Thursday, May 28, 2009

Harold and Giovanni's Room: a memory

Yesterday morning I had a little procedure done on my foot and have spent much of the time since, in a recliner with my foot propped up, loopy on pain medicine. I was beginning to enjoy the Viocidin, until I woke up at about 5 AM, my body itching and my breath wheezy. I must be allergic to the stuff, so I am now on something new and can barely stay awake. I have books and a pile of paperwork, but haven’t done much of anything. I did finish this piece which I’d started last week. Digging out the old photos of Delano, I found the one of him and Harold and it got me thinking about a friend from the past… Delano (on the left) was the scoutmaster of the Mormon troop outside of Tabor City and Harold (on the right) was the scoutmaster of the Tabor City troop.

Thinking back, it was probably a cruel joke. Harold was planning on spending the week with his scout troop at summer camp and he asked for book recommendations. I lent him a couple of books, one of which was James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. I knew he’d read it. He was shocked there was a book by Baldwin I’d read that he hadn’t (I’d read it in college). After all, he taught social studies and was African-American. I was a white boy and the Boy Scout’s hired hand. Harold dug right in. Giovanni’s Room isn’t your typical Baldwin work. Unlike Baldwin’s better known writings, Giovanni’s Room has nothing to do with the African-American experience. The story is set in Paris and features a unique triangle relationship between an American couple and an Italian (Giovanni). But it’s not Hella, the American girl, who’s interested in Giovanni; it’s David, the boy. When I gave him the book, I had a suspicion Harold was unaware of Baldwin’s sexuality. I should add that in addition to teaching Junior High, Harold was also a preacher in an Apostolic Pentecostal Church.

Harold didn’t exactly fit the Norman Rockwell’s view of a scoutmaster. He ended up with the job by default. The coach at his school had been recruited to be the scoutmaster and he asked Harold to be his assistant. That next school year, the coach accepted a high school position down in South Carolina and when no one else stepped forward, Harold took over as Scoutmaster. I don’t think Harold had ever camped before becoming an assistant scoutmaster. I’m not even sure he’d built a campfire and I’m pretty sure he never used a compass. Harold was much more comfortable sitting inside with his head in a book than outside swatting mosquitoes and gnats. Even though he wasn’t created out of the scoutmaster’s mold, Harold was a good leader and saw to it that several of the boys in his troop earned their Eagle. These were the first Eagles earned in Tabor City in a decade or so. In fact, until Harold and the coach got together, there hadn’t been a scout troop in town for several years. Tabor City was a rough place; it was also known as one of the Sweet Potato Capitals of the World and Razor City, depending on whether you were talking to the Chamber of Commerce or the man on the street. The city had a brutal past and in the 1950s, the Klan ruled. After intervention by the FBI, the Klan had been destroyed, but an uneasy truce had been formed. As an African-American, Harold did a lot to break down the barriers that still existed in the early 80s. He was respected by all in the community, as shown by families allowing their white boys join his troop.

Harold and I became good friends, partly drawn together by our interest in history, social studies, literature and practical jokes. He finally forgave me for shattering his idyllic view of Baldwin. When my personal life became chaotic and I went through a divorce, Harold was there to support me. He even tried to set me up with another teacher in the school, but it was too soon for both of us. Her husband had been killed in a work accident and I think Harold was trying to take care of both of us. Later, after I left the area and moved across state, Harold and I would occasionally get together for lunch or dinner when I was driving home to see my parents. We wrote back and forth a few times after I left North Carolina for Pittsburgh, but with me having no reason to travel through Columbus County, and Harold no reason to head up north, we lost contact. As with Delano, I was blessed to know Harold.

Yet the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh.
-David imagining Giovanni’s execution (James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room)


  1. Seems like I'm allergic to almost anything anymore.

    Hope your foot heals soon.

  2. That's a lovely tribute to Harold, Sage. I think bonding over literature is a special gift we're given.

    I hope your foot feels better soon. ...and I'm glad your reaction to that medicine wasn't more severe.

  3. It's too bad you had a reaction to Vicodin. Hope you get better soon.

    I like what you said about the book and why you gave it to Harold. Did he ever tell you what he thought of it?

    Did you know that Michael Malone has a new book out now?

  4. Sage: After several surgeries in my life, I can relate to the pain your foot surgery is delivering due to all of the nerve endings. Heal soon! I am limited in my knowledge of Baldwin. "Go Tell It On The Mountain" was one book I read many moons ago. Harold sounds like a trusted friend, indeed!

  5. I like Vicodin but it keeps me awake when I want to sleep...odd I know.

    Them on the path behind were there for the season the walker needed them to be. It is in the memories they helped create that their function is ongoing.

  6. Karen, I've been lucky in that I've never had to take many painkillers. From what I'm told, this reaction takes a large family of them off my shelf (so I hope I don't need to take many of them in the future)

    Stephanie, I like bonding over literature, but I'm afraid it's becoming a lost art

    Kenju, Harold didn't think much of the book! Have you read the new Malone book? If it is as funny as Handling Sin, I have got to read it.

    Michael, Luckily, I'm now on over-the-counter meds and am healing nicely (I hope, I go back to the doctor this morning)

    Walking Guy, Wise words, my friend.

  7. I love how you're able to build on your memories. Harold sounds great--that was a bit cruel but...

  8. Saying a quiet prayer for a full and rapid recovery. Drug reactions are scary things, and I'm glad you were able to respond in time.

    Tanya sent me to wish you peace and happiness this weekend.

    And I'm seriously considering basing my entire reading list on your recommendations. I wonder if somewhere, Harold's surreptitiously reading you and thinking the same thing.

  9. thanks for the visit, yes the Lupine is going WILD this year from all the winter rains. We are blessed

  10. I try to stay away from pain killers unless they're guaranteed to knock me out. I had a bad experience with Percocet years ago after some surgery and swore off them ever since.


  11. I know why vicodin is so addictive. I was on it for one day and when it wore off I felt WORSE than before I took it and needed a bigger dose. But I was afraid of it after that.

    I like this story within the Baldwin story. Netchick.

  12. It didn't take: I may have said, "I know why vicodin is so addictive. I used it for one day and when it wore off I felt much worse than before I took it and needed a bigger dose, but I was afraid of it after that.

    I love this story within a story. Netchick.

  13. I think many of us end up with certain jobs by default. But what a great testament to his efforts and leadership. Hope your foot's better!

  14. I always try to avoid pain killers.
    Sage, hope you will feel better real soon. Take care.God Bless.

  15. Hope you are better now!

    Have you The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood?. It has story within a story within a story! Confusing, isn't it! It takes a while to get into the book but oncee you do, it is totally gripping!

  16. Giovanni's room really showed Baldwin's reach and his ability as a writer outside of the particular subject of the African American experience. He stretched himself and yet hit a home run.