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Archive for the ‘Book Chapters’ Category

Ms. Matz

Below is a chapter that I just cut from the book.  Simply put it just didn’t fit.  The feelings, although stated in an earlier blog I wrote, are real to me.  This is how I read this situation and many like it.  I do think it is an important point which I will include in the book in a more precise and focused way.  Although cut from the book, I liked the picture painted of youth and the games we played.  It seemed like a waste to just hit the delete button and do away with it.

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It’s third down and one yard to go.  The yard we have to gain is Mr. Wright’s front yard.  He lives to the right of the Tenbuschs and his driveway is the end zone.  James, my oldest brother hikes the ball and lofts a perfect spiral to Peter who catches it at Mr. Wright’s walk way and breezes in to the end zone.    Peter raises the football above his head and then spikes it hard on the cement driveway.  Just as the ball leaves Peter’s hand a look of fear consumes his face.  As the ball hits the cement it bounces to the right and lands on Mrs. Matz’s lawn.  We all freeze.  Ms. Matz’s lawn is off limits.  As soon as it comes to rest in her yard, a loud banging comes from her front window.  The banging clearly shouts, “Stay off my lawn.”

We know we only have 23 seconds to retrieve the ball or she will storm out and take it.  We all figure she has to have a room in her house full of our Frisbees, baseballs, tennis balls, and kick balls.  Those types of balls were relatively inexpensive so to lose them is not a big loss.  The leather football is not in the same category.

We all look at each other and telepathically we were asking who is going to go get it.  The time is running out and we need to move or the football will be lost forever.  Wayne Scott, the crazy, loud kid with the unusual hazel eyes moves first.  He sprints wildly across Mr. Wright’s yard and on to the forbidden turf.  As he steps one foot on the grass, the loud banging on the window sounds again.  Wayne jumps as his nervous body reacts to the sound.  Now the race is really on.  Ms. Matz is headed to the front door.  As Wayne bends down to grab the football, she throws open her front door and yells, “STAY OFF MY LAWN.”  Wayne jumps again and shifts into an all out sprint.  Wayne grits his teeth, showing the shiny braces that cover his front teeth.   Wayne lands safely on Mr. Wright’s driveway with the football securely tucked under his right arm.

The cheers erupt and we all give him pats on the back or a slap him five.   Someone shouts, “Ok, who’s kicking off?”  Our game resumes and Ms. Matz returns to her seat at the front window.

Ms. Matz is a single woman, an elementary school teacher.  It is easy to see why there is no Mr. Matz.   She is about 55-60 years old and mean. She wears a scowl whenever we see her.  After years and years of being mean the facial muscles freeze in a bitter expression 24 hours a day I am convinced.  She lives with her elderly mother and drives a little red sport car.  The fact that she teaches kids and drives such a cool car makes my head spin.  These bits of personal information don’t fit the monster mold.

At age ten, Mrs. Matz is as close to a monster as Big Foot.  We run from her like she has the power to kill with her cold stares.  There is not a day that goes by in the summer that she is not pounding on her window or yelling at us.  When that doesn’t deter us, she calls the neighborhood security company to handle us.

The poor guy making minimum wage pulls up in his marked security car.  He parks in her driveway and goes to speak with Ms. Matz.  After a brief conversation where she appears to do all the talking, the plastic cop walks over to us dressed in his dark blue security shirt, jeans and no name gym shoes.  He usually says something like, “Ok guys, give the old woman a break, and stay off her lawn.”  We promise to have better control of our toys and he drives away.   I am sure he knows it is nonsense, but it is his job to keep the community safe from toxic baseballs and Frisbees.

As we get older, she is less of a threat and more of a game.  We purposely stroll across her lawn and like clockwork she raps on the glass.  The anticipation of the sound still sends us three feet in the air.   The fear is replaced by laughing and dancing across her lawn.

Wayne Scott, who is her neighbor to her right, takes great joy in harassing her.and he organizes a committee to burn a cross or a swastika in her yard.  No one is sure what  either symbol means but we know it would be a terrorizing and intimidating thing to do.  We decide to burn a cross in her front yard because the swastika is too hard to re-create.  The cross is two lines.  It takes less artistic ability.  We will use gas to outline a six to eight foot cross in the front yard and light it.

The fear of getting caught and being punished negotiates it down to a one foot cross in the back corner of her backyard made with lighter fluid.  Wayne volunteers for the mission.

One quiet summer night, Wayne jumps the fence, clothed in all black.  He quickly squirts the lighter fluid on to the lawn in the shape of a cross, lights it, and leaps back in to his yard.  We muffle our cheers so we don’t draw attention to our terrorizing act.  The little cross glows for about 30 seconds.     The lighter fluid is eaten up the flames and the flames die quietly.

Burned in her yard, is an outline of a cross and it takes about three weeks for the grass to grow in and cover it.  I always wonder what her reaction was when she came across it while mowing her lawn. I’m not sure because she never mentioned it.

The Detroit Free Press paper route that I share with James, my oldest brother, forces me to interact with Mrs. Matz regularly. The route is divided in to two.  James delivers the papers on Outer Drive, one street over.  I deliver to Shaftsbury.  James pays me $5.00 a week and I feel like I am a descendant of Rothschild.

Mrs. Matz is one of my customers.  Each morning before the sun wakes up I walk up her lime stone walk way to drop off a paper.  As I approach her front door, I begin speaking in tongues and praying that she is not up yet.  I walk as light as I can, concentrating on making delicate, soft, weightless steps.  Once I make it to the door, I softly and slowly turn the squeaky handle.   I would sacrifice one of my siblings for some WD-40 at this moment.   I pull open the screen door and place the paper down absent any sound.  Then I return the door to its prior position and I creep away.

There are days when my luck cheats me and she meets me at the door.  She says nothing as I hand her the paper.   No, “Thank you,” no “Good morning” just THE LOOK.

The way her lips turn up and her nose wrinkles gives off the appearance that a very foul smelling object has entered her presence.  My hormones have not started producing those odors yet so it is not that I smell.

Her disgusted look  shows what she  thinks of me without saying anything.  She looks at me and she makes me feel small, inferior, subhuman, repulsive.

My internal compass labels her a racist just as simply as north is north.

Occasionally, Dad will hear how she treats us all and I can tell by his questions that he is probing for her true intentions toward me.  It is comforting in a deep way to know Dad looks for what is not obvious.

At this point in my life, my self esteem is still maturing.    The wounds inflicted by Mrs. Matz penetrate my armor and cause me to walk less upright and confident.

Growing up as a minority teaches me to always question the intentions behind the actions.  This cerebral dialog is a private conversation I often have with myself and one that I don’t share.  The fear of being labeled as “too sensitive,” keeps me quiet.  I often question why I would be labeled “too sensitive” and why the violator isn’t labeled “too insensitive.”

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Below is a chapter that appears much later in the book. To date, it was the chapter I enjoyed writing the most. There is a simple line that brings me to tears everytime I read it. I hope you enjoy it.
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I sit at the end of the bench because that is where my talent has put me. Mom insisted that I go out for baseball because it would be good for me. I have made it through most of the season and I am still looking for the good. I sit on the bench with an African kid who is worse than me and I find comfort in his inability. We are on the baseball team sponsored by the corner liquor store in a league organized by the local Catholic Parish, St. Scholastica. We don’t have cool names like the Tigers, or the Indians, or the Astros. We go by the businesses that sponsor us. My team is Parklane Cork and Bottle. The uniforms are white with green piping and a baseball hat that is green in the front and white mesh in the back.
We are nearing the end of the season and I can’t wait for this to be over. The coach is Mr. Shade, a mean white haired grouch who’s the father of our pitcher Peter Shade. They are white and so is most of the league. The African (whose name I can’t say), Gilbert, the Hispanic kid, and me are the only minorities on the team.
Practices are at best humiliating. The coach rockets fly balls off his bat to the less talented kids that play outfield. I chase more balls than I catch and coach gets to prove he still can hit a baseball. Each ball I miss is accompanied with some insult from coach about how bad my skills are and how I should play the ball.
“Hofmann, you gotta get under the ball to catch the ball.” His tone is harsh and degrading and I am thinking, “if I get under the ball and miss the ball, I will get hit by the ball.” I consciously choose insults over being beaned by the hard ball.

The games are an extreme extension of practice. Mr. Shade, doesn’t let up even though family is present. I play 2-3 innings each game because the rules say I have to play. If the creators of this league had not put that rule in the rule book I would have had a permanent spot at the end of the bench. I play center field or right field or left field. This is usually the spot the African kid was playing when they pull him out and put me in.

The outfield is good for me. I have rationalized that the ball can’t possibly be hit fast enough that I can’t see it coming. This way I can either fake to go after it or move out of the way; whichever way I play it I will not get hit. As each batter comes to the plate I go over in my mind what I should do with the ball once I miss it. If someone is on first and there is a fly ball I know to chase the ball, after it gets past me, and throw it to second. I have gleaned that through the coach’s insults at practice.

Batting is a nightmare I hate to repeat. I am a small kid and I fear that ball as if it is wrapped in death. At 12 years old, some of the pitchers in this league could throw this rock hard ball through a barn door. At this age, unfortunately the strength is there, but finding that barn door isn’t always easy for some pitchers.
I bat near the end of the lineup. This means, all the good kids have batted. The African kid is before me and the skinny white kid who stands 2 feet from home plate when he bats, bats after me. No matter what the combination this group of three is not going to start a rally. There is really no incentive for me to hit the ball. If I don’t hit the ball I can go back to my comfortable seat on the bench–at the end.
The African kid is a magnet and it never seems to fail. He gets up to the plate, stands motionless as the pitcher whizzes 2 strikes by him. I say to myself: “he is 2/3 of the way, one more and he can sit down in one piece.” On the third pitch, I look away. I can’t watch. I have seen it too many times before. I am praying the next sound I hear is “strike 3” but instead I hear, “thud,” followed by a gasp from the crowd, followed by a second of silence, followed by a faint whimper. The African kid takes the ball on his left side between his seventh and eighth rib. He limps down to first base, and as he passes by our bench to first, coach yells to him “toughen up, shake it off!”
I force myself to take one step after the other towards home to go bat. My mind is fractured. When I get to home I look down at first base and the African kid’s face is painted with his tears that are still flowing. I don’t want to be him. I stand at the plate and concentrate on the ball. My eyes are glued to the ball so I know where it is and how to get out of its way. The bat rests on my shoulder. There is no way I can swing the bat and concentrate on the ball. I stand immobile waiting for 3 strikes or four balls. I will let fate decide what happens. No movement will be generated by me unless the ball is coming towards me. If it does come toward me, I may scale the backstop to get away. The pitcher sends 3 accurate balls my way and I am called out and relieved.
Dad loves baseball. He is a big Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers fan. I am sure my skills disappoint him. Dad decides being an ump would be a good way to get involved in my baseball career. The daily insults and relentless pounding of my self esteem was not enough. During the season, Dad umps several games and a few of mine. I do find that Dad and I have a lot in common when it comes to baseball. As bad as I am as a player Dad matches that with his umpire ability. I can now see how painful it must be for Dad to watch me play because when I watch Dad ump I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach right about where it joins my intestine.
When Dad umps the games I am playing in I get the genuine privilege of sitting on the bench with coach. The coach’s son is pitching and we are in the field. As the coach’s son hurls the ball past the other team straight down the center of the plate and exactly half way between the batter’s knees and chest, Dad bellows out, “BALL.” After 3-4 batters get gifts like this the coach erupts in to a symphony of words I am too young to say or hear, “Aw, you son of a bitch, that was a damn strike, God damned blind ump.” The coach is bright enough not yell it. He says it just so only I and the other bench dwellers can hear him.
The coach doesn’t see the resemblance between the white ump and the black scrub next to him. I sit silently praying a foul ball will veer off and knock me unconscious.

I make it through the season and unfortunately we make the playoffs and make it in to the championship game. This only prolongs this never ending season.
The night before the game Mike and I are out playing and Mike suggests that I practice my fielding. We go over to Mr. Wright’s lawn and Mike hits some grounders to me and tries to get me excited about the game. We don’t even attempt batting practice. I do a decent job of fielding and the practice is called because the darkness invades our playing field. I go to bed feeling prepared.

The next day, I station myself at the end of the bench for the first 3 innings. Then after 3 innings I have to go to left field. The African kid comes out. I get no action in the field and I am excited that no one is hitting to me. I run in from left field after the end of the fifth inning. One more inning. The score is tied and I am just hoping someone ends this tie so we don’t have to go into extra innings. We are batting close to the top of the order. For the championship game coach changes the batting order. The coach decides for today to spread out the 3 sure outs. The African kid, the skinny white, and I are broken up in the batting order. I bat sooner than usual today.

Our catcher gets up and hits a single. Gilbert, the Hispanic kid, gets up and hits a single. The coach’s son gets up and hits a single. The bases are loaded. The next batter gets up and pops out. It is now the batter before me and then me. My knees are beginning to tremor and I am praying down heaven. I am pleading with God to let the batter before me hit in to a double play. This season has been torturous enough. “Please dear God don’t let me be the last out.” The batter before me swings at 3 quick blurred pitches missing them all. “Hofmann, you’re up.” Coach barks at me. The look of defeat mixed with anger consumes his face. I grab my helmet and bat and walk towards home plate. I get in position. This time I know that if I accept 3 strikes without attempting to hit the ball there is a good chance coach will kill me before I make it back to the bench.
I grip the bat tightly remembering to push my hands together. I have a bad habit of spacing out my hands when I hold the bat and coach doesn’t like that at all. I dig my cheap Beta Bullet gyms shoes into the dirt because that’s what baseball players do. I am still trying to sell the idea that I am trying. The pitcher winds up and zings a pitch at me. As it zooms towards me I realize his pitches seem a lot faster from this view. I wildly swing. I hit air. “Strike one.” The catcher throws back the ball and I am determined not to swing at this next one. The pitcher flings it at me and I stand motionless. “Ball one.” Now I am thinking, if I can get three more balls the winning run will be walked home. I can be the hero by just standing here. For once no action in a sport could be a good thing. I ready myself to not swing. The ball comes at me and I freeze. “Ball two.” I am half way there. “Please God, please.” The next pitch comes and I stick to the statute strategy. “Strike two.”
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now what do I do? I am panicking. Searching for a way out, but the pitcher already has the ball and he is winding up. This next pitch what do I do? Should I swing or freeze and I can’t think fast enough and I am trying to figure it out as the ball is moving closer and closer and I don’t have a solution yet. I concentrate on the ball watching it spin towards me faster than the speed of light and in slow motion. I have to decide. “Lord what do I do? Speak to me Lord.” The ball is crossing the plate and I stick my bat out. It is a compromise between not swinging and swinging. The ball hits the bat and launches in to right field over the head of the chubby kid whose talent has put him there.
I run like my pants are on fire and the coach screams at me to run faster. I round first and head for second and everyone is yelling for me to keep going. I tag second and I stride for third. I land on third as the baseball lands in the in-field. I stay on third and the crowd, my bench, my friends and my family go crazy. Three runs score and I stand on third. The emotions are filling my chest and trying to escape through my tear ducts. My smile stretches from ear to ear and I manage to damn up my tears. I got it right.
The next batter hits me home and I return to the bench a hero. Some how they get the last out on us and the game is over. We win the championship game.
We cheer, scream, and yell for the next 5 minutes because that is the only way we know how to celebrate. Coach Shade cuts our celebration short as he out yells us all. “Quiet down, quiet down we still have to give out the game ball. That was a great game, a tough game but we pulled it out and we could not have done it without… the excellent pitching of my son, Peter.” He awards his son the game ball and says nothing to me and I am glad.

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The flames shot skyward like they were reaching for the moon.  The beautiful colors of orange and yellow mixed with blue in the flames ate away at the wooden cross that was planted in the front yard of our Monroe street home in Dearborn, Michigan in the summer of 1968. The sound of voices in the early summer morning hours on our front lawn brought Mom and Dad out of their restful sleep.  Dad rocketed to the two bedrooms across the hall  that housed the four kids. Mom sprung out of bed as she saw the reflections of the fire in the front yard on the ceiling and walls of her second story bedroom.  She jumped to the window only to see a blurry glow of fire in the yard below.  Her ejection from bed was done without her cat-eye glasses so her vision was limited to shadows and flickering lights.  Her mind recognized it was a fire somewhere down below but, her near sighted eyes could not focus as to what was on fire.

 Mom panicked thinking that the wooden plantation style porch was on fire. Curiosity and fear dragged her away from the window to get her glasses that lay on the night stand.  As she put on the glasses and came back to the window, visual and mental clarity came to her at once.  The voices she heard came from those that constructed and set fire to the wooden cross.  The fire came from a 6 foot high cross in the middle of the spacious front lawn.   A small measure of relief came to her as she realized the fire was no danger to the home or the family of six that lived there.  She was still concerned because she could not locate the voices that she had heard.  She was concerned that they still may be out in the yard somewhere.

Mom ducked down away from the window hoping she had not been seen.  She crawled to the door of her bedroom and down the steps to the phone in the living room.    She purposely dodged the windows in case the voices were looking for a human target and safely made it to the heavy Bell telephone in the living room.   Quickly she dialed the police who said they were on their way.  As she waited, Dad quietly came down to report on all the kids.  They were all sound asleep and had no knowledge of the front yard fireworks.  The voices from the front yard had disappeared and the fire was slowly dying as it continued to attack any part of the cross that would support it.

 The apartment building next door began to come alive as light after light came on.    The street was now early morning quiet again.  A male from the apartment complex slowly emerged.  He was headed straight for the cross that was fading away.   When he reached the cross, the thin, young, white man violently kicked it down.  His body language told of his disgust for this disrespectable, cowardice act.  As the cross crashed to the ground regurgitating sparks and ash, the young man walked away.

 A while later the Dearborn Police arrived.  They took the report and they too quickly disappeared.  It took them longer to get there then it did to complete the report.  They left, being sure not to leave any compassion or sympathy for the shaken parents.

As the sun rose on the charred and broken cross my parents wondered who would do something like this.   They did not waste any time wondering why.  In the last 8 months, neighbors and friends gave them very candid feedback in response to what they did. Disapproval clanged loudly over and over and over again.

 In November of 1967 my parents brought me home for the first time.    I traveled from a foster home in the neighboring city of Detroit to the parsonage of Richard and Judy Hofmann.  He was a white associate Pastor at the nearby all white St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. They carried me through the door of their colonial home to meet their three eager biological children, two boys and a girl.  The children ranged in ages from 1 to 5, and now added to the mix was a 3 month old biracial child.  That child was me and my presence in that house would start a controversy no one would have predicted.

 Being a Pastor and the wife of a Pastor, my adoptive parents, who I have always called Mom and Dad, were living what their Christian faith had taught them;  when someone is in need you help them.  When someone needs a helping hand you offer yours.  Unfortunately, Dearborn was not a city of Pastors and we would all soon learn not all Pastors and/or Christians were eager to extend their hand.

 They never found out who left the flaming cross and I tend to believe the investigation ended before the Police finished their report.  I laugh to myself today when I see in a neighbor’s yard a large wooden animal that has been erected in celebration of someone’s birthday and has a catchy sign attached to that says something like, “Lordy, Lordy, Cathy is 40 today.” or “Oh joy it’s a boy.” This is a way for people to acknowledge and publicly celebrate something.  Then I think back to the present I got in Dearborn.  Maybe those that left me that cross just didn’t know what else to do.

  It is easy when someone has a baby.  You bring them diapers, a sippy cup or maybe a teething ring.  When someone gets married it is even easier.  They have a list to pick from at a local store. The dilemma comes when a white family in one of the whitest cities in America during the civil rights movement brings home a biracial child that looks more non-white than white.  What do you do to make an 11 month old biracial boy feel welcome?   How do you deal with the nightmare that boils inside you because your biggest fear has moved in next door?  Soon this infant would be calling his friends and Dearborn would be consumed by its mirror image, Detroit.  A flaming cross seems like the perfect way to say “WELCOME TO DEARBORN”

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