Continued from last week’s Black History Month section
A memorable moment came prior to graduation from Dunbar Elementary School, when I was asked to star in our class night program. I played a man named Fabulous Harris who owned a large building where a lot of my classmates, now adults, owned various businesses.
As per usual, there was a problem. I didn’t have decent clothes to wear to my graduation. This problem was brought to the attention of my aunt Mabel who lived in the same house as my mother and I. At this point, my mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis at Koch Hospital. Her fast living had caught up with her.
So I was living under the care my two aunts, Mabel and Virginia. Aunt Mabel worked as a housekeeper for Mr. McDonnell, who owned McDonnell Aircraft Company. She must have shared my problem with Mr. McDonnell, so he gave my aunt Mabel one of his suits for me to wear – a beautiful, well-tailored suit, but rather old fashioned. But it fit me perfectly.
I still did not have decent shoes. So I took my old, worn-out shoes to an old Jewish man who owned a shoe repair shop in the 2700 block of Cass Avenue. Sam took one look at my shoes and said, “What the hell am I going to do with this piece of s—t?” Sam was a nice guy, but cursed like a sailor.
I tearfully told Sam that I needed shoes to wear to my graduation. He went into the back of his shop and came back with a brand new pair of shoes and gave them to me. He then said, “You can pay me later,” even though he knew this would never happen. The shoes were covered with dust and rather old fashioned, but they were new shoes and they were mine.
My mother had signed herself out of the hospital so that she could attend my graduation. Unfortunately, I never saw her. Alcoholism is a controlling disease. I was very disappointed, but as they say, “The show must go on.”
I wasn’t completely alone, as my Aunt Mabel was in attendance. She seemed to be very proud of me. I was also given several awards. That was the first time anyone had ever come to see me do my thing.
Upon graduation, I decided to attend Washington Technical High School. At the time, we only had three high schools in St. Louis that African-American children could attend. Shortly thereafter, the schools were integrated.
I opted to go a technical high school because I could learn a trade. I selected Commercial Cooking, always thinking about my stomach. Again, I was not a very good student. Two things kept me in high school as long as I stayed: football and music.
I was given a chance to learn to play the trumpet. I had a great bandmaster named Lester Bowie. If the name sounds familiar, his son, Lester Bowie Jr. became a well-known trumpet player and bandleader. I didn’t have an instrument of my own that I could practice with at home, so I had no way of reinforcing what I learned in class.
As for football, I played offensive guard and defensive tackle. Sometimes we were asked to play offense and defense. As much as I enjoyed the game, I was only mediocre, but I felt playing football made me look more macho.
On December 25, 1956, I turned 16 years of age. I had not yet completed the 10th grade. I could not see school as being the answer to my immediate woes. Out of desperation, I decided to try enlisting in the military.
So I walked down to the old post office downtown, where all of the major military recruiting offices were located. I first went to the U.S. Army, where the recruiter told me I needed to be 17. The U.S. Navy recruiter told me the same. Not to be denied, I went into the U.S. Air Force recruiting office and told the recruiter I was 17. He scribbled on a blank piece of paper my name and my birth date as 12-25-1939 and told me to take this to City Hall to get verification. The clerk in City Hall wrote my true birth date below what was written by the recruiter.
Disappointed, I walked back towards home. En route, I stopped by Tillie’s Confectionary, located at the corner of Garrison and Sheridan. (Tillie’s is now a St. Louis historic site) Ms. Tillie’s son Arthur and I were classmates. So I dropped in to say hello.
As I entered the store, the first thing that caught my eye was Arthur’s sister sitting typing on a typewriter. I asked her if she would type a letter for me. She said she would. I dictated these very words.
“The information you gave me corresponds with that we have. Roland Harris was born 12-25-1939.”
The very next morning, I took the letter to the Air Force recruiter. The recruiter gave me a letter to take home for my mother to sign. Even at 17 you need parental consent. My mother discussed my recruitment with her boyfriend, and he said it was a good idea. So she signed it, and off I went. The recruiter accepted it and gave me an entrance exam.
Remember, I had yet to complete the 10th grade. I thoroughly believe the recruiter did some razzle-dazzle to help me pass the test. On New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1956, I was sworn into the U.S. Air Force.
This was a monumental change to my life. I was now living with a large group of older individuals. They were from all over the country and all races.
To be continued in next week’s Black History Month section.
Contact Roland Bob Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org.