It was the 60s when America blew up.
Fires, bullets and violence raged over civil rights rom Selma, to Montgomery to Watts. Whites wanted blacks out. Blacks wanted in. People were not judged by their character, but by the color of their skin and the conflict erupted in flames, German shepherds, fire hoses and the fading images of lynching.
The landmark ruling that ended segregation in public schools became law in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs The Board of Education. It wasn’t until 1965 that the ruling filtered it’s way into the hills and hollows of the small mountain village that I grew up in.
Despite being a small, sleepy village, there was still segregation and racism in Hot Springs — even after integration came to the schools.
The old theatre had a four feet tall wooden barrier that ran the length of the interior. Starting in back, right under the projection booth and stopping about 4 feet short of the screen, blacks were on one side, whites on the other.
Even during the Christmas party, sponsored each year by The Homestead Hotel, was segregated. As the MC encouraged the kids to sing “Here Comes Santa Clause”, it wasn’t missed by my 10 year old mind that the black kids were on the other side of the barrier and us white kids were over here, singing in a white Santa Claus.
Across the street at the Esso station, there were two water fountains. One for “Whites Only” and the other “Colored”. In my innocence, I couldn’t figure it out. The water from both fountains looked the same — it wasn’t colored water. It was clear and cold and white just like the water from the “Whites Only” fountain.
While the fires raged all over America and the theatre maintained the barrier, Hot Springs schools were integrated. There weren’t any protests or demonstrations. It just happened.
One day, Ashwood Elementary, on Highway 220 south of town, was totally white, the next day it was integrated. No one questioned it. No one fought against it. It just happened. As though it were the divine order, it was accepted.
Sitting in the last seat of the last row in Mr. Pauley’s class, I could stare out the windows at the birds flying through the trees and daydream about what they must be seeing on their travels. They swooped, spiraled and careened through the air like white dandelion seeds being tossed by the breeze. It was a chance for this ten year old boy to see another part of the world from another viewpoint, and I soaked it up. Soon, I would be given the opportunity to see a different part of the world from a different perspective.
Her name was Janet. Janet Cardwell
The first day integration came to public schools in Bath County, she was assigned the seat next to me which meant she was in the last row of the next to last aisle. She had a smile that said, “I’m here and I’m happy.”
For the rest of that school year, Janet reached out to me in many ways. I’d lose a pencil and Janet would give me one of hers. I’d run out of paper and Janet would open up her blue notebook, tear out a few sheets and slide them onto my desk. Her kindness, support and friendship were always appreciated, but her acts of kindness and generosity went without acknowledgement and appreciation too many times.
The next year, after we “graduated” from the fifth grade, we went to Valley Elementary. An Alcatraz looking building about 10 miles up the road. It would be our school house for two years. At the bottom of the vine and tree covered hill sat a field. Many years ago it had been the sight of epic battles between high school football teams, but was just now a junkyard of forgotten memories mashed up into weeds, grass and bare dirt of hopes and dreams and interspered with our own battles as the boys fought their way through puberty.
Even though Janet and I were in the same building for much of the year, our universe was starting to expand and the orbits in which lived our lives started to drift further apart. But even from my orbit, I could see into hers and her smile was shining and her laugh discernible.
When we moved into high school, our universe expanded more and our distance grew, but she was still around. Her mission in life at the time seemed to be to try to cheer up those around her and to just be the friend.
We graduated and started our separate lives. I married and went into the military while Janet went to work at The Homestead. Years went by without seeing each other or knowing what was going on in the cycle of the others life. It was before the internet and before bits and bytes could fly through the ozone and reconnect two people. Somehow that universe started to shrink and our orbits moved back to within sight — even if limited.
Then one day through our shared interest in the Bath County High School Facebook page, our orbits bumped up against each other one more time. I sent Janet a friend request and she honored me by accepting. In between trips and travels I’d check in on her page to see what was going on in her life and found out that she was still doing what she does best — being a friend to people.
Through her Facebook page I found that she was a grandmother, an aunt, active in her church and still, doing what she does best, being a friend.
This morning I opened Facebook and there was a message from Janet.
“I have been recently diagnosed with stage4 Breast cancer. It’s inoperative I’ve been given 6 months to live. I don’t believe the doc knows me; no earthly man can tell me when I will live or die.I will fight till the end.”
And yes, I believe Janet will fight “…till the end.” And when she crosses over, she will at last become part of that universe and in some way that can’t be explained, will continue to be part of the orbits of everyone who knows and loves her.
One clear, crisp January night. When you go outside and stare at the stars, there will be one that appears to be twinkling. Don’t be fooled. It won’t be a star.
It will be Janet’s smile that started for me that day in Mr. Pauley’s fifth grade class.
Dios te consuele a mi amigo y que Él te sostenga en la palma de su mano.