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Memory of a Dream (August 28, 2003)


     For forty years I have carried with me an indirect association with the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech that I would like to share on this anniversary.
In the summer of 1963 I was between my sophomore and junior years at MIT. I got a summer job in a company near Valley Forge, on the Main Line outside of Philadelphia where my parents had moved as I went off to college. The job was in the stock room.
     My boss, the supervisor of the stock room, was Julius, a black man, who, looking back on it, must have been in his mid-thirties, pretty mature by my standards then. The other employee was Tony, an Italian kid a year or two older than I and destined, I would guess, to spend his life in stock rooms. Tony drove a split-finned Buick convertible. Very cool. Think Fonzie or Travolta in Grease long before those characters became famous.
     As low man on the totem pole, Julius assigned me, among other routine things, to sweep the floor. He did not just hand me the broom, however. He took it himself and carefully showed me the right way to do it, with easy strokes parallel to the floor, admonishing me not to flip the broom into the air at the end of a stroke. That, he explained, would just spread the dirt and dust around. This was a simple lesson, but it left a deep mark on me. It was not given in an imperious way, but in the spirit of doing even small tasks correctly and with pride. The pride Julius had in his stock room and his desire to have it run properly filled the atmosphere there. To this day, I cannot pick up a broom without thinking of Julius, and I try hard to sweep parallel to the floor and to not kick up excess dust.
     At some point during the summer, Tony remarked to me, that, actually, he did not like blacks (probably not the word he used), but that Julius was different. I was very young and naive, but I had enough sense to know, if Tony did not, that the difference was that Tony knew Julius as a person, a caring individual with enviable standards.
     Then toward the end of August, Julius said he was going to be gone for a week. I think Tony and I, mostly Tony, ran the stock room while he was away. At that time, I was dimly aware, through headlines, of the turmoil in the South, but, to establish my naivete, I had no idea the March on Washington was being organized. I do not recall when I first heard the "I have a dream" speech, although I was moved by it, as all were.
     I do know that when Julius returned from that week in Washington, he glowed with a spirit that was palpable in the stock room. I did not know what had happened, did not even quite know where he had been, never mind what he had done, but that something good had happened to him came through loud and clear. Julius did not try to talk about it with two young white kids. He just radiated.
     It was years before I realized to any extent what it must have meant to Julius to participate in that March, but there was no question he came back a changed man.
     Wherever Julius and Tony are, I wish them well.