“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If he hollers, let…”
“Stop it right now, Davey MacLaren! I don’t want you using that word. That’s not a very nice thing to say.” The boy’s mother had overheard him from the next room where she was sorting and folding their clean laundry. In the next moment she appeared in the doorway of the bedroom.
She was a slender woman in her early thirties, barely five-two and carrying an empty laundry basket. It was obvious to her older son she was on her way to retrieve another load of dry clothes from the clothesline before the dew started to settle. It seemed to Davey that she was always busy cooking or cleaning or washing and folding – taking care of her husband and two boys.
“What word?” Davey wondered as he turned and looked up at his mother. “What did I say that was so wrong?” The wide-eyed, seven-year-old, freckle-faced boy with a buzz haircut had a puzzled look on his face. He was kneeling beside his younger brother’s bed where he had laid out a selection of five Little Golden Books on the chenille bedspread.
“The word, ‘nigger.’ It’s a bad word. Don’t say it.”
“But that’s the way the rhyme goes.”
“I don’t care how the rhyme goes; you’re not to say it. You’ll have to use a different word.”
He was genuinely confused because he had heard the children at school repeat the rhyme exactly the way he had said it. His mother could tell he was confused.
“You shouldn’t say it because colored people don’t like to be called that word. It means they are inferior.”
“But everybody says ‘nigger.’ That’s just the way the rhyme goes.”
“Don’t argue with me, young man.” His mother did not put up with a lot of backtalk, and Davey had reached his limit. Neither could she resist the temptation to lecture her children when she was reprimanding them. “That word’s disrespectful toward Negroes. It’s an ugly and hateful word. You’re never to use that word again. Plain and simple. You should know better, Davey MacLaren. Anyway, I don’t care what other people say or do. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong regardless of how many people do it. I haven’t raised some heathen. Do you understand, young man?”
“Yes, ma’am, but how can I choose a book if I can’t say the choosing rhyme? You told me to read a story to Guy-Guy, and I need to pick one of the books.”
“You can say ‘catch a tiger.’ Yes, that’s it; just say ‘catch a tiger,’ instead.”
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” Davey’s face looked like he had just tasted something sour. “That sounds really strange.”
“Get used to it. You need to learn that sometimes we all need to make changes. Say ‘tiger’ or don’t say the rhyme at all. That’s your choice. Do you understand?”
“Which one will it be, Guy-Guy? Let’s pick one. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Hey! Looks like I’ll read Bongo tonight.” Davey held up the book as he rose from kneeling and sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Hurray! I love Bongo!” exclaimed Davey’s younger brother, “I like it when the bears slap each other. Bears say hello with a slap!”
Guy-Guy, who looked like a younger version of his older brother, reached out to give his brother a slap on the shoulder, but Davey was too quick and leaned to one side, avoiding being the target of the younger boy’s swinging hand. They both laughed.
“You’ve already heard this story,” Davey said with a note of disappointment in his voice.
“I know, but I really like it. Read Bongo – read Bongo – read…”
“Okay, okay! I’ll read Bongo.”
The book was short – just twenty-four pages, each with a full-color illustration that filled most of the space. On most of the pages, no more than five or six lines of text were written beneath the pictures. As Davey read, he was careful to turn the book so his brother could see each of the illustrations. They especially enjoyed looking at the pictures and talking about them after Davey had read the accompanying text.
“Bongo is so cute. Look at the squirrel and the rabbit and the skunk watching him ride that wheel.”
“That wheel is called a unicycle, Guy-Guy.”
Guy-Guy listened attentively as his older brother read about a little bear named Bongo who performed in a circus. In fact, he was the star of the show. He could juggle, ride a unicycle, and perform on the tightrope. The problem was he felt very lonely and unhappy, because, when he was not doing his circus act, he was locked away in a cage all by himself.
“The picture of Bongo sitting up in his bed is my favorite. He’s sad, but look at all that stuff he has in his room – cards and radio and a dartboard and a cake! Why is he sad, Davey?”
“He’s sad because he feels lonely.”
Davey read about how the little bear jiggled his cage door open, escaped from the circus train, and joined the bears that lived in the forest. Having lived in captivity, he had to learn the ways of the bears that lived in the wild. Eventually, he grew to be very happy because he was no longer lonely. He had found lots of friends – and even a girlfriend!
When Davey finished reading, Guy-Guy asked, “Do you like Bongo, Davey?”
“Yes. I liked the part where Bongo breaks free. I liked that part best.”
“I love Bongo. Bears say hello with a slap!” This time Guy-Guy connected when he swung his arm. He hit his brother square on the shoulder.
Davey tumbled off the edge of the bed and rolled to the floor where he played dead.
“Davey! I didn’t mean to hurt you. Are you all right?” Guy-Guy was genuinely concerned as he peered over the side of the bed.
Davey remained motionless until he realized that Guy-Guy was beginning to think he had actually injured his brother.
“I’ll getcha!” Davey yelled as he sprung up, pinned his brother back against the bed, and began to tickle him with both hands. Davey knew exactly where Guy-Guy was the most sensitive to being tickled – up his sides and under his arms.
Guy-Guy was laughing uncontrollably. Tears rolled from his eyes down the sides of his face. He tried with all his might to free himself from his brother’s grip, but he was helpless. In the throes of his laughter, he tried in vain to turn and push his brother’s hands away to free himself from the relentless tickling. It was only the unmistakable sound of flatulence that finally made Davey stop.
Davey looked down at Guy-Guy and pulled away. “You pooted! You dirty dog!”
“Guy-Guy pooted!” the younger brother echoed.
Now, both boys were laughing. “I’ll get you!” Davey exclaimed. “No, I get you,” Guy-Guy countered as the two of them began to wrestle on the bed. They were nearly evenly matched. Although Davey was two years older and the taller of the two, Guy-Guy was chunkier and exceptionally strong.
“No rough-housing, boys!” their mother commanded from the other room. “It’s past Guy-Guy’s bedtime. If you’ve finished reading the story, Davey, I want you to turn off your brother’s light right now and go to your own room. You have thirty minutes before your bedtime.
While Davey was gathering up the books and putting them away, Guy-Guy was getting settled under his covers. Suppressing his continuing laughter Davey said good-night, flicked off the light switch, and tiptoed out of his brother’s bedroom. He was thinking about how much he enjoyed time spent with his little brother. They had fun together.
Many years later, Davey recalled the events of that evening in 1952 when he was just seven years old, and his brother was five. “I remember vividly as if it were just yesterday, my mother interrupting me and lecturing me on why I shouldn’t say the N-word. I also remember the close relationship my brother and I shared way back then. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t always feel so close to my brother. As typical for many siblings, we grew apart over the years.
“Looking back, it seemed to be a much happier time – a time when we felt secure in the world around us where everything was perfectly ordered, and we had everything we would ever need. In our innocence, we believed that all was right with the world, and the rightness of everything would never come to an end.
“Our generation was labeled the ‘Baby Boomers’ – my brother and I were born barely two years apart right after our father returned home from the war. I have a copy of LIFE magazine from the fifties that referred to us as the ‘Luckiest Generation’ because it was a time of prosperity and a positive outlook for the future. It was the ‘good old days’ back then – a time of ‘In God We Trust’ – a time before the threat of communism and the atomic bomb – a time before we experienced the confrontations over racial inequality and injustice – a time right before we got smacked in the face by the reality that our perfect little world wasn’t really so perfect after all.”
Davey stopped talking, took a drink of lemonade, and looked across the patio table at the young man who was there to interview him.
“Please explain, Mr. MacLaren,” the young man urged. “I know my readers would like to know more about those events that I assume you’re referring to when you say you were smacked in the face by reality.”
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