It was my seventh year when the President’s Whistle Stop Tour came through our town on the Missouri—Kansas—Texas Railroad. My father thought Mr. Truman was a buffoon, but for the history of the moment he took me to the station and lifted me onto his shoulders to see over the crowd.
The railroad station house stood between the downtown corner it shared with US Highway 69 and the Trailways Bus Depot where a large sign hung squarely over the middle of the intersection proclaiming with emblazoned words, “Greenville, Welcome — The Blackest Land — The Whitest People.”
As soon as the President finished his speech my father put me down. He had to get back to his barber shop on the town square and told me to go straight home. It was the last time I ever sought my father’s support; the day my world changed.
I ran the two blocks to our house and burst in shouting, “I’m home.” My mother was working at the kitchen window that overlooked our backyard and the neighbor’s sandlot. She asked, “Did you get to see the President?” “Yeah!” I yelled, grabbing my baseball glove and rushing out the back door. “You come back in here,” she said. Not shouting, but in that forceful, teacher-way she had in a day before disobedience became self-expression and parents were to be obeyed. I came back. “What did you say to me?” “I said, ‘Yes, ma’am’.” “Well, that’s what you’re supposed to say. Now, tell me what you said?” “I said, ‘Yeah’.” “That’s better. And what should you have said?” “Yes, ma’am.” She waited a moment for contrition to reinforce the lesson. Then, “And now do you think you can remember?” “Yes, ma’am. I can remember.” “All right, run on then. Chicken Coop’s already been around asking for you.” Relieved at the gentle reprimand, I rushed back out of the house and yelled, “Chicken Coop, let’s play catch.”
About my age, Chicken Coop lived in a dilapidated shack abutting our backyard fence. He got the colorful nickname from sleeping in a chicken coup because he had too many brothers and sisters to all fit in the house. Everybody called him that except his mother.
Chicken Coop also had a special talent for baseball. He could throw faster and hit farther than kids much older. Always ready for a game, he never complained and was top pick in our sandlot games. When Jackie Robinson started his second season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicken Coop came alive. It was a magical summer for baseball. Joe DiMaggio and the New York Yankee baseball club came to Greenville for a pre-season game with our local minor league team, the Majors. When the Majors won to the wild jubilation of the town–nobody noticed the Yankee’s rookie line-up, a distant, mirage-like image of a beckoning world outside became concrete. The Majors’ win produced in us a single-minded devotion to the sandlot baseball games that filled our summers. Suddenly, they were our tickets to glory.