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MEMOIR

…and Mistakes made Along The Way

Excerpt from a memoir by Fred Beauford


Chapter nine-- A slow awakening


Hanging out in the projects with the fellows was now history, and something I was totally uninterested in, even if there were no more fellows left to hang out with.

I now was free to pursue a woman who had asked me for my photo when I was home on leave. For most of the time in the army, I had fantasized that this lovely young person wanted my photo because she was madly in love with me.

Years later, I found myself rhapsodizing to her as to how faithful she had been, spending years waiting anxiously by the phone, pining away for my return from the service.

“That was really nice of you,” I said, with love and gratitude dripping from my voice.

“What’re you talking about? I was shocked when you called. I had forgotten all about you!”

Well, so much for fantasies. (I finally learned, after years and years of deep disappointment, to put to good use my strange habit of reading more into a situation with women than was actually there, by becoming a novelist. If I was always making things up in my mind, I may as well try to get paid for it!)

Nevertheless, persistence paid off, and she soon became my beautiful bride, and soon, my daughter Danielle was born. We lived in a low-income housing project in the South Bronx and I worked as a shipping clerk in a dead end job in the Garment Center in Manhattan.

This was my new life. The best I could hope for was a job in the post office, if I passed the test, which I heard was rough indeed.

But something mysterious started to happen to me. At first it was very subtle, but then it kept growing and growing and growing, like some strange cancer, destroying all inside of me that was old, and replacing it with something new, and strangely exhilarating.

It began simply enough. When I first was married, my lovely young wife and I lived in my old neighborhood in the upper Bronx. By now, the Italians where almost all gone, and the entire neighborhood that I grew up in (for years as the only black), was now almost completely black and Puerto Rican. It was amazing what had happened.

Riding the subway to 34th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the national clothing chain headquarters of Robert Hall's was located, was a little over an hour's ride on the crowded trains. Fortunately for me, because I lived near the end of the line (or the beginning), I always got a seat.

At first, I started going to sleep like most everyone else. I discovered, much to my discomfort, that by sleeping, when I arrived at 34th Street, I was more tired than when I first stepped foot on the train. To remedy this, I started buying a newspaper to keep up with sports.

I hadn't really read anything since school. There was no need to read. No one I knew read anything, so what good was it? Because of this, the reading at first was slow going. I had little understanding of most of the words. Soon, however, I started finishing the sports section halfway to my stop.

Now I was faced with a choice. Go back to sleep, stare out at nothing like most people were doing, or continue to read the newspaper. I bravely forged ahead. Now I was reading the entire newspaper before I arrived home that evening. Then I started finishing the entire paper before I arrived at 34th Street and would have to buy another newspaper for the long ride home.

This was the time just before the last major newspaper strike, and there were still a huge variety of newspapers to choose from: The Daily News, The New York Post, The Journal-American, The Herald-Tribune, The Daily Mirror, and The New York Times. I choose The Daily News for the morning ride, and The Journal-American for the evening trip back.

Back then I knew absolutely nothing about politics, or for that matter, much about anything. Right wing, left wing, the Cold War; they were names that meant nothing to me. No one I knew, including my lovely young wife, knew very much about anything, nor wanted to know much about anything. We were totally in the dark about what went on in the world, except what we saw, if we bothered to tune in, in the fifteen minutes of news that was broadcast each evening on television.

But all of this newspaper reading was slowly beginning to have an impact on me. First, I started noticing that when I had a discussion with almost anyone I knew, I always knew more then he or she about almost anything. It got to the point that my fellow workers at Robert Hall started jokingly calling me "Stein," my second Jewish nickname, short for Einstein.

In the projects, my first nickname was “Shultz,” because everyone thought I was a cheapskate. I tried to tell them that Shultz was a German name, not necessarily Jewish, and they shouldn’t talk about Jewish people like that, but it was to no avail.

Both of these nicknames, by two totally different groups of blacks, and years apart, had reached the same conclusion: that there was something strangely Jewish about me. I knew then of my English bloodline and my great-grandfather, “old Mr. Hudson,” and my white family hidden deep in the hills of rural northern Virginia; but Jewish, which everyone swore I was, where did that come from?

At first I protested, because I knew from long experience how much blacks loved giving an unfortunate, select few, off-the-wall nicknames; and once they had fixed one on you, like “Two-heads,” “Benwine,” and “Rabbit,” it was unchanging, permanent, and there was nothing you could do about it, whether you liked your new name, or not.

  As an Enchanter, I once tried to nickname myself Robin, as in Batman and Robin, to little avail. Instead, I walked around the Edenwald projects for years being called “Shultz,” until I left for the army.

But soon, at Robert Hall, I began to like being called Stein. Like my still new name, Beauford, it had nice a ring to it.

 I started liking it a lot.

Now, many things started coming together. Like why out of 300 hundred soldiers at Fort Lee, when I entered, was I the only one sent to Fort Hood, Texas for Tank Training? They had given all of us an I.Q. test. I was later told that I scored only 149. I was so devastated by such a low score that I quickly put the I.Q. test out of my mind and thought little of it.

Then one day while reading one of those newspapers I now carried everywhere, I discovered that only a few people in the world, according to the people who ran the I.Q. test, were as smart as me!

149, especially the way the Army grades such tests, was off the charts.       "Really!" I thought.

Maybe that is why, I thought at the time, that when I was in the Army all the blacks were in the infantry, while for almost two years, I found myself once again as the only black riding around in a big, mean ass tank with a bunch of gung-ho white boys!

I quickly dismissed that thought, but did start to notice one interesting thing. It suddenly became so clear: All of the people on the subway who looked like they were in charge of something were doing the same thing. All of the people who looked as if they were the low paid workers doing all of the hard work, were also doing the same thing.

One group was reading something--a newspaper, a book or a magazine. The other group was staring off into space, or sleeping. I leave it up to the reader to guess which group was doing what.

Slowly, ideas started to build in my mind. I began to see huge gaps in what I knew of the world. I was also beginning to be strongly influenced by these newspapers, in ways that surprised me. During the sixties, Chairman Khrushchev of the Soviet Union paid a visit to the U.N., and banged his shoe on the table.

Chairman Castro of Cuba was also in town, and deliberately thumbed his nose at America by moving his huge entourage from a fancy hotel in downtown Manhattan to the famous, but sagging Hotel Teresa in black Harlem.

I shopped often on 125th Street in Harlem and remember clearly the lines of pickets, both pro and anti-Castro. I had met a few exiles from Cuba because they started working at Robert Hall in the shipping department with me. I knew how strongly they felt about Castro, and what they felt was the destruction he was bringing to their beloved country.

What I remember most about them was not their politics, but the fact that they were all white, and the glasses they wore were large, black horn rimmed. The strange looking glasses I found odd. But what was even odder was the fact that I remember reading somewhere in one of my newspapers that Cuba was 75 per-cent black.

If that was so, where were the black exiles?

This particular day in Harlem, during the middle of all of this commotion, I was simply up there to buy a pair of shoes. When I was walking back to the subway, I passed the line of pickets shouting encouragement, or curses, at Castro and his cronies inside the hotel.

All of a sudden I became overwhelmed with anger. As I passed the group singing Castro's praises, I stopped and turned to face them.

"He's a goddamn Communist!" I hissed at them, filled with a raging contempt.

I had no explanation for my outburst. It is only now that I understand that part of it was because of the daily bombardment of anti-Castro rhetoric I was reading in the right wing newspaper, William R. Hearst's The Journal-American. This had fostered in me a deep, abiding fear and hatred of Castro, just as the editors of that paper wanted me to have, even if I really had no real understanding of just what Mr. Castro stood for.

But this was again the result of all of this reading.

***

Despite being sometimes politically manipulated, the end result over time was that I became more and more personally empowered; until one day, just like in a Hollywood movie, I woke up filled with an overwhelming feeling of self-confidence. It had taken over my body. I felt this enormous feeling of well-being, and physical and mental power.

I still do not know what happened to me. This is where the normal story of a wise mentor, priest, or teacher would come into play, but for me no such person existed. I could not point to one human being that caused what happened to me to happen. If I was religious, I would say that I was suddenly touched by the hand of God. Maybe I was? I have no way of proving if it happened, or if it did not happen that way.

Whatever happened, I astonished my working partner, Prince Lewis, that first day at work in my new life, with my new attitude.

"I got it man! I got it!" I said.

"You got what?" he said, a curious look on his dark face as I ran up to him that morning when we were about to start work.

I knew at the time that one of the collective bits of wisdom in the black community was that too much reading could make you soft in the head. Now, had I been driven crazy by all of that reading of white people's newspapers? I certainly must have sounded like that to my good friend Prince Lewis.

"The spirit! I got the spirit!" I said, because I didn’t know quite what else to call this feeling that had now taken full procession of my body and mind so firmly.

Prince just laughed an easy laugh and we started work. But work was not the same anymore. Ii was no longer the worst drudgery on the face of the earth that had to be endured just to pay the rent, and put food on the table for my young family.

I was now above this simple, shit ass, racist place and could now endure anything Robert Hall threw at me. Who were these guys anyway but a bunch of creepy immigrants hiding behind the WASP name Robert Hall? Soon all of this would be behind me and they could keep their Garment Center!

That evening, my wife was to meet me at 225th Street and White Plains Road subway station after work. I ran down the steps to greet her.

I had been grinning crazily to myself the entire ride, still bursting with this strange, new kind of raw energy. I have read how cocaine addicts describe how good and energetic they feel when they take a hit. Well, some combination of chemicals must have been released into my blood stream, because now I felt powerful, and felt as if there was nothing I couldn’t do, and I had felt that way all day. The feeling would just not leave me.

"I have the spirit!" I said to her, in exactly the same manner in which I had expressed my newfound self to my good friend Prince Lewis.

Suddenly my young, lovely wife did not look so glad to see me. And she replied exactly like Prince: "You got the what?"

Despite the barely concealed skepticism coming from my wife and my good friend, I knew I was now suffused with some kind of purpose in life; what, I still did not know. But I did know that I needed to fill the gaps in my education, and I wanted to learn about life now more than anything else in the world.

I started buying the books I read about in the newspapers. When I would finish reading one, I would look at the back of the book and then go out and buy the other books recommended.

My mind suddenly became very active; in fact, I was almost in a frenzy. I soon came up with the weird idea that I should one day run for President of the United States. Part of what was happening to me, I know now, was the tremendous impact that President John F. Kennedy was having on me.

For some reason, it always sounded like he was speaking directly to me when I watched him on television. When he was first elected, I was sorry that Richard Nixon had lost because The Journal-American had consistently pointed out during the heated campaign that Kennedy was up to no good, and the country needed the trustworthy, experienced hands of Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge.

Gullible as I was at the time, I believed them, and the first vote in my young life was for Richard Millhouse Nixon for President.

Still, Kennedy turned out not to be such a bad guy after all. Soon I started to like him. In fact, I liked him a lot. I now wanted to be just like him and as I did research into his background, I discovered that he had a law degree. If I were to aspire to becoming President, then I, too, would have to obtain a law degree. Next, I discovered that in order to get a law degree, you first had to have a college degree.

Oh Vey!

Hmmmmm.

All of this becoming President stuff was suddenly becoming very complicated. But first things first. I had to get a college degree, but I didn’t even have a high school diploma.

I checked out some night schools and was told that I could attend part time and that in a few years I would obtain my high school diploma. A few years! I started calculating what those "few" years meant. I was 22 now. If I received a high school diploma by the age of 27, it would take another four years for a college degree, and another three to four years for a law degree.

I would be old as the hills by the time I finished. How the hell could I become President like that?!

A plan quickly came into my mind. I would take the exam I had heard about for a GED, or high school equivalency diploma. But how would I know what to study, since I did not know anyone who had attended college, or even had graduated from high school except my wife?

I started taking the trains near N.Y.U. and City College. I would look and see what books the students were reading, write them down in a little notebook, and then go into the campus bookstore and purchase the books and read them.

In a few months time, I was ready to take the exam and paid my fee, although I was warned by a few people who had taken the test that there was no way that I was going to be able to pass without proper tutoring, and I had not stepped a foot into an academic class room since 1956.

On the day of the big test, all of us hopefuls met at Washington Irvine High School in lower Manhattan. It was an extremely large room and there must have been at least 400 people there for the test. The test was given every six months, and as long as you were willing to pay the fee, you could take it as many times as you wanted.

In fact, the first question one of my fellow test takers asked me was how many times I had taken it.

He was a tall, thin, black man in his late twenties and one of the few blacks in the room. And he had a very serious, intelligent look about his face. I asked him how many times he had taken the test, and he replied seven. My heart sank somewhat.

"It’s a hard test," he said, perhaps noticing the look of distress on my face.

It was a two-day ordeal. There were six different categories, including math and science. We all sat down at our desks. The person supervising the test sat at a raised desk above us, gave us instructions, and wished us good luck. And at last the test and the no. 2 pencils were passed out.

I picked up the test and quickly went over it, and suddenly started laughing out loud. "Are you guys kidding?"

The tall, thin, serious young black man who had befriended me and was sitting next to me, looked a bit startled by my behavior.

But I was on to something. This test was so easy I couldn’t believe it! That is why I laughed so spontaneously. I quickly started answering the questions, and soon I was finished. I walked up to the man at the high desk and handed in my test.

"Do you want more paper?" he asked.

"No, I am finished," I said.

"Really?" he said, surprise in his voice and on his face. "Well, go wait in the hallway for the next test.”

I first ran to the telephone and called my wife. "You won't believe how easy this is," I told her, excitedly.

I went back to Washington Irvine and waited for someone to join me in the hallway. It took an entire half hour for the next person to come out of the test room. The serious young black man did not come out for over an hour and was one of the last to finish his portion of the test.

I did not tell him how easy I found the test because I sensed that he was still having a hard time with it. And the other two tests that day went the same way, and the next day, the same.

In a few months I received in the mail the results and a new High School diploma. I looked at my test scores and was terribly disappointed. Just like my first reaction to my army test scores, these did not look like the test scores of a budding genius. But, nevertheless, I was now a high school graduate in less than six months from the day I decided to become President of the United States.

***

But this President thing was slow going. What next? My conditions did not improve at Robert Hall. One of the strongest arguments my friends made back in those days was that it was a pointless exercise for a black man to seek to improve himself, because no matter how smart he was, or how much education he had, the white man was never going to give him a break. This man was just inherently hateful, evil and fearful of others, so books were a waste of a black man's time.

This was the world before Affirmative Action, the good old days that conservatives love to muse over. Walk around mid-town Manhattan in 1963 and it was a white man's world. If there were blacks, they could be counted on to be carrying packages, or pushing brooms (has much changed, despite years of so-called Affirmative Action?).

Still, I relentlessly pushed myself to keep learning. I read of a college preparatory program given by the Department of Continuing Education at N.Y.U. but I could only afford one class. As I spoke with the person who advised me, he said that in order for me to formally enter college I would have to take at least seven more of these courses.

"There goes my Presidency," I thought. How was I going to do this? I was making $75.00 dollars a week. I had a wife and a kid, and was soon to learn that another one was on the way.

For the first time in my life I felt hopeless. Again, back in 1964, you were on your own. No one gave a shit if a young black man wanted to educate himself.

At the end of the college preparatory English class, I was wondering what to do next. I could no longer afford to take classes that were not leading to anything. I was ready for the real thing. I spotted in the back of the brochure that the department was offering a new degree program for adults. It was eight credits a semester and led to an Associate in Arts degree, and the classes sounded really interesting.

I decided to apply. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it, however.

I soon received a notice that I had to take the standard college entrance exam, which I did. I did not hear anything from N.Y.U. for weeks after that test, and soon forgot about it. Then one day a letter arrived in the mail. N.Y.U. wanted to meet with me.

I had to arrange my appointment on my lunch hour. I walked into the building at Washington Square and announced myself. The woman at the desk suddenly started smiling widely. She quickly walked into an office and out stepped this tall, smiling red headed white man.

"This is the guy. This is the guy," he kept repeating.

Everyone in the office, including the secretaries, were all smiling warmly at me. What the heck was going on?

"Come, come," he said, "I want you to meet the Dean."

I sat down with him and another white man, still wondering why everyone was smiling at me.

The red headed man noticed my puzzled look.

"You don't know what you did, do you?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about."

He opened my files. "Are you sure that you never took any classes after high school?"

"Just one," I said.

He shook his head in disbelief. Now he had my curiosity piqued.

"Look," he said, showing me a paper with some numbers on them. "Do you know that you scored in the top five percent of anyone in the country who ever took this college entrance exam? The top five percent! Most people send their kids to all kinds of expensive prep schools and they do not do nearly as well."

"Tell me about it," the Dean said, rolling his eyes.

"And," the big red headed man said, greatly enjoying telling this story and giving me all of this wonderful news, "do you know what you did on your GED exams?"

"No," I said, feeling the good feeling beginning to fade as I remembered those low looking scores.

"The top three percent!"

"Really?"

"Really."

Wow! This was too much. I could not believe my ears. Too bad there was not a camera around to record this meeting, as there is when blacks score big in sports. I had hit it out of the park. This was an intellectual home run. But the NAACP was never going to give me an award for what I had just done.

Still, this was the greatest moment of my life.

"You are just the guy we were hoping for when we started this program," the Dean added. "You are just the kind of person we want. In your letter you said that all you wanted was to do was learn. Well, we are here to teach you."

With that, he reached out his hand to mine, with the big red headed man still smiling warmly at me.

That is how I became a college student at N.Y.U. My mother gave me some money. I had saved a little money from my $75.00 a week job in the Garment Center, and the program gave me a little money. At that time I had no idea how I was going to remain and graduate, but in a little over a year after I came up with my crazy idea to become President of the United States, I not only had a high school diploma, but was a college student at one of the most prestigious universities in the country, long before open enrollment and Affirmative Action.

***

The program was excellent. I adjusted well to my new friends. To be quite frank, everyone fawned over me, because, in all due modesty, I was a pretty bright guy, and had many social skills, despite my poverty and lack of formal education. I was used to being around all types of people, whites included, and being the only person like me in a variety of social situations.

In 20/20 hindsight, I can see clearly that my wise mother picked an excellent location in The Upper Bronx for me to grow up as a true American. First, I walked around for years as an Italian, even going to Sunday Mass with my Italian friends, while they introduced me to pizza for the first time.

Next, I posed as a dangerous, black, teenage hood from the projects, and somehow avoided jail, drugs, or death.

My two years in the Army with my friend Elvis had also taught me many useful lessons. I had met people from all walks of life and from every part of the country.

And spending my formative years in a surrealistic, violent, unpredictable home for children, with year after year of watching kids come and go, and being unloved, and taught little, turned out to be a time well-spent (although I wouldn’t want anyone else to experience the same thing. No child should have to go through that hell!), because that’s where I first became accustomed to sudden change, and where I first learned how to think on my own.

And big change New York University certainly was. I knew that my fellow students and professors didn’t quite know what to make of me; but I really sensed that they and the Dean felt good about themselves by having me in the program--especially a couple of the women who would fix their loving gazes on my smart, young black body in class.

Lucky for me, I was still “cute,” but this time for smart, older Jewish women, not horny young soldiers, unsure of who they were.

I knew that those looks meant more than that they simply wanted to have a meaningful conversation with me.

Admiring white women notwithstanding, I soon began to grow impatient with the program. Not only because it was going to take four years, but then I still would be stuck with only an AA degree.

But the real reason for my discomfort was that I felt that somehow, the real action was during the day with the full time student.

I was an adult, but only a few years older than the average student.  I was only 25, and of slim built. I watched those young students at the student center and started wanting to be with them, not with the old ladies I was stuck with in the evening. I was starting to feel like a second class citizen, although, as I was to later learn when I finally did transfer to full time--these well read, eager, middle aged women ran intellectual circles around their young daytime counterparts.

But a young man in heat rarely notices those kinds of things.



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