Lakewood's Antiques... Those Old Rocking Chairs.... (A child learns about life's questions, and the costs of war)

Birmingham rockers and memories... (Photo by Gary Rice)

Every couple of years, I face the same question concerning two old rocking chairs on our front porch.

Paint 'em and patch 'em... or pitch 'em?

Frankly, one might think that would be an easy question to answer. These two rockers are not in the best of shape. They could probably use a good re-caning soon, and they're just, well, getting a bit older. (just like yours truly) Having virtually no monetary value, they could certainly be easily replaced with a couple of nice new rockers for a relatively modest sum.

Practically speaking, it's probably getting about time to pitch 'em out to the tree lawn.

Problem is, I'm just not that "practical" yet. At least, not in this case.

See, those chairs were a gift to me from my grandmother. We carried those rockers up here to Cleveland from Birmingham, Alabama, in the back of a trailer, probably some fifty years ago, and like so many other things that you've read about in my columns, they come with a story.

Dad was a northern guy who'd met his Alabama bride during the war. Dad used to say that it was "written into the marriage contract" that we go South every summer to see Mom's side of the family, and so we did. Staying with the relatives was really all the vacation that a school teacher could afford back then anyway. Air conditioning was not part of the picture either, at least where we went. I remember our long drives down South in 100 degree-plus temperatures taking close to 24 hours on two-lane blacktop roads, going up and down the Smoky Mountains. When we finally got there, it usually took us a few days to acclimate. I'd lie sick on Grandma's bed, soaking her sheets with sweat, while an anemic little electric fan over in the corner swept hot air slowly back and forth across the polished hardwood and linoleum floors. In humid summertime Alabama back then, carpets on the floors were an unheard-of luxury, at least in Grandma's home.

There were simply too many bugs around.

Grandma and Grandpa lived in one of those side-by-side clapboard one-floor "shotgun" houses in a Birmingham, Alabama suburb, way back in the early '60's. (A "shotgun" house is essentially a straight-through home that you could shoot a shotgun in the front door and the pellets would go out the back door) As anyone who is familiar with history can tell you, there was a lot going on, in and around Birmingham back then, not the least of which were the Civil Rights activities. (My family had many friends of all kinds, and had always encouraged me to associate with anyone and everyone who was decent, no matter what their race was) Unfortunately, back then, Birmingham was becoming more and more dangerous- and in many quarters, a whole lot less decent for anyone. There was a horrible bombing at an African-American church, not too far from where we were, that took the lives of four innocent little girls. The authorities started using German Shepherds, hard helmets, and fire hoses, and downtown Birmingham was fast becoming a battleground area. Some day, I may write more about my experiences on those Birmingham streets. I even almost got in trouble once for attempting to drink out of a "colored" drinking fountain.

Anyway, I have so many memories from those times, but this column is about those two rocking chairs, so I'd better get back on topic. As I mentioned, Grandma's house was a side-by-side. There was a nice older couple living on the other side of that home. They were very kind people who then owned the rockers featured in my story. I'll leave their names out of this tale for privacy reasons. Bear with me on this. It's a really tough tale for me to tell. On those hot Alabama summer nights, those neighbors would happily rock the hours away on that old shared concrete porch. They had a wonderful son too, who was a good deal older than I was. Sometimes, our families would pool our resources, cranking out the home-made ice cream, and opening those ever-present bottles of  "co-cola", while we enjoyed side-yard ball games on those steamy 'Bama nights, laughing and sliding into home plate on that blood-red iron-rich dirt.

One day however, things changed, and they were never the same again. Grandma's neighbors learned that their son had gone off on some military "secret mission" that he was not allowed to talk about. They did not even know why, where, or with whom he had gone off with!

Anyway, with their son missing and his fate unknown, those neighbors also lost the joy of rocking away those warm Alabama evenings in those chairs. Indeed, I personally witnessed many sorrowful and bitter tears, particularly that were shed by the father; who sat alone in one of those rockers in ever-deepening sorrow...night after night after night. Finally, even the rockers were of no solace, so they were sold to to Grandma. When Grandpa died, Grandma came North to be with us, and along came those rockers.

I was only ten years old when the neighbors' son was lost. That's a tough lesson for anyone, but it was a very hard lesson for a 10 year-old to understand. Of course, I also did not understand Birmingham's fire hoses, the police dogs, the bullhorns, and why there needed to be "white" and "colored" drinking fountains either. (I actually had approached that fountain out of innocent childhood curiosity, in order to find out what color the "colored" water was!)

So yeah, I guess that you could say that I became aware of many of life's big questions back then; only you know what? I still haven't found the answers to many of them. Sometimes, I still feel like I'm a kid again, wondering what colored water looks like.

As for those rockers? Well, lately, they did get pushed around a bit by Hurricane Sandy...but they're still OK.

They've seen a lot worse. A Hell of a lot worse.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 9:24 PM, 01.08.2013