The beads of sweat were again beginning to crystallize on Gary Nichols' face as we trudged the 30 blocks to school in the January cold. In the 1960s, there was no busing in Fulton, Missouri, for African-American children attending the lone high school in town. Since classes began promptly at 7:45 a.m., it was incumbent upon us to set out early to make it on time. For the majority of us, it was arduous but a doable trek. However, for Gary, who weighed nearly 400 pounds, the daily trip was akin to a survival test, especially when we reached "the hill," a steep incline of three blocks that couldn't be avoided.
Gary's family and my family lived in the same duplex. So, we'd usually strike out about the same time for school. I'll always remember his rolling gait as he ambled the sidewalks with books in hand, always displaying a jovial spirit. A glandular problem had forced him to accept his role as our neighborhood's version of Bill Cosby's beloved character "Fat Albert." Yet, as we plodded along, through good weather and bad, our free-flowing conversations revealed how bright, witty, and optimistic he was.
That was until we reached "the hill." Suddenly, his smiling countenance took on a grim look of single-minded determination. Both of us knew and accepted that at some point, in order to avoid getting a tardy slip, I had to move along. As those beads of sweat began to meld with tears of exertion, there would come a time when he'd say to me, "All right, man, you need to go on. I'll get there ... one step at a time.
So, the start of another January has me thinking about Gary — and a recent story I covered that detailed the squalor and horrendous living conditions at the dilapidated Avery Park Place Apartments. It seems that every other day in Memphis, someone calls me with a complaint about the deplorable living conditions they are enduring. I'm not as immediately sympathetic to those calls as I once was. My skepticism is usually justified, when minimal probing uncovers what I call the "fatal flaw of omission."
For example, someone calls and says, "My landlord is evicting me!" Upon further review, I learn that they've skipped paying rent for months. Or, I hear, "Mr. Smith, my son has been illegally incarcerated!" When I ask, "What is he charged with?" the reluctant answer is often something like, "Well, he did shoot someone three times."
But when we received a call from Avery Park tenant Terri Brown about MLGW turning off the water to the complex, her sincerity convinced me her plight and those of the other families there had to be explored. The living conditions were atrocious. Brown, the mother of a 15-year-old epileptic and asthmatic child, had taken the initiative and made calls to discover the out-of-state owner of the property had not paid taxes. The complex's water had been turned off due to an unpaid bill of $1,600. I spoke with other tenants, who appeared to accept their fates. They were afraid to make phone calls, as Brown had. They were afraid to demand accountability for the rent they had paid in advance.
As we would chronicle on Fox 13 news that week, with the help of councilpersons Harold Collins and Wanda Halbert, the facility was condemned and those families are currently living for free in a motel until they can find proper housing.
All of which leads me back to remembering those days with Gary. We all have hills to climb in life. There are, in too many cases, no easy paths or short cuts to get around what we must face. At a time when New Year's resolutions to change our paths in life are as abundant as they are vacuous, let's resolve to have the strength to make changes that really count.
To paraphrase the late Robert Kennedy, "Some men wonder why. I say, why not?" If you believe an injustice is being committed, speak up about it. If you believe the human condition can be improved, work to make it happen. If you want to divest yourself of the imagined shackles you think trap you from achieving the best possible life for you and your children, make every effort to break those chains. The avenues are available. What is needed is the fortitude to find where they are and follow through. It's as simple as finding the courage and the resolve to get there ... one step at a time.
Les Smith is a reporter for Fox 13 news.