Getting Lucky

For more than a century, the Fresh Air Fund has given kids a chance to spend a few summer weeks staying with families in the suburbs. Jeffrey Jones grew up in the Connecticut community of Westport. He looks back on a couple of summers in the 1950s, when he got to know a boy from New York named Lucky.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Far from the church camps of the South, for some New York City youths summertime has meant a break from the swelter of the city's concrete canyons. For more than a century, the Fresh Air Fund has given kids a chance to spend a few summer weeks staying with families in the suburbs. Jeffrey Jones grew up in the Connecticut community of Westport. He looks back now on a couple of summers in the 1950s when he got to know a boy from New York named Lucky.

JEFFREY JONES:

Lucky was an African-American kid about my age. I hadn't met many black kids before and I doubt he had spent a lot of time around white kids. But Lucky was cheerful and easy-going. It was summer and we were boys and that was enough in common for both of us. We shot marbles. We played mumblety-peg with my Cub Scout jackknife. We fished for minnows in the creek at the end of the street. At the day camp nearby, we played softball in the grass. Lucky struck out a lot. He was big and strong, though, and when he did connect the ball went a mile.

In the long summer afternoons, we'd roam on bicycles. Lucky rode an undersized girl's bike borrowed from his host family. He was the only black person wherever we went. If anything about this visit bothered Lucky, he never showed it. He didn't even complain about having to ride that bike while I purred along on my English three-speed.

Lucky eventually returned to the city. The following summer he appeared again. By then I had taken up with some older boys. Lucky and I still played softball and horsed around, but when it came time to meet up with my other friends, I'd do my best to shake him. As boys at play, the differences between Lucky and me meant nothing. Now as I scrambled desperately to fit in, I worried that my oversized black pal might get in my way.

One evening, I rode passed Lucky's house on my way to meet some of the older crowd. We exchanged waves, but I pumped the pedals faster hoping he'd just leave me alone. Over my shoulder, though, I saw Lucky mount his little bike to follow. I found the boys I'd gone to meet standing in a circle with some other kids, including some cute girls. After a moment, I spotted Lucky smiling to me from beyond the perimeter. I pretended I had nothing to do with him.

Earlier in the day, I'd spent my paper route money on a Timex watch with a stainless-steel expansion band. `Hey,' I said to one of my friends, `see my new watch.' `Let me see it.' It was a kid from across town with a reputation as a tough guy. I handed him the watch. A mistake. `Thanks.' He slipped it onto his wrist with a taunting smile. `Come on,' I said. I grabbed for the watch, but he pushed me away. Just then, thick black arms locked around the kid. Nobody had noticed Lucky slip up behind. `Give him the watch,' Lucky said. With what movement the kid could manage, he took it off and held it out to me. I snatched the watch and walked away, Lucky alongside me.

I wish I could report that things changed between Lucky and me afterward; that we stayed in touch and became life-long friends. The truth is Lucky soon returned home and I never saw him again.

Lucky did leave me the memory of that summer evening as a keepsake, though, and the haunting wish that I could have been the friend to him that he was to me.

HANSEN: Jeffrey Jones lives in Pittsford, New York.

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