I didn’t need ROTC. But I did it, and I did it good, because my dad was pretty much making me. He's one of those dudes who feels like there's no better
opportunity for a black boy in this country than to join the army. That's literally how he always put it. Word for word.
I wasn’t a stand-in for Dad. Nobody could be that. When the IED got him in Afghanistan, he became an instant saint in Springfield. I wasn't him. I'd never be him. But I was still supposed to try. That was my role: the dutiful son, the
All-American boy with an All-American fifteen-foot deadeye jump shot and an All-American 3.5 GPA.
I begin almost every day the same way: Ma's voice in my head, telling me what I needed to do, what I needed to think about, how I needed to act. But on mornings like this one––or if Coach Carney was making us do suicides up and down the court for fifteen minutes, or when Dwyer dropped another five-pounder on either side of the bar on my last rep in the weight room––it was Dad's voice in my head, or at least what I thought was his voice. I hadn't heard it in so long, I couldn’t even tell if it was his or if I was making it up. Whatever it was, it got me to where I needed to get.
PUSH! If you don't, someone else will. LIFT! If you don't, someone else will. Faster faster, faster, faster FASTER!
Honestly, I just wanted to take it easy for the rest of the day. I didn’t want to hear Spoony preach about how hard it is to be black, or my father preach about how young people lack pride and integrity, making us easy targets. I didn't even want to think about the preacher preaching about how God is in control of it all, or my mother, my sweet, sweet mother caught in the middle of it all. The referee who blows the whistle but is way too nice to call foul on anyone. That’s her. She just wants me to be okay. That's it and that’s all. So if football was going to be the thing that took our minds off the mess for at least a few hours, then fine with me.
I felt like such an ass. I'd quickly convinced myself I had no idea who that kid with Paul was that night. And yeah, there were like a thousand kids in each grade at school, or whatever, but I did know him. Or know of him, really. I'd seen him––Rashad––in that uniform, and it'd made me think of my dad wearing his own at college. How my dad had looked proud in all those pictures.
“I mean, it's Paul. This is the same guy I’ve seen carrying my mom up the front steps, for God's sake.” I was thinking about that time Ma got trashed because it was her first wedding anniversary without Dad. Paul had been so
gentle. He'd taken the frigging day off just so she didn’t have to spend it alone. “She was tanked,” I said to Jill. “And he helped her home. I remember him putting her down on the couch and pulling the afghan over her.”
“Paulie's always been the good guy.”
“That's what I want to think.”
“Why does it automatically gotta be Rashad's fault? Why do people think he was on drugs? That dude doesn’t do drugs. He's ROTC, man. His dad would kick his ass. You do drugs, asshole.”
“Just a puff here and there, man, come on. I don’t do drugs."
"I’ve seen you smoking a blunt. Metcalf sold you that shit. Metcalf––a white dude, by the way. Man, that shit could have been laced with crack, or fucking Drano. You don’t know what you talkin’ ‘bout.”
Now I was thinking about how, if I wanted to, I could walk away and not think about Rashad, in a way that English or Shannon or Tooms or any of the guys at school who were not white could not. Even if they didn't know Rashad, even if for some reason, they hated Rashad, they couldn’t just
ignore what happened to him; they couldn't walk away. They were probably afraid, too. Afraid of people like Paul. Afraid of cops in general. Hell, they were probably afraid of people like me. I didn’t blame them. I'd be afraid too, even if I was a frigging house like Tooms. But I didn't have to be because
my shield was that I was white. It didn't matter that I knew Paul. I could be all the way across the country in California and I'd still be white, cops and everyone else would still see me as just a “regular kid,” an “All-American” boy. “Regular.” “All American.” White. Fuck.
There was a cabbie who straight up said he wouldn't pick me up if he saw me at night. That really pissed me off. I mean, I had heard Spoony talk about that
for years. I never took cabs (the bus was cheaper), but he was always going on and on about how he could never catch a cab because of the way he looked. But I didn't look nothing like Spoony. Nothing. I mean, I wear jeans and T-shirts, and he wears jeans and T-shirts, so we look alike in that way, but who doesn't wear jeans and T-shirts? Every kid in my school does. And sneakers. And sweatshirts. And jackets. So what exactly does a kid who "looks like me" look like? Seriously, what the hell?
My dad, my dad, had paralyzed an unarmed kid, a black kid, and I had had no
idea. My dad shot a kid. I mean, to me, my father was the model of discipline and courage. Sure, he was stern, and sometimes judgmental, but I always felt like he meant well. But to that kid––and now my head was reeling––to that kid, my dad was no different than Officer Galluzzo. Another trigger-happy cop who was quick to assume and even quicker to shoot.
My brother took the bus trip down to Selma. He begged me to go. Begged me. But I told him it didn't matter. I told him that he was going to get himself killed, and that that wasn’t bravery, it was stupidity. So he went without
me. I watched the clips on the news. I saw him being beaten with everyone else, and realized that my brother, in fact, was the most courageous man I knew, because Selma had nothing to do with him. Well, one could argue that it did, a little bit. But he was doing it for us. All of us.
Well, where was I when Rashad was lying in the street? Where was I the year all these black American boys were lying in the streets? Thinking about scouts? Keeping my head down like Coach said? That was walking away. It was running away, for God's sake.
I did not want to be a hero. I did not want to make any of what had happened in the last week about me. There was a guy who'd just spent six days in the hospital because the guy who'd been my personal hero for four years had put him there.
I'd been thinking about that all day, but I didn’t have the words for it until Ma brought up Dad. Everybody wanted me to be loyal. Ma wanted me to be loyal. Guzzo wanted me to be loyal. Paul wanted me to be loyal. Your dad was loyal to the end, they'd all tell me. Loyal to his country, loyal to his family, they meant. But it wasn't about loyalty. It was about him standing up for what he believed in. And I wanted to be my dad's son. Someone who believed a better world was possible––someone who stood up for it.
Pictures of me throwing up the peace sign, some––the ones Spoony feared––of me flipping off the camera. Carlos and the fellas had been cropped out. These images would have nasty comments under them from people saying stuff like, Looks like he'd rob a store, and If he'd pull his pants up, maybe he would've gotten away with the crime! Lol, and Is that a gang sign? Other pictures were of me in my ROTC uniform. Of course, those had loads of comments like, Does this look like a thug? and If he were white with this uniform on, would you still question him?
What about Dad? Talk about a man who died for his convictions. How many times did he re-up after 9/11?. Three. I was old enough now to know he wasn’t fearless. He'd probably been scared shitless every time he went back. He wasn’t strong because he wasn’t afraid. No, he was strong because he kept doing it even though he was afraid.
I wondered if anybody thought what we were doing was unpatriotic. It was weird. Thinking that to protest was somehow un-American. That was bullshit.
This was very American, goddamn All-American.
Me, Spoony, Carlos, English, Berry, and Shannon were in the front of the crowd, and all of a sudden, our arms locked and we were leading the way like—the image came to me of raging water crashing against the walls of a police dam. Marching. But it wasn’t like I was used to. It wasn't military style. Your left! Your left! Your left-right-left! It wasn’t like that at all. It was an uncounted step, yet we were all in sync. We were on a mission.