Ronald Cochran, Self-portrait (high school years, Pingree Park, Detroit),
Submitted to the
Wayne State University
College Of Urban, Labor, And Metropolitan Affairs
Department Of Interdisciplinary Studies
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
__________________________________________ Date ____________
(Senior Essay Advisor: Moti Nissani).
__________________________________________ Date ____________
(Senior Essay Examiner: Rainelle Burton)
__________________________________________ Date ____________
(Senior Essay Examiner: Peter Friedlander)
Aspiring to define myself in my own terms has been a lifelong mission, filled with ups and downs, learning to live as I live to learn. I’ve found out that growing up in Detroit introduced me to my deepest feelings of insecurity at an early age. Moving around town and exposing my true emotions about what I felt propelled me into a world of confusion, unstable thoughts and actions that I will never forget.
In this paper, I plan to share just some of my experiences with you about facing the unknown problems that controlled and altered my young life, which placed me in situations that I had no control or true understanding of. I shall show you how fear lived within me and haunted me, and how I strove to overcome it by any means necessary. I often found that fear would visit me at every opportunity. Later, I realized that fear visits us all. I just never knew it as a child; I felt I was the only one in my family who experience fear daily.
For my past, I would like to thank my mother for her everlasting support and love as a single mom raising five boys and a girl and never leaving us, not one even for one day, alone. For encouraging me to get on with my life and not remain stuck in the past, I thank my father for the genes passed to us all--gifts of talent that are no comparison to any father I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
For my present life, I would like to thank my wife, friend and lover Robin Cochran for her ability to put up with my highly adventurous life and mood swings that seem to be everything but normal. She has helped me in many ways so that I can continue to keep my mind open and free as a creative person should do, as I travel my life’s road without a map (BY MY OWN CHOICE). Without Robin I don’t think I could ever relax and just have a good time, because I realize I have a driven type personality which rarely deals with celebration. I understand clearly that opening up to Robin has allowed me to open up more to myself. And for that I am highly grateful even though I may not share it at times--thanks for your love and support, Robin! For throughout our marriage I thank God that there has never been a day that we’ve split up. Thanks to her presence in this married life on a day by day basis is where I became the man that I can live with. Having a wife like you made it possible. I hope we grow older, wiser and more peacefully in harmony and love as our elder years approach us. May we search to old age and life together to find even more love.
As for my future, I must thank God for giving me children. It is to my children that I dedicate this essay and all that my journey has produced, in the hope that fear would not control you all as it once did to me. No matter how people treat you, deal with them, as you would like to be dealt with. Sons of mine, fear will visit you. It knocks hard at all men’s doors. When it knocks, face him. For it’s your door that he knocks on, your house that he seeks to enter. You have control of both. Answer his call, making full eye contact and understanding the fear that surrounds you. And then with all the strength you have, immediately begin moving him out of your presence. Once you do that, your courage will do the rest. And yes we have them both, but courage and fear, like night and day, can’t eat at the same table. So whatsoever you choose to do with your lives, remember that people will never remember you for what you are going to do, but they well always remember what you did. Effort is everything. When you begin to reflex on your past you’ll understand.
I am deeply grateful to Donna Nissani for copy-editing my paper when it wasn’t her job and giving me her opinion and just taking the time out of her life to help me, and to my panelists Rainelle Burton and Peter Friedlander for their support and advice. They gave me a better overall view of this experience. And I would like to thank my advisor and councilor Pynthia Caffee for believing in me from the very first day I entered the university and helping me every day since then.
It could take weeks for me to name all the people who have touch my life, but I am grateful that they did and I thank all of you with a kind heart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1 – Introduction 7
Chapter 2 – The Good Early Years
· “Wake up, it’s time for school”
· My family, the nation, in search of me
· A star shines in the darkness
Chapter 3 – No Pain, No Gain
· Emotions working?
· Signs of a broken child
· Better days
· Hurlbut St.
· The best paper route
· More pain to gain 4th grade
· Cranbrook Art School, A cool breeze for a hot summer
Chapter 4 – Belvidere Street: My Father Leaves Us Alone!
· Peace on Belvidere Street, but the torment inside is
· Fifth grade
· Fighting back
· Sixth grade
· Student vs. Teachers: 6th grade
· Summer time at twelve, bikes, ideas and respect!
· Who didn’t want to be Evil Kenevill?
Chapter 5 – On My Way to Junior High
· Hot fun in the summer time, Maywood, Illinois 1973
· Eighth grade
· My last paper route, the coldest winter in Detroit
· Girls and high school: I didn’t make the grade
· Peer pressure at its best!
· Straight E’s and depression
· My nightmare at Eastside Center
Chapter 6 – Taking a Stand (Basketball)
· Working hard began to pay off
· Puppy love
· Life’s ups and downs: fear is the lock and balance is
Chapter 7 – Kettering High School 1977
· Paying the price
· The grades!
· Another rude awakening, complements from life
· Oh yes, I woke up
· I dreamed about laying up the ball in my blue &
Chapter 8 – Eligibility: Dreams do Come True
· Summer 1978: back at Eastside Center (Second time
· My father’s back
· Tentative Reflections on the Origins of my Father’s Conduct
· A performance to remember
· I had to dig deep, and dig deep I did
· A great summer on the court
· Still finding my way
Chapter 9 – My PSL Debut
· Living the dream!
· Non-stop to the top, so I thought
· The big house!
· Life after basketball
· Life and death
· The dropout
Chapter 10 – Slapped from Boyhood to Manhood
· Facing facts
· Back to school
· A reality check
· God works through people
Chapter 1: – Introduction
I was born on the lower eastside of Detroit, during the early 60’s, to James & Earlene Cochran. I can remember having some very happy moments, and some sad ones too. My earliest memories are with my family and playing with my brothers, Earl, Jimmie, David, and Chris. Chris was closest to me in age. Later memories include my little sister Denise (Niecy) who is eight years younger than me. I remember Chris and me drawing as one of the first things I could do. Another early memory, probably in 1965 when I was about 4, is sitting peacefully on my back porch in the morning after all my brothers had gone off to school. In fact it was my first feelings of being lonely; I began to think of ways to entertain myself. I’d sit on the porch early in the morning with the sun shining and me looking up into the beautiful blue sky as the clouds moved by, and admire what I felt was some great cloud migration in the ski.
I began following the clouds mentally as they traveled across the pretty blue sky. It seemed like I could sit on those clouds and travel right along with them. I began to make shapes out of these clouds; it seemed like I could do this for hours at a time. I would make a shape and watch it turn into something else and then create another shape again. Then I’d go back to the house and talk with my mother.
After a while I began to play better alone. I remember thinking a lot and asking my mother questions about life itself. Sometimes I just looked up into the sky to embrace the art of thinking. It even got to the point that when my brothers came home my sense of peace and line of thoughts were broken (I enjoyed being by myself at an early age).
I remember my mother singing those old southern songs about work, pain and how our happiness would come when we went to heaven (I wondered even then why we, black folks, had to wait until we got to heaven before we found peace). One thing I really remember about my mother that would last many, many years was how, no matter what I made, she always praised it. “Oh, how nice that looks”, she’d say. You know I remember sometimes just making things so I could just hear her praise me. I also made things especially for her, like pictures, picked flowers and other constructions. At about three years old, long before I could write, I could draw legible pictures. My artistic imagination was an early companion to me. My favorite toys were creations from my imagination and things I found around the house. My mother’s praise nourished my artistic style and creativity; constantly trying to outdo my brothers helped also.
I only have few memories of my father at this time; it seems he was always at work. He had artistic skills too. I recall my brother Chris and I going into the closet and looking at his artwork. For some reason I always felt like we were sneaking when we were doing that, because he kept his art way in the back of the closet. Ever since I can remember, I had a great fear of my father. I guess my fear came from his loud voice, the whippings he gave us and the horrible stories my brother would tell me about my father all the time. I also remember how proud I felt to have a father who could draw. All of us seem to have talent in various areas--art, music singing, a photographic memory, fixing things, all sports, and math.
Chapter 2: – The Good Early Years
I had a mother, father and four older brothers. So, when they were around I was never without attention. Thus, when my brothers came home from school it seemed like a whole new world prevailed at our house. No longer did I have that quiet time; instead, it was personalities flying all over the house. Everybody had something to do; everybody wanted something to do. Mama would speed up everything. That time I had her to myself was gone! And so went my ideas of solitude and what I would to do next. It seemed my brothers had everything all figured out once they got home. At that point I felt I had no choice but to follow my brothers, sometime I would continue to play alone but not much. After all, I was the youngest of five boys at the time, and younger brothers didn’t lead, they followed. But it was not without fun following them. Little did I know they had enough ideas to last a very long time. When they came home, I could get answers to most of the questions I had thought of while they were at school. Sometime my brother David would give me an answer even if it wasn’t right (he meant well).
I can remember my father having us involved in sports, music and art at early ages, he was also very, very hard on us about our homework. My first experiences with homework were standing in lines waiting next to get a whipping. I understand now, that my father had a great passion for learning and for us to learn, but he had a very terrible way of showing it.
Moving along. we sang together as a group of five boys before the Jackson Five were ever heard of. It’s funny now, but I was the youngest sibling--singing baritone--and I knew then my father had plans for us. I never enjoyed singing though. In the sporting world, my father had us practicing with one another. We began our first competition in a fierce way against each other. I remember my father always pushing us to our max and beyond. Never establishing rules for brotherhood, just stressing the facts about winning and losing. That pressure to excel would prove good and bad over the years--a double-edged sword. When he was around he kept the pressure on. I remember Chris and me had a fight with two neighboring brothers, which they won. We came home and daddy told us to go back and we’d better win this time or he would whip us. So we did go back and claimed the victory.
Back yard of the Cochran home, Seyburn St, Detroit, sketch b y Ronald E. Cochran, 2004
During those years he pushed us very hard, but he also played and laughed with us very gently at times. At that time he was the perfect dad in my eyes. . We had a peculiar backyard; to this day I haven’t seen such a yard! Size-wise, it was no bigger than your average Detroit backyard, (SHOW GRAPHIC OF YARD) but it was well utilized in terms of space and creativity. Our yard had a basketball court in the ally for the big guys, and another basketball court inside the yard on the garage for us little ones. A mechanic shop was inside the garage where my father could work on cars and pull and change engines. There was a doghouse on the side of the garage for our favorite dog Pal, who could beat any dog around. Once I saw him beat two Doberman pinchers (SP?) at one time. Then there was the garden space next to the dog pen. We had a swing set that was new, and a deep hole in the ground, about 3 or 4 feet deep, with a mattress at the bottom so that we could jump down and climb back up. I still recall the horseshoe ring, a marble circle, and a beautiful archway hanging over the sidewalk with rose flowers for my mother, and the extra large birdhouse we called the bird hotel. There was also a very clean well kept stretch of dark green grass with a path leading strait to my favorite back porch steps where I did my best thinking and dreaming. I remember all the kids in the neighborhood wanting to come inside our yard everyday. On some days they would form a line and we would have to pick and choose among them because we could not let them all in at the same time. Our basement was well utilized too; we had a pool table and a jukebox that nobody else in the neighborhood had.
James Cochran Sr., My father, 1975
My father worked long hours in the New Haven Foundry in the hottest part of the plant where he guided hot melted steal from out of the large pots with a long steel poll. I feel he was a very frustrated man who was not making his living using one of the many skills he possessed as an extremely talented man in art, music, singing and writing. He was a union organizer, mechanic, and a former professional football player. He also played a little basketball and set high school track records that still stand to this day. We all have gifts in those same areas. My mother was more talented in academic pursuits in her younger years in school. She was one of the smartest in a very large family, and she showed a strong desire not to give up, and showed as well as an extension of love and forgiveness that is rarely found.
Wake up, it’s time for school
Around the age of five I started school. I remember talking with my brothers about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I recall saying I wanted to be a psychologist. At that time I felt they could read people’s minds. I thought that was the greatest gift a person could possess and I always wondered what was on the mind of other folks. My first days of school were very tough but at the same time fun. Learning was ok, drawing my specialty, singing the pits, and homework a time I didn’t look forward to.
While I was being introduced to public school, my family was falling apart. My father was a drinking man and it got worse over time. The frustrations of not using his talents began to destroy him. He passed up an opportunity to be a lead on the famous Show Boat rolling along the Mississippi River. He didn’t follow through on a recording deal. Instead, he signed a contract, produced a record, and stopped the process. Also a company out at Grosse Pointe, Michigan wanted to hire him to paint billboard signs along the I-94 freeway not long after it was built--a ground floor opportunity in billboard advertising. Not long after that his doctor told him that some people just couldn’t hold alcohol and that he was one, his system just couldn’t handle it. It’s ironic that when I was in my third year of college and taking my yearly physical for basketball my doctor told me the same thing. He told me I was in the greatest shape of any player on the team, but that my type of body system couldn’t take alcohol.
Meanwhile my mother’s patience grew thinner, and my brothers and I got more frustrated and confused, and my sister wasn’t born yet. Personally I went into withdrawal, and I believe that’s when insecurity began to take hold of me. I went into my first known phases of withdrawal, clinging ever more tightly to my inner thoughts--deeper and deeper I went. In school I became a daydreamer, especially in classes that didn’t interest me. If I could have had it my way, I would have sat in class all day and no one would of said a word to me. I became more of problem to my teachers, as they tried to get me involved. It was in the first grade that I started falling behind in my reading group, because I was shy. But in my art class my teacher, Mr. Berlin, would always hold my artwork up and show it to the class and say, “This is how your drawing should look like!!” I appreciated his efforts to inspire other students, but I truly didn’t want the attention.
During that time I was about 5 years old, I didn’t know how to interact with my fellow students in school, and I never felt fully accepted. When it came to girls, I was totally speechless— one reason was because at home at that time I had no sisters to interact with, I just had no idea how to act around girls. I often thought about how pleasant it would be to talk to the girls like my friends did. It literally took many years to come up with some answers to the girl problem.
I remember that around the same time my mother leaving my father and taking us with her. We would leave and come back-- over and over again-- and by then that perfect dad I spoke of earlier became my nightmare. His drinking transformed him, and it got even worse. Between drinking, loud talking, jumping on my mother and fighting my older brothers almost on a daily basis, life became unbearable. It seemed as though his love for his family turned to hate overnight. And of course I was wondering what happened, why had the man we had looked forward to seeing when he came home from work changed? Whatever happened to the father who took time out with us, invested in our development, the man who had laughed and played so creatively with us? I had come to the point where I didn’t want him to come home at all. That nightmare went on for about two or three years. My world was crushed--I felt betrayed--I just didn’t know what was going on with my family, and everyone was changing. At the same time, my brothers and I began to lash out at one another. I definitely continued to try and figure things out with the mind of a 5 or 6 year old. “Why” became the question of the day, in school and out.
Drawing and making things became more important to me, the only I felt I had any control. Here, with a blank sheet of paper I could express and experience beautiful feelings. I could make things the way I wanted them to be, and that I did. I could draw for hours at a time, taking flight into a world of creative thoughts and peace.
Another problem during those years was the moving from one school to another. I ended up attending six different elementary schools. It seemed that just when I made friends it was time to move again, making the withdrawal into myself even more pronounced. And all of this turmoil showed up in the classroom, especially when we had group projects or read aloud.
Me, my family and the nation in search of ourselves
All this was taking place in the middle 1960’s, when our nation as a whole was in transition. I was in second grade and don’t remember much, but I do remember a vague feeling of unease, of a whole nation confusedly stumbling, and once again not understanding why this was taking place. I soon found out about civil rights and struggles of my people, black folk. But what were civil rights? By then the Detroit Riots of 1967 had started. Meanwhile, we were back at home with my mother and father again, but things seemed to be getting worse. The same time the National Guard was all over the city and the very same park I had played in was filled with soldiers walking around and policing the community. Our familiar alleys were turned into transitional roads for tanks and army trucks in search of strategic positions from which, it seemed, they were poised to attack my community. On Mack Avenue, army men were lying in the middle of the street with machine guns loaded and in hand, ready to fire at us. I began putting some things together, watching blacks being attacked on TV, national guardsmen filling our alley, the issues of racism gradually emerging into the foreground of my consciousness. Even schools organized walkouts with all the kids and most of the teachers walking out of school buildings, protesting the conditions we faced.
I was introduced to the Black Panther Organization one day when me and my brother Chris, and my friend Moogie were up on Mack Avenue. We stopped at the Inner City Drop-In Center. When we walked in, I heard loud voices singing songs about the police and the National Guard. “Off the pigs and whose blood, whose, blood the pigs’ blood, the pigs’ blood”. I felt so especially proud of all of us, shaking the place up with our voices, with everyone in the room holding their head high in the air with self-assurance, black power fists gripped tight and waving. I had never seen my people so emotional, angry, and full of pride. I really felt were on the move (“I’m fired up, can’t take no more…”)--it was awesome! I was among the people who were willing to die for what they believed in. It was so exciting to be in an environment like it—an experience that has never returned! It’s true for oppressed people, that once they to get some pride; rage is not far away as the next reaction. I can remember starting to cry and a big tall panther brother held my hand and said it would be all right. Then my brother Chris took me out, and as we walked outside the police pulled up—I have no idea what happened after they came. Oh, how my brother laughed at me for crying, calling me chicken. But I didn’t think of my reaction as all fear, I felt I was just overwhelmed at the whole experience I also remember when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral was on national television in 1968, and the nation was in tears, blacks and whites. It was a very sensitive time in my life, and even though I didn’t know much about Dr. King, I could tell by the actions of the community that we lost a great man.
A short time later, we were on the move again, fleeing from daddy. We moved to Mount Clemons for part the summer of 1969 to stay with my Uncle Son one of my mother’s brothers, while she was pregnant with my little sister Denise. David, Chris, and me always traveled together in those days, sharing our nomadic lives, and trying to make the best of things. These two always made sure I had plenty of fun. We did a lot of things together and being the youngest brother meant that everything we did was a real challenge for me. With them it seemed every day was an adventure even though by then we already had our share of adventures. You had to have brothers like mine to understand them. They gave me the hardest times over the years, but wouldn’t let anyone else harm me. Wherever we went we made fun times of it. Whatever we did we did it hard--played hard, ate hard, slept hard and fought even harder. We played baseball, football; drew pictures, collected GI Joes with a passion, told scary stories, played monopoly, and had paper wad fights. I remember learning how to ride a bike that summer, and when I thought I had the knack of it; I rode my bother David’s bike in the street. I was riding very fast and doing quite well until it came time for me to turn. I was in the street riding on one side, and a car was coming on my side and my uncle’s truck was right in front of me. I was afraid to make the turn between the car and my uncle’s truck and ran right into my uncle’s truck and everyone laughed at me.
We grew tired of Uncle Son’s house, he didn’t treat us very well most of the time, so one day we decided to ride David’s bike back to Detroit, 25 miles away. The three of use got on David’s small bicycle. Dave was riding me on the back seat and Chris on the handlebars. Obviously, we only made it a few blocks-- it was a tough three blocks and we hadn’t eaten yet either. Neither of us ever had much problem trying anything back then. None of us had a problem with at least trying to find a better way to do whatever we attempted.
A star shines in the dark
Around that time, my little sister came along, and, from the very start, she was a pretty new ray of light for our struggling family, a badly needed source of innocent love. I was jealous of her for a while, me no longer being the baby of the family. For eight years that was my spot, but at the same time I welcomed her arrival to this world. She was born August 1, 1969, three months before our next journey away from home. I still remember how we had to wash our hands every time we touched her. She was so precious and new to the family. When I thought of her, she reminded me of the word clean because my mother made sure that everything around her was that way.
So we came back home that summer to the same family problems with my father, his drinking starting to get even worse. Little did I know we would be leaving again, but this time my mother said it was for good and by October 29,1969 we were gone. It seemed like one day I came home from school and everything had been moved, my house was empty. I got a chance to take a look around the house with no furniture –it a was puzzling site. And then we were out of there. My mother sent Chris, David, and I to Chicago, I was in third grade. It was a rough place to be, on the Southside in the Projects with my Uncle Otha and his wife Aunt Mary and their children, but it was a lot better than my uncle Son’s house. It was also the longest time I remember being away from my mother as a child.
Because we were from Detroit, my brothers Chris and David had to fight a lot at school and in the projects. For my part, it seemed I never had any more problems making friends once I started talking. Even in the projects, us three had fun. I remember us getting eggs out of the house and going up on the top floor of the projects in the hall way and dropping them on people as they passed and ran. We stayed a few months there, without our mother and newly born sister. I remember one particular morning, which still stands in my mind as fresh as if it happened yesterday; when we woke up we heard mama’s voice in the front room. All three of use jumped up out of bed and ran down the hall as fast as we could to greet her and hugged her as tightly as we could, hoping she will stay with us forever. I think this was my first realization of the true power of a loving embrace. My mother told us we had a new house of our own without daddy and we were so relieved.
Yet each time we moved it seemed like we got a little bitterer. Every move, every separation, carried a heavy price tag for us youngsters. By this time I was a nervous wreck and my self-esteem dropped to an all time low. The only weapon available to us was laughter. It was clear that the only thing we knew how to do was laugh at it all just to keep from crying. We had our own place all right, but we were not yet home free, for my father was determined to see his daughter and make our lives and my mother’s as miserable as he could along the way. He was upset because my mother left him 2 months after his only daughter was born. Also she left without notice and took all the kids and all the furniture from the old house on Seyburn.
Chapter 3: – No Pain, No Gain
Our new house was on Grandy Street, down in Black Bottom on Detroit’s eastside. It brought us closer to solving some of our problems, but it wasn’t without pain. My father stalked us just about every other night, so our nerves were shot. It was a large old wood frame house with shiny floors and walls that leaned and squeaked when the wind blew too hard. The nice thing about it was everybody had their own bedroom, and there were rooms left to spare! There was a large old style kitchen with about three doors leading outside, and a scary, unfinished basement. Below the basement there was this dark room we called the sealer; I felt it was some kind of passage to the bottom of the earth. We had an old huge garage. Above the garage there was a separate apartment. Mom told us to never go up there but we did anyway. This apartment had no stairway so, to get there, we had to climb the walls and pull our selves up. It was so raggedy up there we had no desire to go back. I had my own room for the first time and the first thing I set up was some type of desk or office to work and play on. Even our best friend Moogie had his own room when he spent a night, which happened often. We often played by ourselves in our own rooms, but we would usually end up in this center room where we all played together. What wonderful times we had then! We had so much space we didn’t know what to do with it all.
But nothing’s simple in life, and those extra rooms brought other problems to the family. Daddy had found out where we lived and began hanging around the house. At first, he was seen looking in the windows from time to time but then it got worse. My older brothers Earl and Jimmy were having problems watching out for the family in that old huge house. Then neighbors said there was a man they’d often see in the garage. Fear began to rise and consume the household; those old squeaky noises from the wind now became Daddy. As for the old apartment over the garage, with a child’s imagination, we started thinking Daddy was living up there. By then we didn’t know exactly where dad was living but it was very obvious that he was hanging around our house a lot. The family was a nervous wreck, and me about four times the wreck. We had to find help. My brothers’ two friends Sunny and Robert came to stay with us some nights to help keep watch. It didn’t help much, so my uncle Erskine came to live with us for a while. It wouldn’t be long before we found out he was just as scared of my father as we were, but he was a nice guy and it helped just having his presence around. Then my Mother was working midnights at a restaurant called Joe Muir’s. Things at home were only getting worse though. We all began to play this game, “Did you hear that?” or, ”Did you see that?” “That’s Daddy!” and then they’d laugh; I guess it was funny to them, but each time they did it they just scared the hell out of me. No one could sleep around their day or night. It was hard to distinguish between jokes and reality. Often in those days in that old huge house I’d see Earl sitting by the front-room window with a hand gun, while Jimmy was sitting by an upstairs back window in the back of the house with another hand gun, and they would look at me and say everything’s going to be all right. Yeah, right I thought, if everything’s going to be all right then why are you sitting there with a gun in hand watching out for my father?
It was a very mixed up time in my younger years. I was only nine years old, and just couldn’t make sense of my surroundings. I still remember wanting badly to just see my father. Boy, it was all very confusing and no one would explain what was really going on, so I had to somehow penetrate this wall of silence, and figure out things on my own. Three things in particular stayed on my nine-year-old mind at the time--The fear factor about my father, the dream of us all being back together somehow, and the sheer unconditional love that a boy has for his father. That love, in particular, and the desire to make us come together again, were particularly strong emotions. But every word I heard about my father was bad, nobody said anything good about him anymore and there were all those nights watching out for him. The only thing was said all day, every day was; who would be the one to catch him and shoot him like a wild animal, who would be the first to shoot down our private public enemy # one. Nobody cleared these things up for me; no one tried to help me make sense of what was happening to us. The whole family was in some state of denial; acting like things weren’t so bad.
Signs of a broken child
Thinking of all the things that took place as I grew up, it’s a miracle I made it to adulthood. As I was saying, things only got worse. The elementary school I attended then—my fifth—was the first school I went to where I didn’t care to make any new friends. I felt there was no need because we would only move again. But I recall one day walking to school with my brother Chris and another kid from the neighborhood. As we walked, a man pulled up in an old red car, showed us some candy, and asked us to come get it. We took off running and the car started chasing us. Our friend kept going straight while Chris and I ran down a narrow alley looking for a place to hide. Finally, we ran into a yard and hid behind some old pile of wood. We could see the red car coming down the alley slowly, its driver searching for us, going past our hiding place. I recall being so happy it wasn’t Daddy. Chris and I stayed behind the woodpile for a few moments and then we took off running home. We told everybody at home what had happened. They thought it was Daddy but we told them it wasn’t. Once they understood it wasn’t Daddy, it was over, no longer important.
Meanwhile, Daddy was lurking around the house more and more. One sunny, hot Saturday afternoon while playing in front of the house with some friends, all at once Daddy was there and I heard him ask, “Where is your mother?” “At the Laundromat,” I replied, before I could even think. Once he started walking there, I told David and he told me we had to find help. I followed Daddy to the Laundromat and then David came out of the house; and it was a blessing that Jimmy was coming down the street. David told Jimmy what was happening. Jimmy then went up to the Laundramat, my brother Chris was already there with mama. When I got there my father was standing in front of my mother fussing. The man who worked there asked my father to cool down, so my father threatened the man and the man kept quiet. While my father had words with the man, my mother told me to go get Niecy at home and take her to our cousin’s (we called her “chicken”) house. Meanwhile, Jimmy told me that he told my mother to get all the clothing and get going. Jimmy carried a pistol around with him and had it under his shirt. And as Jimmy, Chris and Mama left the Laundromat, Jimmy showed daddy the gun under his shirt. Daddy kept his distance as they walked home.
Denise (Niecy) Cochran, around 6 or 7 years old, 1977
I still vividly remember how terrified I was. Off I ran back home. My brother Dave was in the kitchen with my little sister Niecy. I told David that Mama told me to take Niecy down to Chicken’s house as soon as I could and then come back. David handed me Niecy and her bag and off I went running with her and the bag in my sweaty hands. I was running to my cousin’s house, which was about three blocks away. I was getting tired and breathing very hard but I didn’t stop at all. I kept running and it seemed like the house was a mile away. I finally arrived at their side door, banging on it as hard as I could. Chicken opened the door and had a strange expression on her face. I was breathing extremely hard, my heart beating a hundred times faster then normal. She then asked what was wrong with me. I was so tired and afraid that the only word I could get out was “Daddy”. I then stuck my arms straight out with my sister and the bag in hand, dropped Niecy in Chicken’s arms and took off back running down the hot sunny street back to the house.
When I got back the front door was knocked down. My brothers Jimmy, David, and Chris, along with my father and mother were inside. After it was all over my brother Chris told me Daddy had mama on the couch with a knife to her throat threatening to kill her. My brother Jimmy, who was seventeen at the time, said to my father to let her go three different times. My father then got up and said, well I should have taken care of you first. Jimmy told him to stop.
James Cochran, 1971, U.S. Marines
Daddy then told Jimmy he wasn’t a man yet and kept coming at him. Jimmy then said stop again, and then a third time. Then fired four shots from a 22 pistol, hitting my dad once each in the chest, in the arm, the stomach, and in his thigh. I heard the four gunshots where I was, out in front of the house. I ran to a side door trying to get in. I opened the door and was shocked to see my father walking towards the kitchen with blood running from several spots. I stopped at the doorway, and saw in his eyes a crossfire of emotions—a sense of peace, frustration, and embarrassment. He had a look that I would only come to understand once I became a man myself and ran into life’s brick walls. To me his look seemed to say: “You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” I recall thinking, what is this all about and when would it stop? What am I doing in this rotten world anyway?
He walked into the kitchen, leaned over the sink, and washed his wounds with a rag. I stood at the kitchen door, quietly watching him. He never turned around to look me in the eyes the way I wanted him to, to just explain to me in his own words and for once, tell his youngest son, just what this was all about anyway. What happened to our family? What’s going to happen to our family? He never said a word to me!
By then the police came inside the house and took my father and brother Jimmy to jail. My father gave them trouble; it took about five police just to get him in handcuffs to take him down. I stood there and stepped back as he passed by me, still not returning my look. We all walked to the front door of the old wood frame house and stood on the porch, with the whole neighborhood watching. As they led my brother Jimmy out, he was mad and very upset about having to go to jail, and the police were calling him trigger-happy. I remember feeling as though it was the end of this old world and a beginning of a new one, and feeling that at least I could get some sleep now. At the time all this took place Jimmy was a senior at Northeastern High School right down the street. He was in a high school architect co-op program funded by General Motors Co, and was staying on campus at Wayne State University awaiting a four-year scholarship after graduation. But after all the problems he had with my father he wanted to just get out of town, so he joined the Marine Corps a few weeks later.
While I write these lines, I decided to ask Jimmy what were his feelings at the time about having to shoot our father. He put his head down and cried, 34 years later. Still with tears in his eyes, he quietly said, “I he was tired of the whole thing. All this fighting had been going on for years. Steam was building and it all came up inside me that day, just when I was on my way to college and had found some direction to my life, doing the thing I always loved--art. On my way to college I was!” Then he shook his head.
Then I asked how him how he felt right after the shooting. He told me he was at first angry with himself because he didn’t kill him. “Then he felt happy, ‘cause I really didn’t want to kill my father and I got a good feeling deep inside that said this thing was all over.”
He told me that his cell was right next to daddy’s, and that Daddy started to apologize and crying about what happened. “After all I had been through, now I had sit next to him and hear this all night. After a few hours passed it got quiet and all at once this very sad feeling about shooting my father came crashing down on me like a tone of bricks. As the years go, by I still feel a great remorse about that day. It should have never happened that way.”
That was the summer of 1970. We were extremely happy, for it seemed our ordeal with Daddy was over. We started to play again in a somewhat normal way; our friend Moogie started spending more nights over at our house, and we spent more nights over at his. I remember walking from our house to Moogie’s house. He lived on Seyburn right down the street from our old house. Mama would give us bus fare, but we kept it and walked about three miles. It took a while but Chris, Dave and I made it.
David was the leader, it seemed. Chris never wanted to do anything Dave’s way, so they would often end up fighting along the way, with me being the mediator and sometimes joining in. We also would stop at the stores on the way to eat cookies, chips, and soda pops. As we walked we would sing songs, each taking his turn to sing the lead part of his chosen song, then we cracked jokes and teased each other. I remember I always liked to walk in the middle.
Somehow we always came back to our old house on Seyburn St. Over there we did it all in that neighborhood—played with our GI-Joe’s, made go carts, went swimming, played football, basketball, baseball, shuffle board, even hockey with the Parkers-- Moogie’s big brothers. We also practiced climbing trees in preparation for fall when it was time to raid all the fruit trees in the area. Another favorite was Parks and Recreation’s after-school programs, riding to Belle Isle and screaming as loud as we could while riding under the old tunnel (which isn’t there anymore), swinging in the park, climbing on top of the school building and jumping off when the police or neighbors came, sliding down the fire escape after school. Thus, the ordeal with Jimmy and dad was followed by some of the best times in my life.
Then my brother Jimmy joined the Marines while my brother Earl was moving around from job to job tying to find himself, joining the American workforce and its cruel propensity to make and break black men by the second.
The crew, Chris with fist up, David at top with gray shirt,
Moogie down at bottom white shirt and
Myself with the number 87 sweater
My mother just didn’t feel safe at that house on Grandy any more after all that happened there. At the end of that summer we moved again, into an apartment on a street called Hurlbut Feather East. Nobody liked the new place, it was too small and in a neighborhood where we didn’t know anyone--we certainly didn’t receive a warm welcome from the neighborhood’s kids.
I was in fourth grade now. I recall spending Christmas in that small apartment--the only year we ended up getting Good Fellow Boxes--a package of toys given to the poor from the government. We all felt sad about it, but we took them anyway. A day after Christmas I solemnly asked Chris and David what I thought was the ultimate question “Are we poor?” They answered, “No, you must be crazy.” But I was very serious; I was getting tired of moving having to go without things I was used to when we lived with Dad. I missed having toys, and a big house, a full basement with pool table and games, our special backyard, the place where I could play safely alone. But at least the peace continued while we lived there, for no one, including my father, knew where we lived. I remember a store that was right around the corner that we went to. Back then, the stores had a sucker called a winner sucker it cost 5 cents, boy it was great, you buy one and opened it and if it had a winner sticker on it you could get another sucker. I remember often-winning four, five and six suckers in a row, it was the great.
The best paper route
I remember David had a paper route and a rather large one at that. He would pay me to help him deliver the papers on Saturdays. Before work, all the paper boys would go to the paper station and play penny pool in the back where there was a small room with nothing in it but a clean table. Penny pool was like shooting pool but you took a penny, put it on the table, aimed with your finger, and hit someone else’s penny until you knocked it off the table. Once it fell off the table, it was yours.
Dave was the best. He’d shoot those pennies all the way across that table with one shot and I would be at the other end with my hands open, smiling, waiting to catch the money as it fell off the table. Before we left the paper station on Saturday morning we had pockets full of money (I felt rich!).
Then we were off delivering papers. I remember at the end of our route when all the papers were delivered and the wagon was empty, Dave would push me all the way home in the wagon. I think I enjoyed that more than the money. One day we came to a large street crossing at Warren & Cooper. We crossed those streets every day in the wagon, but this day traffic was fast coming. Dave told me to hold on tight; we were going across as fast as we could. I remember the wagon started rolling faster, holding on to the handle with all my young strength, guiding it like a stirring wheel. Then I felt Dave’s hands pressing into my back even harder and I started going faster and faster. As we crossed and the traffic got closer to us, he pushed his hands into my back even harder. The cars were right up on us and I was losing control. Dave told me to hold on, and by then the wagon was going as fast as ever and I was leaning hard on two wheels. Then a car had just flown by us, I hit the curb, we both fell in the grass, and laughed so hard with David breathing like he was about to die. I didn’t see how awfully close that car was, but David did.
More pain to gain: 4th grade
I was in fourth grade at Jones Elementary. I was having trouble with all my classes but art, and I didn’t seem to be able to pay attention or just didn’t care; I was trying to be a bad guy and was doing a good job of it. At this time Ms. Campbell was my teacher. She was pretty and strong. She reminded me of Angela Davis--the great Black Panther party leader. Ms. Campbell proudly imparted to us her knowledge of Black History. She would ask the class if we wanted to do more history when it was time for us to work on another subject. After we all agreed, she informed us we would have to work harder to make up the other work too, and off we went into another exciting adventure. It was my first experience of someone trying to connect me to our lost heritage. She dressed us in dyed sheekies, combed our hair into an afro, sang songs, read stories, let us do art work, made African instruments and took us on trips around town. Our class had pride and the whole school respected us for just being in her class. I remember other students being jealous, for she took us back to the motherland right in that classroom. She helped me understand America, Africa, Dr. King, the Black Panthers, culture and the black community. Her teachings are still engraved in my soul to this day. I had to go to summer school that year just to pass to fifth grade. I wasn’t alone-- almost half the class had to go with me. It was another tough year but I passed.
Cranbrook Art School: A cool breeze for a hot summer
That same summer I was one of two or three chosen from the entire school to attend Cranbrook Art School for a summer art class. I got a chance to get away from it all once a week--no more family problems, just being up there in the woods drawing until my hands hurt. I had never been in such a quiet and beautiful place of man-made nature, filled with pretty trees, surrounded by green grass with flowers, birds singing, the sun shining and a brook of running water--it was like I was living inside of some type of song were I was allowed to act out each melody. While I was there, they gave me a large sketchpad, my first ever, let us walk around that area anywhere we chose, and sit down alone and just draw to our heart’s content. The white folks were complementing me on my artwork. We worked on one drawing all summer long. At the end, mine was one of the best in the class. The instructor singled me out and told my mother I had a special gift of creativity--unique even in this group of gifted young artists.
I also got my first real kiss that same summer. We were staying with my mother’s friend on Belvidere Street, not too far from Hurlbut. This involved a change from having no sisters my age to living with two girls my age, Regina and Lacresa Batten. Their parents went to school with my mother down in Clarksdale, Mississippi. It was a nice summer and I liked the neighborhood. I passed fourth grade after summer school and around the same time mama told us were going to move again but this time it would be right across the street from the Battens on Belvidere, so I was very happy about that.
Chapter 4: – Belvidere Street: My Father Leaves Us Alone!
It wasn’t long after we moved there that we got a call from daddy. I was going to fifth grade in September. He called and told my mother that he was moving on with his life and we didn’t have to worry about him anymore. After that he called one day and talked with each one of us on the phone. I recall him asking how I was doing and how was school. He was nice on the phone, but I still felt fear crawling up the phone cord, almost forcing me to hang up, but I didn’t. That was another two-way emotional encounter with my father--one side of me wanting to talk with him while the other side hating him for stalking us and making our lives miserable.
Earlene Cochran, my loving mother
Earlene Cochran, my loving mother
Peace on Belvidere Street, but the torment of a soul that could no longer sleep continues
Time moved on. No one truly dealt with the entire trauma we had been through. No counsel or family focus or extra love was passed around. Nobody took the time to explain the whole thing where I could halfway understand what was going on with me. Everyone in the family seemed to just move on. I just remember at that point, the whole eight years that I had lived with daddy became some kind of a joke. We all began to deal with it as some greatest source of entertainment to our friends in the neighborhood. We would get together with friends and we would all crack the same type of jokes about our families. Back then, it seemed no one could top our jokes about our experiences with my father. For many years, even today, that was and still is a main topic of conversation within my family—but only in a comic context.
I enrolled that same year, at ten years of age (1971) in fifth grade at Pingree elementary--right down the street from my house on Belvidere. This was my first time going to school without my brothers Chris and David, and I did a poor job at taking up for myself. I almost instantly became the school punching bag, and if you needed spare change--just go into Ronald’s pocket and get some. That school became a nightmare to me--worse than daddy. Not only did my whole class pick on me, it seemed the whole fifth and sixth grade had it out for me. I remember not feeling safe around anybody there. One person would start a fight with me and two or three others would end it. It went on like that for months at a time.
I truly didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell my brothers because I new if I told them they would come up to the school fighting, but when the fight was over I would have to return alone so I said nothing. My brothers laughed at me a lot and told me to fight back, but by then I was afraid of fighting. My answer was to avoid each person I feared, but this didn’t work either.
Additionally my fifth grade teacher Mr. Watts was a mean old science teacher. He took no flack at all, and his only interest in his students was controlling them. If you acted up a little he would ask you to stick out your hands so he could whack them. And if you moved he’d fold your arm under his so you couldn’t move, hold your wrist, and paddle away at the palm of your hand so fast you couldn’t count. But one strange thing was that if you closed your hand he’d just keep hitting your knuckles the same way. It seemed like the only thing he did was pass out assignments, sat down, and wait for someone to act up. If you really got out of hand and disorderly he would take you in this little back room in the back of class. When you got back there, he would slam the door. Now it was just you and he. There was a little window in the closet and the sun seemed to always shine right in your face. At the same time Mr. Watts was towering over you with his gigantic ½ inch thick old huge wooden paddle. With his white shirt with his sleeves all ready rolled up and waiting, black tie hanging loosely around his neck, and black suspenders pulling his pants up over his potbelly, he had both a mean and satisfied look at the same time. The closet was a mess, a huge pile of books. Watts and his victim would be both standing on books. He would then say, “I told you to act correctly, now turn around.” He then stuck his had down the back of your pants, grabbed your belt tightly, and lifted you up about three inches in the air with your pants clinging tightly to your skin. His goal was to hit you as many times as it took to make you cry. During that whole year he never wavered in leading boys or girls to his torture chamber. And no one returned without tears. Between these twin tormenters-- kids and Mr. Watts--fifth grade was like a lawless prison.
I remember the day I decided to fight back. Coming to the end of that year I was sitting in class as usual. I sat across from a kid named Charlie Ford, who picked on me daily. A girl sitting next to me would always ask me why I let him get away with so much. She kept asking that same question daily, and I never really gave her an answer. This particular day I snuck my favorite hot wheel car to school—a sweet silver 1969 Camero with mag wheels. I had to fold my arms and put my head down on the table to play with it so Mr. Watts wouldn’t see it. Charlie kept looking and asking me if I could just let him hold the car for a minute. I know he meant trouble and tried to ignore him but he kept asking. I decided to let him see it, sliding it under the table so Mr. Watts could not see it, with the girl staring at me like I was crazy to do it. He got the car, thanked me, and told me he was going to keep it. I couldn’t tell the teacher, for Mr. Watts would have paddled both of us. I had to handle it myself. I kept asking for the car and he kept saying no. He then told me that if I came to his house at lunchtime and gave him 25cents he would give it back. I decided to do it. At his house, he answered the door and told me to give him the money and that he then would get the car. When I gave him the money he closed the door and vanished. I started banging on the door and one of his very tall brothers came to the door and asked why was I hitting their door so hard. When I told him my sorry tale, he told me to get lost. I left sad and angry, but this time, for a change, more angry than sad.
School started back that afternoon with Charlie in his usual place. I asked where was my car he said, “I have it right here.”
I said, “Give it here.”
He said, “Take it!”
I said, “Ok.” It was about 12:30. I never said another word to him about it. I couldn’t tell Mr. Watts, for at this point I really wanted too, but I knew the price I’d pay for bringing the car in the first place, so I just waited. I was very upset about my favorite car and tired of Charlie Ford. That’s all I thought about the rest of the day. By 3:15 the whole class knew what was going on. Fear began to turn my stomach round and round, but thank God anger controlled the moment. Everybody ran outside to make up the good old human fighting ring. The circle was made-- I entered first and stood there waiting. It seemed Charlie Ford took a while to get outside. Kids ask me what was I going to do. I was quiet and filled with anger. I just kept my eyes on the outside school door. The door opened and out came Charlie smiling with my favorite car in hand. He stepped into the crowded circle, put the car in his pocket, and put up his fists. I attacked him like he killed my best friend, threw him to the ground, hit him repeatedly in the face and then went into his pocket and took my car back and my quarter, and left his other change on the ground for the other kids to take. I ended up fighting and winning more fights that year; I was tired of being pushed around.
When I came back to school the next year for sixth grade, I commanded more respect. I became more active in sports. I was taller than most kids my age so I was getting picked to play athletic games at lunchtime. At this time in my life I didn’t draw at all.
The next turning point involved my friends Steve Anthony and Jonathan Moore. My schoolmate Ray Craighead was about two grades behind me and another kid, Robert Walker, was three grades behind, but Robert didn’t bother anybody like Ray did. One day Robert was sleeping in class as he always did. Ray decided to throw a book at Robert while he was sleeping. Robert woke up screaming, trying to find out who did it to him. Ray said Ronald hit you, and instantly Robert was all over me. I didn’t have much of a chance, as I was still sitting in my desk though I swung back and hit him a few times but it didn’t help much-- he got the best of me. The teacher sent us both to the office.
In the office if the two fighters made up, it was, for the most part, over. But if not, you both found yourselves being the lunchtime entertainment for the whole school. So I told them I didn’t do it, Robert said I did. The vice principal, Mr. Riddles, looked at me as though I was crazy--nobody had stood up to Robert in years, it seemed he had been in the sixth grade so long. Mr. Riddles told me I didn’t have to do it; he would make a special punishment for me if I confessed to hitting him. He was my friend, for I had once worked with him in fifth grade as an audiovisual helper and he praised my work. I remember him asking me if I was sure I wanted to box Robert. I thought about what Robert did to me in class, and said, “For sure, YES!” So it was! By lunch time the whole school knew about the fight between Robert Walker and Ronald Cochran. In those days, a normal fight would only get the attention of the students in the class unless it got good, then others would watch. But for this one, it seemed the whole school was outside, and even the kindergarteners were waiting. You could even see all the teachers watching out of the windows with lunch in hand. Robert and I came out, I was so surprised when I realized that all the students where rooting for me for just having the nerve to box Robert. I was scared, but I felt that justice was on my side--he jumped on me for no reason. Mr. Riddles gave me a look, as if trying to say “If you don’t want to do it I’ll end it here.” When I didn’t respond he handed us the gloves. My friends Stevie and John played my coaches, and Ray (the one who started it all) was Robert’s coach. Stevie tied up my boxing strings and said fight him with all you got and don’t be afraid –you’re just as big as he is. John said, “Goodbye Ronald, he’s going to kill you. You don’t stand a chance-- give up this fight before it starts.” My consciousness spoke to me the same way. They tied up the strings--pulling them very tight, I looked at the old beat- up gloves on my shaking hands. After they tied them up my hands seem to stop shaking. Robert was the tallest kid in school and I was one of the tallest, so this fight rated as the heavyweight championship of Pingree Elementary that year, because, until then, no one had the nerve to fight old Robert back. Then the bell rang for the first round of action, and action it was! Even though Robert was taller than I was, I still had the arm reach on him. He hit me in the face and I hit him back again and again. We passed hard blows to each other’s face, and the crowd was all over the place. The action never stopped and I began to get comfortable with the fight going on. Oh yes, I forgot there was no round two. The fight just went on until someone said, “I quit”. I was so engrossed in the fight, I wanted more. I kept fighting him with all I had and saying to myself, “I’m tired of people like him.” I was thinking to myself, I told him I didn’t do it so it’s his fault for believing Ray in the first place. He still didn’t know it was Ray as Ray was coaching him in this fight, so I shouted out to Robert, “It was Ray who hit you, big dummy.” Then he came at me with new energy and hit me a couple of times. I still hit him back and was doing very well. It finally came in handy—the years I spent fighting my brothers who were older and larger than I was. It seemed like we fought for a whole day straight. The cheers were still going my way. I was as tired as ever and so was Robert, but I had a few personal reasons to stay in the lead. I was like a machine at this time just fighting away. No one wanted the fight to end. It went on for the whole lunch break! It was the longest fight in the school’s history. Then the bell rang, it was over, a tie. But the entire school cheered for me--I was The Man!
Students vs. Teachers: 6th Grade
Sixth grade got better. I was finally a big boy on campus. I didn’t have to look over my shoulders anymore with fear. It was a welcome change. That same year, as the sixth graders prepared for graduation, came the much talked about student/teacher baseball game. I was on the starting team playing first base. Without question, those long arms of mine could reach out and catch almost anything coming past first base. At age twelve, baseball was my love, anywhere I could get some respect is were I would be found. It was a tight game from start to finish. We got down to the final inning and the teachers were leading by two runs. We were at bat and had two players on base, and a girl was up to bat. The team decided to let a boy bat. All the boys were asking to take her spot, and as they argued amongst each other, all of a sudden we heard the girls say, let Ronald bat for her. I was amazed at that turn of events. The guys looked at me and they all said ok. I came up to the plate with sweaty hands looking around at the whole school and all the teachers questioningly looking at me. I grabbed my own old favorite bat, a wooden Louisville slugger with green electrical tape wrapped around the handle and a small chip of wood missing at the top that had I kept with me all times I played. I then got down in my old stand and looked at all the people watching. The pitcher was the gym teacher, Mr. Curry, who had a mean curve ball. He pitched, I missed—strike one. Strike two followed. I nervously bent down lower, grabbed the bat tighter, and waited for the next pitch. I swung with all I had. Pow, it was gone! Up and away the ball went. Everyone’s eyes followed the ball. Higher and higher it flew until it was on top of the building. Homerun!! I didn’t even have to run, but I ran anyways. The two players came in, the game was over, and I won it. Once again everyone cheered me on--it was a great day.
6th grade teacher vs. students. My class was trailing by one run coming into the last inning. The girls in my class chose me to bat in preference to all the other guys in the class. I came up to bat and hit a hom run that won the game for us.
On the last morning of school graduation I won the game and won everyone’s respect. And just when I got the hang of things around this place, I would have to move on to junior high!
Summertime at twelve: bikes, ideas and respect!
That summer I had even more fun. I played baseball, basketball, and football. We also played dodge ball a game where you would take about three balls and split up into even teams and try to hit each other with the ball, if you get hit, you are out down to the last person standing. I also went swimming a lot. I started getting into my own world and playing more with my own friends too.
My brother Chris was at the top of his music and singing. He had found his niche, practicing hard with his singing group and performing in talent shows around the eastside. I remember when I didn’t have anything to do I would go to his practice, I mostly remember Chris having more belief in the group than the other guys. He was always trying everything and anything to get those guys to perform at their best. I didn’t understand at that time, but being on that stage was my brother’s calling. It was there on stage where Chris was happiest. Chris helped me see that our desire to make things happen was stronger than our desire to please our friends.
Anyway, my mother bought me a “Handy Andy” kids’ toolbox with real tools that Christmas, (which, by the way, was my last as a child). I could build whatever I wanted, or so I thought. I also had the sweetest and fastest bike in the neighborhood. Stevie and I had paper routes with the Detroit News, making our own money.
Who didn’t want to be Evil Kenevill Spelling??
It was that summer that we built two Evil Kenevill ramps. They were about four or five feet tall and we brought them down the street to our favorite place. I still vividly remember that old place--Cliff’s Wood Molding Place. The next block up was where an old white guy let us work on large wood projects in his shop and use his power tools. Me and Stevie were the only young kids that he allowed to work the power tools. Anyhow, we finished the ramps and as we walked down the street the neighbors would ask, “What are you boys up to now?” We already had built go carts and club houses, wood sling shots with extra powerful rubber bands that shot almost like guns, and wooden stilts to walk on that turned us into seven foot tall giants. So as we came down the street and everyone would ask, ”What do you have this time?” “Ramps,” we replied.
They followed us to see the big jump and who would fall on their face first. We set the ramps up in the alley and it seemed as if the whole block was out there waiting. A couple of other kids on their bikes wanted to jump the ramp, but we told them that we were going first. Stevie and me talked about who would go first. We were both afraid, but one of use had to do it first. The first ramp was about five feet tall and about six feet apart from the other. We couldn’t gage the correct distance to jump, because no one had tried it yet. The other ramp was about four feet tall.
The “audience” was getting restless and began talking about how scared we were of jumping. Stevie and me talked again about it, still pretty scared. I decided I would do it. Besides, it was my idea and the spectators started to leave, so one of us had to do it and do it quick. I screamed out “I’m going to do it!” They all came back and got even closer. They were so close to the ramps that we had to move them back, and then the alley got even more crowded (we should have sold tickets!). I heard people say, “Those two are crazy, they’ll break their necks!” and we laughed. It was too late to change our minds even though the thought crossed my mind to just let it go. But we’ve gone too far by then. So we headed down the alley back to the corner, and Stevie and I talked about how hard and fast I should ride down the alley in order to make it to the other side. I told Stevie that I’d just ride as fast as I could and hope I clear the first one and make it to the second one.
Back then who didn’t want to be Evil Kenievil? I know I did by taking the
opportunity and taking flight right in alley in front of the whole
neighborhood! And yes I was the man. (Drawing by Ron Cochran)
Back then who didn’t want to be Evil Kenievil? I know I did by taking the opportunity and taking flight right in alley in front of the whole neighborhood! And yes I was the man. (Drawing by Ron Cochran)
I remember sitting on my bike looking down the alley at the ramps and the crowd, not knowing which one I feared the most, the crowd or the ramps, chastising myself for getting myself in such fixes. The people started chanting, “Let’s go!” “Go Ronnie go! Come on, do it!” I stood up on the bike, grabbed the handlebars very tightly, put my foot on the pedal, and took a look at the ramp. Stevie and I chimed “one two, three GO!” I took off riding as hard and fast as I could. I heard my tires grabbing the cement and the rocks gripping my tires as I rode down the alley, and I approached the ramp with speed like I had never gathered before. Faster and faster I rode down the alley, a sixth grade Evil Kenivel on a bicycle, with the crowd cheering and screaming, with some voices saying, “ He’s crazy! Don’t do it! Stop!” I was getting closer and closer, my heart beating faster, and fear choking me. I thought about riding to the side and not going ahead, but I kept moving forward. I was right at the ramp now and couldn’t stop even if I wanted to—to me it seemed as though I was moving with the speed of light. My front wheel hit the approach ramp first. I was on it for a split second, and then I was airborne. I hit that ramp so hard and fast and flew high into the air as if I were bird. For a split second, the crowd got deadly silent. From the air, I could see them all looking at me, necks straight in the air, mesmerized. (Add graphic) I was looking down on all of them, down from eight or nine feet in the air. Then my bike and I passed right by the second ramp with me still touching clouds. I must have gone some eight feet beyond the landing point, and was on my way down. Trying to maintain control of the bike in the air for so long wasn’t easy, but I somehow managed to do it. When the front wheel hit the ground, the handlebars just flipped right down from the impact. The gooseneck of the handlebars hit my chest and almost knocked the wind out of me. I was hurt but still riding. I had to paddle with my hands on the ground in order maintain control of the bike and rode into nearby bushes to brake.
Once again I was “The Man.”
Stevie came after me, jumped, and successfully hit both ramps I tried it again and hit both ramps. We moved the ramps closer and the other kids tried it, but there was never a jump as sweet as mine that summer.
Chapter 5: – On My Way to Junior High
I entered Jr. High School that fall. Barbar Jr. High at the time it was one of “baddest” Junior Highs in the city. I had to go through pretty much the same routine I experienced in fifth grade, but I knew now about standing up for myself, so it wasn’t that bad. I was more interested in sports and science, so my desire to draw was pushed aside by baseball, basketball and swimming. I wanted to partake more of science, but I couldn’t grasp the total concept yet.
I always had a deep desire to create something that would blow up. I was getting a weekly allowance by then, and from time to time I’d pick up a paper route. I also worked for a few older people in the neighborhood, shoveling snow in the winter, raking leaves in the fall, cutting the grass in the summer, and serving as an all-purpose errand boy throughout the year. I invested some of my money in science equipment and began to carry out experiments around the house until I got bored with the whole thing.
One fine day I set out to buy a magic kit. To buy it, I had to take a solo bus trip. I think I had more fun riding that bus to get the thing than I had playing with it when I got home. That was my first time riding the bus to the suburbs by myself-- I felt like a grownup. But once I got home and opened the magic kit up and found that you had to do all these tricks I was turned off. Until then, I had felt that magic was real, not some kind of hocus-pocus. Even though I had reading problems, I struggled through the directions and still enjoyed learning magic.
I had a problem understanding what I was reading, which limited the time I spent reading. I remember a commercial on TV about an organization called REAF. It said reading is fundamental-- a book could take you on a journey. I was told I could send off to REAF and receive free books. I just never got the nerve to do it, and I remember thinking people would only laugh at me.
In 1973, when I was in seventh grade, I had swimming class; I learned to swim and then joined the YMCA. I started swimming laps with this old white man. Almost every day we swam 75-80 laps across the pool the short way. We did it for about a year or so. By then I was in love with swimming. I played basketball and baseball too, I was getting a little better at them all. My art had become a thing of the past.
There was a big kid in the neighborhood, Otis Brown, the best baseball player in the area apart from my brother Dave. One day, while playing first base and catching everything that came my way, Otis threw one to me. By the way, Otis could throw harder than anybody around. He leaned back and let one go. It was so fast, you could hear it but you just couldn’t see it until it got close. I put my glove out there and I saw it nick the top of my glove. “Oh God” I said to myself and turned my head. POW! --right in the ear, and baseball was never the same again.
Hot fun in the summer time: Maywood, Illinois 1973
That same summer we went to Chicago for half the summer, to my cousin’s house. It was nice out there--clean neighborhood and parks all around. I ran from one park to the other all day long, playing different sports at each one. I enjoyed most the park with the swimming pool. It was like something I had seen on TV, there had never been an outdoor swimming pool in our home neighborhood. This pool was large, partly shaded by trees, and had deep, pretty blue water. It was jammed with girls and boys. I still fondly recall the hot summer afternoons, the sun shining, kids screaming, pretty girls everywhere. It cost 25cents to get in. I really loved the diving boards—a small one, a medium one, and a tall one--about 20 feet above the water. I just went to the tallest one over and over again all day long, diving in, in all kinds of ways. .
During that summer I began to look at girls in a different way. I spent most of my time in all those parks, sometimes not having the money to go swimming. Back at my aunt’s house, I would hang around waiting for my aunt to make homemade ice cream. I loved it, and she knew it. She would get a little more work out of me as I waited for her to finish making that ice cream. Somehow my cousin Baby Dee introduced me to this pretty girl down the street named Sharease who took a liking to me. My aunt worked in the evenings and we stayed at home.
So now I had all these parks to go to in the morning to play sports. My hot afternoons were dedicated to that sweet tall diving board, then back to my aunt’s house and then to Sherease. The two of us used to sit on the porch, walk around the block, and on our return my aunt would be gone either to work or somewhere else. My cousin Mattie wouldn’t let us go too far entertaining each other, not allowing us to go by ourselves into the bedroom at all. Luckily we could sit in the dining room and dim the lights and play this one record, “Side Show.” We would listen to that slow music, dreamily dancing, hugging, and kissing to every beat, in a world all our own. That summer ended and we were back home.
I was going to the eighth grade at Barbar Jr. High School. Now fighting became more of a problem, back then it was either you joined the gangs in the neighborhood or you fought them. By this time I was fighting back. I never had a desire to be part of a gang. My brother Chris and I got into a big fight at school with some neighborhood guys, in the middle of the semester, and the result was we ended up being transferring to another school. The new school was Foch Middle School. It was less violent than Barbar. In a vain hope of easing the burden of incessant fighting, I attended Sunday services with my mother and joined a Bible reading group, in order to get God to extricate me from these fights. Unfortunately, I stopped right after he stopped the fights.
My last paper route: One of the coldest winters in Detroit
I picked up my last paper route during 8th grade. I got that route right in the middle of winter, which was one of the worst winters in Detroit history. At one point the snow got up to 17 inches high. Everything was at a standstill except the Detroit News. I had to walk about 8 long blocks just to get to the paper station to get my papers for the day. Mr. Rick a mean old white man ran the station. All the kids were scared of him. He hollered and cursed at us all day long and treated us like we were trash. There was garbage everywhere in that miserable news station. I was only thirteen years old and just wanted that route for a little extra cash. Luckily I had my own street that winter so when I finished I was right at home. But my route was one of the largest in the district. When Mr. Rick assigned me that route he only gave me a wagon and cheap rope. I would load up my mountain of papers, tie them up onto my wagon, and start out down Mack Ave, trudging in deep snow. I remember being miserably cold after the first 3 blocks and having about 4 more blocks to go. The wagon was meant to hold about 50 papers, with a bag, but I would fill it with 80 and no bag, so those little wheels would barely turn in the deep snow. Half way along my cold journey, more often than not, the rope would break and get stuck between the wheels, making it even harder to pull. By the time I got to my route I was half frozen, my nose running, ears cold and hands and feet numb. I had to go home and warm up just before I could even begin my route. I did it for a few more weeks, which worried my mother. I had asked Mr. Rick a few times for a Detroit News paperboy’s bag. He would always promise to give it to me tomorrow. One day I came in and told him I really needed a bag badly.
He had his desk at the back of the station. I was half afraid of him but had to face him about this bag. I started walking towards his desk and as I passed the other paperboys I overheard them all with the same type of complaint I was having. I heard one or two of them saying they were going to quit; it was just too cold outside. As I continued walking to his desk, Mr. Rick was looking at me as though he was going to jump over the desk and eat me alive. He stared at me with his red eyes and runny nose and said, “You already have your papers, what the hell do you want now?” I replied with very low voice. “Mr. Rick, I need a bag.” He looked at me as if I cursed him. “Hey everybody,” he screamed out into the crowd of frozen paper boys, “this little fucker says he needs a bag.” Everyone started laughing at me and I felt so small. Then he continued to say, “Look here, you go over there and look in that damn garbage can, and get some more of that rope, tie those papers up, get your little ass out of here, and throw those papers now.” I put my head down and started walking back to my wagon. I did go into the trashcan and got more rope and tied up the papers better, but deep down I knew it was my last day.
As I walked out that door it seemed like I was frozen even before I got out in front of the station. I dragged that wagon down Mack Avenue in the bitter cold and snow. The only thing I could think of was how was I going to tell Mr. Rick that I was quitting. I went straight home as I normally did before I started my route, but this time I told my family what was going on at the station. The next day I went back up to the station at the regular time but I had my older brother Earl with me. He cursed Mr. Rick out and told him I was not working for him anymore. Funny thing is, Mr. Rick didn’t say anything at all, and we walked out. I always had a problem speaking up for myself. In those early years I seem to have always been better at communicating through actions than with words.
Girls and High School: I didn’t make the grade
Well the summer of 1975 came, and the big deal was making the transition to high school. We all talked forever and a day about how we should handle ourselves in that lion’s den.
When I became an adult I looked back and saw that this transition into high school was a pivotal point in my life where things changed for the worse. Over the years, I was always a C student. As I see it now, the last time academics had my full attention was in 1st grade. Little did I know at this point that in high school it wouldn’t have my attention at all?
Everything was changing, especially my view of girls. In September 1975 I strolled into Southeastern High School, a freshman. The main thing I remember was my amazement at seeing all these full-breasted girls parading around. I was as shy as ever. I didn’t have much to claim as a personality or “rap” as we called it. When it came to talking to girls, I’d just watch. I was obsessed by thoughts of how I’d love to be selected by just one of those girls. It didn’t work, and the cool guys were getting all the action. I didn’t know it then, but I was totally consumed by these visions of puppy love. Schoolwork was the last thing on my mind; in fact it wasn’t even on my mind. At that point I was willing to pay any price to just fit in.
By then my best friend Stevie had moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I was hanging around my brother Chris and his friends. My sister Denise was six years old and doing just fine, negotiating her first year in public school. Mama had her ready. Denise was a very smart girl from the start. David was on his way to Kentucky State University on a full athletic scholarship. Indeed, once we moved to Belvidere, I remember David coming from one game and going to the next. He needed a break from being responsible for Chris and me in our younger years--a responsibility that had gradually soured his feelings for us and eventually drove us apart. After Dave was free of us we never really hung out much until we became adults.
By then, Jimmy and Earl had married and had their own families. Earl always lived not too far from us, so we could walk to his house. Jimmy moved to the other side of town. Mama seemed to have gotten over daddy and was moving on with her life, fixing up the house and doing whatever she could to continue to keep all of us happy.
Peer pressure at its best!
Back to high school and the absence of a girlfriend. Ok, the pressure was on. I was hearing it from all my brothers and my peers at school about not having a girlfriend. I was tall, skinny, and acne-faced, not caring about the way I dressed or combed my hair, shy as hell and highly insecure. I tried to improve my appearance but it didn’t seem to work. At school it seemed I couldn’t even get in the crowd let alone get lost in it, and neither Chris nor I liked Southeastern High School. Then we started hanging out with a guy from the neighborhood named Leonard King. He was a year older than me and a year younger than Chris. Leonard and I never got along growing up; fighting every time we saw each other in elementary and Junior high. But at Southeastern it was so bad and we three didn’t seem to fit in. It was like we had no choice but to band together. But Leonard was a super cool guy, and he gave me some badly needed lessons in the art of being cool.
In 9th grade I began to smoke cigarettes and weed. I was hanging in the hallways trying to be cool and talk with the girls. I didn’t go to classes nor did I try to do any work and I ended up getting straight E’s on my report card that semester. Depression set in and I smoked more weed to avoid my problems. I was heading downhill and didn’t know what to do. I remember feeling like there was no need to go back to class, it was too late.
At that time, Leonard and I started playing more basketball. Chris wasn’t doing so well in school either, but he was working a full time job at Joe Muir’s with my mother. Somehow Leonard was doing well in his classes even though we all hung out everyday playing basketball, smoking weed and chasing girls. Leonard did them all well and still passed his classes.
Straight E’s and Depression
In contrast, I ended up flunking 9th grade. Depression was getting hold of me—worse yet it was choking me. I didn’t have a girlfriend, was failing all my classes, and couldn’t even play basketball that good either. Leanard and I continued to play basketball, and to my relief I was getting a little better at it. Leanard was a stronger and more confident player than I was and he inspired me to get stronger. We played at Pingree Park. I remember everyone at the park would say to me, “Your brother David is all the world and you ain’t shit!” It hurt very much— to the core of my soul.
It was the summer of 1976 and I was still flunking most of my classes. I did go to summer school and didn’t pass that either. Dave came home after two years away at college--he was a star athlete and I was a zero. We talked about basketball and he said he would get me into Finney High School where he attended with the same coach; summer basketball for high school was just starting up then. He took me up to Eastside Center--the hottest basketball spot on the east side of Detroit. I was scared just thinking about going there, let alone playing. His old friend James had a van and he drove Dave, Chris my older brother Earl, and I to a game. Dave asked me if I could play on that level of high school varsity. I was getting better at the parks so I said yes, not knowing at the time that there is a great difference from parks and organized sports.
My nightmare at Eastside Center
We arrived at the gym that hot summer day. When we walked into the building-- it was even hotter--about 90 degrees outside and 105 inside. I wanted to turn around in the hallway and say, “Let’s go home.” I heard whistles blowing, kids hollering, coaches screaming, and the basketballs bouncing on the old hardwood floor sounding like gunfire. What have I gotten myself into? Fear gripped me. We walked into the gym and it felt like 120 degrees. Everything seemed to slow down. All eyes came towards us and I remember feeling as though everyone was looking at me and whispering to himself or herself, “He can’t play, so what the hell is he doing here?” I was ready to run back home for sure, but it was too late, for I bragged to everybody that I could play. I didn’t know much about organized basketball at that time. Only later did I realize that yes, everybody did slow down a bit and looked at us as we walked in the door, but they were looking at Dave Cochran entering the building--not at his skinny little brother.
Well it just so happened that Finney’s coach was not there that day and the kids asked my brother Dave to coach until the coach came. He agreed and started me off in the game, putting me in the line up in front of other players. Wouldn’t you know it, we played against Southeastern. All those players knew I couldn’t play, I wasn’t good at all. My school, Southeastern, was a powerhouse in basketball during those years. They argued over who would check me--the GUMP is what they called me. The officials blew the whistle and the game started. Jump ball off and running--the action started. The pace was one I never experienced before. Both teams started running and I quickly learned they were faster than me. I tried to keep up but at the same time pushing started to take place. I thought someone wanted to fight me. I could see they were stronger than I was, and they let me know it.
I knew the feeling that was taking control of me all too well, I was afraid. Then the ball came my way, I got rid of it as quickly as I could. It came back and it seemed even quicker, so I decided to shoot it, air ball. I was getting extremely tired while the heat rose--it felt like it was 150degrees in there. The players on my team knew I couldn’t play at this point, and then they looked at me with some doubt. Southeastern’s players begin to attack me harder as they knew I was the weakest link. By then my brother Dave knew it too. He started screaming at me. I remember clearly hearing him say BOY PLAY BALL!
The heat of the gym and everybody in it began to close in on me like a human hot box filled with fire. My other brothers’ voices became gasoline overflowing all over me. By now it was clear I couldn’t handle this game at all. Dave took me out, gave me a look like I was a stranger that killed his little brother, and said get him out of here, take him home. Please, just get him out of my face.
After we all made it home, my brothers continued to talk about me, and told the whole neighborhood about what happened. So now when I went to the courts people talked about me even more and things were getting worse. By now basketball became my safe haven. I wasn’t that good in a basketball game, but when I just shot basketball by myself it was the perfect escape. I had to put up with a lot of negative talk at the parks and I must say it was getting the best of me.
Chapter 6: – Taking a Stand (Basketball)
One day I went to Pingree Park, walked past the courts, went to the other side, sat down on the picnic bench, pulled out a joint, lit it up, and told myself: “Either you’re going to get better or you’re going to leave the game of basketball alone for good--and I must have an answer TODAY!” I was tired; no one was there but me, myself and I. I told myself, “You don’t have to put up with all that talking those guys do. You can do something else, just walk away from the game because that’s all it is, just a game. But if you keep playing you’re going to practice and get better.”
Thank God I took up that challenge! That day I caught the basketball JONES. Got me an old bike and rode from park to park and gym to gym. I was on a mission. I found myself doing it more and more--it became my safe zone. Sometimes I played alone, finding a court where no one was playing and just shooting for hours at a time--the perfect escape from reality. I watched other players play and I would pay very close attention to their every move. Back then I felt everybody on the eastside had one good move and it was my job to find it and use it.
So while Leanard dated girls I would find myself dating basketball at the courts. I had to repeat 9th grade because I didn’t pass any classes that year. I just went to the hoops. That was pretty much all I did--play ball and smoke weed with friends. I was getting better in basketball but not in my classes. I hated the academic world and was filled with love for basketball and totally forgot about art.
My brother Chris was at the top of his game that summer. Even though he had dropped out of school, he was working and he could always handle money better than any of my siblings. Most of the time he would pay my way on the bus and give me a couple of dollars when we went downtown. He gave me cigarettes every day, sometimes all day long. He was about sixteen or seventeen when he moved out of mama’s house. Chris moved into a very nice apartment in Downtown Detroit--the ultimate bachelor in the neighborhood. Chris, Timothy (Slick Tim) and a host of other kids I hung out with regularly (What about them?). Chris started back drawing and painting at his apartment and even went back to adult school. He had a couple of girlfriends at the time--boy he had it all. He also continued to sing in different groups and started his own singing group.
I had become a student of basketball, (redundant), and took almost any advise I could get. My oldest brother Earl was married had four girls and lived two blocks over on a street called Rohns. Even when he was married he had plenty of girlfriends and was driving a sweet 1976 Electric 225 (what is this?) with power everything. My brother Jimmy was married and had two children and was living on the west side. Somehow I ended up over there just about every weekend, playing a basketball game called “21” with him. He would always make me play harder than I normally played, never letting me score. I remember him blocking every shot that he could and playing tough defense on me at all times. This would happen week after week the same way, but it was beginning to work.
Working hard began to pay off
As I was getting better; people began to treat me differently than in the past. I was now welcomed at the parks. And I remember a friend of mine named Maverick Kennedy would ride to this one park out of the neighborhood on St. Jean St. and he would always wait for me to come. I knew then I was getting better. Little did I know, but at the same time I was forming a personality that I could live with.
There were a group of teens I hung out with back then, in the neighborhood: Arshell, Pernall, Leaita, Raven (Doc Smooth), Antonio (Stud), Jerome, David, and Maverick Kennedy, Milton Austin (Do…c), William, and Dorin Gaddy, Timothy (Slick Tim), Ella and Chrissie Jackson, Lorny, Thomas Jackson, Regina and Clawden Moore, Gary Conley, Leanard King, Earlene, Gwen, Little Larry and a host of others.
Among my friends I was known as the basketball player in the hood. With my new personality, I grew more confident with the girls and started meeting girls around town on the Westside and further east. I began receiving telephone calls and then came dates. I was finally accepted by my peers.
It wasn’t long after that my friend William introduced me to a girl named Diane Cowens. I was crazy about her, but at first she wouldn’t give me the time of day if I tried to talk to her, but over a couple of months, she relented. We started seeing each other every day, over my house or hers. We also walked the streets and sat on porches. Then I took her to the Pingree Park. By this time, things changed, and when I showed up at the park people would ask me if I wanted to play with them the next game. At my park I had the best of two worlds. I could be at one end of the court with the game I loved, quit, and then walked down to the other end and be with the girl I loved.
I remember clearly holding hands and walking through the park, looking for a place to sit on a hot summer day. I remember the sun shining, birds singing, a ball in one hand and my girl in the other, a threesome it was! I had no real desire for more--with those two my world was complete-- or at least I thought so.
I thought those days would last forever. We would sit side by side on the picnic benches and then lie in the grass and play around. I remember I’d never get too far away from my ball. We would walk up and down the streets until dark and stop at someone’s house or I would just walk her home. We talked about everything in those days-- it was puppy love at its best. Diane went to any basketball court or gym that I wanted to go to, I could talk about my dreams of basketball with her and she listened. She talked about hers too. I never even gave our relationship a thought of breaking up. “Always and Forever” was our theme song. Then, I began to see other girls taking an interest in me around the ‘hood.
Life’s ups and downs: fear is the lock and balance is the key
School was the only area in my life that I just couldn’t get a grip on; I had fallen way behind in my classes. At this point I should have been going to the 11th grade, but I was still in 9B, one year and a half behind. I really had a learning block at this point. I think the only area I was truly growing in was the basketball court. My reading and math were at a very low level and I had no idea about what to do and didn’t really care. I did not want to listen, to try to understand the advice of my mother, teachers, counselors and other people in the community were try to tell me: start studying, stop hanging around doing nothing with your time but playing basketball, sitting on porches, chasing girls, and smoking cigarettes, etc.
My love for basketball was growing stronger and stronger and I was getting better and better. I had become one of the better players in the neighborhood by now. At this point I was moving around the city trying to find competition to play. I was starting to dream of playing high school basketball more and more.
However, deep inside me, far past my love for the game, in a dark place lay the stark reality of my grades in school. I lied so often to people about what grade I was in school; I started to believe my own lies.
Fear was still a major force in my life. The only thing that was different was that the weed took me further into fantasyland, and my love for basketball and Diane, which grounded me here on earth in some youthful form of invincibility. Those two types of love I had never experienced and I had them both at the same time--the world was mine—accept for the truth about school.
Ronald Cochran at 16, 1977
Chapter 7: – Kettering High School 1977
So I decided to change schools, start all over again, do better in my classes and make the high school team. Leanard and me enrolled in Kettering Senior High School that September 1977. And after enrolling our first stop was the gym, gym bag in hand and basketballs pounding inside our hearts.
Here is where I had my first experiences as the new baller in school, a hungry challenger looking for the best players to show them my newly perfected art of basketball. I was 6 feet 3 1/2 inches tall and skinny but solid. I had skills--I could shoot, rebound, jump high and block shots. I loved the rough contact that came with performing; now I loved pushing players around on the court. I WAS READY! Once Leanard and I played in gym the rest was history. We dominated the entire gym and all the players; the word was out: Kettering had two new big fellows who would start on this year’s varsity team. My confidence was as strong as ever; all the hours of practice were about to pay off.
We started off that year running on the cross county team to get in shape. It was very hard and I never ran that far at one time in my life. But it’s called conditioning and it’s a must. We made it through and the basketball practice began. The coach Mr. Williams was building Leanard and I into power players in the forward positions, hoping that no one could stop us. Some of the players began to get jealous of us, but we didn’t care. The girls even started smiling and talking to me. I was highly imprested with that. I was on my way, nonstop to the top. Leanard and I, Viceroy and Cigarette, is what they called us.
Everything was going so well until it got closer to the first game. It was time to check on players’ eligibility.
Paying the Price
I had finally found a home away from home. I was respected on and off the court from September 1st until October 20th. One day before we all came into the gym for practice at 3:15 pm. As usual, Mr. Williams was sitting at the door as we walked in. As me and Leanard entered the gym, he stopped Leanard and told him, “Before you walk in, make up your mind right here and now. Do you want to be a basketball player or a father?” Leanard looked at him, then looked at me, and said, “I must say a father, I have no choice about that,” He then told Leanard to leave the gym. You see, Leanard’s girlfriend was pregnant and Mr. Williams was very wrong to put Leanard in such a position. I left with Leanard. We sat in the locker room for a while. We were both very sad. He told me to go back and stay on the team, which I did.
Little did we know that day was the end of Leanard’s basketball career? The next week came and practice was again starting at the usual time, but Mr. Williams said he wanted to talk to the team about someone on our team. Everyone looked around at each other, puzzled. We all came in and sat down. Mr. Williams then said “Someone on this team has let us down really bad today. He came here and brought high hopes for our basketball program, we welcomed him and put him right in the starting lineup.” Right then I knew he was talking about me. Mr. Williams continued, “He thought he could just come here and play basketball, coming from a school where he had failed almost every class he signed up for.” I felt very small, like an ant’s baby toe. “Ronald Cochran, get your shit and get out of here!” he screamed. I put my head down and just walked out of the gym. My world was crushed. What had you done? Was it your grades that kept you off the team?
The grades had hung me out to dry before, but never like this. I was so close and yet so far, my dream of playing high school basketball had just started to come true and was destroyed the minute it was born. I put all my time into basketball and did absolutely no studying at all. I was once again the laughing stock of my family, the entire neighborhood, and the whole school. Everybody talked about me as if I were a dog. I smoked more weed with my friends, and they all told me, just forget it, Kettering didn’t have a good team anyway; helping me lick my wounds. This particular group of friends had no dreams; they pretty much drifted around through life. It made me feel better, so I drifted with them for a while.
Diane was in my corner. She told me to try and get back on the team. Older people in the neighborhood told me the same thing. I said maybe. I was truly depressed. I didn’t know what to do and kept drifting.
Another rude awakening, complements of life
One day as I was slowly walking alone down the hallway at school just after smoking some marijuana, with my head down, chin close to my chest, drifting along in sadness and self-pity, dragging myself down past the hallway lockers in a sad, sorry state of mind. You see, this life of drifting was ok when I was with my friends but when I was alone it was unbearable.
Mr. Nichols, the assistant coach of the basketball team, approached me in the hallway that day. He said, “Come with me son, I need to talk with you.” We went into a tiny room and he slammed the door behind us, and yelled: “What is your problem? You have the talent, why don’t you use it, instead of wasting away? Just look at yourself. Do you like this smoking weed? Do you want to play basketball or not?” “Yes,” I meekly said. “Well, you’re going to have to go to classes and pass.” I felt pretty bad, as if the whole world was falling in on me again. He then said that I should come back to practice and start going to classes right now. I promised I would.
Oh yes, I woke up
I didn’t get to play in the games, but I practiced with the team daily and started going back to classes. But by now I was pathetically behind. I was having trouble doing the work and failed that semester.
Mr. Nichols didn’t give up on me and I didn’t give up on myself either. He told me to stop hanging out with my old friends from the neighborhood while I was at school and to start hanging with the team members. I shared this with Leonard who agreed with Mr. Nichols and told me to do as he said. He also said that he wasn’t going to hang out with me anymore and I should hang with the team and leave him alone. I told Leonard I didn’t want to do that, but he left me no choice and was gone.
Mr. Nichols and I had to try another way to get me on an academic track. It was getting late in the semester by now. Christmas break came and so did the New Year--January 1978. Mr. Nichols enrolled me into another type of class. I was put in a class for kids who had trouble focusing. The teacher was Mr. Campbell--a very tall thick man with a deep voice that commanded respect. In his class, there was no playing. Everyone had to read out loud every day and nobody could make fun of anyone.
I was happy to be in his class because I now I needed all the help I could get if I was going to get eligible for next season. 2 ½ years of high school had passed and I felt like a dummy. But I was willing to change. I started going to the library after school, doing my homework and trying my best to become a student again. It was very hard. Diane still was in my corner and she went to the library with me and helped me as much as she could. I was practicing with the team for about two months and the whole athletic program became my support group. I started making friends with the players. I continued to hang with my old friends from the ‘hood but only after school; even they seemed to understand and just spoke to me in passing during classes at school.
I dreamed about laying up the ball in my blue & white uniform
Mr. Campbell encouraged my dreams of playing ball for our school. A host of people from the neighborhood started supporting me and telling me I could do it. The men at Pingree Park cheered for me and pushed me as we played basketball together. The whole community supported my quest. I had never had that much support before. No, it wasn’t like TV when everybody gets together and walks down the street and demands a dream for Ronnie . . . It was the individual vibes that helped me make the transition, from the whole community to the inner depths of my young soul. No one gathered in a big crowd for the sake of me getting eligible. BUT at home my family said you can do it, my girlfriend said you can do it, my next door neighbors said you can do it, old Willie and Thelma who ran the corner store said you can do it, all my friends and their parents said you can do it, the senior citizens sitting on their porches watching me dribble that ball up and down the street everyday said you can do it, the wino’s up on Mack said you can do it (and then asked for a dime), all the little kids in the neighborhood said you can do it, all the guys at Pingree Park especially said you can do it. Never was there a community meeting about me getting eligible. But there was truly a community support system; because not a day passed without someone verbally inspiring my dream. Those wishes and the daily feedback helped me greatly during those times, and I needed every bit of it.
I kept going to the library and studying at home. Deep down I felt I couldn’t do it; that I would probably flunk at the end of the semester. But still I felt compelled to go on.
Chapter 8: – Eligibility: Dreams do Come True
June came and so did my report card. I was eligible to play next season! I remember walking home from school that day alone. I was so happy, I felt like crying. The sun was shining brightly and it seemed like everybody was out. I remember telling everybody I could, even strangers. I started singing songs and jumping up and down as I walked. I even ran a little so I could reach the neighborhood quicker. I bet I was the happiest kid in Detroit at that moment.
The first thing I said to my neighbors was: “I’m a basketball player at Kettering High School! I passed and here’s my report card.” I made it home and told my mother the news. She was very happy for me and so was the rest of the family. I was back on my way, none stop to the top, and life was great again.
Summer 1978: back at Eastside Center (Second time around)
In the summer of 1978 the high school summer league was about to start and I was a part of it. I got my summer league basketball jersey and was ready to play. Our first game was—as you might guess-- at the eastside basketball capital, Eastside Center. It was the same place where my nightmare of two years ago started.
Summer league started and Kettering turned it out and I was leading the way. We made to the championship that summer, and were going to play Murray Wright High School. Once again I was in the starting lineup and the official blew his whistle. Before the game, all the guys on the team told me I would have to check one of the city’s best player, Marlow McClain. I said, “Bring him on!” We played them and won the game -- I held Marlow down to 12 points and scored 29 points on him. I was back on top.
My father’s back
We heard from my father that summer too. The drinking over all those years had caught up with him and he seemed on his last leg. One day he called my mother and said he wanted to see all his sons one more time, including Niecy, who last saw him when she was two months old.
Let me say in passing that by now Niecy was 8 years old and a very pretty little girl. I used to take her places with me all the time. We had a lot of fun riding the bus around town, stopping at stores, and going to the mall almost every weekend. I would even take her to the park to play basketball and swing. By then I was very proud to have a little sister-- she was smart, kind, a quick thinker, a good talker, and a straight A student. She looked up to me as if I was the world. I always tried to teach her everything I knew and she learned quickly. But she had never seen her father.
Meanwhile, my mother said it was ok for the boys to go see him but not Niecy. So one hot summer day in July we rode out to Mt. Clements where he was living. I was still fearful, even after 8 years had passed. The fear was still as fresh as it was in the last day I saw him, after Jimmy shot him, even though by now I was sixteen.
We pulled up in front of his house and there he stood on the porch smiling at us. It would have been ok if we just turned around and left at that point, for I became even more afraid. The only thing that helped me get through that part was the fact that I was with all my brothers.
We all walked onto the porch and I noticed he wasn’t as tall as he was when I was eight. I towered over him. One by one we walked into the house and sat down. He asked each one of us how we were and cracked a joke about each one of us when we where small kids. We all laughed but we couldn’t help but see the pain he was in. He was still drinking, even as we sat there. I remember looking at the little tube sticking out of his stomach that replaced his kidney --and still he was drinking; it was sad to see him like this. We all tried to laugh right with him, but it was very clear that there was too much pain and sorrow in the room. To me the room was filled with fear, gloom, pain and too much sadness, all harking back to that terrible past we endured. I wondered if amends could be made now, in the short time that was left to him. I was perplexed.
Tentative Reflections on the Origins of my Father’s Conduct
Just how much must a man put up with in order to be a man? In this appendix I wish to add some new insights on the life of talented black men living in Detroit during the late 50’s and throughout the 60’s. At the end of this journey of writing this 88 page autobiography, one of my panelists, novelist Rainelle Burton, shared with us her insights about the pain and suffering that my father may have experienced during the 60’s, especially because he was exceptionally talented and what I long viewed as my father’s false pride.
I have always known of the wrenching struggle of the black man in America and how totally demoralizing it has been for all of us. I must say and agree with Rainelle Burton that the motor city was highly success in luring the black man from the southern parts of America with the promise of healthy paycheck to come and work in the great automobile plants in Detroit. This lure was especially attractive, since no education was necessary. In fact, the less educated you were the better your chances in the plant. This had the strange, and probably deliberate, outcome of the typical black worker in Detroit with enough money in his pockets, but, at the same time, lacking true understanding of himself and the world around him.
And here is where the problem got worse. Large numbers of uneducated, lost, people were now living in an urban ghetto. By the early 60’s this turned into a pattern and a tradition--a third generation of a working class people who needed no education to live a half way decent life (in terms of money).
By the time I was born in 1961, the white man felt that the best negro was a semi-literate negro. Recalling now for example Frederick Douglass’s struggles against literacy, and the attitude of his white master towards his young charge quest for knowledge, we can see that, at the core, the situation of black people only marginally improved in over a century of struggles. The white masters were actively looking for black men without education, for it’s easy to out-think a man that really doesn’t understand the power of thinking. So, as long as the African-American man remained semi-illiterate, the white employer was safe.
Tragically, my father wasn’t born to be controlled, for to be born with the gift of creativity is to be a born thinker. The creative thinker is filled with the question why? Thus, the social forces over which he had no control on one hand, and his own active mind on the other, may have contributed to my father’s frustrations, fears, and asocial actions.
Speaking for myself, I have come to understand this filling of frustration oh so well in my own life, a generation later. In the 1960’s the situation was even worse, for the majority of African-American Detroiters then internalized the odd notion that the man who wouldn’t or couldn’t think for himself was superior to the rare man who did. The prevailing belief in the community was one of acceptance and resignation. The only viable course of action appeared to say to yourself: “this is all I’m worth, and besides, there is nothing I can do to change things. So off these good obedient men went to work, then back home, tired, confused, and frustrated. For my part, I truly forgive and understand every black man who believed that the white man will always have the best, every black man who played the role of the Whitman’s child at work, every black man in Detroit who felt like he had to kowtow to the white man in order to keep his job and put food on the table for his weak offspring he called family. Those people lacked understanding of the social and psychological forces that were oppressing them and preventing them from be the men the could be.
Thus, my father’s frustrations are traceable in part to white oppression, but they are likewise traceable to those hard working black Detroiters. Had these black men demanded a lot more respect, things would have been better for us all. Instead, these men quietly suffered and obeyed for more than 8 decades with the obvious consequence that their offspring are in worse shape than ever.
This leads me to realize the distinction between pride and false pride. I understand now that my father at one time had real pride and that he aspired to be a man in his own heart. I also understand his frustrations with his co-workers and his bosses. All this eventually led him to become a problem drinker and warped his real pride into a false one.
For someone like my father to live and work in a place like Detroit in the 60’s must have been very hard. Each day a man must look at himself and dig into his own soul. Is this the point where drugs come into the picture, when a man ask himself who am I? Or is it the point when a man prays to his God, what am I to do? Or does a man with no understanding ever asks such questions?
If enough pressure is applied, any man will break. The plants of motor city have broken down many of man. I hear these broken men’s cries to this day. I hear them describe working conditions not fit for animals, let alone human beings. They knew it was a sham, they knew they were being taken advantage of, they felt the burden of ignorance, exploitation, and racism. If asked, they will tell you that they had to do it. Theirs is the true answer for those who lack understanding.
I think my father understood one thing. He wanted to be his own man back in the 60’s. And daring to aspire for more, he paid a price far greater than those who chose to continue work in darkness, under the yoke of not think for yourself. To understand the fact that you chose to be your own man is just one thing, but to shape that man and live with him day in and day out among unsympathetic neighbors and masters is quite another thing.
The white man has truly chosen to keep us in the dark because of his fear of losing control over us. The civilized world has not yet scratched the surface of our potential, still refusing to open the doors of sharing and expressing to us. Even though Detroit led the way in pay for working men, in the 60’s it paid blacks far less than it paid their white counterparts. Housing was another curse for the African American; his hopes of living the American dream has not been filled yet. Given his ignorance on the one hand, and the white man’s greed on the other, he had no choice but play his marginalized role in society and at times, as in my father’s case, succumbing to alcoholism, self-hate, and estrangement from his own flesh and blood.
When a man’s pride is trampled under foot, he typically ends up weak or hurting. I feel my father was hurting. Given his talents for drawing, fixing things, music, singing, writing, union organizing, mechanical skills, football, baseball, basketball, track and field, it not surprising that he felt compassion for his oppressed fellows, and for himself. In the social environment in which he found himself, living with resigned black men and greedy white men, his talents, his ability to think for himself, were a curse. His talents, his unconventional thinking, his environment, his frustrations, have all added oil to his internal fires, living the door open alcoholism and self-hate which totally undermined his pride, family, and life’s mission (if he had one).
A performance to remember
Somehow we got on the subject of basketball, and at that moment and I saw his face light up. “Could we go to the park and just let me see you guys play one time?” Sure, we said and off we went to a nearby park. David and me were the only ones to play. Everybody else shot around on the side while we waited for our game. It came and right from the start David and I took total control of the court. There sure were some big guys out there but they couldn’t touch me and Dave and I remember feeling once again as though I was on top of the world. All I could hear was my father loud voice, seeing him walking up and down the court screaming, “Those are my boys! Yes, they are my boys!”
We put on a show that I’m sure he still won’t forget--even after his death. That was the first time David and I played basketball together and I could really hold my own on the court. At that moment I saw the combined talent that we both had. It was the first time I played with someone and felt the rules of basketball should change, for it seemed that Dave and I needed two balls for a single game.
Then off back to Daddy’s house. He seemed to be the happiest man on earth. I felt like the happiest boy on earth, performing for my father for the first time, and playing with Dave too, but little did I know it would be the last occasion we would have to play for him.
We made it back to my father’s house. Some of my brothers were drinking with my father, and we all were enjoying our re-union.
I had to dig deep, and dig deep I did
Then all at once my father started to cry and apologize for all the wrongs he caused us. He said, “I was wrong, AND I KNEW IT!” He asked us to forgive him, and when we did he started sobbing, wildly, unrestrainedly. You could clearly see that all those years of his troubled life and the grief he caused us came crashing down on him and it was all at once. At that moment I was frozen. I tried to fill his pain, digging deep for strength.
I started thinking about all the days he made our lives miserable, the times he scared the living hell out of me, the beating of my mother and brothers. I remembered the days he was drinking and terrorizing our household, the days when the neighbors talked and I didn’t understand but I knew it was bad and it was about my father. The times on Grandy Street, and when Jimmy shot him and even then the terrible longing I felt for the father I once knew. And now here he was, sobbing and asking his sixteen-year-old boy to forgive him. .
God in heaven help us all! I just didn’t know what to say! None of us had the wisdom to maybe say, “let us walk around the block and think about it.” I told him I forgave him when he asked for forgiveness, but it wasn’t until later that I understood. This was my only father and look at him--a total wreck! I had never seen a grown man cry like that before. I was hurting bad inside and I didn’t want to forgive him at all. But I could clearly see his genuine sorrow. He had missed out on his children’s lives, he was dying and I knew it. He was at his sad end, a truly miserable man. At that point I looked at him and somehow felt sorry for him--not as my father but as I would at any man in his condition.
Once again I had just experienced one of the happiest days of my life playing basketball for my father, not even two hours ago, and now was in the midst of one of the saddest moments of my life, seeing him like this.
That would be the last day I saw my father alive. I still thank God today for giving me, a sixteen-year-old, the courage to forgive my father that day.
A great summer on the court
Well I played more basketball than ever the rest of that summer. From park to park, I had become a dunking star in the ghetto. I was moving on with my life. Diane began to get mad at me because I was addicted to basketball. She was still in my corner in her heart, but inside my heart things were changing. I had become obsessed with basketball. I still cared for her, but basketball came first.
It would be years before I would come to understand you don’t compare people with things. We talked about it often--which was first in my life-- her or basketball. I chose basketball; and I don’t think our relationship was ever the same. She was a very sweet young lady always spending her time with me. Going wherever I wanted to go, which was only to play basketball, but she was there. That summer, out of 100 places we went to, only about five of them were places she wanted to go. I now realize how wrong and selfish I was then.
Still finding my way
The summer of 1978 ended and it was back to school. I returned to school not only a starter but also the star, The Man at Kettering. The only thing that was strange is everybody felt that way except me. I went to class first thing and practiced hard everyday and was looking forward to the season and my debut with the PSL (Detroit Public School League).
Little did I know that I was still drifting through life with all the wounds and insecurities still intact? All my issues were about to show up out there on the court, I just didn’t know it yet. All the unanswered questions and hidden pain of my life would also make their debut on that first game. You see I was filled with emotions of all kinds still, but I just had learned to suppress them, trying to move on. And move on I did.
Chapter 9: – My PSL Debut
The season opener came on December 11, 1978, Kettering vs. Cass Tech at Cass. We got there and dressed in the locker room. I put on that uniform and the dream came true. I was as ready as ever. Mr. Williams was the head coach and he still did not care much for me, but it didn’t matter because my man Mr. Nichols was standing right beside him. Mr. Williams made his speech and we headed out to the gym floor.
Living the DREAM!
The gym was packed, standing room only on both levels. A few close friends of mine were in the stands, including neighborhood girls Ella, Sheila and Olivia who attended Cass Tech. They warned me all summer long that a player named Dewayne Rogers and the Cass Tech team would tear me apart and that I wasn’t good enough to play those guys, or so they said.
The band was playing, people were screaming, cheerleaders were dancing; you couldn’t even hear yourself talk. But I made it, I said to myself I was in line waiting for my turn to lay it up. I looked at the team in their sweet blue and white uniforms and imagined how I looked in mine. I imagined how it would be once the game started, dreaming in my mind how I would get the ball, taking off like an eagle in flight, feeling the ball in the palm of my hands. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself dribbling to the hoop, experiencing once again the feeling of the ball being a part of me. Up in the air I saw myself jumping, like I was on a cloud, my arms stretched out over the rim, and with my hands gently handling the ball, I lovingly delivered her to my favorite spot, the inside of the rim. Then down I came, back to earth, back to reality-- I had made it, and I’ on the team.
And then the real whistles blew and it was game time. I was nervous as usual but ready. I recalled all the hard work it took for me to get eligible and play on this team. We won! I led the team with 20 points, 20 rebounds and 12 block shots. Today, 25 years later, they call a game like that a triple double--a superb performance even now. So 25 years ago it was a superstar performance. Right after the game, I was jumping around, on top of the world once again, with the team cheering our victory. All at once I felt myself rising up into the air. I didn’t know what was happening until I was sitting on players’ shoulders and everybody was shaking my hands and patting me on the back and pretty girls calling my named out “COCHRAN, COCHRAN he’s our man, let’s give COCHRAN a great big hand”….
I was the only one up there. Everybody was looking at me and carrying me shoulder high to the locker room. Once we got to the door of the locker room I had to duck my head to enter. It was 100 times better than my dreams. When we went into the locker room to change and came back out to watch the junior varsity play, I was so fired up I could hardly keep still. When I came out and sat down, everybody was trying to sit with me. About 4 or 5 pretty girls were all trying to talk with me at the same time. When we rode back to school on the bus I had my choice of whichever girl I wanted to sit with and the singsongs of cheerleaders and the team using my name. You had to see it to believe it. And it was all happening to me!
Nonstop to the top, so I thought
I went home, told a few a few people about the game, and got into bed. The next morning was Saturday. I woke up and rushed out to get a newspaper to see my name in the paper for the first time. Ronald Cochran’s 20 points, 20 rebounds, and 12-block shots spoiled Cass’s PSL opener, I was on top of the world that weekend. When Monday came I was never so happy to go to school, the whole entire school was cheering for me, I was truly “The Man”!
But as usual the euphoria was short lived. I got my first lessons early about fans loving and supporting you when you’re winning and turning their backs on you when you are losing. The very next game we played Denby High School. I fouled out in the first quarter and everybody talked about me as if I were a dog again. Things like, “You know I’ve been around the game for about 30 years and never seen someone foul out in the first quarter.”
That entire season went up and down; I played well in some games and bad in others. I had a friend named Milton (DO…c) who really stuck by me that whole season, regardless of my level of playing. I was still going to classes and getting a little better at my studies. I was the star some days and a zero the next and simply had to get used to it.
I was getting attention from a lot of girls and responding to as many as I could. Diane and I were falling apart--I couldn’t handle all the extra attention and my head got bigger. I started thinking that I was better than her and I could get a better girlfriend at school. It didn’t happen and I lost Diane. We didn’t break up right then but our relationship was never the same.
The “Big House!”
We made it to the playoffs at Callahan Hall, at the University of Detroit, nicknamed the “Big House”. Mr. Williams and I had had just about enough of each other. I don’t know who was more tired of the other-- him or me, but Mr. Nichols kept the team together. So here we stood, with a locker room like the NBA and a gym that could accommodate thousands. And it seemed that all of Kettering was at this game--teachers and students alike. As we came out of the locker and they announced us as the Kettering Pioneers the crowd went wild. Then we came running out of the locker room and ran one full lap around the gym floor. As I ran around looking up into the stands, I saw all my school friends and the teachers cheering for us and then in the front I saw my brother Chris standing at half court, as the sharply dressed bachelor with a big smile saying “You better play ball boy.” Chris had also come to a lot of my home games. Other friends from the neighborhood were present, including David, Jerome, Slick Tim and Maverick, all with Mr. Campbell saying, “Play ball!”
1979 PSL playoffs we made it down to the BIG HOUSE, Callahan Hall, and The University of Detroit.
Ronald Cochran ( better known as CIG), in flight!
We started laying the ball up. I felt like I was in the NBA. This was the largest gym I had ever played in. It was so noisy it seemed the only voice I could hear was Mr. Campbell’s. The old wood on the gym floor was immaculately polished and when you jumped on it, it was so soft you could almost feel the wood give. Then when you jumped up for a lay up, it seemed the rim would lower itself to you. They let us dunk a few time before the game.
But this time we lost. They blew us out by about twenty points. I led the team in scoring and rebounding with 16 points 13 rebounds and about 4 block shots. I always felt that the team was burnt out at this point and Mr. Williams wasn’t the greatest of coaches. I had often heard he had his days of good coaching, but by the time I played for him the burnout and alcohol had got the best of him. We had been ranked in the top ten best teams in the state and the tallest team in the state. These were my team mates--Hands, Gonz, Grills, Montez, Ray, Tripp, Dewayne, Lorenzo, June, Griffin, Terry, Derrick, Petty, Darrell and Joe Lee. We were a special team that year-and our coach didn’t seem to be able to get the best out of us. After that game, it seemed we just went through the motions--the season was really over in our hearts. I finished that year making ALL CITY honorable mention, not bad for one year in the PSL. Most kids play four years and never get that type of honor.
Life after basketball
After basketball season was officially over, Mr. Williams stopped speaking to me and Mr. Nichols continued trying to reach me. The gym was closed to us--no more practice every day. I just drifted away again. Back in the hallways, I resumed smoking weed and hanging out. I was sixteen then and all my friends talked about dropping out when school was over in June. That particular year there was a very high number of drop outs in the public schools with Kettering being one of the highest, so I had plenty of company. Quitting school sounded like a good idea to me. Besides, I was 2 years behind and couldn’t see myself staying in school that much longer without playing basketball. I truly wanted to go to college and play ball, but I just didn’t know how to do it, so I smoked more weed. But deep inside the dreams of college never died.
Life and Death
Then one day while I was at school, hanging out in the hallways, I got word that I was to come home as soon as possible. When I got there everybody was sitting around looking sad and I was told that my father died. I was hurt, but once again I just didn’t know what to feel. I was sad but not too surprised, seeing the shape he was in the last time I saw him. I tried to reflect on some good times, as I had no problem at all reflecting on the bad.
We all went to his funeral, except mama. I remember not wanting to be there and reminding myself, “This is your father, and the only one you had.” I felt robbed. The last time I saw him he was the saddest man I had ever seen, and now I’ll never see him again. I forced out one tear for him, as I felt I should, knowing after all that he was, is and will always be, my father.
June came and so did graduation. I had made up my mind by now to quit and the whole neighborhood came down on me and pretty much branded me a loser. Diane was mad at me, and really was sad for me and told me I was doing the wrong thing. My Mother was totally disappointed in me. I remember the most hurtful feeling I had about dropping out was seeing some of my friends actually graduate later on. To see them graduate hurt very much. I just stopped coming the last few days of school.
It all came crashing down again. I felt as low as could be by now, getting used to the ups and downs of my life. Up one month down the next, never finding level ground; growing up to me was like I either had it all, or I had nothing.
I started the summer of 1979 with the deepest depression. My mother told me right at the beginning, in order to motivate me to go back to school she said, “Ronnie, I’ll give you all the summer to think about this. In September either you go back to school, get a job, or get out. It’s up to you and I won’t bother you about it all summer, but when September comes that’s it.”
Boy did she put something on my mind. I began to think about it from time to time in between highs from the weed, I talked about it with my friends, most of them had dropped out, but their parents weren’t putting them out like mine was. I had to think about it alone. I still played a lot of basketball and really wanted to go to college. I just didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t really want to get a job; I didn’t want to go back to Kettering, not being a star anymore. Time was ticking; friends of mine started leaving for college. It was August and I still didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to get out because I had nowhere to go. I was bereft of ideas. I knew my mother was for real because I had seen her carry out similar threats with my brothers.
Time was ticking faster. Diane had started moving on with her life a little more. I began to think about how wrong I treated her by being so selfish and big headed. I started to think that she might even leave me. The girls weren’t chasing me like they did when I was on the team. I was just another regular guy.
Chapter 10: – Slapped from Boyhood to Manhood
Most importantly I was a man now. Those same people in the community that supported my dream started telling me to get a job and stop dreaming. Those old senior citizens said to me, “The game is over. You’re a man now, GET A JOB.” My friends called me the dumb jock and dropped out. The winos just shook their head as though they were saying welcome to the club. My father had passed in March and I still didn’t know how to grieve. .
How does a young man, who had this type of relationship with his father, grieve? Meanwhile, I didn’t have a job that summer and my money was low, which didn’t help my social standing, so I kept balling. Mama was starting to get on my case about my plans, and I kept balling. I thought about me being a man, and what was I to do? I came up with nothing. But I kept balling.
The end of August did come and my mother did ask me; She said, “Ronnie it’s time. What are you going to do? Get a job, go back to school, or get out!” The question hit me like a ton of bricks, but I knew she was for real. You know, I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought; in fact it was the very question had I tried to avoid all summer. But for sure by now I knew I had to tell her something, so I said I planned to go back to school. The only reason I gave her that answer is because it was the easiest one at the time. You see I really didn’t want to get a job and I truly wasn’t ready to get put out, having nowhere to go. School was starting in a couple of days, so I also felt that there was enough time to really think about what I was going to do.
The only thing I really wanted to do was play basketball. Anything else made me depressed, but I was trying to think. I had heard and seen nothing but horror stories about the job market for a young black male with no real education. I remember saying to myself, I’m not ready for that. I could have moved in with one of my brothers, Earl or Jimmy, but I didn’t want to baby sit kids all the time. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. School was starting in the morning, so I said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s off to school for me.”
I was up the next morning and got dressed for school. I felt bad dropping out and not being on the team. I was 18 years old and I couldn’t play in high school anymore. All the attention from the girls was gone. By now I knew Diane was getting tired of me. It was like I had to start Kettering all over again—but without any dreams.
Back to school
I walked to school by myself that day very slowly. I remembered walking down these same streets so many times before on other bad days, and yet this was one of the worst. I finally made it up there and I felt like a little boy, but I was an 18-year-old man, two grades behind and an old basketball star. That daylight broke too l late, my career was over and it had just started a year ago.
Back then the registration lines were very long and you had to wait for hours just to get through the first part of it. I stood around on the wall talking to friends and telling lies about why I was up here and didn’t stand in the line at all. But I had to register because mama wasn’t going to accept the same lies I told my friends. So I got in line and my head dropped to my knees. Each time the line moved, you had to take a step ahead, it seemed like when I had to take one step, it felt like I had 200 pounds of weight on each foot. My stomach started hurting and I was starting to fell very depressed, hearing all the voices from the students, talking about how good the summer vacation was and what classes they were going to take. Suddenly it seemed like I couldn’t hear anybody. I was in my own world, filled with misery, belittlement and shame.
A reality check
What am I doing in this line I said to myself? I’m Ron Cochran, the best basketball player at this school. I started thinking about how the whole school cheered for me just this past semester. My favorite plays started flashing through my mind, people telling me I could make it to the pros, teachers telling me you can go to college if you get some good grades. All the little kids in the neighborhood calling me Dr. J. What am I doing in this line? Then the other kids’ voices came back. I was still in line and I looked around and depression was staring me right in the face again. The reality I had to face was coming back to Kettering without dreams of basketball.
The kids were still talking, but it seemed like they where getting louder and louder. I was getting hot, sweaty and dizzy. I didn’t want to stand in line anymore and I didn’t have the courage to step out and go home and face mama. I just didn’t know what to do.
God works through people
There have been a few times in my life that the stars smiled at me lifted me when I couldn’t do it myself and this happened now. Just at the moment when I was so lost and confused, down the hall came Mr. Bogard, a teacher and football coach at Kettering. He was a short hardnosed type of guy who played basketball with me in gym classes sometimes. It was his first year teaching then and he was young with a lot of energy and played me very hard on the court and always told me to push myself. On seeing me, he stopped and said “Hi, Cochran what are you doing here? I thought you had graduated?” I looked at him very hard and for a change I didn’t lie about my state of affairs and said “NO! I didn’t graduate.” Without him asking, I told him I had to come back here for two more years in order to graduate. He then looked at me very strangely and paused… We both looked at each other; there was silence all around us. I think the other kids heard the conversation, it seemed all eyes and ears were on Mr. Bogard and me. It looked like he was thinking and having a hard time doing it. All at once he seemed to have found his next question. Everyone seemed like they were waiting to hear it more than I was. Then he said, “Do you want to go to college?” It didn’t take a half of a second for me to answer, “YES!”
He said, “Well then, come with me,” I took a last look at everybody standing in line. I stepped out of the registration line and started walking with Mr. Bogard. I remember saying to myself, “It must be a miracle.” I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but I was out of that line. I never did register at Kettering in the year of 1979. I was on my way back to the top--college bound; I was The Man once again!
At this point in my Life (1980) I was 19-years-old and on my way to Highland Park Community College, and just changed my basketball name to:
RON DOC ROCK COCHRAN
In the next year, I managed to get into Highland Park Community College and play basketball. I asked my mother how she felt all those years ago when I came home that day from Kettering and told her I was on my way to college. She said, “I was very happy for you, but I remember saying to myself, ‘How is he going to college without finishing school?’”
I did my first year of college without a high school diploma. But I also had to take a full load of college classes, a full load of GED classes, besides practicing with the team. I must give thanks to some of the people who believed in me a lot and supported my deep desire to play basketball in college. My mother, my family, Diane, Mr. Nickols, Mr. Campbell, Mr. Bogard, Coach Donahue and Coach Dawson at Highland Park Community College Hubert Thomas (Hands), Milton (Doc), Leanard, Ella, Slick Tim and the whole Holcomb Hills and the total community and all of the guys at Pingree Park; Tony, Art, Terry, Mike Cotton, Kelow, Melvin Ford who did tricks with a ball I’ve still yet to see anyone else doing, McDougle, who taught me how to do the hook shot, Jeff, who opened my eyes to creating my own moves.
But the road had just begun. I entered manhood--another game. Even though I stopped drawing years before, my ability to dream was as great as ever. Despite all the problems I had as a child growing up in confusion, fear and depression, I went to college as a man. And, oh yes, I carried all that extra baggage right along with me. It would take many years of pain and misery after college to unload that painful burden, but I must say that it is possible and I have gotten rid of a lot of it.
My sister Denise continued to grow up in the neighborhood. She and I were the last two living at home with mama during that time. By now she was an early teenager with her own personality and visions of getting out of the ‘hood. She graduated from the same high school I dropped out of (Kettering). She got married to a young man in the US Air Force and moved to France for two years.
My brother Chris got married not long after and had two daughters. He continued to live on the east side of Detroit and pursued a career in music and entertainment. With a music studio in his house he will always have a great love for music. At that time he worked for Joe Muer’s seafood restaurant.
My brother Dave was coming off the merry-go-round of a college basketball career just as I was entering college. He attended three different colleges and traveled around the country playing basketball in some of the greatest gyms in the nation, coming home as a college All-American star.
My brother Jimmy was already married with two children when I went to college. He lived on the west side of town after he came home from the military service. He didn’t do much in the art world, and is pretty much a blue-collar worker. He surely had plenty of talent, but, like my father, has had problems putting it to its best use.
My brother Earl also married, and has four girls and works jobs here and there. His marriage ended and he became “bachelor of the year” in the hood. He always kept a nice car and plenty of girls around in his corner and on the side. He lived not far from mama’s house, and I saw a lot of him my first year at Highland Park Community College. He later moved right next door to mama.
My mother continues to go to the Kingdom Hall and attend Sunday services, trying to influence us with her religion whenever she can. I asked my mother how she felt about the whole ordeal and she said, “I always felt the need to stick with my children throughout their lives --no matter what. Because my children only had one parent at home, I felt they were cheated. And I have maintained a very strong love for all my children ever since.”
I feel that one of the most important things that happened to me at an early age was my ability to spot and admit to myself the presence of fears, not necessarily overcoming them, but realizing their existence. The pain came from my inability to handle them. Then came sadness, insecurity, and confusion.
My view of my family during those times was that we all suffered great pain over the years, more than a family should endure from one man. My father’s inability to confront his fears in a manly way would cost the family frustration for many generations to come. I still find it hard to accept the facts about the impact of fear that my father had inflicted on me in such a short time period in my life. I feel I could do so much with my life, make more of my gifts, had I grown in a more nurturing household and environment.
I’ve also learned to take the bitter with the sweet. My father left us a legacy of his own pain and insecurities, which he allowed to dominate his life. He also blessed us with talents far superior to any other father that I’ve ever met.
I know there’s not enough time or paper for me to tell my whole story. I just tried to illustrate some of the key points in my life, times when I have had to confront fear and the rewards I received afterwards. I tried to share some of the many moments in life when I said, “Yes, I’m still afraid, but I’ll move on. I can’t and won’t let fear stop me.”
I shared just a very small amount of the truly good times my family and I had despite the problems we faced. We all learned how to have good times even in moments of despair. I recall all the ideas we created to amuse ourselves, the hilarious jokes we came up with to keep us moving on, how mama never gave up on trying to make us happy children, and how we never gave up trying to be happy and have fun; the times we laughed when we should have cried, how the laughter got us through those days. Looking back, I feel that maybe we overdid the laughing a bit, maybe should have cried back then. In fact we all needed one good cry. But we continued to sing and laugh instead, while running away from our fears and pains.
Yes, I remember those days, many of them like yesterday. I remember the pain I felt as a child-- lost in the darkness of a family’s history and unable to confront or understand it. You see, I’ve lived in that hell hole of self-denial. I’ve lived with fear, not only in my house but also inside my soul. Fear ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with me. Every night, fear slept not merely beside me, but inside my soul. I ran away from it and felt the pain of my weakness. Yes, I have often taken the coward’s way--but not always. I’ve portrayed myself in a manner that made me appear tall, when in reality I was very small. As a child I recall getting tough when it got rough but often quitting when the going got tough. And I hope I never forget it. I didn’t have to deal with my father as much as my brothers; I can’t help but feel deep inside that their pain was worse than mine by a long shot, and I pray for us all.
My many issues, those things never left my mind and heart. They’ve always bothered my soul, never letting me sleep in peace. Even though I had no idea how to deal with and handle my fears, I always knew they were there and I have had much practice confronting them, yet never really conquering them.
So the bad times and the good times I’ve shared with you were just a few of my ways of moving on with my life and striking an uneasy truce with fear. I haven’t conquered it yet, but never have I, as a child or a man, allowed fear to conquer me!