Michael James graduated from Staples High School in 1960.
He co-founded and ran Chicago’s Heartland Café for 36 years. He is now working on a book about it: “Hot Grits & Politics.”
Michael has published 3 books of his photos: “Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.” He teaches a course called “Activists and Activism Since 1960″ at DePaul University; hosts the weekly Live from the Heartland Show, is active in politics (past president of Chicago’s 49th Ward Democratic Party), and as a member of SAG/AFTRA is currently on strike. He plans a visit to his beloved hometown of Westport this fall.
He posts and writes about his photos on Instagram (@michaelgaylordjamesphotography). Many of his photos can be seen at michaelgaylordjames.com.
This reminisce is from “Pictures from the Long Haul.”
I’m back home in Connecticut, an original colony—the “Nutmeg State” turned “Constitution State.” I grew up with constant reminders of the Revolutionary War. On Red Coat Road we played “fight the British” near where real Red Coats marched to burn hat factories in Danbury.
Westport is where I learned to love America, where we played in fields, in woods, and on the shores of the Saugatuck River and Long Island Sound. It’s where in the late 1940’s we hiked along the Wilton Road singing “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on; glory, glory hallelujah.” And my town really supported the new United Nations.
My teen-dream romance comes rapidly undone one night at the beginning of the summer. That was it; young love, over and done. I spend the summer in pain, a shredded heart — “one mizzable bastard,” to use one of my dad’s favorite expressions.
Life goes on. I have a job at the YMCA’s Camp Mahackeno. It’s where artist Harold Von Schmidt — in full Indian regalia — taught us about the Sioux. The camp’s Rotary Pavilion became the Downshifters Hot Rod Club garage during off camp months, and we were there — and upset — when the Russians and their Sputnik machine beat us into space.
A young trumpeter, I was a Mahackeno bugle boy, blowing reveille in the morning before the Pledge of Allegiance. In the afternoon I blew taps while our beloved flag was lowered. At Camp Mahackeno I suffered major yellow-jacket abuse while trying to save the bees from a clean-up brigade with a forceful hose.
Pledging allegiance, Camp Mahackeno.
There I earned my Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish, Shark and Porpoise badges, and grew up through the ranks: a Papoose, Hiawatha, Brave, Sachem, and CIT (counselor in training).
Camp Mahackeno waterfront. In the distance in the Saugatuck River: the famed “Moby Dick.”
Now I was a counselor and unit leader. We marched our tribe through the woods to my family home on the Wilton Road. My mom Florence fixed lemonade and sandwiches. Mom (Dad didn’t allow me to call her Ma) also gave me an illustrated kid’s book with stories of Bre’r Rabbit and his adventures. I read them to campers during rest periods.
Kids being kids, at Mahackeno.
I loved Uncle Remus, the storyteller. He took a lot of hits for being an “Uncle Tom” during the Black Power years. It’s hard today to find a copy of the Disney film Song of the South. In my mind he was kind and wise, a cool old dude. I am glad I saw that flick. Bre’r Rabbit was definitely cool!
I head to Rhode Island. Not to Charlestown and the drag races of my high school years, but this time to the Newport Jazz Festival. I’m with high school chum Don Law and his dad, a C&W producer with Columbia Records.
We party late into the night with Nigerian drums-of-fire-guy Babatunde Olatunji and jazz great Horace Silver. In 1963 the cultural activities committee at Lake Forest College will bring Olatunji, his drummers, and wild Haitian (and gay) dancers to campus during Africa Week. And Silver’s Sunday school teacher in Norwalk turns out to be the mother of my adopted brother, body builder Jim Arden.
I look forward to heading west and back to school. I do it via a run south to Birmingham with fellow Downshifter John Willoughby. On a late summer night we hit Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee, and I swear the Bristol Stomp was on the radio. The tune is about a dance in another Bristol (Pennsylvania), and was being played nationwide.
The Downsifters were Michael James’ hot rod club. This photo was taken in the back yard of his Wilton Road home.
Willoughby’s mom nourishes me for a day. Then I don my sport jacket and hitchhike, mostly up US 41, back to college. Near Pulaski, Kentucky I get a short ride in a beat up car with a group of juiced up folks, both white and black. They’re having a fun time.
I am crammed into the back seat, surrounded by heat, wind, and people drinking — a scary-reckless-ride. I do accept a hit of whiskey from their pint. A feeling of relief engulfs me when the ride is over and I get to stick out my thumb again.
(To read more of Michael James’ writings, click here.)
Michael James, today.