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    Buildings prior to demolition for Mill Creek Valley Project,  2626 Chestnut Street

    My Father’s Accident

    A hit-and-run changes a family’s fortunes

    Vivian Gibson

    June 15, 2020
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    • Lawrence

      Great writing.

    • Greg Wagener

      Beautiful story and exquisitely written. Vivian Gibson's time in St. Louis was about 10 years ahead of mine but her descriptions flooded my mind of poignant memories, both good and bad, of the era and the location.

    The punishment for continuing to talk at nap time after Miss Arnold had reminded you to be quiet was to sit on the floor in the chair-opening beneath her large wooden desk. That’s where I was on June 6, 1955, when my older sisters Jean and Tootie came to my first-grade classroom at Lincoln Elementary School and whispered something to our teacher. They removed the chair that blocked the opening, leaned down, and reached in unison to pull me out and up. Before I could ask how they knew I needed rescuing from my wooden cell, they said in unison, “Daddy’s in the hospital.”

    They tugged me along the shellacked brown cork floors, down the long, wide corridor of classrooms, and through the tall double doors that opened onto Eugenia Street. The street looked different when just three little girls walked in front of the school and along the dark-green painted iron fence. The schoolyard looked bigger too, with no children playing in it. They pulled my arms in front of me as I trotted to keep up with their long strides.

    “What happened to Daddy?” I asked.

    Jean shot back her answer without breaking her stride: “He got hit by a truck.”

    At that moment I became aware that we were standing on a street corner while my sisters’ heads pivoted from side to side, looking for cars and trucks before we stepped into the street.

    We walked a block in silence and turned the corner at Jefferson Avenue where we saw Miss Cora standing in the doorway of the Barcelona Tavern, as Mama had told Jean she would be. Miss Cora, who was also Tootie’s godmother, opened her arms and gently pressed our faces together and against her body. She ushered us through the intersection with her arms stretched wide, a crossing guard in a pink waitress uniform complete with little white apron. Safely on the west side of Jefferson, she instructed us to change out of our school clothes and stay in the house until our mother got home.

    We were used to Mama being there when we came home from school. It was mid-afternoon, but the house was dark, and the familiar background sound of Mama’s soap operas was missing. Vern arrived next, then Beverly with Ferman in tow; Honey soon followed, and finally Randle. There was none of the usual chatter. We still had little information, and since we didn’t know what to think, we didn’t talk.

    A standing rule in our house was that if Mama was not home when we got in from school, somebody had better start cooking. So Vern went to the kitchen. Guided by the stout butcher-wrapped package sitting front and center in the refrigerator, she made her version of one of our favorite meals: beans and franks. The “franks” portions of the meal could be wieners, canned Vienna sausages, even Spam. But on a good day, the franks were big fat Polish sausages. Vern was a good cook, and she had a knack for seasoning ordinary foods to make them special. She stretched the two long links and three large cans of Campbell’s Pork and Beans into a hearty meal for eight hungry kids. She sliced the smoked sausages into quarter-size medallions and browned them in a large skillet with chopped onions. To the flavorless beige beans she added catsup for color, red pepper for zip, and enough cane syrup to make us forget we were eating canned beans. A few slices of Wonder Bread and a glass of red Kool-Aid made it a special school-night treat. She set aside a portion for Daddy, then we filled assorted plates and bowls and fanned out to our eating spots: the back steps, the side of a bottom bunk bed, or leaning against the kitchen sink. Ferman and I sat in the limited space at our small kitchen table.

    I listened to and sang along loudly – “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt!”

    It was dark outside when Mama finally got home to tell us that Daddy had been hit by a truck while repairing the streetcar tracks on South Broadway. The driver kept going as Daddy lay in the street with a crushed left leg and his right ear nearly torn off. The ambulance first took him to the emergency room at City Hospital No. 1 on Lafayette Street, where they set his leg in a cast, sutured his ear, and stabilized his neck with sandbags. He was later transferred to People’s Hospital on Locust Street, which was a segregated hospital for colored people, not far from our house.

    A few days later a bus driver who had witnessed the accident reported the license number of the truck. It was owned and driven by a fifty-six-year-old pretzel vendor who wore thick glasses. He was arrested and identified as the man who had hit another pedestrian six months earlier.

    Daddy was in the hospital for three months while his severely damaged leg and ear healed. The sandbags protecting his neck were replaced with a padded white neck brace. On Sundays after church, we walked over Jefferson, past Market Street a few blocks to Locust, then down to Twenty-Third Street. Mama went into the hospital, and shortly after, Daddy would appear at the second-floor window. We waved, jumped up and down, and yelled, “Hi Daddy!” for a few minutes, then turned and walked back home. Mama would follow later with Daddy’s dirty laundry and a small bag of goodies that he accumulated over each week while he was in the hospital. Opening Daddy’s stash was like Christmas. There were boxes of tissues, small bars of soap, small tubes of toothpaste, and little bottles of body lotion. Sometimes there were peppermint or black licorice candies that people had brought him, but my favorite were the tiny individual packs of sugar.

    Sometimes Mama would dole out the envelopes of sugar like prizes for us to sprinkle over our oatmeal, corn flakes, or buttered toast. Occasionally, when no one was around, I pilfered the packages and let the crystals flow from the torn openings into little mounds on my outstretched tongue, closing my eyes as the sweetness melted in my mouth.

    Daddy’s job was “a good job for a colored man.” We knew this because he told us so often. His job took him far beyond the cultural boundaries of Mill Creek. He went to work early to “drink coffee and shoot the breeze with the white fellas at work.” We hardly ever saw these almost mythical white fellas. They were shadowy figures behind the wheel of a pickup truck that sometimes dropped Daddy off with big bushel baskets of sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, or squash that they grew on farms in St. Charles or some other faraway county we had never heard of. Other times the truck would pause at the corner of our street just long enough for Daddy to jump out and pull from it burlap sacks that were too heavy to carry on his regular streetcar ride home. The sacks were sagging with skinned rabbits and possums, and deer meat from weekend hunting trips. The other men never got out of the truck, so I didn’t really know what a white fella looked like.

    Daddy’s job was steady work with overtime pay in the winter when it snowed, and he worked from 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. clearing snow and salting streets. He got two weeks vacation that he took just before Christmas so he could work as a seasonal worker sorting and bagging mail at the main post office during the holiday rush. And there were health and disability benefits that paid for his time off after the accident.

    I searched the faces of the men, wondering if these were “the white fellas” that Daddy talked about – because they didn’t look white to me.

    After thirteen months of hospitalization and recuperation, Daddy returned to work with a pronounced limp, a mangled ear, and the promise of an even “better job” as one of the first black truck drivers for the St. Louis Public Service Company.

    He and Mama had spent an evening sitting on the side of their bed, using the hard-sided suitcase as a writing surface, and completing documents required for him to return to work. The next day he took Ferman and me on a streetcar ride to the Public Service Offices on Park Avenue. After turning in his paperwork, we walked a few blocks to the truck garage on Thirty-Ninth Street, behind the Pevely Milk plant on Grand Avenue near Chouteau.

    The garage had doors that were bigger than our house and trucks with tires that were taller than my brother and me. Men in bib overalls and oil-stained coveralls greeted Daddy with slapping handshakes and pats on his back. While Ferman stared slack-jawed at the big red trucks, I searched the faces of the men, wondering if these were “the white fellas” that Daddy talked about – because they didn’t look white to me.

    Mill Creek Valley Street

    Mill Creek Valley Street Photograph courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

    When the greetings slowed, my father palmed my and my brother’s heads with his fingers spread wide apart, rotating Ferman’s butter-colored face away from the trucks that he had not taken his eyes off of since we entered the garage. “These are my two youngest,” Daddy said by way of introduction. The men looked down at us, there was a long pause, then a man with a red face that looked bumpy and itchy said, “Damn, Ross, you must have a beautiful wife.” Then they all looked around at each other and laughed loudly. Daddy laughed too, but not as loud or as long as the white fellas at work. I didn’t know what was so funny about what the red-faced-white-fella said, but I agreed with him: Daddy did have a beautiful wife.

    The next week Daddy started his new job driving one of those big red trucks, and Ferman couldn’t have been happier than when Daddy would swing by when his route brought him close to home, and let us climb up into the cab, sit on his lap, and grab the steering wheel.

    We ran up and down the sidewalk for the rest of the afternoon with outstretched arms, gyrating our pretend steering wheel and growling the sound of a revving motor.

    Daddy had never owned a car but was now driving a one-and-a half-ton truck, hauling trash from St. Louis Public Service Company facilities around the city. His new job took him away from the dangerous work of cleaning and repairing streetcar tracks in the center lanes of the busiest streets in the city. It was not only a better paying job, but it gave him the relative freedom to veer a few blocks from his designated route at will.

    The Wonder Bread Thrift Store that sold day-old bread was near his truck route. He used to get off the bus on his way home on Wednesdays to buy ten loaves of bread. In his new job, he’d leave his big red truck idling in front of the store while he ran inside for our weekly supply.

    There were other significant perks to Daddy’s new job. Trash dumpsters in municipal transportation offices, garages, and construction sites were treasure troves for a resourceful man like my father. Partially used notepads, logoed three-ring binders, sheets of carbon paper, and pencils with erasers were welcome additions to our school supplies. Generous lengths of scrap-lumber were stored in the cab of his truck; nails and screws that had littered the workshop floors were swept up and tossed into a waiting coffee can behind his driver’s seat.

    I took turns with Jean and Tootie, sharing a single brush to splatter, spread, and smear paint over every dingy inch of the lower walls.

    Oil filters removed from city buses were the ideal size to fit into the belly of our wood-burning stove. The smell of burning engine oil permeated our house. The filters burned so hotly that the heat buckled and eventually burned through the metal flue pipe leading to the chimney.

    People discarded all kinds of things to which Daddy gave new life and purpose: an incomplete and tattered set of Childcraft encyclopedias, a box of records that included a three-album set of Tennessee Ernie Ford music in its original reinforced cardboard case. I listened to and sang along loudly – “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt!” – for months after Daddy eventually brought home a used portable record player for us to play our newly acquired music collection. Mama’s favorite was “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” sung by Roy Hamilton, the only black singer among the gently used records. He had an elegant tenor voice, and it didn’t hurt that his last name was the same as her maiden name.

    One day Daddy swung by home on his lunch hour and dropped off two half-empty five-gallon cans of yellow paint typically used to paint traffic lanes down the middle of streets or to designate no-parking zones on curbs.

    I don’t know what Daddy’s intentions were for the paint, except for the usual rationale that “it was too good to throw away.” But at some point, it was decided that our kitchen would benefit from a little brightening up. When we asked, “Can we?” Mama’s reliable response was, as always, “Sure.”

    The dried skin halfway down each bucket was peeled away to reveal thick, smooth, sunflower yellow paint. Randle was in charge. He and Honey dragged in the ladder from the shed, covered the cabinets, stove, and sink with newspaper, and painted the ceiling and upper sections of the walls. I took turns with Jean and Tootie, sharing a single brush to splatter, spread, and smear paint over every dingy inch of the lower walls. When the kitchen was transformed by the garish shock of color, and there was still paint left to spread, we looked around for something else to brighten.

    We pulled our clunky wooden bunk beds to the middle of the floor, rolled and removed the thin mattresses, and covered the drab and dinged bed frames in the vibrant hue that Mama laughingly dubbed “Middle of the Road Yellow.”

    Mama’s name for the paint we’d spread far and wide, like many of her casual utterances, soon reflected her keener insight. At night, when the lights were off, the window shades were raised high, and the moon was full, our beds glowed in the dark.

    Buildings prior to demolition for Mill Creek Valley Project,  2626 Chestnut Street Buildings prior to demolition for Mill Creek Valley Project, 2626 Chestnut Street Photograph courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society
    Contributed By

    Vivian Gibson is a native St. Louisian who grew up in Mill Creek Valley, a neighborhood of St. Louis razed in 1959 to build a highway. Her family, friends, church community, and neighbors were all displaced by this act of “urban renewal.” This essay is excerpted from her memoir, The Last Children of Mill Creek (Belt Publishing, 2020).

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