It was the middle of August 1966, and me and Wayne and Dad and about two hundred people were sweating and stinking in the auditorium of the Sand Mountain High School, home of the Mighty Mighty Miners. We were there for the Rotary Club Minstrel Show, but Wayne fell asleep after fifteen minutes. When he did that in church, Mom always said it was because of his hay fever and let him alone. That night of the minstrel show, I stayed awake with Dad, who was the treasurer of the Rotary Club, although as it turned out he fell asleep, too. I sometimes wished I had hay fever like them so I could fall asleep anywhere. I also wished I had a bag of marbles with me, since the auditorium floor was slanted and if you dropped them on the hardwood floor, they would probably roll all the way down to the stage. Not that I wouldn’t about die if I ever did that and got caught.
Dad couldn’t carry a tune -- that’s what my mom said. I remember the day she said it, I asked her, "Carry it where?" and she said, "Oh boy, here we go again." Anyway, that’s why he wasn’t in the minstrel show but down in the audience with us. They started up with a prayer, "Lord bless us and keep us," then the Pledge of Allegiance, then the Rotary Club song "R-O-T-A-R-Y, that spells Rotary. R-O-T-A-R-Y is known on land and sea. From north to south, and east to west, He profits most who serves the best." After that a guy sang "Old Man River," then a kid I knew shuffled onto the stage and it was Boopie Larent, who was twelve, the same as me, and used to be a friend of mine. We were in the same kid choir at the Methodist Church. He wore a white bow tie, which I bet somebody tied for him, and white gloves, and big white lips, and his face was shoe-polish black, not like real colored people. He sang "Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy," which was about a very happy colored boy who shined people’s shoes and made them happy, too.
Boopie carried a shoe shine kit and danced soft-shoe. That’s what my dad told me it was. It just looked like sliding around to me, then some leaning way forward, and some running in place to keep from pitching over on his face while he windmilled his arms. The only other kids I ever saw dance before that were the twins Darla and Darwin Turkel, who always tap-danced at County Fair, where my dad worked in the Rotary Club corn-dog booth. Darla and Darwin were all dressed up with their mom a couple of rows in front of us that night at the minstrel show. Their mom used to wear a mermaid costume and do underwater ballets and stuff over at Weeki Wachee Springs by the Gulf of Mexico. Now she taught dancing lessons sometimes. Darla had fifty-two ringlets in her hair, just like Shirley Temple, or that was the story, anyway. Everybody said to stay away from Darwin -- he was worse than a girl.
I realized something about halfway through Boopie doing the "Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy." "Is that my shoe-shine kit? I asked my dad. I was holding his hand, feeling his calluses. I was too old to be holding his hand -- when you get to be twelve, you’re too old for a lot of things -- but I did it anyway and he let me when it was dark like that in the auditorium and nobody could see. I liked how it felt from him working at the phosphate mine where he was an engineer, only not the kind that drove a train.
I thought maybe my dad was listening to the show and that’s why he didn’t answer, so I asked him again. “Is that the shoe-shine kit you bought me, Dad?” I don’t know why it made me mad. But if it was my shoe-shine kit, I thought I ought to get to be the Chattanooga Shoe-Shine Boy. Everybody was laughing at old Boopie up there, and the harder they laughed, the more I wished it was me. I wanted to be funny like that, and dance, and sing, and wear a white tie and white gloves and white lips and shoe-shine face darker than the colored people.
DOWN SAND MOUNTAIN by Steve Watkins. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Watkins. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Somerville, MA.
"R-O-T-A-R-Y, That Spells Rotary" from the Rotary songbook by Norris C. Morgan. Copyright © 1923 by the Rotary Club of Wilmington, DE. Reprinted by permission of the Rotary Club of Wilmington, DE.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Down Sand Mountain by Steve Watkins. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Watkins. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.