a silver face, rather hideous, and a black robe, and long bony fingers. When I was 10, I don’t think there were any whole costumes for purchase, although you could get a suffocating Halloween mask, with uncomfortable strings to go over your ears, and eyeholes in the wrong places, at most dime stores.

I didn’t have enough money even for a mask, or a way to get to the dime store, so I took everybody’s fallback position to this day; I went as a tramp. I tramped the mile to Donald Gene’s house, a stick over my shoulder with a red bandanna tied at the end of it, old jeans with holes, which was not a good idea on a cold October night, and some old yellow gloves, with the fingers mostly out.

We marched down Main Street with the other kids, and then someone from the Kiwanis Club judged our costumes, by category. I was quite shocked when I was put in with the “Chinamen” for judging.

I don’t know why there was a whole category of Chinamen. Maybe Trusler’s 5 & Dime had a sale on Chinaman masks. But surely anyone could see that I was a tramp, not a Chinaman. Competition in that category was tougher, because there were a lot of tramps in the parade, but how many Chinamen carried their belongings in a red bandanna and had dirty white faces?

It was the yellow gloves, Donald Gene suggested on our way home. The beleaguered Kiwanian in charge of herding us into groups looked at my yellow hands and decided I was a Chinaman. I didn’t win a prize. I wasn’t a very convincing Chinaman.

As I tramped home from Donald Gene’s in the dark and cold, I looked at the scary moonly back-lighted wild blackberry canes blowing in the breeze and worried that somebody who didn’t like Chinamen might jump out of the bushes and do me in, all because a Kiwanian stuck me into the wrong category.

It wasn’t the last time someone took a look at just one part of me and put me into the wrong category. In fact, it’s happened a lot over the years. If I showed an old holey yellow glove in the wrong place, I was put into some wholly wrong category and judged accordingly.

I’ve made my peace with it, for the most part. They may have misjudged me, but I always knew who I was… a tramp, whose favorite holiday is the next one.

[1] Dora was born around 1890. She had a brother. Their parents decided not to name them, but to let them choose their names when they were 12. Until that time, they just called them “Boy” or “Girl.” Her brother chose George. I guess Dora was the “hot” name of 1902.

[2] When I was in seminary at Garrett, at Northwestern U, the students at McCormick Theological Seminary [Presbyterian], in Chicago, always referred to “the grim reaper” as “the international harvester,” in deference to Cyrus McCormick, who invented the mechanical reaper and started the International Harvester company and contributed enough of its money to get his name on the seminary.


  1. Lovely post, JR, and I love the two footnotes!

  2. Another bit of synchronous history, John. When I was just out of the Air Force and going to school, I worked at the Institute For Living (or as we referred to it - the Substitute For Loving) in Hartford Conn. One of the patients I cared for all night long was a totally senile and siphilitic Cyrus McCormick III whose bed I had to change three times a night! He helped me learn compassion.