The day friendship turned to ashes

 

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HARRY FEINSTEIN and Kindred Jackson were outsiders by birth, classmates by federal edict and friends by choice.

A federal district judge in Tyler, Texas, had created the opportunity for their alliance. The parents of the other kids said he was a communist.  Harry and Kindred thought him a hero.

For the jurist, a mere twenty-five miles away and only one hundred years too late, had ordered that beginning with Harry and Kindred’s first year in junior high white students and black ones would no longer attend “separate but equal” schools. From that first day of instruction in 1964, at the rate of one class per year, Kilgore, Texas, would come screaming and fighting into full racial integration.

By the end of the first month of their seventh grade year, Feinstein and Jackson had established a confederacy, not of dunces, but of delight, a shelter from the viciousness young teenagers inflict on their fellows, a refuge for dreamers.

Their friendship started by accident.

“What are you reading, Kindred?” Harry whispered when he saw the young black man glancing at something hidden in his notebook during their lunch break. He figured it was a Playboy magazine by the way Kindred protected it from view.

Kindred looked at him, sneered at him.

“Well, you’re pretty close, Feinstein,” Jackson said. “It appeared there first.”

He pulled out a paperback copy of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, his thumb stuck in the middle to hold his place.

Feinstein looked at the book, then back at Jackson.  He smiled as he reached in his lunch sack and drew out an identical copy. “I thought I smelled smoke on you,” Feinstein said as he made an inside joke about the book.

“That’s my inner fire,” Kindred said. “It’s always simmering, just beneath the surface.”

“Mine, too,” Harry said. They shook hands, one of the few traditions of their Southern culture that they embraced, and Harry sat down next to him.

“I doubt anybody else in this school has ever heard of that book,” Jackson said.

“They can’t even spell fahrenheit,” Harry laughed. Then he thought for a second. “Maybe we could start a club, just the two of us. We can read books and talk about important stuff the rest of these people don’t care about.” He  motioned at the kids playing chase on the schoolyard.

Kindred liked the idea. “What shall we call this club?” His school-teacher mother insisted that he use proper English.

“How about the Pirate Club?  Everybody around here thinks we are renegades anyway.”

“I’m Okay with that, as long as I get to be Blackbeard,” Kindred said.

Harry was slow to get it, but when he saw the expression on Kindred’s face, he burst out laughing.

“I’ll be Long John Silver,” he said.

They exchanged an impromptu secret handshake, lowered their heads as they surveyed the playground to be sure no one had eavesdropped on their conspiracy.

They agreed to finish the book that night and discuss it at lunch the next day.

Each day they sat and talked, oblivious to their classmates, caught up in a world of ideas.

Shortly after the Christmas break, Harry had a proposal for Kindred, a simple invitation born of friendship.

“Kindred, do you think your mom could bring you by my house Saturday so we could hang out?  You’d love my room.  It’s filled with all sorts of books.  We could walk to the park and ride the merry-go-round.  It’s a hoot.  It will make you sick at your stomach if you stay on it too long.”

Kindred didn’t smile. “Your folks won’t go for that, Harry?”

“What do you mean? My folks are cool.”

“I mean I’m black and you’re white.”

“I’ll talk to them tonight.  It will be all right.  You’ll see.”

Kindred picked up his notebook and paperback.  He waved at Harry as he walked away.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Harry called out to him. He watched Kindred until he was out of sight.

The next day, Harry didn’t meet Kindred for lunch, or the next day, or the next.

When spring break came, Kindred’s mother withdrew him from school and enrolled him a private academy back East, a place where he would receive an education fit to prepare him for an Ivy League college.

Harry only saw him one more time.

In his senior year, he was sitting in his truck at the Dairy Queen when another car pulled beside him. A tall black kid Harry’s age got out.  He had a huge Afro, wore tinted glasses and bell bottom jeans with the cuffs frayed from dragging the ground.

Harry knew it was Kindred.  He had read Mrs. Jackson’s obituary in the paper and knew the funeral had occurred the day before.

Kindred looked at Harry, then at the girls leaned up against Harry’s truck.  He never said a word, just shook his head, got back in his car and turned north on the highway, the red clay of Kilgore slaking off his tires as he went.

“Who was that creep?” one of the girls asked Harry.

“Just a pirate I knew a long time ago,” Harry said as he watched Kindred’s car move out of sight.

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  • Never ends, does it?

    I hope Kindred got that Ivy League education. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

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