If my parents intended to protect me from the harsh realities of American life, space and time conspired to knock the pins out from under their plan.

Since my parents both worked, I was a frequent presence in the living room of Frank and Ethel Prindle, an elderly couple who lived next door to us. This convenient arrangement gave an interesting twist to my life: one of my main childcare providers was a retired prison guard from Alcatraz.

The harsh realities of American life, I soon realized, lived next door.

Frank Prindle’s racial attitudes, and the language he used to express them, were unbearable. The person who proved least able to bear them was his wife.

When Mr. Prindle set off on a track of racial commentary, Mrs. Prindle would walk out. Her need to leave was so urgent that she left me there to listen.

And so Frank and Ethel Prindle provided me with constant demonstrations of the divisions that wracked the nation in the 1950s, divisions that are wracking up a storm in 2020.

And yet the Prindles stayed married, and, most of the time, they enjoyed each other’s company and conversation. When a stroke killed Ethel, “bereft” was too mild a term for Frank’s desolation.

If my parents had had any hopes of persuading me to see the world as comprehensible and comfortable, the Prindles were leading figures in the campaign to counter those hopes with realism.

Adult efforts to shield me from the harsh realities of American life failed even more dramatically over the next years. No one could protect me from hearing constant reports–and seeing nightly television coverage—of the violence committed against civil rights workers in the 1960s.

By 1968, I had acquired an extremely minor role in the world of journalism, having weaseled my way into an after-school job at the Banning office at the Riverside Press-Enterprise. Learning of Martin Luther King’s assassination, I asked my boss for permission to interview several of my fellow high school students, who had become my friends because playing to win at ping pong crossed every racial divide.

I wrote a short article, quoting three young African American men. In racial prejudice and injustice, they said, our Southern California hometown was not much different from Selma, Alabama.

A real reporter followed up on my story. His much longer article carried the attention-gathering headline, “Three young black men tell it like it is in Banning.”

Angry white townspeople soon overwhelmed our office with calls to cancel their subscriptions.

When my boss visited a few places to gauge the town’s reaction to the article, he found the newspaper’s photograph of the three young black men placed at the center of the dartboard in the officers’ lounge at the Banning Police Department.

The story doesn’t end there.

In April of 1968, I had not yet turned 17. But I already knew enough to forfeit any claim, 52 years later, of surprise by the nation’s troubles today.

I remember the three young black men in Banning who I unwittingly set up for trouble. And I remember Ethel and Frank Prindle who I watched hold their impossible marriage together.

We have made progress since 1968. But, dear Lord, we still have a ways to go.

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