Split Between Black and White (The Last Question)

I couldn’t = have gotten home any sooner. After leaving Jewish unannounced, I stormed into the house without noticing mother sitting with company in the living room. I slammed my bedroom door, hopped on my bed and begin to weep. I soon would discover everything isn’t split between black and white.

Soon after there was a soft knock on the door when I heard it cracking open.

“You like to tell Mama what’s going on?” My mother asked with only her head in the room. She let herself in, sat on the bed beside me, and started rubbing my back making me cry harder.

“Come on sit-up and tell me what’s going on at Jewish Hospital.” Now her rubs had turned into pats.

I laid there a little longer with my face in the pillow then gather my thoughts and sat up. When I opened my eyes the poster of Aaron Pryor on the wall over my dresser was hard to see. I finally got the focus and I could see Pryor standing proudly with three championship belts. One on each shoulder and another around his waist. I put my head down feeling embarrassed.

I was twenty-two years old staying back and forth between my baby mother’s house and my mother’s house. Although I had a good job, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cleaning toilets. I knew I could do better. I turned and faced my mother who was there to listen no matter how long she had to wait.

“Moms I just quit volunteering at Jewish today.”

“And why you do that?”  she asked.

“It’s a long story.”

Then she gave me a look that said she has all the time in the world.

I told her how close me and Jeff had gotten and how he changed when he became licensed. She listened intensely as I explained how he spoke only to me when asking me question he thought I didn’t know. Then I told her it’s a black man who works there and don’t even speak to me. I said it feels like it’s me against the world over there.

“First Vernon you have to see the big picture.” Mom said like she had some experience with this.

“God put you at Jewish for a reason. It’s not a coincidence that you went to several other places before they accepted you at Jewish. Vernon,, it’s not what happens to you baby that God looks at, it’s how you respond to it. And now you responded just like the devil want you to respond in the flesh and that’s okay.”

Moms had all my attention because I was now trying to figure out what God had to do with all of this.

“We not going to worry about Jeff or no black man who don’t speak to you. What we’re going to do is pray that God places you somewhere else to train and for the wisdom to understand what you’re studying so the next time this Jeff have some questions you will have the answer.” Moms said while reaching out to hold my hands in prayer.

She said a prayer over me then told me to got back to Jewish and don’t worry worry about anything because she gave it to God. She let herself out my room leaving me confused but with hope.

Several days later I spoke with my friend Chuck and he informed me that he’s getting his hours at Withrow High School. I called Withrow and spoke with the head engineer name Mr. Clark. Mr. Clark told me to start reading my book beginning with the first page and when I come over there be ready to get dirty.

Withrow High School operated coal-fired boilers different from the packaged natural gas-fired boilers I was training on at Jewish. These boilers take a more skilled operator to run. One of the tasks the operator have is making sure the boilers are getting the proper amount of air and fuel, and if not, he must make adjustments himself because on packaged boilers all those duties are automatically.

With a thorough Engineer training me I begin to pick up things first hand and fast. We had an operating duplex pump that Mr. Clark used to teach us how to set the valves on. I seen what coking and caking looks like. And I was getting hands-on experience with over fired air-jets, injector pumps and traveling grates. After some hard studying, I began to pass the quizzes he would give us at the end of the day.  God was answering my mother’s prayer.

Meanwhile, Mike at Jewish allowed me to continue my training there after letting me know how he felt disappointed about me storming out without talking to him first. Now when I go to Jewish I say nothing but Hi after clocking in. I go trace outlines in the boiler room like Mr. Clark and Mike instructed me to do.

One afternoon while clocking in Jeff stopped me and began to ask me boiler questions in front of a control room full of pipefitters, electricians, and HVAC mechanics. I knew this day was coming. I slowly looked at every person in the room then turned to Jeff. I saw something different in his eyes; fear.

I answered every one of his questions correctly without hesitating including the question he asked me about the duplex pump. Jeff now feeling embarrassed because he began to turn red in the face but I was just getting started.

“Now Jeff let me ask you some questions,” I said while everyone was looking at me.

“What’s the purpose of a shear pin?” Jeff smiled half-heartily at Mike. The room was so quiet you could hear Jeff’s heart beating through his chest. Sweat began to build upon the tip of his nose.

“There’s no such thing as a shear pin.” He answered.

All the boiler operators faces froze in shock. Mike looked at me surprisingly but impressed. His face expression said he wanted to see what else I knew. Jeff slopped in his chair hoping I was finished  asking him questions; I wasn’t.

“What’s the purpose of tampering water?” I was asking Jeff questions that had to do with coal knowing he only studied natural gas boilers.

That was the last question. His eyes turned red as burning coal and steam was dissipating off his head. Pressure began to build up inside him. Jeff had turned into a human boiler. I knew I needed to relieve his pressure before his safety valve blew and destroying everything around us.

“Jeff I’m going to tell you what my teacher told me in class one day,.” I said now feeling sorry for him. “He said getting your license don’t make you a boiler operator. What make you an operator is hands-on experience. And what makes you a great operator is learning to practice safety first, looking for ways to save the company money and being a team player.”

I walked out of the control room and started taking a reading on the boilers and Jeff never returned to Jewish.

The reason I wrote this short story series ( Phase 1, Phase 2 and The Devil is a Lie) is because many times we look at our life from where we are at that moment and think our progress is not enough. We compare ourselves to how others see us and think we fall short of the mark. But we must not quit.

To God it isn’t who begins the race that receives the reward–it’s who finishes the race.

Today I’m still operating boilers for a living all because I honestly expressed my feeling to my mother when things got tough and had the willingness and courage to take her suggestions in going back and continuing my training in spite of the opposition. I showed faith, hope, and courage. That was over 26 years ago so I’m reaping my reward.


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