Childhood Calling

Winding down a summer day at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center's Fun in the Sun

It's about 1:30 p.m. and the sun is still high this Friday afternoon, but the fun is winding down. A few hours earlier, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, our city's repository for and promoter of African American achievements and culture, was thronged for its first-ever family-friendly Friday Fun in the Sun event.

Three hundred, maybe 400 kids and their parents, caregivers, and volunteer lookouts came to the historic home of James Garfield Beck and Ethel Benson Beck and ate hot dogs, played games for Teddy bears, heard some stories.

Now there are just dozens left, splayed on picnic blankets on the shaded lawn, watching kids swooooop down the Space Walk water slide there on the edge of the woods, starting to collect sandals and trash for leave-taking.

The kids are good tired, squishing through puddles in the grass. One Denesha Maxwell is drenched head to foot but not dripping, scooting around in long blue jeans and a girl-T with "Girls Rock" spelled out in sequins, a tulip painted on one cheek, red heart on the other. Miss Brenda (Auntie Brenda) drove her in, and she wasn't prepared for the slide, but gave it her all anyhow.

She's not shivering, but lots of the kids are. They've played so hard even the 90-something heat won't re-rev their lithe bodies for another turn in the water

Quentin Magnusson is trembling with blue lips, wet khaki hiking shorts, and spiky red hair. He lisps a little (he's four, after all) about liking the popcorn best of all. Did he walk in? "No, we took a bus," says his dad, also with red hair, his under a ball cap.

"Two buses," insists Quentin. "Me and mom took two and dad took two."

His dad agrees, two buses each, from Woodbine. Dad's hoping the event will happen again, soon. "The kids have all had a blast."

No one's in a hurry to leave this haven reached by following Summit Hill east, until it transforms into Dandridge, a tree-swaying avenue, punctuated by a giant statue of Alex Haley to the right, in the play park, and the regal Mount Olive Baptist church on the left. For the precious remaining moments, they've headed back into the restored late 1800s building with its hushed paneling and sturdy wood beams and cool museum air.

In the shop is Beck Cultural Exchange director Aaron W. Rollins, looking dignified with his gray hair and scholarly expression—but he's cutting up.

"This is for your husband," he quips, giving a woman a Beck Center "mood" pencil that's purple in the cool air. "In the morning, press it on his neck. If it doesn't change color, call 911. If it does, you know he's still with us."

He turns to a display of Library of Congress history cards. "This one," he says, gesturing to the Civil Rights Movement collection, "is our best seller. I push them because they have a picture of me." Sure enough, thumb through the cards and there is a laughing, mustached Rollins in black and white, younger, lankier—and looking humorous back then, too.

A hands-on display of Negro League baseball memorabilia, a pet project at the Beck, is manned by a woman with a cap of gray-white hair but an enviably unlined face, warm and brown, open but no-nonsense. She turns out to be Shirley Carr-Clowney, thrice-nominated as a YWCA Woman of the Year (including this year), a historian and community activist who serves as executive director of African Americans of Appalachia Blount County. But today, she's just "here to watch over the young people," she says. "I've been so pleased."

The indoors is too cool for Carr-Clowney, too. She steps out to the front courtyard, a bricked circle, to catch some heat, then pops back to her duties.

If she'd stayed out longer, she might have caught the rap playing over the speakers, selected by DJ Slymm. A few kids wiggle a little dance move passing from the water to the house, but no one's dwelling on the beat—or the various artists' lyrics, some suggestive, some a little raunchy ("With stack in my jeans just like my name was billy").

The face painting, though, that draws some serious consideration. Conducted by smiling young women from CoverKids, Tennessee's program to provide health services free for the low-income uninsured, it offers lots of options, statements to be made. They've colored in elegant swirls on the forehead of Beck volunteer Kimberly Wren, for example, daisy chains above one of the painter's carefully shaped eyebrows, and many, many brown-and-orange footballs on the cheeks of All-American boys, pre-school to pre-teen.

"You know how to draw a heart?" asks a skeptical latecomer, all-kid, hair tiny braided and fastened with beads, mournful brown eyes locked with those of the cheerful, rounded painter. "Yes," she answers solemnly, "what color?"

"Green," says the child, faith restored.

And now it's the real end. DJ Slymm has quietly departed, the Mount Olive Baptist mini-bus is packing up. One small girl stands on her shoes, to keep the hot bricks from scorching the soles of her feet. But she doesn't put them on. Lots of other summer days to wear shoes.

On the edge of the circular terrace rests a large, rectangular, concrete planter. It has textured hummingbirds on the front, and a plain red brick balanced on its rim.

"No roots. No fruit. D.E. Blair 2005" says the brick.

Above it, petunias. Young, bright and colorful. Waving. Blooming.