Saturday, August 26, 2017

Nelson Mandela tells a story about sour milk

By Fred Owens

Nelson Mandela told this little story somewhere in his writings. This is my adaptation.
African people like sour milk. Amasi,as it is called in some African languages, is a product of fermentation. But it comes naturally in a hot country with little refrigeration available. Fresh milk does not keep, but ferments or becomes sour and many African people prefer to drink it that way.
When Mandela was a young activist in apartheid South Africa many times he was wanted by the police and had to find places to hide out.
One time, with the police in hot pursuit, he contacted some wealthy white people who supported his cause. They said he was welcome to stay in their extra bedroom in the back of their very nice home in a suburb of Johannesburg. No one would look for him there, he would be safe as long as he stayed inside the house.
So he settled into this comfortable bedroom and his hosts brought him a tray of food at mealtime. The food was more than adequate, but still Mandela missed his favorite beverage. He especially loved amasi or sour milk.
So he took a fresh glass of milk off the tray and put it on the outside window sill on the window that faced the sun. By next day it would be sour, he knew, and he would enjoy his amasi.
But the police heard a rumor that a black man was hiding somewhere in this plush white suburb. So they began driving up and down the street. They spotted the glass of milk going sour on the window sill and that's when they knew they had their man. Only an African man would do that.
Mandela was caught and arrested. Not for the first time or the last time was he arrested and jailed. But this time Mandela could blame his weakness for sour milk.
Don't get this light-hearted tone wrong. Mandela was a very angry man, but he was angry for good reason. And he channeled his angry for good purposes. And with his anger harnessed like a mighty engine, he was also able to keep his smile and tell a joke about the sour milk.
I admire him very much for that quality. One time, in February of 1997, I was in Capetown, South Africa on a tourist trip. It so happened that the parliament of South Africa was about to open for its yearly term, and a ceremonial parade was planned for the opening day.
Thousands of people gathered on the streets for the parade, the marching bands, and Mandela himself would be riding by in his limousine.
We waited and waited, but everybody was happy and talking. The marching bands played their martial tunes. Then the limousine came by driving slowly and here I was disappointed. The windows were mirrored, so that all we could  see was our reflection. Mandela was riding inside, he could see out, but we could not see  him.
I was disappointed. I wanted to see the great man, and yet I realized that he surely saw me. Mandela looked out the window and saw me and smiled. I cannot prove that, but I know it's true.

Tommy Reinart had a club footJerry Lewis died. He was 91. I used to laugh at him and Dean Martin when I was a kid. We saw them at the movies, at the Teatro del Lago as it was called. This was in Wilmette, Illinois, a leafy suburb of Chicago. And the movie palace was called Teatro del Lago because it was right across Sheridan Road from Lake Michigan.  The Teatro was a faux-Spanish-Baroque masterpiece. I especially remember the plush carpet, so thick. You could walk to your seat and feel your sneakers sink into the plushness. The pattern was ornate Persian.
The movies cost 25 cents. It surprised me to learn that grownups had to pay fifty cents just to get a ticket – that was too much, and it wasn’t fair. Why would anyone want to be a grownup if they had to pay twice as much just to see the movies?
I went with other kids in the neighborhood --- Al Versino, Billy Anderson and Cary Ross. Someone would drive us – down Forest Avenue, which had fired red brick for pavement and had cast iron hexagonal  light poles painted green – painted thick green like they put on a coat of Rustoleum every year or so -- down Forest Avenue and cross the Northwestern railroad tracks, then five more blocks to Wilmette Avenue and then turn left six more blocks to the Teatro Del Lago Plaza.
Crossing the Northwestern RR tracks meant leaving the parish of St. Joe’s and getting into St. Francis where the rich kids lived. We were a long way from poor ourselves in St. Joe’s with our  parish kids having new sweaters and our Dads buying new cars, but St. Francis parish had even bigger houses, country clubs and skiing trips to Colorado.
We were ten. This was 1956. Country clubs didn’t matter too much. We just knew there was a difference when you crossed the tracks. Past the tracks and right there, too close to the tracks was  Tommy Reinart’s house. It was so much smaller than all the others. So lonely, like no one would ever go there and knock on the door. We would drive by,  maybe all four of us – Al, Billy, Cary and me sitting in the back seat of my Dad’s Buick—and not even notice that brown  wooden house. It was only one story with a small attic.
Tommy Reinart lived there. He had a club foot and wore a special  leather shoe. He limped when he walked. Nobody else did that. Nobody else was different that way. His shoes were specially made with leather soles two inches thick and he never wore sneakers and he sure never went barefoot like I did.
Al, Billy, and Cary, they hardly lived a block away, and Tommy was three blocks away and across Green Bay Road and across the RR tracks and into the other territory – St. Francis territory, so the distance and the boundary saved us from actually including Tommy. We weren’t against him. We never made fun of him.
In fact, it was a puzzle – if he  lived in St. Francis territory, how come he went to St. Joe’s with us?
I pondered questions like that because I was a kid with a brain and the ability to think. They said I was absent-minded. I was. I had this blank, vacant stare, staring into space with my mouth open, mouth breathing, wondering why Tommy went to the other parish, and why we didn’t play with him and why grownups had to pay fifty cents for the same movie we saw.
In eight years of grade school, not counting kindergarten, and in all that time I never asked Tommy about his foot. You didn’t talk about things like that. And he lived only three blocks away but we never played with him after school . All the kids were nice to him, but nobody played with him. I felt a little guilty about that. I mean, I was ten, but I knew better and felt a little guilty. Like we could have done something.
Anyway, to give him honor, in the status that really mattered in my life at the time, Tommy Reinart was a good hitter. His club foot and tilted posture transferred into a graceful corkscrew batting stance like Stan Musial. You could see that. And he hit that softball into the cemetery for a home run as often as the best of us. That gave him respect.
After eighth grade, Tommy went to New Trier, the public high school, and I went to Loyola, the Catholic high school. I never saw him after that.

thanks for reading all of this. I hope you liked it.

Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

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