In my May 4 column, I shared with you an experience I had with a longtime friend. I have had a relationship with this friend since our high school days which goes back more than fifty years. In that column, I encouraged all of us, on a regular basis, to maintain contact with old friends. In case you did not read that column or forgot its contents, let me share with you the genesis of it. I pointed out how I got together with this friend and visited a former classmate from our West Philadelphia High School days, who is confined to a nursing home. As I indicated at that time such visits are not easy. While I was pleased that I made this visit to the nursing home, the visit took a lot out of me. Still, such visits are reminders of the way things used to be — they are reminders of good times with old friends.
When I made this visit, I told my friend that every time I make a visit to retirement or assisted living facilities, or to a church or funeral home to pay my last respects, I reflect on something that I have been saying for years. I constantly tell my friends that we have far fewer days remaining on this earth than days and years we have left behind us. I tell my friends that we should make a commitment to go out and re-establish those friendships and acquaintances before it is too late — to restore those wonderful friendships that we used to share, nourish, cherish and treasure. I tell “folk” that we should carve out time and come together for gatherings so that friends can talk and laugh with one another — where we can see one another rather than view one another.
This friend, Tom McKinney, is someone that many of you know — he is a popular and well respected artist and illustrator focusing on Black art. Tom heard me and unlike many others to whom I had made this suggestion, Tom “stepped to the plate” and on June 21 approximately twenty-five male guests, several of whom attended West Philadelphia High School, attended a gathering at Tom’s home to enjoy one another’s company while we could“still smell the roses.” Our coming together on this day had an added dimension — the celebration of Tom McKinney’s birthday which was the next day. This gathering represented an opportunity to re-establish relationships and reflect on our life experiences with school mates, former co-workers, customers and just plain friends from back in the day.
I suggested to Tom that perhaps he should have name tags for this event; after all, some of us have not seen each other for years. Now, if you have recently attended a high school class reunion from your high school days of forty or more years ago, I am certain that you understand the importance of name tags. The experience of my 25th class reunion, back in 1982, was the kind of experience that many in my age group have also experienced. Just last Sunday, I sat with several of my fraternity brothers and told them about the get together at Tom’s home. Most present told me that they avoid high school reunions. They talked about the vibrant young men and the attractive young ladies from their graduating classes looking old. One brother said in an exaggerated manner, “I mean real old.”
Another brother present said at his class reunion, he too talked about how old his classmate appeared. He told us that he shook his head in disbelief until he received a group picture taken at his reunion and he looked at himself. He stopped complaining at that time because he also confessed that he looked old. I could easily relate to what they were saying as at my 25th class reunion, a lady came up to me with much excitement and a big smile yelling, “Alonzo, Alonzo, you remember me? I sat behind you in homeroom.” I looked at her and truth be told, I had no idea of her identity. As many of you do under similar situations I simply went along with her story. I must confess that I said to myself, “I doubt seriously that you sat behind me, perhaps your daughter may have sat behind me.”
For the group that came together at Tom McKinney’s home, however, name tags were not really needed as it did not take long to tell from the sound of one’s voice or the mention of high school experiences exactly “who was who.” Sure, I struggled to put a name to the face of Steve Wilson, but I knew that our paths had passed at some time in the past. I soon recognized that he was a West Philadelphia High School classmate once he talked about his cross country feats from back in the day.
Not everyone present had attended West Philadelphia High School as had Steve Wilson, Richard Gibson, Clarence Jones, Bill Taylor, Tom McKinney and me. Others, such as Roy Gay, Lloyd Lawrence, Nate Kitchen and Lee Curran, to name a few, had specific relationships with Tom McKinney. I met Walter Thomas, who lives in Willingboro, N.J., for the first time and had fun reflecting on my battles with the school board when I served as superintendent of schools in Willingboro. Kevin Colquitte, another person I met for the first time, caught my interest in light of his research on the Pearl Theatre that was located in North Philadelphia — a venue where I sang as a teenager with Herb Johnson and the Ambassadors, a do-wop group. My discussion with him truly took me back in the day.
Our group had much discussion and laughter. We talked about our teachers, in particular those at West Philadelphia High School. If you are from our era, you must know that we talked about the girls from our old neighborhoods — the toasties, five hundreds and red bones were the targets of most of the comments. It is interesting, in that you do not hear at our ages the wild stories that guys told in the past — you know what I mean, those wild stories of escapades that caused you to look at those telling the story with envy and amazement. Such discussions were non-existent for at this stage of our lives there is no medical support known to man that would enable us “old dudes,” to be what we were, back in the day. Of course, the parties, dance locations and the dances such as the slop, the bop and the “slow grind” brought broad smiles.
Discussions about the gangs, such as the Fabulous Kings, the Syndicate and the Woodland Avenue gangs enabled me to tell the story of how my friend “Black Buster” by himself saved me from an attack by a gang of fifty or more boys. I described how Buster told me to come and stand by him while warning those present that they had better not mess with me — but of course, he used an expletive. Then there were the fibs, the exaggerations or to put it plain and simple, the lies. You cannot bring a bunch of “old-heads” together without facing the temptation on the part of those present to say practically anything. I experience this each Friday, before the Penn Relays, when a group of us come together at Gus Dingle’s West Philadelphia home. Just as those attending Tom McKinney’s get-together you hear unimaginable stories — most centered on sports. There was a story from one person about an individual that ran a sub forty-five second quarter mile in high school and another story that someone told about playing running back, strong safety, returning punts, receiving kickoffs and kicking field goals.
Yes, you hear stories that the storytellers are convinced actually took place. One young man swore that he dunked over Wilt Chamberlain on the old Haddington Playground. Another young man, from my old down the bottom neighborhood, tried to convince me that he was “all world” as a basketball player when I never heard his name. The problem in such settings is that you can tell any incredible story you wish as no one is really in a position to challenge you. After all, no one present witnessed these remarkable feats.
We talked about those we have not seen nor heard from since graduation day. Yes, we talked about those that we know that cannot get around and join with us in such get-togethers. We also reflected on those that are no longer with us. In the midst of renewing friendships, sharing our careers and life experiences and telling the lies, we ate food that each participant had brought to share with others. Believe me, we had plenty of food. We had so much food that those present were urged to take “care packages” with them. The one thing that was absent from a group like this as compared to the past was the consumption of alcoholic beverages. While hard booze and beer — and a limited amount a limited amount at that — were present, age and health quickly makes one realize that they are not able to “get down” as they used to do, back in the day.
You may recall in the past that whenever you visited a friend’s home, you would leave with a gift — a token of love. Tom, through a lottery drawing, gave away two of his original paintings — one of Wayne Shorter and the other of Miles Davis. He also gave away Horace Silver CDs. Tom’s initiative in bringing “the boys” together, sharing his home and giving away several of his paintings must be duplicated.
As I wrote this column, my mind went back to some comments made by District Attorney Seth Williams during a Memorial Service for Tribune columnist, Daryl Gale. He talked about his love for Daryl Gale and encouraged all of us to show our love to our friends and to express our love before it is too late to show such affection. So, just as many of us did at Tom McKinney’s home on June 20, let me encourage all of you to come together with your friends and associates, not during those dark days but when gatherings can be full of fun. Even thought men are often times not good at showing affection or sharing expressions of love at this time in our lives, how good it is to come together and enjoy the memories that have been left, back in the day.
Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19146.