01/20/2014 07:46 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2014

Growing Up In The '70s: Cousins, Color And Racism

Sometimes, my enthusiasm for writing has blinded me.

Quite simply, I love to use words to share my experiences. If anyone tells me they've read one of my posts, I'm happy. If they say they enjoyed it, I'm thrilled. If they say they felt it like they were there, I'm floating. My pursuit of those emotions has, at times, caused me to overlook the feelings of others.

In a previous post entitled South Side Irish, South Bend and Notre Dame I relayed my frequent visits to South Bend to visit my Aunt Therese (mom's sister) and Uncle Don. They had five children, and I was naturally closest to John and Martin, who were only one and two years younger than I. We did all the normal things boys do -- we played together, fought with each other, listened to music and shared our dreams. It's a different type of bond with cousins though, even if they live in another state. It's a family thing that you just don't share with classmates or kids on the block.

I remember arriving at their house for a visit, and John, Martin and some neighbor kids were standing on their front lawn. They had somehow caught a living bat, and had it trapped in a glass jar. It was fascinating to look at a bat's face close up, without (too much) fear of being bitten. We had all heard the horror stories of kids getting bitten by animals and needing 27 shots to protect against rabies (urban legend said the needles were seven inches long). Later, we all started to play some game, and something happened that upset Martin. I made a joke about how the face he was making resembled the bat, and everyone else laughed. I love to get laughs, but Martin shot me a look that told me I hurt his feelings. That erased any pleasure from cracking up the others.

We used to spend a week in the summer on a small lake in southern Michigan. We would go swimming, catch snapping turtles and bugs, go out in the rowboat and play cards together. One year, John figured out that a lighter and a can of hairspray pretty much made a flame thrower. Against Martin's warnings, we started to burn things. Then we started chasing dragon flies, trying to torch them in mid-air, like we were Godzilla. One landed on the screen of the cabin porch, and I tried, but it flew away unscathed. The screen wasn't so lucky. I looked through the smoldering hole and saw Aunt Therese. I still held the lighter in one hand and the can of Aqua Net in the other. Let's just say it's no fun getting caught red-handed by an Irish aunt.

Inevitably, we would get on each others nerves by the end of the week. John and I were arguing once, and he called me the worst swear word I knew. I promptly punched him in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. We got past it.

The point of all of this is that they are my cousins, and I've known them as long as I can remember. As we grew up together, I didn't realize they were adopted, and barely noticed they had much darker skin. They were just John and Martin.

One year, we had a big 4th of July cook-out at our house, and all of my mom's side of the family attended. All of us cousins, boys and girls, younger and older, played a baseball game in the yard before we ate, and it was a blast. We ate hot dogs and hamburgers and played with sparklers and snakes. Later, we watched my dad and uncles light off fireworks (including cherry bombs, my favorite!) It was a great party.

The next day, I woke up early and was headed out on my Schwinn Sting-Ray to find unexploded firecrackers, another brilliant practice I'm lucky to have survived. Before I could get out of the driveway, every kid in the neighborhood rode up on their bikes and surrounded me. They looked mad and started asking me who was at my house. They grew angrier when I didn't follow, and said "my cousins." Finally, someone asked, "Who were those n*ggers at your house?" I went back inside, thoroughly confused, and found Mom in the kitchen.

"Mom, what's a n*gger?" I asked.

She dropped her coffee cup, burst into tears and left the room, leaving my question unanswered.

Unfortunately, I have been guilty of racism and prejudice countless times, and probably will be again. Fortunately, I had this experience. All I have to do is think about how my cousins would feel, and I am ashamed of such behavior.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Which African-Americans Past And Present Inspire You?