Walter looked at his watch, the warm sun reflecting across its silver blue dial into his eyes. The second hand appeared to be moving in slow motion. He squinted while noticing his own hands were moving. Actually, more like shaking. It was almost noon and the ceremony was about to begin. Though a professor for almost thirty years, this speaking engagement made him uneasy. He wiped his brow and quickly walked up to the makeshift podium in the cemetery, almost tripping on a rock along the way.
Exchanging pleasantries with the other key members of the event, Walter looked at the audience in front of him. He was surprised by the number of people who had come today. Some sixty or more were gathered around the small field. His eyes brightened. Maybe people care more now.
The dedication ceremony for the formal recognition of the African American Cemetery began. Mrs. Dora Jones, director of the non-profit group that had rescued these hallowed grounds, gave a summary of the efforts to date to restore and beautify this abandoned cemetery. She spoke of how this place had not been maintained in any fashion for over a hundred years, save for a few folks who did their best to take care of their loved ones buried here. After concluding her thanks to the donors and volunteers who had spent their dollars and hours renovating the graveyard, she turned the podium over to the mayor. As the mayor praised the efforts of the community for restoring this cemetery, Walter couldn’t stop thinking of that Sunday after church many years ago when he was attacked in this very same place while trying to walk home. By boys a few years older than him that he barely knew. Boys who pounded his head against a gravestone. Telling Walter that black kids should know better than to dress up in nice clothes. Walter could still see the sneers on their faces as they spit on him, laughing the whole time. He could still hear the pounding of their fists on his ribs. And worse, he could still smell the blood running down his face and onto his white shirt and tie.
Walter snapped out of the memory. The mayor concluded his short remarks and Dora went back to the microphone and introduced Walter to the audience.
“It is now my distinct pleasure to introduce Dr. Walter Rumsey Anderson from Shepherd University, the dean in our education department. Many of you here know him, but for those who don’t, I’ll give a brief introduction…”
Walter stood up, straightened his tie and walked to the podium, thanking Dora. Looking at the crowd, he then closed his eyes and soaked in the moment. A spot of time, he told himself, thinking of Woodsworth’s phrase describing a moment etched in the mind that will last a lifetime. Breathe it in, remember this, he thought. Then, opening his eyes, he began.
“Good afternoon everyone. And thank you for coming here on this hot July day. And thank you…thank you…so much for paying tribute to those buried here. As you know, most of them resting here were enslaved men and women from the early 19th century. They now rest in peace, but perhaps even more so thanks to your actions to make this cemetery a more welcoming place. As Dora mentioned, those buried here include relatives of mine. So obviously this is a bittersweet day for me.”
“Some fifty years ago, as a young boy, my parents took me every weekend to this place to pay respects to my family. On many other occasions, my mother and grandmother would place flowers on all the fifty or so gravestones here. They would weed and take care of these grounds as best they could. But they couldn’t erase the ugliness of the sight either. Tombstones demolished. Covered with graffiti. Graves dug up. Some with no markings because families couldn’t afford to inscribe them. Worse, some who lie here were just tossed in the ground with no markers at all. Many here at the university don’t even know that this hidden place exists right next to us, right between the baseball field and softball field. Until just recently, this plot of land was only called the “Old Black Cemetery,” until our good mayor here and local community took the effort to give it a name and group it with the Irish Catholic cemetery adjoining it. Now it is the Rose Hill Funeral Grounds. A definite step in the right direction. But now the time has come to restore this piece of land and fully honor those here. To give it its own name. And we will do so shortly.”
Walter paused, his eyes filling. The emotions were all coming back.
“In my early teens, I used to walk here for peace after my mother passed away. It was a restful place, one that made me feel safe,” Walter continued. “But then one day that all changed. Walking through here after church, where I was an acolyte for Pastor Edwards—who I note is in the crowd here, thank you Pastor—I was attacked by a bunch of older boys and beat up. Right here where I stand. And for what? I still ask myself that. For the color of my skin is what they told me. For being dressed up nicely. I wasn’t allowed to do that, they said.” Walter’s voice was rising. He made a slight pounding with his fist on the podium. “For the color of my skin,” he said again, this time lower.
Walter paused to let the words sink in with the crowd. He saw a woman in the front row wiping her eyes.
“I don’t know if times have changed much since then. But I am eternally hopeful for what will come for all of us, for our children, and for their children. Indeed, for our community. Faith, hope, and love are what we are taught from the good Lord and I believe in them still to this day. This ceremony today is a small step, one of many, many steps, that keep our trust alive in faith, hope and love.”
He continued. “My grandmother often told me of how those of us in the hills and hollers of Appalachia took care of each other. It didn’t matter what color your skin was as we were all foreigners, here trying to make a living. And because of that we respected each other, listened to each other, took care of each other. And that we had to think about that when we encountered folks not like us.” Walter paused. “So in this moment today, let’s think of each other in a good light and heal old wounds. Let’s hope. And let’s see others for who they are – remarkable human beings, regardless of their differences.” The crowd, surprising Walter, started clapping.
Walter concluded, and the ribbon cutting ceremony continued. The Forgotten Mountaineers African American Cemetery was officially named and recognized. Walter looked around and noticed how beautiful the cemetery looked. People had taken time to restore it, both physically and spiritually. He smiled and looked at his watch, now glowing in the afternoon sun. Almost 1PM. It was a perfect day. The anxiety which had surrounded him like an autumn morning fog had blown away in the summer breeze. Closing his eyes, he thought of his father. Walter said a silent thank you to him. And he remembered another day decades ago.
Walter stood outside the tan brick academic building where his father taught at Shepherd College. Just sixteen, Walter was growing anxious waiting for his dad to get out of class and come outside. He squinted up in the sky at a pair of hawks circling above him on this late fall day. The air, cool and light, mixed gently with the bright sun shining low through the leaves of the maple tree in front of him. It was always a hassle doing this weekly ritual with his father, as Walter had to get home from high school on the bus and then quickly walk over a mile to the college to meet his dad. There was a time when it was a shorter walk. When he would cut down West High Street by the black cemetery, but lately he had been avoiding that area. Living together, Walter and his dad saw each other every day of course, so he resented having to take this extra effort to visit his father at the college. Despite this, he tried his best to be patient and respect the old man. Walter’s mom passed away the year before from cancer, and he knew his father was still immensely sad and grieving. As was Walter. The few times he’d see his father smile nowadays were only on their Wednesday walks through town.
“Hey Walter! How you doing, young man?”
Walter startled for a moment, hearing his dad’s booming voice. He looked at his father, Professor James Rumsey Anderson, slightly limping down the sidewalk from the building. Despite his age, he was still an attractive man that caught your attention. Tall, muscular, with salt and pepper hair. Kind eyes, with wrinkles around them when he smiled, which didn’t happen as frequently anymore.
“Doing all right, Dad.”
“Gorgeous day out, huh son?”
His father came up to him and rustled his hair, which always annoyed Walter. His dad had been doing that to him since he was a little boy. They walked down East High Street to the back parking lot where his dad’s green 1972 Ford Galaxy 500 was parked, the rays of sunlight reflecting off the shiny green paint. Despite being five years old, the car looked brand new. His dad was good at keeping the car young.
“I think we’ll take a drive around the country roads today instead of walking through town,” his father said. “These old legs of mine are acting up today.”
Walter was relieved. At the age of sixteen, he preferred driving in the car, especially when his father let him drive, instead of walking in awkward silences. “Sure dad. Hey, can I drive again today? You said I was getting pretty good at it.” A car drove by them in the lot, a couple of teens blaring Janis Joplin out their window.
“All right, as long as you don’t kill me on those hills of Shepherdstown Pike like you tried last time.”
Walter saw his dad’s grin. He smiled himself and chuckled softly, “Okay, deal.”
They drove for an hour through the countryside, speaking little like dads and their sons are known to do. The hilly countryside presented itself in a vast array of fall colors in the setting sun, the greens and yellows of the fields speaking to them, echoes of the souls of those who lived in these valleys between the ridges of the Shenandoahs. As the sun fell, Walter’s dad told him to drive back to town and go down the street to visit Rumsey Park, with its large towering stone monument with a globe on top that overlooked the Potomac River from a high bluff. It had been erected to honor James Rumsey, the inventor of the first steam powered boat in the late 1700s, and Walter’s father had been quick to point out on many occasions that they had a distant relative who had assisted Rumsey in the design of the steam engine. “Your grandpa swears that his great great granddady was the one who designed the engine, but James Rumsey was the one who got all the credit,” his father would tell him. That said, the story passed down the generations was that James Rumsey was nice to their relative and took good care of him. So Rumsey was a good man in their minds. That was the reason Walter’s middle name was Rumsey and why his father was named James Rumsey. To honor that story passed down through the generations.
Walter parked the car in one of the three empty spots near the monument and started walking toward the tall steps up to the monument, his father just behind him. He turned and noticed the visible gait in his father’s walking and heard him moan slightly as he bent down to pick up a medium-sized stone.
“Really, dad? We have to do this again?”
“Ha, yes of course, son. If there is no tradition, there is nothing in life. Plus, I have a good feeling about it today.”
“Well dad, I haven’t seen you reach the river with a rock in awhile. You should throw one too.”
“Well next time, Walter. Let your old man heal up a little first.”
They climbed the wide, bright stone stairs up to the base of the monument. From there, the monument, almost an obelisk but round, soared above them some forty feet or so. On one side was a plaque that mentioned the historic accomplishment James Rumsey had accomplished in 1787, when he successfully demonstrated his steam powered jet boat on the Potomac River just below the cliff where they stood.
The sun was settling peacefully upriver and the fall leaves were slowly turning grey in the darkening night. Walter leaned against the railing looking down at the river, not noticing his father behind him.
James was looking at his son, Walter. He thought for a moment about that situation a few months ago when he was here with him. After Walter’s mother passed away, James had wanted to do something nice for his son’s 16th birthday. He saved up some money, along with a little of his wife’s insurance, to buy Walter a nice watch. It cost $250, much more than any watch James ever owned or ever would. He remembered how excited he was to give it to his son that day right here at this spot. But Walter, still a tender boy, started to cry when his father handed it to him. “Dad, I can’t wear this,” he had said. “Those other boys, the ones who beat me up that day…if they saw me wearing this….I’m not supposed to wear nice things…”
James still burned every time he thought of that moment. And he tried his best to not let it get him now. Despite trying to tell his son that he was becoming a man and needed to stick up for himself and not be ashamed of being a black man—that he was entitled to dress up and be just as good, if not better, than those bullies—he still wasn’t able to convince Walter. So the beautiful blue-faced watch with silver links sat on James’s bedroom dresser, collecting the summer dust and not only showing James the time, but also reminding him of their troubled times.
“Hey dad, snap out of it,” Walter said. “It’s getting dark. Gimme that stone.”
“Ah, yeah, sorry son. Just thinking. Here ya go.” James handed the stone to Walter.
Walter wound up, and in an exaggerated fashion that looked half like a baseball pitcher, half like a quarterback, threw the stone toward the river. They both strained their eyes over the railing to see where it was going to land. As it flew down the cliff toward the Potomac, it nicked a branch of a sycamore tree and dropped directly onto the ground below it, some ten yards short of the river. Both father and son paused for a moment. Someday, they both thought, that rock will reach the river.
“Dad, let me try one more time. I picked up another rock also down by the steps. Can I get that pizza if I make it this time”?
“That’s not the way life works son, you only get one opportunity each time.”
James paused. Realizing the significance, and somewhat negative tone of what he had just said, he retracted his comment. “Well son, sometimes you get a second chance in life…so yeah, go for it. Make it count this time.”
Walter moved back a few steps, blew at the rock, then with all his might threw it toward the river. The stone, casting a light yellow glow from the remainder of the sun, flew through the air like an eagle. Time stood still as the stone soared past the tall trees below them. Then suddenly—a splash! They could barely see it hit the river, but they saw the ripples in the river expanding like an opening umbrella.
Walter, trying not to be proud, acted like nothing had happened, but the smile on his face gave him away. James started laughing like he hadn’t done in months, tears forming in his eyes. “Damn son, you should have seen how you looked throwing that thing! I’ve never seen you so possessed!”
“Wasn’t that hard, Dad…I was just waiting for the right time.”
“Well, hell, you did it Walter! Congratulations! Let’s go get that pizza. We’ll go down the road here to that place by the train station…whatever you want to get to eat. Heck, I could use a good pizza and beer myself.” James was still beaming from one ear to the other at his son’s accomplishment.
They started walking toward the monument stairs. James stopped.
“Hold on a minute, son.” James reached into his pocket. Inside he felt the cool metal band. Walter stared at him, seconds passing.
“Here you go, son. I think you’re ready to wear this now. And don’t ever, ever, let someone tell you that you can’t be who you want to be. And always remember you can do anything you set your mind to.” Walter paused and looked at the watch in his father’s hand. The smile Walter had been wearing slowly faded over the next quiet seconds between them. Overcoming the momentary fear and confusion that grasped him, Walter carefully took the watch from his father and put it over his wrist, twisting it around, his strong fingers fumbling with the metal links. Click—the links snapped in place. It fit perfectly.