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Fathers Day in the Projects

Copyright © 1998 by Dean Hughson

 

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I grew up in the Chouteau Court Housing Project in Kansas City,Missouri. These red brick buildings,still existing today, were a noble experiment at giving poor people a clean,safe place to live. The experiment started in the late 50's in KC. Since they still had segregation in those days, the Federal Government had decided to try an experiment. They had a black neighborhood already, TB Watkins, a Mexican area, and a 'white'' community, Guinotte. They built Chouteau and decided that they would intregrate there. My family moved in around 1958. The 3 story buildings were plain but well constructed. 40 years later they still look much the same.

Who lived in these buildings? Mostly women with their children. Women who had either been divorced or never married and were living in poverty elsewhere usually on welfare. There were some men-disabled guys who had lung diseases or polio or other crippling diseases and could no longer work. Then there were the "secret fathers.". Since welfare didn't allow able bodied men to stay with their families these guys would either not marry the mothers or were boyfriends. They had to come home at night and not be around days when the welfare folks would come unexpectedly and check around. Not many of my peer group (7 years old at the time) had fathers that they saw. One of my friends did have a dad who came around alot...he was called Guitar Red because he played guitar like Chuck Berry and would get drunk and play concerts on the back steps of their porch. Another one of my friends had a father who was old and physically disabled and so he was allowed to be at home. I had a father who didn't live with my family. He was remarried and I saw him every once in a while. My mother got a check of $25 a week from the child support people,which was then deducted from our welfare check. Summers I would go and stay with his parents on their farm and he would see me on weekends.

Where did we project dwellers get our ideas of what men were about? Well, it was usually from teachers at school. There were some dedicated teachers who seemed to understand that kids needed to know what men were about and they made it a point to stay involved in our lives. The social workers of the area were concerned about it so they got the YMCA to come in and take us on bus rides for swims at the Y. This didn't always work right. Once I was with 5 of my school friends and we had ventured into a magazine store and saw a picture of our YMCA instructor nude on the cover of a magazine with his parrot. We bought the magazine and took it to school to show them what ole Captain Dan was up to and he lost his job. Another of our teachers, Homer, liked to touch us young students on the ass. Since we didn't know that was strange-still too young-it finally got him fired when he started taking young students home to his house for wrestling matches. Still, we did find some good role models for men among some of the teachers and some dedicated ministers of churches in the area who formed youth groups.

What did the idea of father mean to us in the projects? Looking back now it seems to me that a father was the person who didn't live with you, paid money to your mother, and you saw occasionally. He had no place in your family unit except its history. I must have been 18 years old before a man had ever been in a power position around me-when I was working for a summer church program. Still, we survived and grew up to be men ourselves. Some of my fellow project dwellers ended up in prison or dead before we even got out of high school. Some of them ended up dead in Vietnam-the projects was the prime supplier of cannon fodder to infantry units. For those of us who made it out of the projects relatively intact, some went on to jobs in the steel mills and some went on to University. I was lucky that I got picked to go into a training program to be a counselor in a city prison farm-they lacked poor whites who could be recruited into some federal training programs and I got picked. When I went to work in the prison I met the fathers of some of my growing up friends-alcoholics,drug addicts, street hustlers, and some just down on their luck who stole and got caught. I saw many of my friends going through the jail system also. Were they there because they didn't have fathers? I don't think so. They were probably there because they were poor and didn't have many options in life or didn't have the breaks I did.

I don't remember Fathers Day in the projects. It must have been celebrated by some but it wasn't in my neighborhood. When one's father was coming, it meant that you might be going to live with him because your mother couldn't handle you. It might mean that you were getting an ass-whipping. I remember my father but many of my neighbors didn't. That is one of the reasons I continue to work to help men stay fathers or learn to become fathers. That is why I help women with children who are victimized by this system still today, like my mother was. I work that my kids can remember Fathers Day as a positive day.

Dean Hughson writes the ASK THE DIVORCED GUY column at http://www.divorcesupport.com/ and is an eggman in his real life. E-mail: dean@primenet.com


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