June, 1954. It was a glorious Saturday afternoon—one of those rare spring days in Bellingham where the clouds pull back and provide a glimpse of Her Majesty in all Her splendor—the sun, that is. On this particular Saturday, the sun was effortlessly converting 800 million tons of hydrogen into 750 million tons of helium (every single second) and in so doing, sending radiant heat into our family’s 1939 Ford, where I was practicing my latest stunt. More specifically, I was standing on my head on the car’s backseat.
Mom was driving my brother Billy to a birthday party while I happily prepared for a career in the circus. In truth, I was riding in the wake of my brother’s excitement. The party we were headed to was being hosted by one of Billy’s friends, not mine, and he was going to the party, not me. Nonetheless, I was satisfied just to be cruising along Cornwall Avenue—proud, warm, and upside-down.
At age 13, my brother had found his own way to distract himself. He stuck his right arm out of the passenger-side window, fashioned his hand into a wing, and flew it through the Ford’s airstream. He did this while making loud engine noises, muttering rude comments about the pedestrians, and thinking he was cool. He was cool. How could he not be? He was wearing his brand-new Converse All Star tennis shoes. Those alone, would make him the hit of the birthday party.
Sadly, our cavorting came to a halt when Billy turned his airplane into a tomahawk, his engine sounds into a series of yelps, and his unspoken comments into a racial slur. Something about the looks of one of the kids walking down the sidewalk appeared wrong to my brother and he reflexively responded with a harsh comment about the inferiority of the boy’s heritage and appearance—in full voice, out the car window. Billy was trying out a racist comment he had heard at school a few days earlier. Not fully recognizing the odious nature of what he had said, Billy was attempting to make Mom and me laugh. It didn’t work. I didn’t understand the comment and Mom wasn’t the least bit humored.
With his unique combination of yelping and name calling, Billy set into motion an experience I’ll never forget. Hearing her son use a foul expression hit Mom like a ton of bricks—causing her to slam the brakes. Bill flew forward and bumped his head on the dashboard. I rocketed upside-down into the space behind the front seat, earning a crick in my neck.
“What did you just say?” Mom asked Billy.
“I said . . . ‘Ouch! You hurt my head!’”
“Before I slammed on the breaks, what did you say?”
“High-dough-noo,” Bill whined.
“You do know. You just made fun of that boy back there—something about his Native American heritage and his clothing. Am I right?”
“Maybe,” Billy managed to say in a voice that was both defiant and fearful.
“I think it’s time for a field trip to visit a friend of mine,” Mom explained as she angled the car left and headed west. The party gift would have to be delivered another day. Today, Mom had bigger fish to fry.
As the Ford puttered west along the north shore of the bay, the scenery slowly changed. At first, I didn’t notice the houses deteriorate with each mile we passed. However, when the road eventually switched from blacktop to gravel, even at the age of eight, I knew that we were now on the “other side of the tracks”—the ones even further off the beaten path than my own neighborhood.
“Do you see that gray house up there to the right?” Mom asked. “What can you spot in the backyard?”
“There’s a dog,” I exclaimed.
“To the left of the dog.”
“It’s a water pump.” Billy answered.
And thus, began a discussion of the Lummi Island Indian Reservation and its dwellings. The house Mom singled out had a wood stove, not central heating. It drew water from a well, as evidenced by the hand pump. It had outdoor plumbing, enough said about that. The three of us discussed what it might to be like to live under such sparse circumstances. Until that moment, I had never thought about (or appreciated) central heating or running water—or what it might be like to live without them.
Next, we turned our attention to a group of men who were feverishly preparing for the salmon run. They were dressed in bland, functional clothing along with utilitarian shoes—nothing flashy, and certainly nothing sporting a star. Without notice, a woman I had never seen before appeared next to the car. Mom introduced her as Sadie, the lady who sold us salmon every fall. She was carrying handcraft material, mostly leather and beads.
“I’m making these for a ceremonial dance,” Sadie explained as she caught mom staring at her leather project. “Originally our ancestors wore them for hunting,” The intricate beading and detailed leather work reflected years of careful practice. From there, we walked to a community building where we spent time watching men working on their nets for the upcoming season. One fisherman showed me how to mend the net and then gave me a chance to do so. The twine dug deep into my fingers as I pulled the shuttle through its course.
“Try doing that for a couple of weeks,” he kidded.
Later that day, long after the birthday party had ended, Mom asked us what we had learned. Realizing that lecturing us about the evils of racism was likely to be ineffectual, Mom, the intuitive social scientist, chose a different influence tool. The moment bigotry raised its ugly head, she gave us an experience with people who were different from us. We got to experience a different culture first-hand and visit with her friend, Sadie, face-to-face. We got to see a different way of life, one that was in some ways much harder than ours and in some ways more rich and beautiful. Mom said nothing of Billy’s inappropriate behavior, instead we discussed how different traditions often lead to different interests and tastes. This, we learned, makes people who are different—interesting—not wrong. It also makes them fascinating, not inferior.
Finally, as Mom headed the Ford for home, Billy turned to me and asked: “Did you see the shoes that lady was making for her husband?”
“You mean the leather moccasins?” I asked.
“Yes,” Billy said, “The kid I shouted at was wearing them, and not Converse All Stars. That’s why I made fun of him.”
“But aren’t moccasins just as cool?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Billy answered. “I guess they are.”
“Is that right?” I asked Mom. “Are moccasins just as cool?”
“Yes,” she answered, “especially when you walk in them.”