Morty Aiken liked to run and to skate. He liked running games and races. He liked running so much that sometimes he’d go over to Washington Park all by himself, and run just for the fun of it. He got a kick out of running, and he had raced every kid he could get to run against him. His love of racing and running had even become a joke among many of the boys he knew. But even when they gave him the horselaugh it was done in a good-natured way, because he was a very popular boy. Older fellows liked him, and when they would see him, they’d say there’s a damn good kid, and a damned fast runner.
When he’d passed his fourteenth birthday, Morty was a trifle smaller than most boys of his own age. But he was well known, and in a way, almost famous, in his own neighborhood. He lived at Sixty-first and Eberhardt, but kids in the whole area had heard of him, and many of them would speak of what a runner and what a skater Morty Aiken was.
He won medals in playground tournaments, and, in fact, he was the only lad from his school who had ever won medals in these tournaments. In the playground tournament he became the champion in the fifty and hundred-yard dash, and this got him the reputation of being the best runner, for his age, on the South Side of Chicago.
And he was as fast a skater as he was a runner. In winter, he was regularly and almost daily to be seen on the ice at the Washington Park lagoon, or over on the Midway. He had a pair of Johnson racers which his father had given him, and he treasured these more than any other possession. His mother knitted him red socks and a red stocking cap for skating, and he had a red and white sweater. When he skated, he was like a streak of red; and his sense of himself and of his body on the ice was sure and right. Almost every day, there would be a game of I-Got-It. The skater who had it would skate in a wide circle, chased by the pack until he was caught. Morty loved to play I-Got-It, and on many a day this boy in short pants, wearing the red stocking cap, the red and white sweater, and the thick, knitted red woolen socks coming above the black shoes of his Johnson racers, would lead the pack, circling around and around and around, his head forward, his upper torso bent forward, his hands behind his back, his legs working with grace and giving him a speed which sometimes seemed miraculous. And in February 1919 Morty competed in an ice derby, conducted under the auspices of the Chicago Clarion. He won two gold medals. His picture was on the first page of the sports section of the Sunday Clarion. All in all, he was a famous and celebrated lad. His father and mother were proud of him. His teacher and Mrs. Bixby, the principal of the school, were proud of him. Merchants on Sixty-first Street were proud of him. There was not a lad in the neighborhood who was greeted on the street by strangers as often as Morty.
Although he was outwardly modest, Morty had his dreams. He graduated from grammar school in 1919, and was planning to go to Park High in the fall. He was impatient to go to high school, and to get into high school track meets. He’d never been coached, and yet look how good he was! What wouldn’t he be when he had some coaching? He’d be a streak of lightning if there ever was one. He dreamed that he would be called the Human Streak of Lightning. And after high school, there would be college, college track meets, and the Big Ten championship, and after that, he would join an athletic club and run in track meets, and he would win a place on the Olympic team and somewhere, in Paris or Rome or some European city, he would beat the best runners in the world, and, like Ty Cobb in baseball and Jess Willard in prize fighting, he’d be the world’s champion runner.
And girls would all like him, and the most beautiful girl in the world would marry him. He liked girls, but girls liked him even more than he liked them. In May, a little while before his graduation, the class had a picnic, and they played postoffice. The postoffice was behind a clump of bushes in Jackson Park. He was called to the postoffice more than any other of the boys. There was giggling and talking and teasing, but it hadn’t bothered him, especially because he knew that the other fellows liked and kind of envied him. To Morty, this was only natural. He accepted it. He accepted the fact that he was a streak of lightning with his feet, and on the ice, and that this made him feel somehow different from other boys and very important. Even Tony Rabuski looked at him in this way, and if any kid would have picked on him, Tony would have piled into that kid. Tony was the toughest kid in school, and he was also considered to be the dumbest. He was, also, the poorest. Often, he came to school wearing a black shirt, because a black shirt didn’t show the dirt the way that other shirts did. His parents couldn’t afford to buy him many shirts. One day Tony was walking away from school with Morty, and Tony said:
Kid, you run de fastest, I fight de best in de whole school. We make a crack up team. We’re pals. Shake kid, we’re pals.
Morty shook Tony’s hand. For a fourteen-year-old boy, Tony had very big and strong hands. The other kids sometimes called them “meat hooks.”
Morty looked on this handshake as a pledge. He and Tony became friends, and they were often together. Morty had Tony come over to his house to play, and sometimes Tony stayed for a meal. Tony ate voraciously and wolfishly. When Morty’s parents spoke of the way Tony ate and of the quantity of food he ate, Morty would reply by telling them that Tony was his friend.
Because he was poor and somewhat stupid, a dull and fierce resentment smouldered in Tony. Other boys out-talked him, and they were often able to plague and annoy him, and then outrun him because he was heavy-footed. The kids used to laugh at Tony because they said he had lead, iron, and bricks in his big feet. After they’d shaken hands and became pals, Morty never would join the other boys in razzing Tony. And he and Tony doped out a way that would permit Tony to get even. If some of the boys made game of Tony until he was confused and enraged and went for them, Morty would chase the boys. He had no difficulty in catching one of them. When he caught one of the boys who’d been teasing and annoying Tony, he’d usually manage to hold the boy until Tony would lumber up and exact his punishment and revenge. Sometimes, Tony would be cruel, and on a couple of occasions when Tony, in a dull and stupefied rage, was sitting on a hurt, screaming boy, and pounding him, Morty ordered Tony to lay off. Tony did so instantly. Morty didn’t want Tony to be too cruel. He had come to like Tony and to look on him as a big brother. He’d always wanted a brother, and sometimes he would imagine how wonderful it would be if Tony could even come to live at his house.
The system Morty and Tony worked out, with Morty chasing and catching one of the boys who ragged Tony, worked out well. Soon, the kids stopped ragging Tony. Because of their fear, and because they liked and respected Morty and wanted him to play with them, they began to accept Tony. And Tony began to change. Once accepted, so that he was no longer the butt of jokes, he looked on all the boys in Morty’s gang as his pals. He would protect them as he would protect Morty. Tony had used to scowl and make fierce and funny faces and act in many odd little ways. After he became accepted, as a result of being Morty’s pal, his behavior changed, and because he was strong and could fight, the boys began to admire him. At times he really hoped for strange boys to come around the neighborhood, and to act like bullies so that he could beat them up. He wanted to fight and punch because he could feel powerful and could be praised and admired, and that helped him to think more of himself.
Ever since he had been a little fellow, Tony had often been called a “Polack” or a “dirty Polack.” After he became one of the gang or group around Morty, some of the boys would tell him that he was a “white Polack.” In his slow way, he thought about these words and what they meant. When you were called certain words, you were laughed at, you were looked at as if something was wrong with you. If you were a Polack, many girls didn’t want to have anything to do with you. The boys and girls who weren’t Polacks had fun together that Polacks couldn’t have. Being a Polack and being called a Polack was like being called a son of a bitch. It was a name. When you were called a name like this, you were looked at as a different kind of a kid from one who wasn’t called a name. Morty Aiken wasn’t called names. Tony didn’t want to be called names. And if he fought and beat up those who called him names, they would be afraid of him. He wanted that. But he also wanted to have as much fun as the kids had who weren’t called these names. And he worked it out that these kids felt better when they called other kids names. He could fight and he could call names, and if he called a kid a name, and that kid got tough, he could beat him up. He began to call names. And there was a name even worse than Polack—“nigger.” If Tony didn’t like a kid, he called him a “nigger.” And he talked about the “niggers.” He felt as good as he guessed these other kids did when he talked about the “niggers.” And they could be beat up. They weren’t supposed to go to Washington Park because that was a park for the whites. That was what he had often heard.
He heard it said so much that he believed it. He sometimes got a gang of the boys together and they would roam Washington Park, looking for colored boys to beat up. Morty went with them. He didn’t particularly like to beat anyone up, but when they saw a colored kid and chased him, he would always be at the head, and he would be the one who caught the colored boy. He could grab or tackle him, and by that time, the others would catch up. He worked the same plan that he and Tony had worked against the other boys. And after they caught and beat up a colored boy, they would all talk and shout and brag about what they had done, and talk about how they had each gotten in their licks and punches and kicks, and how fast Morty had run to catch that shine, and what a sock Tony had given him, and talking all together and strutting and bragging, they felt good and proud of themselves, and they talked about how the Sixty-first Street boys would see to it that Washington Park would stay a white man’s park.
And this became more and more important to Tony. There were those names, “Polack,” “dirty Polack,” “white Polack.” If you could be called a “Polack,” you weren’t considered white. Well, when he beat them up, was he or wasn’t he white? They knew. After the way he clouted these black ones, how could the other kids not say that Tony Rabuski wasn’t white? That showed them all. That showed he was a hero. He was a hero as much as Morty Aiken was.
Morty was a proud boy on the night that he graduated from grammar school in June 1919. When he received his diploma, there was more applause in the auditorium than there was for any other member of the class. He felt good when he heard this clapping, but then, he expected it. He lived in a world where he was somebody, and he was going into a bigger world where he would still be somebody. He was a fine, frank-looking lad, with dark hair, frank blue eyes, even and friendly features. He was thin but strong. He wore a new short-pants blue-serge suit with a belted coat, and a white shirt with a white bow tie. His class colors, orange and black ribbons, were pinned on the lapel of his coat. He was scrubbed and washed and combed. And he was in the midst of an atmosphere of gaiety and friendliness. The teachers were happy. There were proud and happy parents and aunts and uncles and older sisters. The local alderman made a speech, praising everybody, and speaking of the graduating boys and girls as fine future Americans. And he declared that in their midst there were many promising lads and lassies, who would live to enjoy great esteem and success. He also said that among this group, there was also one who promised to become a stellar athlete, and who had already won gold medals and honors.
And on that night, Morty’s father and mother were very happy. They kept beaming with proud smiles. Morty was their only son. Mr. Aiken was a carpenter. He worked steadily, and had saved his money so that the house he owned was now paid for. He and his wife were quiet-living people who minded their own business. Mr. Aiken was tall and rugged, with swarthy skin, a rough-hewn face, and the look and manner of a workman. He was a gentle but firm man, and was inarticulate with his son. He believed that a boy should have a good time in sports, should fight his own battles, and that boyhood—the best time of one’s life—should be filled with happy memories.
The mother was faded and maternal. She usually had little to say, and her life was dedicated to caring for her son and her husband, and to keeping their home clean and orderly. She was especially happy to know that Morty liked running and skating because these were not dangerous.
After the graduation ceremonies, the father and mother took Morty home where they had cake and ice cream. The three of them sat together, eating these refreshments, quiet, but happy. The two parents were deeply moved. They were filled with gratification because of the applause given their son when he had walked forward on the stage to receive his diploma. They were raising a fine boy, and they could look people in the neighborhood in the eye and know that they had done their duty as parents. The father was putting money by for Morty’s college education, and hoped that, besides becoming a famous runner, Morty would become a professional man. He talked of this to the son and the mother over their ice cream and cake, and the boy seemed to accept his father’s plans. And as the father gazed shyly at Morty he thought of his own boyhood on a Wisconsin farm, and of long summer days there. Morty had the whole summer before him. He would play and grow and enjoy himself. He was not a bad boy, he had never gotten into trouble, he wasn’t the kind of a boy who caused worry It was fine. In August there would be his vacation and they would all go to Wisconsin, and he would go fishing with the boy.
That evening, Morty’s parents went to bed, feeling that this was the happiest day of their lives.
And Morty went to bed, a happy light-hearted boy, thinking of the summer vacation which had now begun.
The days passed. Some days were better than others. Some days there was little to do, and on other days, there was a lot to do. Morty guessed that this was, anyway, turning out to be as good as any summer he could remember.
Tony Rabuski was working, delivering flowers for a flower merchant, but he sometimes came around after supper, and the kids sat talking or playing on the steps of Morty’s house, or of another house in the neighborhood. Morty liked to play Run Sheep Run, because it gave him a chance to run, and, also, he liked the hiding and the searching, and the hearing of the signals called out, and the excitement and the tingling and the fun when he’d be hiding, perhaps under some porch, and the other side would be near, maybe even passing right by, and he, and the other kids with him, would have to be so still, and he’d even try to hold his breath, and then finally, the signal for which he had been waiting—Run Sheep Run—and the race, setting off, tearing away along sidewalks and across streets, running like hell and like a streak of lightning, and feeling your speed in your legs and muscles and getting first to the goal.
The summer was going by, and it was fun. There wasn’t a lot of worry on his mind, and there were dreams. Edna Purcell, who had been in his class, seemed sweet on him, and she was a wonderful girl. One night she and some other girls came around, and they sat on the steps of Morty’s house, and played tin-tin. Morty had to kiss her. He did, with the kids laughing, and it seemed that something happened to him. He hadn’t been shy when he was with girls, but now, when Edna was around, he would be shy. She was wonderful. She was more than wonderful. When he did have the courage to talk to her, he talked about running and ice skating. She told him she knew what a runner and skater he was. A fast skater, such as he was, wouldn’t want to think of skating with someone like her. He said that he would, and that next winter he would teach her to skate better. Immediately, he found himself wishing that it were already next winter, and he would imagine himself skating with her, and he would imagine them walking over to the Washington Park lagoon, and their coming home again. He would carry her skates, and when they breathed they would be able to see their breaths, and the weather would be cold and sharp and would make her red cheeks redder, and they would be alone, walking home, with the snow packed on the park, alone, the two of them walking in the park, with it quiet, so quiet that you would hear nothing, and it would be like they were in another world, and then, there in the quiet park, with white snow all over it, he would kiss Edna Purcell. He had kissed Edna, playing tin-tin, and postoffice, but he looked forward to the day that he got from her the kiss that would mean that she was his girl, his sweetheart, and the girl who would one day be his wife just like his mother was his father’s wife. Everything he dreamed of doing, all the honors he would get, all of the medals and cups he dreamed of winning—now all of this would be for Edna. And she was also going to Park High. He would walk to school with her, eat lunch with her, walk her home from school. When he ran in high school track meets for Park High, Edna would be in the stands. He would give her his medals. He wanted to give her one of his gold skating medals, but he didn’t know how to go about asking her to accept it.
No matter what Morty thought about, he thought about Edna at the same time. He thought about her every time he dreamed. When he walked on streets in the neighborhood, he thought of her. When he went to Washington Park or swimming, he thought of Edna. Edna, just to think of her, Edna made everything in the world wonderfully wonderful.
And thus the summer of 1919 was passing for Morty.
Morty sat on the curb with a group of boys, and they were bored and restless. They couldn’t agree about what game to play, where to go, what to do to amuse themselves. A couple of them started to play knife but gave it up. Morty suggested a race, but no one would race him. They couldn’t agree on playing ball. One boy suggested swimming, but no one would go with him. Several of the boys wrestled, and a fight almost resulted. Morty sat by himself, and thought about Edna. He guessed that he’d rather be with her than with the kids. He didn’t know where she was. If he knew that she’d gone swimming, he’d go swimming. He didn’t know what to do with himself. If he only could find Edna and if they would do something together, or go somewhere, like Jackson Park Beach, with just the two of them, why then, he knew that today would be the day that he would find a way of giving her one of his Clarion gold medals. But he didn’t know where she was.
Tony Rabuski came around with four tough-looking kids. Tony had lost his job, and he said that the niggers had jumped him when he was delivering flowers down around Forty-seventh Street, and he wanted his pals to stick by him. He told them what had happened but they didn’t get it, because Tony couldn’t tell a story straight. Tony asked them didn’t they know what was happening? There were race riots and the beaches and Washington Park and the whole South Side were full of dark clouds, and over on Wentworth Avenue the big guys were fighting, and the dark clouds were out after whites. They didn’t believe Tony. But Morty said it was in the newspapers, and that there were race riots. The bored boys became excited. They bragged about what they would do if the jigs came over to their neighborhood. Tony said they had to get some before they got this far. When asked where they were, Tony said all over. Finally, they went over to Washington Park, picking up sticks and clubs and rocks on the way. The park was calm. A few adults were walking and strolling about. A lad of eighteen or nineteen lay under a tree with his head in the lap of a girl who was stroking his hair. Some of the kids smirked and leered as they passed the couple. Morty thought of Edna and wished that he could take her to Washington Park and kiss her. There were seven or eight rowboats on the lagoon, but all of the occupants were white. The park sheep were grazing. Tony threw a rock at them, frightening the sheep, and they all ran, but no cop was around to shag them. They passed the boat house, talking and bragging. They now believed the rumors which they themselves had made up. White girls and women were in danger and anything might happen. A tall lad sat in the grass with a nursemaid. A baby buggy was near them. The lad called them over and asked them what they were doing with their clubs and rocks. Tony said they were looking for niggers. The lad said that he’d seen two near the goldfish pond, and urged the boys to go and get the sons of bitches. Screaming and shouting, they ran to the goldfish pond. Suddenly, Tony shouted:
They ran. Two Negro boys, near the goldfish pond, heard Tony’s cry, and then the other cry, and they ran. The mob of boys chased them. Morty was in the lead. Running at the head of the screaming, angry pack of boys, he forgot everything except how well and how fast he was running, and images of Edna flashed in and out of his mind. If she could see him running! He was running beautifully. He’d catch them. He was gaining. The colored boys ran in a northwest direction. They crossed the drive which flanked the southern end of the Washington Park ball field. Morty was stopped by a funeral procession. The other boys caught up with him. When the funeral procession passed, it was too late to try and catch the colored boys they had been chasing. Angry, bragging, they crossed over to the ball field, and marched across it, shouting and yelling. They picked up about eight boys of their own age, and three older lads of seventeen or eighteen. The older lads said they knew where they’d find some shines. Now was the time to teach them their place once and for all. Led by the older boys, they emerged from the north end of Washington Park, and marched down Grand Boulevard, still picking up men and boys as they went along. One of the men who joined them had a gun. They screamed, looked in doorways for Negroes, believed everything anyone said about Negroes and kept boasting about what they would do when they found some.
“Dark clouds,” Tony boomed.
The mob let out. They crossed to the other side of Grand Boulevard and ran cursing and shouting after a Negro. Morty was in the lead. He was out-running the men and the older fellows. He heard them shouting behind him. He was running. He was running like the playground hundred-yard champion of the South Side of Chicago. He was running like the future Olympic champion. He was running like he’d run for Edna. He was tearing along, pivoting out of the way of shocked, surprised pedestrians, running, really running. He was running like a streak of lightning.
The Negro turned east on Forty-eighth Street. He had a start of a block. But Morty would catch him. He turned into Forty-eighth Street. He tore along the center of the street. He began to breathe heavily. But he couldn’t stop running now. He was out-distancing the gang, and he was racing his own gang and the Negro he was chasing. Down the center of the street and about a half a block ahead of him, the Negro was tearing away for dear life. But Morty was gaining on him. Gaining. He was now about a half a block ahead of his own gang. They screamed murderously behind him. And they encouraged him. He heard shouts of encouragement.
“Catch ’em, Morty boy!”
“Thata boy, Morty boy!”
He heard Tony’s voice. He ran.
The Negro turned into an alley, just east of Forestville. Morty ran. He turned into the alley just in time to see the fleeing Negro spurt into a yard in the center of the block. He’d gained more. He was way ahead of the white mob. Somewhere behind him, they were coming and yelling. He tore on. He had gained his second wind. He felt himself running, felt the movement of his legs, and muscles, felt his arms, felt the sensation of his whole body as he raced down the alley. Never had he run so swiftly. Suddenly Negroes jumped out of yards. He was caught and pinioned. His only thought was one of surprise. Before he even realized what had happened, his throat was slashed. He fell, bleeding. The Negroes disappeared. Feebly, he mumbled just once:
He lay bleeding in the center of the dirty alley, and when the gang of whites caught up with him they found him dead in dirt and his own blood in the center of the alley. No Negroes were in sight. The whites surrounded his body. The boys trembled with fear. Some of them cried. One wet his pants. Then they became maddened. And they stood in impotent rage around the bleeding, limp body of Morty Aiken, the fastest runner on Sixty-first Street.