MAXWELL:  Innocence found

10/5/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

I have a special place, a place where I read, write and observe a group of boys fish and play on the shore of an inlet in south St. Petersburg.

Sometimes only two boys show up, other times as many as seven. The youngest is probably 9, the oldest perhaps 13.

I spoke to three of them for the first time the other day as I was about to take the maiden voyage in my new kayak. As I pushed the sleek, yellow craft into the water, the youngest boy said, “Mister, that’s a nice canoe.”

“It’s a kayak,” I said.

“A what?”

“Kayak.”

But I digress.

This place is special because the boys are special. They are black. They are innocent _ a quality I do not take for granted given the powerful lure of street life in the economically depressed neighborhood where they live.

And what do these children do along this shore? They pretty much do what my friends and I did 40 years ago, before television and other electronic gadgetry changed the way black boys play, when being a boy meant flying kites, shooting marbles, casting yo-yos, capturing lightning bugs, pushing car tires, playing cowboys and Indians.

They, like my friends and I did, invent, create, experiment, learn. Indeed, they are not getting into trouble, and they apparently are thinking the thoughts that kids their ages should be thinking.

Sure, they are rough-edged, and they compete _ vying to see who can skip a rock on the water the farthest, who can catch the biggest sheepshead, who can stay submerged in the brackish water the longest. But their play in general lacks the serious meanness I so often see among many other black boys whom I encounter in travels.

The mere fact that they choose to play in nature _ in an area that is a gateway to the Gulf of Mexico and a window to the breath-taking Sunshine Skyway Bridge _ tells me that they have a sense of beauty inside them. They, like my friends and I did, feel the pull of open spaces, where naturalness has a soothing effect, where lasting friendships based on mutual respect can be established, where openly caring for others is not laughable.

I watch them closely each time I come here. I have seen the oldest show the youngest how to make a rock jump three or four times off the surface of the water. The one who wears the Chicago Bulls jacket taught the one they call “Lil Red” the difference between a snapper and a mullet. Everyone gathers around when the tallest kid opens his slick tackle box. One afternoon, he took out something called a “wet fly” and something else called a “nymph.”

I have been coming to this spot at least once a week for more than a year, beginning just after the riots that left several poor people homeless, many businesses burned and a handful of people injured. I came the first time to get away from the newsroom and the incessant talk about the fires and the shootings.

The boys also started coming here at that time. I felt that they, too, wanted to get away from the violence and the mean rhetoric around them.

The heavy-set one always arrives first, sits alone on the seawall. He often brings a bag of peanuts or bread and feeds the gulls. More than a dozen of them flutter overhead, diving and screaming, as the boy tosses food into the air. From look in his eyes, I guess that he marvels at the birds’ freedom and their easy acceptance of the freebies.

Sometimes he talks to them, inviting the less aggressive ones to eat from his hand. He is always careful to finish this ritual before his pals arrive. This, I tell myself, is a special moment he reserves for himself.

I identify with this kid. He, like I was at his age, seems to be dreaming of things he dares not tell anyone else about. Why? Because some things are so innocent, like feeding gulls, that secrecy is the only way to protect their dignity and magic.

I distinctly feel also that the other boys in the group, who come here with fishing rods and night crawlers, will not tell their tougher peers where they spend their time after school. After all, who would care? What could be of interest along a mangrove-lined shoreline that carries the perpetual odor of low tide muck?

How can that be cool?

Again, their innocence makes this place special for me. And on this day, dark clouds gather in the east over Tampa Bay. I want to launch the kayak, but I know that rain will fall within 15 minutes. Plus I see lightning in the distance over the mainland.

As I pull the kayak out of the water, the youngest boy comes over. I ask him to help me carry it back to my Blazer. He agrees.

“Grab the stern,” I say.

“Where’s that?”

“Back there.”

“Yo, what’s this thing called again?”

“A kayak. K-a-y-a-k. Kayak.”

He asks if I will take him out sometime.

“You got it,” I said, realizing that I would need to speak to his parents first.