The Internet is the greatest communication tool mankind has ever devised. Johann Gutenberg's press gave to the world the access to knowledge known only to the educated elite. Knowledge in the form of books had become available to the masses. Books had become affordable for everyone. The internet will have such an impact on future generations.
Until recently though, publishing one's thoughts was still an expensive process. The Internet has given me the power to publish my thoughts for little or no money. Anyone with access to the internet can read my web pages. Through this marvelous technology I can speak to the world.
That is why I am relating to you an experience that happened to me over 50 years ago.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some of my most earliest memories of my childhood centers on my neighborhood in North Philadelphia. I lived about a mile from William Penn's statue atop City Hall.
My house, 638 North Hutchinson, was the best looking of three houses on a deserted block. With the attic, it was the tallest of the three-story rowhouses. Its facade of oven-fired red brick gave it an air of distinction and class. My house faced a large vacant lot which was bracketed by shabby backyard fences. Beyond the expense of the lot with its illegally dumped refuse and over grown weeds was Percy Street and further beyond was the red brick wall of the Reading Railroad train shed.
Hutchinson street was an alley really. The street was the width of a single automobile. When a car drove down this narrow street the driver had to be mindful of his white wall tires rubbing against the curbs. It was rare to see a car drive down Hutchinson Street. In fact, my neighborhod was so isolated there was very litte automobile traffic.
I lived with my grandmother, Beatrice Williams. She was a strict matronly alcoholic that would have fits of temper and vitrolic ragings. I learned to stay out of her way as much as possible. She operated a house of prostitution by offering comely black women to an exclusive clientele, influential white men. When these men would visit I would be shuttled off to another part of the house so I could not see their faces.
There were four buildings on my tiny street. Three houses and a garage. All the houses were owned by grandmother (she rented the other two). This cluster of buildings sat in the middle of the block. On either side of these buildings were other vacant lots. Each lot contained footpaths through weeds, coal ashes and spent wine bottles. It was a secluded place that allowed a sense of openness yet provided much needed privacy. It was the perfect place for a child to play and for my granny to operate a whorehouse.
I am not sure of how old I was when the incident occurred. I had not started school yet. I guess that I was five or six years old. I was playing near the front of my house when it happened. I was playing cowboys and Indians. I was alone, there no other playmates. For Christmas I had gotten a Red Ryder toy pistol set. It contained two six-guns with holsters and a toy rifle. I mimicked TV cowboy heroes like Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. The imaginary Indians were the bad guys.
While dodging make-believe bullets, I turned and saw her, The Lady. Her footsteps on the crunchy gravel and coal ash made me aware of her presence. She had a friendly face with a gentle smile. She was about ten feet away from me. She was an elderly white woman with silvery white hair.
She wore an ankle length black skirt with a white blouse. She also had a short cape and a little odd-shape hat. She reminded me of the Salvation Army people who stood on the corners ringing a bell and asking for money at Christmastime.
Slowly she walked towards me and advised me that I should not play with guns. I responded by assuring her that my rifle was not real. It was just a toy, I told her. She said that she understood and repeated her advice, You shouldn't play with guns!
I became annoyed at the prospect of obeying The Lady. Shooting imaginary people was fun, exciting, like in the movies. I was John Wayne or Gene Autry saving pretty ladies from evil savages. This woman was asking me to give up a major source of entertainment. It made no sense to me. I wasn't hurting anyone. My rifle was a harmless cap gun and I had even ran out of the paper cap strips.
The Lady went on to say that playing like that was wrong, that toy guns were bad. I began to feel uncomfortable but relatively safe since the front door of my house was barely fifty feet away. I knew that I could outrun this old white lady if she tried anything weird. Yet, I stayed just out of her reach. While keeping my eyes on her I became aware of my location in relation to my house. It was behind me.
What she said next stunned me. She said, You must tell the world to stop playing with guns.
Now that really scared me. In my mind I remember thinking I am just a little kid, lady. I can't do that. Obviously this woman was a little crazy.
I took off running. I did an abrupt about face and made a bee-line for the front door of my house. I had taken only a few steps when I instinctively looked over my shoulder to see if she was chasing me.
What happened next stopped me dead in my tracks! I had sprinted no more than ten feet before checking on her whereabouts. I wanted to know if she was chasing me, trying to grab me.
She was gone. Gone without a trace. Within seconds, she had vanished! Into thin air! The only running footsteps that I heard was my own. There was only the still air on that quiet sunny morn. I was alone.
This was very strange! How could she disappear like that? Where did she go? She couldn't possibly traverse the expanse of the vacant lot that quickly. The weeds were not tall enough for her to hide in.
I ran screaming into the house. I was out of breath and scared as hell. I tried to explain to family what had happened. I told them that a woman wanted me to stop playing with guns and to tell everybody to do the same. Then I told them that The Lady disappeared!
Okay. they said, That's good. Now go wash your hands and get ready for breakfast. They didn't believe me.
I knew instinctively that to continue with my astounding report meant that I would be considered crazy or that I was making up a story. Understanding and patience was in short supply around my house. Children were to be seen and not heard. To continue my fantastic story, I recognized, was to put myself at risk. So I remained quiet not speaking of this encounter for nearly fifty years. It was my secret.
Eventually I stopped playing with guns. And now I am asking you to do the same.
The internet allows me to connect with the world. Please pass this story along to a friend. It is absolutely true. Now I have done what The Lady commanded me to do. I told the world to stop playing with guns. I told you. I hope The Lady forgives me for my tardiness.
Richard C. James
October 19, 2003