Rod Washington - an Autobiography

WASHPA

I Rodney Lamar Washington was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, in Washington County, in Washington Hospital, and graduated from Washington High School in the Class of 1968. 

 

Washington, Pennsylvania geographically lies approximately thirty miles south of Pittsburgh, and is fondly referred to as “Little Washington.” Obviously named after George Washington it has a very rich national history traced back to the Revolutionary War and is known as the home of the Whiskey Rebellion.  



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The Growing Years

Growing up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains during the 50’s and 60’s when coal and steel shared the throne as king and queen that drove the community’s economy. We were taught life lessons of God, family, friendship, honesty, trust, loyalty, hard work, playing hard, finish what you start, getting up when you get knocked down, and don’t forget where you come from. But it was strange growing up when you and over fifty percent of your friends lived in a household without a father. This is where I first learned it takes a village to raise a child and I literally mean that. Respect and courtesy was the order of the day to all elders, yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am was expected and there were strict consequences if we called one of these adults by their first name and we knew that.

 

It was nothing if an adult saw a young person doing something that was socially unacceptable or illegal to discipline them physically on the spot. Then send or take them home to their parents reporting what they saw their child doing and nine times out of ten they would be physically reprimanded again. So, we learned the consequences of our actions very young. I guess their attitude as a collective was if we don’t discipline our children the authorities will. But it must be remembered being from a small town like “Little Washington” a significant number of families especially in the Black community at that time was related by blood in one way or another.


I was born in Washington on June 30, 1950 to Myrtle Jane Brown and Francis Russell Washington the second oldest of five children with one older sister, a younger sister and two younger brothers. My mother and father divorced when I was very young so we were raised by my mom fondly known as the “The Big M”.


Although we were economically challenged at times my mother loved every one of us unconditionally and showed no favoritism toward one over the other. She taught us that if we had nothing else we had each other. That bond became so close when one of us did something unacceptable to her instilled family values we would not tell on the guilty party. In those instances we were all physically reprimanded and then we sorted out the differences between ourselves.


Two of the things “The Big M” use to tell us was there are only two kinds of people, good and bad, and we better learn, how to weed out, the good from the bad. The other was, if you lie, you will cheat, and if you cheat, you will steal.


I remember being downtown shopping with several of my friends. We happened to be in Murphy’s Five and Ten Cent Store, when one of them picked up a baseball and put it in his pocket. Upon trying to leave the store, we were all stopped by a security guard, and accused of shoplifting. We were taken to a back room of the store and interrogated about shoplifting and told that the owner could have us arrested and potentially prosecuted. Striking fear in our hearts, the security guard had us call our parents, he told us to tell them where we were at, and if they didn’t come to get us the store was going to call the police. The store representative had no idea what he was sentencing me to! My friends were physically reprimanded by their parents and shortly afterwards back out of the house and playing. Oh no, not me! That was my “summer of discontentment” the discipline and restrictions the “Big M.” put on me, I have not forgotten to this day. Her approach was very diplomatic; she asked me what did I think my punishment should be, getting physically reprimanded or the dreaded “Dog House.” By this time I was getting older and could handle her physical discipline and didn’t want to be grounded for the beginning of summer. So I told her I’d rather have the physical punishment. What did I do that for! She got me and got me good. I was physically punished and put in the “Dog House” for the entire summer. My outside boundaries were no further than the front yard to the back yard of the property we lived on. Fortunately, my back yard was pretty large for a kid my age; it had a lot of different fruit trees, across an alley a field where International Harvester stored farming equipment and a Foremost Dairy Ice Cream plant. With my Aunt Iva June, Uncle Bill and their six children living next door. But the confinement drove me nuts!


Other lessons that my Mom taught all of her children was keeping a clean and orderly house, everything had a place, and when not in use, it should be in its place.  As we grew older, we all had chores, ranging from shopping, cooking, baking, washing dishes, dusting, polishing furniture, vacuuming, mopping, scrubbing and waxing floors, cleaning the bathroom, washing and ironing clothes, shoveling coal, cutting grass, and shoveling snow. There were no exemptions between males and females with the responsibilities rotating on a weekly basis, and we knew the consequences, if we shirked on our duties. Her motto was, when we got older, we might find our self, by our self. So we better learn how to take care of ourselves.


I don’t want it to come off, like my Mom was some kind a tyrant, because she was far from that. But a dictator she was! She raised five children by herself and ruled her house with discipline and whole lot of unconditional dedicated undying love. And for that we are all indebted, thankful, and forever grateful.


But you know what? What my Mom has never known has never hurt her.         

  

Other than the already mentioned, the only demand my mother put on me personally was that I get decent grades in school. I was not the greatest student on a consistent basis, but when I applied myself, I could compete with the best of them. I attribute that to Mrs. Pearl E. Propps Harris my kindergarten teacher and Mrs. Francis (Funny) Vactor my Cub Scout Den Mother. These two ladies were what you might say, my only two formally educated Black teachers my entire life. It was the standards and expectations they set not only for me but all the students and scouts that they mentored and taught. They expected nothing less than excellence from all of us in every aspect of our lives.


I attended Sixth Ward Grade School “Home Of The Little Gophers” from first through seventh grade. We won more grade school football and basketball championships than any other grade school in the history of Washington, PA. Academically some of the brightest minds ever to come from the town were taught and nurtured at the “The Ward.” It was instilled in us to be winners in the class room and on the field of athletic competition. And the beauty of it all, this was an integrated school of various nationalities, where we were encouraged to interact and make genuine lifelong friendships. 


The Dawn of Self-knowing

From eighth through twelfth grade I attended Washington Junior/Senior High School. In the ninth grade I was languishing as a student and really didn’t have any direction. That is when I met Mrs. Joanna Braden Schott. I had Mrs. Schott for an American History class and she was known as being a teacher who taught college prep students and somehow I ended up in her class. She threw down the gauntlet to all her students and she wanted to know who was up for the challenge. And I’m in her class with all these honor roll students. I rose to the challenge among the best and the brightest and received an “A” from her. At year’s end, she had me come to her classroom, to have a talk with her. She told me, that I didn’t know how intelligent I was and if I applied myself I could go to college. I had her for two more classes during my high school years and received an “A” in both subjects. She was the teacher that made the “light bulb go off in my mind” and from that relationship; I have always had a thirst for knowledge and a love for language. After that encounter learning was always fairly easy.  


I was always, a decent athlete and played football, baseball, and basketball but never excelled at any of them. But I’m very proud to say, that I made my varsity high school basketball team as a freshmen. That is only because, as they would say today, I had hops and could jump out of the gym.


But it was away from the classroom and sports where the town and Washington county was my oyster. I knew people from every social, ethnic, and economic background and literally knew, no physical boundaries of where I would hitch hike to and from. I believe that is where I developed the heart and soul of a nomad and gypsy and was born to wander. I would hang out in wilderness areas known as The Hollow, Red Gate, The Ville, Camel’s Hump, Washington Park, Mingo Park, and Balino’s Grove. Various areas of the town like Linntown, Sunnyside, The Hill, East Washington, Scenery Hill, Paul’s Acres, Tylerdale, Lincoln Hill, The West End and etc. I won’t even start to mention the little small towns, villages, and townships that I travelled to throughout the county. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer had nothing on Hack (my nickname)! The nickname was given to me by Mrs. Margret Page when she called me “Hack” after the daytime television show puppet character “Rodney Hackin’ Flash.    


Upon graduating from high school in 1968 “The Year the Dream Died” and my mother moving to Akron, Ohio. I will never forget that summer day, I came home from my job, working for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania as a painter and my mother was waiting for me on our front porch. She told me, she was moving to Akron, and wanted to know if I was going to move with her. I told her no it was time to leave her house and live on my own. We started crying and hugging one another. I looked her in the eyes and made her this promise “That she would never have to worry about me.” Because we knew in our hearts, she did right by me, giving me the best direction she could, raising me without the guidance of a father.


I stayed in “Little Washington” for about a year, working for Keystone Shoes as a salesman and living at Mrs. Patrick’s boarding house.



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The Military Years

On April 16, 1969 I enlisted in the in the United States Navy on the “Buddy Plan” with two of my close friends Eugene Harris and Gerald Wilson. We were sent to the United States Naval Training Center, at Great Lakes, Illinois. There we were assigned to “Company 249” under the tutelage and mentorship of the unorthodox leadership of Company Commander, T. F. Price, and ABH1. We became members of a collective body who depended on each other for group and individual reward recognition competing in classroom and physical evaluation examinations with other recruits assigned to various “Companies.” This was probably the most challenging and competitive time of my life because I found out exactly what I was made of on numerous levels. In some ways, looking at it now, wherever you’re from, you found out how well, you sized up against world class competition. After completing nine weeks of crueling regimentation, challenges, and soul searching to become members of the Fraternal Order of the United States Military Services and to know you live and serve under the Code of Military Justice. That’s heady stuff no matter what branch of the military service “Boot Camp” you completed! At the time of “Boot Camp” separation we were all given our “Active Duty Station” assignments. Eugene Harris went to Annapolis, Maryland for Corpsman Training; Gerald Wilson was assigned to a destroyer out of Norfolk, Virginia, and I was assigned to the USS Basilone (DD/DDE 824), homeport, Newport, Rhode Island.


The USS Basilone (DD/DDE 824) was a Gear – gearing class destroyer of the United States Navy, named for Marine Gunnery Sargent John Basilone (1916 – 1945), who was awarded the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action” in defense of Henderson Field during the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign. Laid Down: July 7, 1945, Launched: December 21, 1945, Commissioned: July 26, 1949, Decommissioned: November 1, 1977, struck: November 1, 1977, and Fate: sunk in exercise April 9, 1982.


I came aboard the Basilone in early July 1969 during one of her scheduled upkeep and inspection periods. From July 22 through August 26, the Basilone participated in ASW Exercises with the 2nd Fleet Units and then carried out missile exercises in the West Indies. Upon her return to Newport, she began a three – week tender availability in preparation for a 7th Fleet assignment. However, the warship received orders to deploy to the 6th Fleet instead, while another availability to correct boiler problems kept her in port until 11 November. The next day, the destroyer steered a familiar course to the Mediterranean and relieved the USS Ault on the 21st. Aside from the usual task force operations, we visited Spain, Malta, Tunis, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. 


Her return to Newport on May 22 afforded the ship and crew a much anticipated two months of rest and replenishment. With the exception of two days of pre – deployment ASW services provides to Tullibee in late July and a four – day port visit to New York City in early August, Basilone remained in Newport hosting the sailors’ families, Navy War College staff members and students and acting as a spectator ship for the 1970 America’s Cup Yacht Race. On 23 September, the destroyer was relieved of that assignment and once again set sail for the eastern Mediterranean to participate in task force operations in support of King Hussein of Jordan during the Black September conflict. During this episode, the Basilone changed operational controls to the 6th Fleet on 2 October. Aside from the task force operations and gunnery operations, she paid visits to Crete, Athens, Naples, and Majorca before rejoining the 2nd Fleet on 2 November. On the 8th, the warship returned to Newport for leave and upkeep. I was given an Honorable Discharge under an authorized early separation program on November 16, 1970.  



Of the one year and seven months I spent in the Navy, sixteen months and twenty days were spent aboard the Basilone with its crew of three hundred and forty nine men on foreign and/or sea service active duty (out of the country). My primary duties on board the ship was as a Ships Serviceman (Laundry), Forward Gun Mount Battle Station (catching projectile shell casings after recoil), and member of ship’s Honor Guard. This is where I “cut my bones” completing education and training for Seamen, BMR, Military/Leadership for E-4, and Ships Serviceman Class “C” School. In addition I became a student of observing the human condition and after close study was able to provide the crew with services and taking part in activities that some might think to be underhanded or illegal. This ranged from loan sharking, charging crew members to use laundry for cleaning civilian clothes, writing love letters for crew members, gambling, distributing and using the pleasures of the day. Let alone all those other activities that civilians think sailors get involved in. Yes, I did them all and some more that will go unmentioned. Come on I had “Open Gangway” and some of my shipmates referred to me as a “Wheel.”


Upon discharge from the Navy, I returned to Washington, PA totally uncertain about my future. But I was a lot more confident in my hustling game and social interacting skills than the kid who left there nineteen months before.



A New Life ...and Higher Education

I will never forget that long bus ride from the Pittsburgh Airport not knowing what I was going to do or where I was going to stay. The bus stopped on “The Hill” at the corner where Highland, Sumner, and Locust Avenues intersect at approximately 1:00 in the morning. And for that I am truly grateful! I saw my first cousin Eric Scott Vactor just ready to turn the corner from Highland Avenue onto Lincoln Street on his way home at the Lincoln Terrace Project. Fathead (one of my nicknames for Eric) gave me some love and invited me around to his house realizing my situation without me having to mention it. My Aunt, Tillie (Priscilla Vactor Washington) and Eric welcomed me back home with open arms like I was never gone. Aunt Tillie told me that I could stay with them until I got on my feet. 


After being home for a several weeks and becoming reacquainted with family and friends and reacclimated to the local cultural experience I was getting a little restless. Around this time Eric mentioned to me that he was planning to enroll in the University of Wisconsin Whitewater in Whitewater, Wisconsin during the January 1971 winter semester. He asked me why I didn’t consider going out there with him for a couple weeks just to check it out. It wasn’t like we were going somewhere where we didn’t know anyone. Our friend Tommy Wise was out there going to school, playing football, living with his wife Elizabeth (Sis) and daughter Wanda. 


So, less than forty days after being discharged from the United States Naval Service, I found myself in the rural heartland of Whitewater, Wisconsin. After all of my worldly travels in the previous two years this was the epitome of cultural shock on numerous levels.  Fortunately we had Tommy and Sis to show us the lay of the land and how to navigate this foreign terrain. I’m traveling with the “Black Einstein” Eric was a honor roll high school student and had already been accepted in school for the semester and didn’t have to take a number of general study prerequisite courses. I was supposed to be there just for a couple weeks to party and then going back to Pennsylvania. But knocking around the campus during the semester’s enrollment period and Tommy Wise introducing me to the right university administrators, I discovered, I could enroll in school under the G.I. Bill and did not have to take an entrance examination because of my veterans status and immediately received transcript leadership credits for military service. Psychologically I was not prepared to enter college but mentally I was trying to figure it out. So, why not use the G.I. Bill money and a guaranteed loan to finance a semester of college to bide some time. Socially I was much more mature and worldly than the majority of the college students and some of the administration that I met because of my military experience. I knew in a very short period of time this small Midwest college town had never experienced African American males like us. I reverted back to my sailor’s mentality adopting the attitude this was just another port and its pleasures and treasures were for the taking. My guy, Eric had always had this very natural laid back cool smooth type of demeanor that was like a “chick magnet.” Let alone we had this crazy mystic about us being from the east coast. We enrolled in general study /prerequisite classes, were assigned as dorm roommates, had a cafeteria meal card and were receiving money on a monthly basis. It was on! Tommy Wise was a couple of years older than Eric and I but we all graduated from Washington High School and were very tight friends (love of growing up in a small town). T-Rex (as Eric and I nicknamed him) had his own charm, debonair, and impeccable style that afforded him a way of influencing important people. Let alone being a superior athlete who gained Pennsylvania state high school recognition in football, basketball, and track. After hanging out with mostly the Wises’ socially for a week or so, I asked Tommy to introduce me to someone who dabbled in the spirits of the counter culture that he might know because I was tired of drinking alcohol. He mentioned a brother, who had just transferred there from University of New Mexico by the way of Flint, Michigan to play basketball and this winter was the season that he had sit out to comply with eligibility rules.


Robert Louis Stone to this day is one of the brightest and humblest human being I have ever met on the face of this planet and I’m proud to say is my best friend. We clicked the moment we met because there was no pretentiousness. This cat was a business major, had credentials of a star basketball player, dabbled in the spirits of the counter culture, liked Jazz, and was a Funkateer. That was big, because we didn’t like being inspired, then getting stupid, we wanted to get there, and discuss eclectic intellectual subject matters of the day that was referred to as “Rap Sessions” but that’s not say, we didn’t know how, to get down with the get down. Because we were the party everywhere we went. I will never forget the conversation that Robert and I had during a varsity basketball game at Williams Center Athletic Field House watching a game with approximately twenty other fans in the stands. He was very confident that within a season the stands would be full of fans and the school would have a winning basketball program.


As far as school was concerned we attended classes here and there but studying never became part of the equation. Then it got to the point where we were only there for the socializing. By the time the semester was over neither Eric nor I had grade point averages high enough to be eligible to enroll in following semester so our only option was to return to Washington, PA.

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Washington returns to Washington

Upon returning or retreating to Washington in early June 1971 I fell right back into my small town hustling games of trick and trade and pimp or die. I stayed with my Aunt Tillie for a short period of while, lived with my sister Mitzie, had a room at Tate’s Hotel, and my last place of residence was with my uncle Bill Taylor at his house on Ridge Avenue. I spent approximately two months collecting unemployment compensation, worked at Washington Steel in the shipping and receiving department for a hot minute and when the job hours started interfering with my night time hours I had to quit the gig. From there I was able to get on a state’s welfare assistance program do to my veterans status and had a medicinal herbal distribution business operating from a hotel room. During this period  I was on cruise control and not too much worried about the future just rolling with the flow whatever that might have been cause it seemed like every day and night ran together and it was all one endless party.


Somewhere in between all that while staying at Uncle Bill’s house, my cousin James R. Brown (Reggie) was discharged from the Army fresh off a tour of Viet Nam began living there also. Reggie is my first cousin, my mother’s older sister’s son that is approximately four years older than me, the closest male role model that I have and is like my big brother. Plu (Reggie’s nickname) from my observation was an honor roll high school graduate, fairly decent athlete in multiple sports, sharp dresser, the ladies liked him, could dance, gambled and always had his finger on the pulse of the times. It didn’t take him long to realize he had out grown his hometown’s culture through his military travels where and when he became a citizen of the world not unlike me. It was like he came back home picked up on his role like he had never left. All the time I knew where his head was at because I was still going through the process of reacclimating myself into civilian life.


My daily life flowed with the memories of my military experience and the reality of “The Hill” the heartbeat of Washington’s eastside African American community with its hip day’s and hot nights. There was always some sense or rhythm of commerce being conducted along the strip.  The first shift of action amongst my peers would usually start around noon and would last until about dinner time. We would then go home to eat maybe take a nap and around ten in the evening again start gathering along the strip to enjoy the pleasures that the night life offered until approximately four or five o’clock in the morning. Freaks come out at night! We use to say, if you’re going to hang you better be on your game because every ones got a hustle. This was a continuous cycle that went on seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year no matter what the weather.


As with all good things, my good thing had to come to an end. It was abruptly with three different indications making me aware that I had to leave town. My uncle Bill Taylor whose house I was stay at told me I had to move do to the over crowdedness which was understandable. My uncle Homer Washington told me I needed to leave the town because it was too small for me to pursue my intellectual or professional potential. He said he had been to my high school and knew I was a decent student without really applying myself; I had been to the Navy exposed to the world and other cultures and been in college for a short period of time. He said he wasn’t telling me to go back to college but it was in my best interest to leave. Because the only thing Washington had to offer me was drug addiction, prison, or death as result of the social circle I was traveling in. The final straw was when one of my best friends from kindergarten through high school dropped me a dime. His father was a detective on the local police force and told him to tell me that I was going to be picked up within the next ten days because of the herbalist distribution business I was operating out of the hotel room. I told him to ask his father to give me three days to tie up my business and I would be leaving town and returning to college in Wisconsin.    

Sweet Home Wisconsin

So in the fall semester of 1971 I reenrolled in college at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater after sitting out for a semester and placed on academic probation do to my previous grade point average under the pretense of being a student bidding time while receiving financial aid through guaranteed loans, grants, scholarships, and G. I. Bill.


I reacquainted myself with Robert Stone and numerous others that I met during the previous time that I had spent on campus. By this time Bob had established himself as the resident basketball star and you couldn’t buy a ticket to get into William Center Gym to see a basketball game.


I lived in Whitewater, Wisconsin for five years as a resident and student. During that period of time I can’t say that I totally immersed myself in my academic endeavors but I did learn how to become a fairly decent student. Living in the community all year round I got to know the Townies (school administrators, business men, merchants, politicians, farmers, and police). In addition during this time I had approximately seventy five to one hundred people from Washington PA come visit me! Some came for short periods of time; others extended stays, and quite a few became permanent residence. So you can only imagine what my social influences and academic distractions were like. The movie “Animal House” is dismissed as child play compared to my adventures in this small town that I would like to think I played a part in integrating.


In hindsight I believe two of the most important friendships that I was able to develop were with Stafford Hood and Ron Ellis who gave me some unconventional advice, direction, and encouragement that got my attention that assisted me in my academic endeavors.


In May of 1976 I became one of the first African American male to graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Occupational Safety and Health with a Minor in English Creative Writing.


As my best friend likes to remind me “we had the full college experience.” Big love to the Warhawk Nation!  


I have had a thirty six year career of diverse successful experiences in the Environmental Health and Safety profession having worked both in the private and public business sectors.


The only reason for writing this short autobiography of my life is to give the reader a premise, impetus, and genesis of the content of this website. After over forty years of writing, realizing I didn’t want to take these thoughts with me, wanting to travel lightly, and being tired of people saying I should be published. As James Brown would say, give it up, turn it loose. So, here I am!


I thank Washington PA for being that place in time where I was blessed with the gift of observation and learned to love and appreciate language and music to the extent that I’m able to express myself through this medium. You are tattooed in my heart indelibly for eternity.


“Be ye renewed by the change in your mind” 


Love, Peace, and Light


Rodney L. Washington


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