Ethel Plays Duke
By Frank DiBona
(Copyright 2014, all rights reserved)
For a doctor nothing is lonelier than the walk down a long hospital corridor to speak to the family of a patient who is dying. The sound of your heels clicking on the marble floors and echoing off of the mostly glass walls seems to close in on you. One of the family members, a sentinel, always waits in the hallway. As soon as the sentinel sees you, they rush into the room to alert the rest of the family of your arrival. Thus alerted, the family appears in the hall looking at you so expectantly, waiting to hear that you have a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for their loved one and that all will be well. Just say the word, Lord, and thy servant will be healed. But as you get closer and they spot your mirthless face then hear your somber voice, even before they hear the sad words you have to say, they start to cry, sometimes wail, occasionally run down the hall screaming
This morning as I approached Ethel Singleton’s ICU room, I could see her husband, Willie and the three children outside her room. What I had to tell them would not be completely new to them. I had discussed her guarded prognosis with them last night. But now it was certain.
“Willie,” I said, “I have nothing but bad news to tell you.”
“I know Doc,” he said. “I can see it myself.”
The children looked at me still hoping that I could make this go away. When I didn’t respond they began to weep. Willie grasped my arm and took me aside.
“Doctor Riggio, I want to talk to you alone. I have some things I want to tell you and something I want to ask you. Is there anywhere we can sit down and be alone?”
“Have you had breakfast yet?” He shook his head.
“Well let me buy you breakfast in the hospital cafeteria.”
We went through the food line then took our trays into one of the private dining rooms. I closed the door and put the “Meeting in Progress, Do Not Disturb” sign into its slot. Willie had pancakes and sausage. I had oatmeal, the best oatmeal this side of Ireland.
“Willie, I’m so sorry about Ethel. I wish there was something else I could do.”
“Doc, you’ve done what you could do. You’re not a miracle worker.”
He paused, cut up a section of his pancakes, poured a large helping of syrup over the cakes and took a bite. Willie was also one of my patients, but I ignored what effect this breakfast would have on his kidney failure, to say nothing about his diabetes. He took a large bite of the pancakes, a small portion of the sausage, and then washed it down with several gulps of coffee.
“Dr. Riggio, that question you asked me last night really got me thinking and I have an answer for you. But first I want to take you back and tell you some things you probably don’t know about me and her. Is that okay?”
“Of course, Willie.”
He then went on for fifteen or twenty minutes. He asked me not to interrupt him and I tried not to. Anytime I even attempted to affirm what he had said he motioned for me to stay quiet. I think he had memorized and rehearsed what he wanted to tell me and was afraid that if I interrupted him he would leave something out.
December 7, 1941 changed my whole life. When those Japs bombed Pearl Harbor I was so mad. I was ready to fight. I was only sixteen, nearly seventeen. But I looked young for my age. Heck, when I did turn eighteen, I still had to bring my mom with me to the recruiters to swear to it.
I was happy to be going into the Army. I saw it as an opportunity to escape the hellhole I was in. You don't know how it was back then. Things have gotten so much better that people forget what it was like. I wasn't black, I wasn't a Negro or Colored, I was a nigger! In Augusta, Georgia, that's all I was going to be. For me there was nothing those Nazis could throw at me half as bad as what I got at home. I finished high school and got pretty good grades; not college material, mind you, but better than most. I joined the Army the next day.
I went to my basic training right outside of Augusta. We were all black, except for a few white officers. I had to learn rifle, artillery, hand grenades and bayonets. I had to learn how to drive a tank, just in case. We learned to march and to do drills. I had to learn about bandages and how to stop bleeding, just like you. Basic training took eight weeks in the hot sweating miserable heat of Augusta in July 1943. A few guys busted out, but I was determined to make it and I even got a medal for marksmanship.
I had to take a train from Augusta to Fort Dix in New Jersey where our unit would ship out to Europe. We didn’t get to sit in the nice seats either. Those seats were in the front cars, which were for the whites. Hard wooden benches were what we got. And more men than seats. You had to bring your own drinks and something to eat because we were not allowed in the dining car, which was “Whites Only.”
Now this particular train only went as far as Cumberland, North Carolina, on the coast. Back then there were no hotels for us blacks. But in Cumberland dozens of black families came to meet the trains to offer us a meal and a place to sleep. It was that way all over the South back then.
Well, this really fine couple came over to me and asked if I had a place to stay. Next thing, I was in the back of their car. They had a Ford Super Deluxe with wood, and I mean actual wood on the side. I had never been in such a fine car. It was maroon and polished like a mirror. I didn’t know one black in Augusta that had a car this nice.
When we got to their house, I got another surprise. The house was gorgeous, standing all by itself, not attached to the neighbor’s house, and I mean it was fine. It had a garden, front and back, a front porch, with three ceiling fans, that wrapped around the side. It was a two story house and I didn’t see one thing that was broken on it. Sure, it was in a black neighborhood, but not like one I grew up in. All of the houses looked nice and clean. And safe.
I was at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Peeples. I felt like I was out of place, but they were so kind to me and tried to make me feel like I was the man of honor and that it was their privilege to have me there. Dr. Peeples even noticed my Marksmanship Medal and joked that he would have to be on his best behavior, me having such good aim. I laughed but I knew I had to be on my best behavior with these classy people.
When we got out of the car, Dr. Peeples helped me carry my duffle, which was nearly seventy pounds. Doc, I was barely 120 pounds myself back then. This surprised me ‘cause no one else had ever helped me lug that bag. Everyone looked to me to help carry their bags.
But the biggest surprise was yet to come. When I entered through the front door, standing in the vestibule was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Ethel, yes my wife Ethel. She was their oldest daughter and when I saw her, I wanted to marry her. Now mind you, I had never even been on a date before. I never had a girlfriend and never really paid attention to girls. Those days were over right then!
Ethel was, well you know for yourself, beautiful, tall, ‘bout one inch taller than me, with these high cheekbones, like she had some Cherokee in her or something. Her skin was the color of sweet tea, with those beautiful freckles on her cheeks. I was more like the color of dark, stained walnut, and skinny as a rail. I thought she was my age but I learned later that she was nearly a full year older than me. She offered her hand to me to shake and said how nice it was to meet me, in a voice like honey. I was speechless, dumbfounded, but did take her hand and started to bring it to my lips to kiss it but thought better of that idea and just said, “Ma'am.” That brought a giggle from her younger sister, Phyllis. Mrs. Peeples told me that dinner would be ready in one hour and Dr. Peeples showed me to my room. Ethel invited me to join her in the parlor as soon as I had a chance to settle in.
I was completely out of my league. Dr. Peeples was a general practitioner, a graduate of Meharry Medical College, one of the few medical schools in the country for black students. You probably heard of it. Mrs. Peeples taught music at the Booker T. Washington High School. She was a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio. Ethel had just finished her first semester there. Oberlin was the first college that took whites and blacks, men and women. Everyone in the Peeples family spoke more like white folks than black folks. I immediately started thinking about all those rules I learned in English class, but would occasionally slip into a ‘he be’ or a ‘fixin’ and I could see the cringing even though they tried to hide it.
My room was the nicest bedroom I ever saw. There were clean sheets, clean towels, fresh soap, a robe and slippers. The bed had a handmade quilt on it and two down filled pillows. The walls had wallpaper with yellow daffodils on it. On the walls were some pictures, in frames, of family members. On a dresser was a china tray with a glass pitcher of water and a drinking glass. Next to the tray was a bowl with some mints and chocolates. In the hall was a bathroom with a tile floor and a tub that stood off the floor, supported by four feet that looked like the paws of a lion.
So I got undressed, put on the robe, went into the bathroom, and took the most luxurious bath I ever imagined. I went back to my room and rifled through my bag of clothes to find the cleanest and most pressed uniform I had. I had aftershave in my toilet kit, which I applied liberally. I polished my shoes with spit like we were taught in basic. I decided that my best approach was to stand as erect and proud as I could muster.
Ethel was in the parlor and stood as I entered. Then she sat back down on the piano bench, facing me. I asked her if she played and she turned around played something she called ‘Bagatelle’ by Beethoven. Oh, could she play the piano. She was majoring in music and piano at Oberlin. She could play Chopin, Bach, and all that stuff but she also played Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin. She could play songs that were on the radio without even seeing the music.
She asked when I had to leave to go overseas. I had to be in New Jersey in four days and I checked the train schedule. I could stay for two more days, if she would like that. Of course she would, she told me.
At dinner I sat next to Ethel. Both Dr. and Mrs. Peeples tried to hide their discomfort with this, but it was obvious. They had set their sights much higher for Ethel. To them I was just some no-account, uneducated soldier, someone to honor for his willingness to serve his country but not someone for Ethel. I’m sure they expected me to catch the train to New Jersey first thing next morning. At least they were hoping. Mrs. Peeples served a pot roast, with little potatoes with red skins, which I never saw before, and whole carrots, with even some of the greens remaining. Dinner was served on china plates and matching silverware. In my house we sometime shared plates and most drinks were served in old jelly jars.
Ethel and I spent the next two days riding bicycles around the town, visiting some of her girlfriends, seeing her church, calling on her Aunt Florence and Uncle Elijah, visiting her high school, the same one her mother taught at. I could tell that Jim Crow lived in Cumberland just like he did in Augusta, but he managed to stay more in the background, not so right-in-your-face. I loved this place and I loved this Ethel.
Problem was Ethel did not love me. She liked me okay, but I think she was just too involved in her education, in her future, to be involved with anyone, especially me who was definitely below her in every way. She wanted to know what I planned for the future. I had no idea. I didn’t think of the future, only how to get through every day. Did I think that things would get better for Negroes, her word, in the future? I didn’t know. I did know this: if I wanted to get this girl, and I did, I was going to have to step myself up; I would have to improve my education, my language, and my ambitions.
Before I left Cumberland I asked Ethel to loan me a few books that I might take with me. She gave me Up From Slavery, by Booker T. Washington, The Complete Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and a book of poems by Langston Hughes, who I never heard of. Those books followed me everywhere and I read them anytime I had a few minutes and a little bit of light. I can still say five or six of those sonnets by heart. I asked her if I could write to her and she said yes and that she would write me back. She gave me her address at Oberlin and said that it would be best not to write to her at her home because her parents would not approve and might intercept the letters.
So I wrote to Ethel and she wrote to me. I wrote about what I was seeing and what I was doing. I brought some of those letters with me this morning. Let me read just some little bits from a few of them.
Willie F. Singleton, pfc, 098234767
92nd Infantry Division,
APO NY, NY
Sept. 23, 1943
Dear Ethel, I never thought I would miss being in the U.S. but since I met you I can’t wait to return. They keep us pretty busy most days. We don’t get to fight on the front. Mostly we get “clean up actions”. Everyone else in the regiment thinks that’s just fine. Let them white boys get killed they say. I don’t want to get killed but I would like to see some real action before I get home. …Say hello to Phyllis for me. I know you don’t want the doctor or your mom to know I wrote.
She wrote back:
Anna Louise Strong Women’s Dormitory
205 W. College Ave.
October 19, 1043
Dear Willie, It was so exciting getting your letter. …I hope you never have to see any real action. I worry about you. …Dad said yesterday in a letter, he wondered how Willie was doing. We have had so many “boys” spend a night or two there that I’m surprised he remembers you. I guess you made an impression.
Yours fondly, Ethel
Willie F. Singleton, pfc, 098234767
92nd Infantry Division,
APO NY, NY
December 12, 1943
Dear Ethel, I was happy to hear that Phyllis will be going to Oberlin next year. Seems like your whole family going to go there. We are in France now. The people here are nice. They white but they don’t seem to see us like niggers. To them we’re just American soldiers come to liberate them.
I’ve been reading those books you gave me every chance I get. I can’t understand too much of that Shakespeare but I know he’s writing about love. That’s something I am just learning about (smile). Why is it okay for Langston Hughes to say, ‘Ain't got nobody but ma self. I's gwine quit my frownin'...I ain't happy no mo’.’ but I would be looked down upon if I talked like that.
Anna Louise Strong Women’s Dormitory
205 W. College Ave.
Dec. 28, 1943
Dear Willie, Merry Christmas. I wish you were here with us. …
Willie, don’t worry about Langston Hughes. I like the way you talk…
Do any of those French girls think you’re some cute American soldier?
My Dearest Ethel,…why some of those French girls think I’m quite handsome!
All my love, Willie
Dear Willie, you best be teasing me about those French girls!
Darling Ethel, …those French girls don’t mean
anything to me when I got have your picture in my backpack.
I Love You, Willie
Doc, that was the first time I thought I might have a chance with Ethel.
I told her how reading Up From Slavery was the first time I ever thought about what it must have been like to be a slave. I admired Booker T. Washington’s humility and his dedication to education. I was starting to like the Shakespeare poems and even the Langston Hughes.
By late 1944 the war was starting to turn our way. We were gaining large parts of France. Paris was ours. My battalion was ‘cleaning up’ in a small town in southern France and, wouldn’t you know it, I got shot! I felt the bullet enter my hip area. It hurt like nothing I ever felt before. When I look down and saw the blood my first reaction was I thought they shot off my manhood. I never got to ask that German soldier why he shot me because twenty, thirty of my guys fired into the area where the shot came from and a dozen threw in hand grenades. That guy was blown up in a few seconds.
I spent the last three months of my service in a hospital. My manhood was untouched but my pelvic bone was broken and I needed surgery to stop an artery that was bleeding. I was lucky that all of us soldiers had to learn about stopping bleeding at basic training. That first week in the hospital is just a vague blur to me, Doc. I couldn’t get up for three or four weeks. I still have a slight limp, you may have noticed. A white General came to visit the hospital and gave me a Purple Heart medal.
I wrote to Ethel as soon as I could. She didn’t get the letter for two weeks and she wrote me back that she and her whole family were praying for me and that they were all so proud of me. I think this may have helped my cause with Ethel’s parents.
When I got back to the States, first thing I did was catch a train to Cumberland. Ethel was there to greet me. I saw her and limped towards her. She ran to me and I kissed her for the first time in my life, the first time I kissed any girl. It felt like electricity shot through me.
Later, back in her house, after dinner, I asked her to marry me. She told me that I had to ask her father. “That would be the proper way to go about it, Wille,” she said.
Believe me, Doc, I would rather be in a trench fighting Nazis than to go and speak to her father, ‘The Doctor.’ But I did ask him for Ethel’s hand.
“What are you planning to do, now that you’re getting out of the Army?” he asked me.
“I would like to be an electrician. I realize that’s not like being a doctor but I always like to fiddle with things and I learned a lot about wiring from the electrician in our battalion.”
I told him that while I was in the war I used my free time to read and to improve my mind. The whole experience, even getting shot, had matured me so that I hardly recognized myself. I told him that I loved Ethel, admitting to him that she and I had written to each other for the whole time I was in France.
“I would like your permission for me to marry Ethel. I look up to her talents and accomplishments. I will never hold her back in any way. I promise to work hard, stay out of trouble, and provide for Ethel the best I can.”
Dr. Peeples said nothing for thirty seconds, an eternity.
“Willie, I will think this over and discuss it with Mrs. Peeples. I’ll give you my answer tomorrow morning.”
At breakfast the next morning there was a lot of small talk. Dr. Peeples was reading the newspaper. He said that he thought Satchel Paige would be the first black to make it to the Major Leagues. Phyllis, Ethel’s sister, said she read that they were going to have some military tribunals in Germany. She wanted to know what ‘tribunals’ meant. Ethel told her that it was like a court. Mrs. Peeples said that a friend of hers was writing a book about black doctors in the South and that Dr. Peeples was going to be in it. I hardly ate a thing. The whole time I was in a cold sweat, butterflies dancing at will in my stomach.
Mrs. Peeples, Phyllis, and Ethel started to clear the dishes and I got up to help but Dr. Peeples cleared his throat, signaling the three women to leave the room. He motioned for me to sit back down at the table.
After a few seconds Dr. Peeples spoke.
“Doctors need good electricians too, Willie.” The full impact of this did not hit me right away.
“I have a good friend, an electrician, who could use an apprentice, if you are interested.” He looked me right in the eye and said yes I could marry Ethel, if she agreed. His only condition was that she graduate from college first. I was so happy I jumped up and reached to shake his hand but he stood up and gave me a giant hug, the first time I had ever been hugged by another man.
Well, Ethel and I were married the following year, a few weeks after she graduated college, and what a wedding it was! The Cumberland AME Church was filled to the brim. The reception was at the Cumberland Majestic Ballroom. Dr. & Mrs. Peeples hired a ten-piece band and extravagant caterers. No booze, of course. There must have been 200 people there, even some white folks. In the middle of the evening, Ethel played 'Take the A Train' on the piano with the band and, man how she played! Every time the bandleader signaled her to take a solo she gave different dazzling rendition. It seemed odd, yet beautiful, to see this woman playing the piano wearing a bridal gown and veil. People stopped dancing just to listen to her. Even the band stopped for a while so they could listen to her. The members of the band looked at her like she was Duke Ellenton himself.
When I looked around at all those well-to-do guests, the china and cut glass, the silverware, the flowers, the presents, the…well everything else, I wondered how long I could maintain the charade that I belonged here. I still thought of myself as a no-account from Augusta, which I was. I was half expecting someone to shout out, ‘Hey, dat just little Willie from the streets. He ain’t nuttin.’ But Dr. Peeples moved over to me, while Ethel was banging on the keys, put his arm around me, and motioned to his daughter, as if to say 'Isn't she grand!' and by his gestures included me in that assessment.
About a year after we married we moved to New York City. I got a job as an electrician and eventually was a plant manager. There were 150 people working under me. Ethel taught music in a high school, black and white. We lived in a classy neighborhood in Queens. We raised three great children. All of them went to college. Our daughter, Queen, graduated from Oberlin College, the third generation to do so. My son, Willie, Jr., had a son, Willie III. We have seven grands all together. It wasn’t until we both retired that we moved back South, to be near my family.
Doc, it’s a shame that Ethel’s mind started going so soon after you met her. You barely had the chance to know the old Ethel. She was so bright, so cultured, so kind, so warm. Then she started saying funny things and the next thing you know she was forgetting names and where she was and, well you know what she has been like. She smiles and laughs to herself. She talks to people who are not there, mostly her mother and father and always says ‘I’m doing fine,’ but if you ask her anything she can’t answer. When it’s time for her to go to dialysis, she wants to wear her Sunday best, thinking she is going to church. Not many of your patients wear white lace dress gloves to dialysis, do they? When she gets to the waiting room she goes around greeting all the other patients, welcoming them to the church and urges them to praise the Lord. She has no idea what treatment she is getting. Once when one of the nurses stuck that dialysis needle in her she slapped her and asked her, “Why’d you do that? That wasn’t nice.”
When you told us last week that Ethel had another stroke and that it was a bad one this time, and when you asked us, yesterday, if we wanted to keep her on life support, we all broke down. We love you, Doc, and believe me we are thankful for what you have done for Ethel and me. But this is no way to live, at least not for Ethel. We knew you were right and that you wouldn't lead us astray. We prayed hard about it. We asked God for His guidance and here is our decision: We do not want her to stay alive on machines any more. That Ethel lying up there in the ICU is not the same Ethel that stunned the crowd with her piano playing or the one who taught so many students about music and about the world, or the one who squeezed love into all of her children and grandchildren. She would not want to be in bed like she is for any more than...well, anymore. We have come to terms with God's will. We think maybe God wants her up there with Him to play a little Duke Ellington for the saints.
My eyes welled up at that thought. I assumed that he had finished speaking and I started to say something but Willie held up his hand to stop me. He continued his story:
I have a favor to ask, Doctor Riggio. Our grandson, Willie Singleton, III, my son's boy, is a Captain in the US Navy. He is the commander of his own battleship. Think of that! The grandson of a shiftless 'nigger' from the South, and he graduates from the Naval Academy and now he is a commander in the Navy. He and Ethel are so close. She taught him to play the piano. He came over to our house every day after school, even when he was in high school, just to be with Ethel. She just beamed when he graduated from the Naval Academy, way up near the top of his class. He was so trim and handsome in that white uniform and cap, and the President of the whole United States handed him his diploma. Ethel cried and cried she was so proud of him. He is right now flying back, fast as he can, from somewhere over there in Iraq or wherever, and we expect him to get here in a day or two. Then the whole family will be together. It would mean so much to him, and to us, and you may not believe this, Doc, but we do, it would mean so much to Ethel if they could be together one more time, if he could tell her how much she meant to him, if he could just touch her hands and kiss her face once more.
We would like you, if you could, to keep her going just a few more days until he has time to get here himself and to cry his own heart out over his dear sweet grandma.
Could you do that for us, Doc?