When you’re a kid from the sticks—at least that’s what living west of Ocean City, Md., was in the early 1960s—and an opportunity to get an education is put in front of you, you go for it, right? For me, that opportunity meant stepping onto a campus with an all–African American population, where I was the only white face in the crowd.
My mind was playing games with me as I drove to register at Maryland State College, now known as the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. I’d promised my wife that if there was any trouble I’d turn around and go home. So I put on my game face, sucked in my gut, and managed to register for the semester’s classes without incident. What I didn’t know at the time was that a guardian angel was watching me, and I don’t know what I would have done without the friendship of Bob Taylor, a star football player at Maryland State who later went on to play professionally.
Bob challenged me as we shared lunch in the student union, made me justify my decisions and criticized me for the bad ones I’d made. I learned about his upbringing in South Carolina, and how, for him and many others, the only way to a better life was through sports. He learned that I’d been in the Army and had nothing to show for it except the GI Bill and scholarships that I’d thrown away. We weren’t buddy-buddy at first; it took weeks of performing the waltz of developing a friendship. But the more we learned about each other’s lives, the more the color of our skin disappeared.
I was drawn into Bob’s circle when I joined the golf team, at his suggestion. The first time I began to feel anxious about joining the team was when I realized we’d be driving to our matches all together—four Black guys and me. But we devised a system that we thought would divert any roughnecks from coming at us. I’d drive and, if we were stopped or challenged, I’d just tell the story that the guys in the car were groundskeepers at the stadium in Baltimore and I was just driving them to work.
It worked for a while, until a cop stopped us on our way into Washington, D.C. His shiny boots and starched white shirt announced his arrival at the car window, where he questioned whether I, the white guy, was being kidnapped by the Black guys. I looked at him, stunned, and said I was the one driving—I dictated where the car was headed. We identified ourselves as golf team members from Maryland State, which gave rise to another question from the Lord High and Mighty—why was I enrolled at an all-Black college? I simply answered that Maryland State was the best college for me to attend. He spit on the ground, turned around in a precise circle and marched back to his car. I don’t think he heard our laughter as he spun gravel and got out of our way.
Those drives to our golf matches opened up a new world for me. My teammates learned that I played bass in a band that performed at a Black nightclub, and that jazz was a favorite genre of mine. The more we spent time together, the more we learned that we had a lot of things in common. Skin color wasn’t one of them, but some life experiences were.
Did I mention that our golf team won the championship for Maryland State that year?
Bob’s gentle reach extended to my wife, as well. In a note he wrote to me after we graduated, he mentioned that sitting at the dining table in our 12-foot-wide trailer with my wife, drinking a soda and just talking like old friends, was the first time he’d been invited into a white person’s home.
Life touched both of us, made us better people for it, and I hope Bob got as much out of our relationship as I did. It took me the journey through writing Matchsticks to realize how fragile friendships can be. I lost touch with Bob, who died in 2006, after graduation and never saw or heard from him again.
It’s my biggest regret.
Fred Engh founded the National Alliance for Youth Sports. His memoir, Matchsticks: An Education in Black & White, was published in May by Square One.