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When we arrived in Sumter, I saw the swamp that lay to the north of us along one side of McCray's Mill Road. I saw the houses on Manning Avenue, the poorest part of town, where black families still lived in wooden shacks no better than slave cabins. I saw the admittedly small but unfenced alligator that liked to sun itself on a spit of grass near the path at Swan Lake city park, and I met Chris Bethel, whose mother fed me cake and called me Dear.

On my first day at Millwood Elementary I wore the clothes my mother had sewn for me: red pants, red vest, and a red hooded jacket lined with plaid flannel, as if I were Little Red Riding Hood on her way to Grandmother's. I loved that jacket. I remember the heavy front door, the long dark tunnel of the hall, the classroom at the far end of the classroom wing, the radiators that ticked heat into the room. The air they warmed smelled of baking metal, a sweetish smell that reminded me of ironing my father's handkerchiefs.

All of my teachers in New Mexico had been women of advanced age with stiff, stylized hairdos; polyester pantsuits; and glasses attached to beaded chains. My new teacher was Mr. Leach. He looked like a detective in a TV cop show: rumpled white dress shirt, wavy silver hair, sideburns, a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. For years I had pretended when playing house that I was married to Starsky, Fonzie, or Carmine Ragusa, Shirley's boyfriend on Laverne and Shirley, and Mr. Leach had their stubbled good looks.

"This is our new student," Mr. Leach said in his laconic way. "Laura Rotten."

I blushed because my last name wasn't "rotten." "Readin', Writin', and Wrote-n," my father always explained to people, but this never helped on the first day of school.

I corrected him. I stared at the children in all the desks before me, 29 of them, half black, half white. I took my seat next to the radiator and class resumed. When there was a break in the lesson, after recess, a black boy named Anthony climbed up on the desk and chair beside me, balanced himself like a gymnast on the parallel bars, and asked if I was American. He thrust his pelvis at me ever so slightly.

"Of course," I said. He was at ease in a way I was not. He didn't speak with a folksy ignorance. In fact, he seemed years ahead of me.

"No, you're not," he said.

"Yes, I am."

"But Mr. Leach said you're from Mexico."

Instead of assuming that he'd misheard, I assumed he didn't know the states of the union. "New Mexico," I said, but I could tell he considered me a foreigner, and this made me strangely uneasy, as if he, in not knowing the place I came from, made it a less real place, one to which I could never return.

From that day on, I clung to Mr. Leach, with his undeservedly ugly name and his comforting, fatherly affection. He hugged me, an unthinkable act now, and told me I was pretty. I considered him my only ally, my only friend. In my mind I wrote letters to friends in New Mexico, describing my loneliness except for Mr. Leach, who at various points in the day would find me hovering near his desk, wanting to show him photos of the latest swamp my father had driven us out to see. I sat on the radiator and felt the heat scorch my legs and hands.

One day when I was hovering, he told me that he was a child getting on a bus when he saw a black person for the first time. He said he asked his mother, "Mama, when they bleed, do they bleed red or do they bleed black?"

It was a strange story, and I don't know if he was trying to teach me that we were all alike, or that we looked at one another and saw alien creatures, or both. Sometime that winter, before the dogwoods bloomed, I left the red hooded jacket on a hook in the classroom and it disappeared, and within three years, we, too, had disappeared, gone to another Air Force town, another school. I don't know what happened to Mr. Leach or to a single soul in that desegregated but starkly divided classroom, though I remember the names, still, and the smell of the radiators, and the story I heard not long ago about the alligator that used to sun himself at Swan Lake Gardens. He grew too large and ate the swans, apparently, and they had to get rid of him. I like to think that the huntsman cut him open and the swans fell out, alive and whole, to float away through the dark, wet woods.

-- Laura Rhoton McNeal


I was enthusiastic about it from the start. World War II had ended only three years before, and I had spent my early childhood poring over battle maps in the evening paper, reading comic books with GI heroes, and watching the Marines kick the hell out of the Japanese in the Movietone News.

My stepfather had been killed bombing Hamburg, and I remember being awed as I handled his insignia, the beveled edges of the brass U.S., the delicate etching on the wing and prop insignia of the Army Air Corps. When WWII ended I was astonished. I didn't know the idea was to get it over with; I just thought it was what we did.

I viewed this as my entrance into that world. And it was.

But I don't remember the trip to Ponca City, OK, to the Ponca Military Academy. Maybe Mom borrowed a car. Maybe a friend took us. I don't remember being fitted for my uniforms either, if "fitted" is the term.

The first thing I remember is sitting in my room with my three new roommates. They were 10- and 11-year-old boys, away from home for the first time, and two of them were crying.

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