Two years ago I contracted the mother of all flu viruses and completely lost my voice for several days. At first croaking and screeching, I finally surrendered into silence praying that my voice would heal and no permanent damage had been done. My words and my ability to reason and speak are a huge part of what make me who and what I am. I felt small, humbled, isolated and alone, struggling to communicate with crude hand gestures and facial expressions. It was during this time of sickness that I remembered my childhood friend and I felt a small measure of his existence.
“Uhh eh uhhgh eee!” It started out low like a grunt and finished at a high pitch wail, akin to the signal of a pig farmer calling his sows to the trough. SOOOO…EEEEE! The sound was lonely and frustrated, and a little angry. “Uhh eeeh uhhgh eee!” Sounding more like a large rush of air jangling over acrimonious vocal cords that didn’t quiver than a human voice; a sound which slowly reverberated into what felt like a diminished yet desperate effort to be understood. Finding no affirmation the gruff male voice resorted to another cry of similar expression attempting clearer enunciation yet again failing in the attempt. “Uhh eeee hunh eeeh!” The source of this cacophony had a hide the color of deepest mahogany. Local folks called the shade blue black, attributing his pigmentation and heritage to an anonymous African tribe stolen and sold into the southern plantations many generations ago.
Thick around the middle like a heavyweight wrestler with limbs as dense as fence posts, he had the imposing figure of a man who worked hard manual labor and gained his sustenance the only way he could through the daily exertions of his body. The man glowed with good health, dark intelligent brown eyes, and sported a bright, friendly smile with luminously white teeth. That sound, that peculiar sound emanated from the blackest man I’d ever seen, and I was instantly afraid of him.
My family relocated to rural north Florida during the winter of 1975. LaCrosse, a small town with a population of 356 god fearing souls, threatened to wither away at the least opportunity or slightest breeze. It was then, as it remains today, a sleepy little wide place in the road between bigger more interesting places. In 1975, I was nine years old and had no idea that LaCrosse was a hole that most scrambled out of as quickly as they could find the means to leave.
“Daddy, why is that man acting like he wants to shake my hand? And, why’s he making that god awful noise?” I said this softly trying to prevent the big man from hearing me.
“Well honey, he’s just being friendly and wants to meet you. He’s not dangerous, he’s just dumb.”, he replied.
“Daddy, we’re not supposed to call people dumb, it’s not nice. Ms. Bell says it’s not ok. I’m not to say stupid either, but that’s just silly, some things are stupid.”
“What I mean is that he can’t speak.”, he clarified, speaking softly so that only I could hear him.
“Oh. Can he hear?” I said this last bit so soundlessly that even I couldn’t hear it, but somehow my father understood.
“Yes, he can hear just fine. Now shake his hand and let’s go.”
Timidly I walked to the big scary man. Holding out my hand bravely and taking his enormous calloused hand in my tiny one, we shook. Looking straight up towards the sun through a tangle of white blond hair, my blue eyes met his brown ones. In his eyes, without a single utterance I saw joy, complete and utter joy for the first time in my life. The joy of being accepted and respected as a man, as a human being must have been a rare occurrence for him.
Standing confused and perplexed not knowing what to do next, my father came to my rescue. “Alright now, you’ve met. We have to go. Now.”
Looking over my shoulder as we departed I waved goodbye to the dark man. He stood there in the same exact spot where we’d parted smiling broadly, squealing with delight, and waving furiously at me.
Unknown to me at the time, my little nine year old self had befriended a thirty year old man.
As the years passed, he and I would meet every few months and as before I’d shake his hand warmly and sometimes talk to him briefly about what I was doing in school. I never gave him much time. No more than a few minutes. I soon discovered that he was a great listener. He gesticulated wildly and enthusiastically waving his arms about like a person having a seizure or epileptic fit every time he saw me. Talking to him made him happy, and it did me no harm, at least none that I dared to notice. People who didn’t know of our odd relationship stared at the little white girl holding hands and talking to what they must have perceived as a strange grunting beast of a black man. I felt squeamish and a little embarrassed by my friendship but ignoring him felt like an insult to the friendship he so desperately wanted. I wasn’t prepared to hurt him like that, besides I wasn’t doing anything wrong by anyone’s standards. Instead I treated him like every other grown man I knew. I was polite, cordial and always kept a safe distance so that people with a tendency to wag their tongues didn’t gossip about me.
My senior year of high school I spent many of my evenings earning minimum wage while standing at the cash register in a gas station no larger than many people’s bathrooms. Here I sold beer and gas to the local folks; to the young guys who built the sailboats next door at Hunter Marine, to the old guys who stumbled in for another round from the watering hole they called the log, and to a crazy old woman who drank her Schlitz malt liquor warm “like the Brits do” she told me one steamy afternoon. Most evenings you could find me associating with the town’s most unsavory characters many of whom stayed most nights until after quitting time to swap tall tales. I suspect they were there to insure that I found my way safely to my car every night but that was their secret, one they never actually told me.
It was not surprising when he showed up trundled into a pickup with six other guys coming in from the fields one summer evening. He walked in with his arms thrown open, grinning and wailing in that peculiar manner of his. Feeling a little self-conscious of what the fellas in the truck might think I hugged him briefly, then pushed him back and said “Hey, what are you up to?” With minimum of encouragement he reached into his back pocket to retrieve his wallet. He fumbled for a moment, flipping it open to show me that tucked inside was a fresh shiny new driver’s license with his photo on it. He pointed at the photo and then at his face, like I couldn’t see that it was his picture. He grunted some more and shook his head, he wanted me to read it. “Leroy Robinson.” I looked up into his big brown eyes, “Is that you? Are you Leroy Robinson?”
When I tell you that in that moment he beamed at me, I mean that he aimed his whole heart at me and smiled that beautiful smile that said without any words at all, you see me. Finally I understood what it meant to feel joy. This stupid card which I had carried in my wallet since I was 15 meant validation to Leroy. This card meant that he had an identity. He wasn’t an idiot. He had a name. A name he had been denied first by his inability to speak, and later by a society that sought to ignore that he existed. A driver’s license granted this kind gentle man a sense of freedom and dignity, and finally after all these years I knew his name.