When Scrappy came home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday, Mama and Daddy gave him an early Christmas present. It was a black and white Studebaker over six-years-old, but he didn’t care. He treated that car like it was a new T-Bird. Even gave it a name: Tinka Belle, of all things.
He came home again right after Christmas for a few days and seemed determined to badger me to death. Mama told him that I had been moping around all week and she was sick of it.
“So this is the deal, Boo,” he said. “You are coming with me. Big Brother reporting for duty, here to rescue the fair maiden little sister.”
Maiden, my foot. Ha! If Scrappy knew about Maynard Taylor and me, the boy who dropped me flat after all we’d been through together, he would have thought twice about calling me a maiden, fair or otherwise.
My pride was dragging around in the dirt and I didn’t want to go anywhere with my brother who thought he was hot stuff having a car of his own. Besides, I was getting good mileage out of licking my wounds. The only thing I wanted to do was polish my toenails and feel sorry for myself. “Go away, Scrappy.”
He put both hands on his hips. “Hey, kiddo. I ain’t just whistling Dixie.”
“They teach you to say ain’t at Carolina, Scrappy? Mrs. Sparks would flunk you for that.” He rolled his eyes. Between him and Daddy, that eye-rolling thing was getting on my last nerve.
“Look, Boo, I don’t care if you nurse your po’ little broken heart till you turn the color of a blueberry as long as you do it when I’m not around. Besides, you’re wasting your tears on that jerk. He ain’t ... isn’t worth the salt in your tears. I told you a long time ago that he’s a lightweight diddlysquat poot. Now, c’mon. Let’s go downtown.”
He came over to where I was perched on a lounge chair trying to look tragic and dragged me to his car. I got in because I realized that, in his own way, my brother cared that Maynard had hurt me. All the same, I was not going to stop being miserable simply because he was taking pity on me. I had a little bit of pride left.
“Scrappy, I don’t want to go downtown. I don’t want to go anywhere. I hate it when you make me do stuff like this. Hate it hate it hate it.”
We were driving by the Calhoun College entrance at the time. The college was a Methodist supported school for colored people and it had been there for as long as I could remember. It was a landmark, I guess, but people paid no attention to the college or to the kids who attended unless it was to say how uppity the students became after they were enrolled at Calhoun.
“Scrappy, I’ve got a bunch of stuff to do today, so I can’t be gone long. Mama said I have to get all my dirty clothes washed and dried before she gets home and I haven’t even started.”
“Big deal,” my brother said, bored.
“It is a big deal. Zetty comes tomorrow and if I want her to do my ironing, Mama says I have to have it ready. Lord, she babies that woman to death. You’d think as much as we pay her, Zetty would be happy to do a little ironing when we need her to.”
Scrappy gave me a withering look. “Boo, five dollars a day is not much money. Zetty works her tail off for the little bit we pay her.”
“She’s got five jobs. Do the math, Mr. College Boy. That’s over a hundred dollars a month. Huh! I get paid a measly $2.33 to work all day long at the Singer Store selling sewing needles to prissy old ladies.”
I turned away from my brother and stared out the window. Scrappy always knew how to set my teeth on edge. Zetty had worked for us since I was a little girl and I loved her, I really did. But a hundred dollars a month was a ton of money and what right did Scrappy have taking her side against his own sister?
“Zetty has a family to feed, clothe and educate.” His superior tone of voice made me even madder. He always had to have the last word.
“I know she’s got a family, Scrappy. Do you think I moved to Mars when you left for college? Quit spouting off at me like I’m stone stupid.”
Scrappy eyed me hard and said, “Then don’t act stupid, Stupid. You don’t know the first thing about Zetty and her people, do you?”
“I most certainly do!”
He looked me in the eye with the smirk on his face that I’ve hated since the day I drew breath. “Really? Tell me everything, Miss Know-it-All.”
I smirked right back at him. “Okay, I will. Zetty’s son Jeremy is seventeen, maybe eighteen now and he’ll graduate this year. That makes Eula Mae fourteen. Zetty told me the other day that Eulie was elected head cheerleader at Williams High.”
Scrappy’s smirk got smirkier. “She couldn’t have, you dumb ass, because Jeremy and Eula Mae are both students at Calhoun College. Not only that, they’re two years apart in age, not four. Jeremy is a 4.0 student and plans to go to med school after he graduates. Eula Mae is majoring in journalism and is already a published author. Zetty does our dirty work for very little money so that her kids can have a better life than she’s had.”
“Just stop trying to sound like Martin Luther King, Jr., Scrappy. So I was mixed up, okay? Can’t a person get confused about stuff every now and then without being preached at by a big brother who loves to show off? Holy cow!”
“I’m not showing off. I’m trying to get you to see something outside of the minuscule world you live in. Imagine, Miss Pea Brain, how hard it must be to send two kids to college on a hundred dollars a month and still make ends meet. It’s damn near impossible and I don’t know how she does it.”
I decided to let him have the last word so we rode in silence after that. I stared out the window breathing fire and Scrappy roared down Brawton Street with his eyes glued to the road ahead like it might lead him to the Holy Grail.
He turned the corner by the dime store way too fast and I told him to stop the car right that minute and let me out.
“One of these days Daddy’s going to catch you driving like a bat out of hell and if you don’t meet me in the Square in exactly one hour, I’m going to tell on you.”
“Oooh, I’m so scared. Somebody help me.” Then he gave me a look that said I bored him. I stuck my tongue out at him, slammed the car door, and huffed over to Good’s Five & Dime. I didn’t need or want to buy anything, but I liked wandering around in there when I had a few minutes. The store smelled of hot popcorn, chocolate covered peanuts and waxed floors that had been walked on for too many years to count.
“Hey, Mrs. Waddell,” I said to the middle-aged woman arranging a pile of thin nylon scarves near the front display window. Inhaling the store smell made me grin in spite of my bad mood. I couldn’t help myself.
Mrs. Waddell had worked at Good’s Five & Dime for as long as I could remember. Her son, Raymond, was a year ahead of me in school and I liked him even though he was a sissy and he was kind of fat too. Raymond could sit down at a piano and play anything you asked him to even though he never took a lesson in his life. Mama said he was gifted.
“Well, hey, Boo,” Mrs. Waddell flashed me a big, toothy grin. She had a mouth and-a-half full of the teeth she was born with and she was proud of every one of them.
“Haven’t seen much of you or your friend Patsy in a coon’s age, Boo,” she said. “What y’all been up to?”
“Oh, nothing much. Patsy’s in Columbia at her grandmother’s and Scrappy talked me into coming downtown with him in his new old car. This is as far as we got.” I picked up a lime green neck scarf and held it up to the light. “How’s Raymond? I haven’t seen him lately.”
Mrs. Waddell flashed me her mouthful of god-given teeth. “He’s doing fine, honey. He’s playing the piano for Merleen Culpepper now. Afternoons and weekends. She’s opened up that new dancing school what everybody sends their little girls to? Won’t be long before he’ll have saved up enough money to start up his own band. I want him to play over to the VFW on Saturday nights because that prissy little trio they got playing now is tacky.”
She’s one to talk, I thought, but what I said was, “Good for Raymond.” I wandered over to the cosmetics counter to look for a lighter shade of Tangee lipstick. With my pale skin, real red lipstick made me look like Lady Dracula eating a heavy meal. Mrs. Waddell followed behind me talking a mile a minute while fingering the scarves she’d grabbed up in one hand.
The store was empty of customers except for me, but I didn’t notice and would not notice until some time later. My mind was flitting from one thought to another so I only half listened to the old bat carry on about Raymond. The other half of me pulled the tops off tubes of Tangee. Every now and then I’d look at her, smile and say, “I declare.”
I was right in the middle of sniffing a dark blue bottle of “Evening in Paris” perfume when a piece of one of her sentences caught up to my brain.
“... they’s always trying to stir up trouble for decent white folks. Like we need outsiders to tell us how to live?” She sounded angry.
I was puzzled. “Trouble? What kind of trouble you talking about, Mrs. Waddell?”
“Those blamed Calhoun College niggahs, honey. They ain’t never gonna be satisfied, no matter what. Give ‘em a inch and they’ll take a mile.”
All my life I’d heard people use the “inch and a mile” expression, usually referring to colored people or children. I shrugged and said, “I reckon so,” but my skin crawled when I said it. She probably thought I agreed with her.
Mrs. Waddell kept talking about the students at Calhoun organizing what she said was a so-called peaceful demonstration. She talked with a sneer on her face. I must have looked uneasy, because she stopped in mid-sentence and eyed me like I was a Russian spy.
“Your daddy knows all about it, Boo. Ask him.”
My heart skipped a dozen beats. In a panic, I wondered how my Daddy had crept into this crazy one-way conversation. Being the child of the local law was not unlike being a preacher’s kid, or a PK as they were called. The unwritten law in our family was that Greenburg police business was never repeated. Children were supposed to be seen and not heard. It was how my parents had been raised, and it was how they were raising Scrappy and me. Thinking I had accidentally divulged privileged information scared me into the middle of next week.
“What’s my daddy’s got to do with anything, Mrs. Waddell?” My voice did the St. Vida’s Dance while my mind tried to figure out what I might have said.
“Shoot! He’s the one got to deal with this mess —them Yankee agitators coming down here from New York City for one reason only: to stir things up.”
“Mrs. Waddell, I don’t know anything about it.” Hoping to get her off the subject, I walked down the center aisle to the stationery department. I had a habit of borrowing notebook paper, so I decided to spring for a jumbo pack of Blue Horse and start paying back. But even when I turned away from her she continued to talk in that whiney voice.
“Well, if they start marching today, they better coloreds trying to show off like they had the right. And them Yankee agitators need to stay up North where they belong. Ask your daddy. He knows.”
I had overheard Daddy talking with Mama about an earlier sit-in at Kress’ Dime Store. He told her then that he expected more trouble, but he couldn’t have meant today or he would have made sure Scrappy and I didn’t leave the yard.
“You think there’ll be a protest today, Mrs. Waddell?”
“Yes ma’am, I sho’ do. A big march right through the middle of town. Miz Adden come in here right before you and said when she passed by the college in her car there was black faces everywhere she looked.”
That Scrappy! I knew there had to be a reason (other than me) why he was itching to come downtown. Daddy was going to throw a fit when he found out.
Mrs. Waddell smacked her lips together. “They ain’t gonna get far, ‘cause the City didn’t give ‘em no permit. Ha! Miz Marree Darcy said she’s gonna shut down her newsstand, and my husband called me up and told me I needed to do the same thing. ‘Close up that store and git on home,” he said.
She shook her head and shifted from one foot to the other. “Ittn’t that just like a man? I’m supposed to walk out of this store like it’s a shoeshine stand. I asked him what he thought Mr. Good would say about me leaving without his permission. You know what he told me?
“He said, ‘Who the hell’s gonna be shopping with them crazy students strutting their stuff all up and down the street?’ Still, I can’t just close up the store on my own.”
She shrugged her shoulders and started separating a bunch of pink and red silk scarves into two piles. That creepy crawly feeling washed over me again, and I had trouble looking at her.
I turned around to glance out the windows facing Main Street, and that’s when te absence of people both inside the store and out hit me. Except for one or two walking toward Belk’s, the entire street looked like it does on Sunday mornings during church.
“I think I see Scrappy over there waiting for me,” I lied, and then quickly brushed past Mrs. Waddell without buying even one sheet of notebook paper. As the heavy door swung shut behind me, she bawled out, “Come back to see me.” Then, “Say hey to your Mama for me,” which she probably didn’t mean.
Out on the street, I opened my mouth wide and gulped fresh, clean air. It was not yet springtime so the hot, sticky weather that would smother the entire South in another few months had not arrived. The stale air inside the dime store that I had loved up until a few minutes before, made me sick to my stomach. I looked up and down the street for Scrappy’s Studebaker but the full hour was not up, so I wandered over to the Square to wait for him.
There was one bench not covered in pigeon poop so I grabbed it. I was there for only a few minutes when I sensed a kind of a buzz in the air that settled all around.
I looked behind me and that’s when I saw that people were lining up on both sides of the street. They were staring off in a northerly direction as though they were listening for a far-off marching band to start the parade. Some clerks from Penney’s had edged out of the front door or were peering out windows, craning their necks for a glimpse of whatever was down the street and about to come their way.
I jumped up then, sixteen-years-old and nosy as a kitten, to see for myself what was going on. What I discovered in the next few moments snatched my breath away.
The approaching marchers, over six hundred in all, made barely a sound. Their shoes should have made some noise on the pavement, but the drum of expected marching feet was not there. They might just as well have been barefooted.
They walked slowly, maybe eight abreast, a sea of black and brown faces aimed toward the Square and me. Their heads were held high, spines stiff, eyes directed forward. It was a sight to see yet one that would haunt me for years to come.
The Calhoun College students trudged along with a dignified, clear-cut purpose. In what seemed like no time at all, they surrounded the people in the Square who were gawking at them.
I looked all over for Scrappy. Where was he? However, on the other side of the Square police cars and fire trucks were lining up barricades in front of Good’s Five & Dime. Daddy was there, too, but he was much too busy to notice me or I would be on restriction for the rest of my life. My mind, like a seesaw, went up and down, not knowing where to go or what to do.
I was sizing up the growing number of quiet marchers when a sharp noise behind me broke through the eerie silence. I whipped around so fast it made me dizzy. The noise was a metal chair scraping on cement and made by a saleslady from Penney’s when she placed it on the sidewalk near the curb. She sat down, tore open a bag of Lays Potato Chips and started eating them while watching the parade.
By this time the marchers had surrounded the Square on three sides. They were lined up in tight formation like a high school band. They were marching, still very quietly, in rows at least five deep. All I could do was stare. Eventually, I tore my eyes away in order to look again for my brother. In addition to being furious at him for abandoning me, I was scared. I needed to go to the bathroom, but I didn’t know how to get around the protesters. I couldn’t walk up to them and say, “I hate to break up your little party, but I need to tee tee.”
At that moment, while standing stock-still trying to think of an escape, I got real mad at myself for feeling helpless. I didn’t know what was going on, but it didn’t seem right for Boo Sandifer to stand around wringing her hands and waiting for her stupid, stupid brother. So what did I do? I took myself lickity-split to the edge of the curb, not too far from the woman smacking on potato chips.
I wanted to know how many students were protesting and what it was all about. I wanted to look into their faces, get close enough to hear what, if anything, they might say. I didn’t think about danger or the consequences of my actions.
When I reached the curb, I could see many more students than I’d imagined. They moved forward at a snail’s pace, closing in quietly, seriously. I kept hoping to hear a chant or singing, but they marched on in stony silence while the air all around us crackled with tension.
At that moment I wished I believed in something as strongly as those students. Anything. Even the raw passion I experienced the night I lost my virginity to Maynard Taylor didn’t compare. I didn’t just want what those students had; I yearned to be a part of it.
I stood at the red painted curb and anxiously breathed in and out through my mouth while waiting for something else to happen. I sensed it would come, and it would be big and would make my being there worth the risk. Maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I thought, because if my parents knew I might as well join a convent.
When I looked around, I saw a lot of angry white people itching for a confrontation, so I knew Daddy’s hands would be full for a while. Maybe he wouldn’t see me. Actually, the risk that he might, added to my excited state. It was like dancing with the devil, being pulled one way, then yanked another. I was so caught up in everything, that when Scrappy came up behind me and grabbed my arm, I barely felt it.
“Boo, are you nuts? If Daddy sees us here, he’ll…” He glanced behind him at the blockade of police and firemen busy pulling thick hoses from fire trucks and then he turned to me again.
“Jesus H. Christ, Boo. You act like you don’t have a lick of sense.”
I’d never seen him so mad. “My car’s parked behind the church. Come on, let’s go!”
Something flared up inside of me right then. I can’t explain it. All I know is that the harder Scrappy yanked me, the harder I resisted. I didn’t want to go with my brother; I didn’t want to leave this place. Not yet. I didn’t know why, I just knew I needed to be in that spot.
My mind willed my body to twist away from his pull, and when I did I sprawled flat on my butt. In an instant, I was laid-out in the middle of the marchers while hot pain jabbed at my ankle and ran up my leg.
I wanted to get up but I knew if I did I would be crushed by the moving throngs of marchers. I quickly ducked back down and covered my head with my hands and listened as the students moved forward despite me. They walked arm and arm at a steady pace, detouring only slightly at the hole created by my flailing arms and legs. I had never been so scared in my life.
My breath came in short puffs. Sweating like a packhorse, I was about to start crying when my body was suddenly lifted up. I looked down to find the white skin of my arms next to strong black hands, hands that lifted and guided me to the safety of the sidewalk.
I twisted around and saw that it was Jeremy who had picked me up, Zetty’s Jeremy. I felt like Scarlett O’Hara when Big Sam rescued her from the Shantytown white trash.
Scrappy grabbed my other arm and the two boys elbowed their way through the tide of undistracted marchers. When we reached the sidewalk, Jeremy’s sister Eula Mae stooped down and retrieved my pocketbook from where I’d dropped it at the curb. She handed it to me and we looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’ll never forget the depth of Eula Mae’s eyes that day, thick as Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Those brown eyes made me feel like a foreigner in my own familiar town. She didn’t say anything, not one word, but she didn’t need to. The expression on her face commanded me to get out of the way and to stay out of the way. Her look told me that this march was none of my business.
I turned away from Eula Mae and when I looked back again, my fears were no longer for myself, but for her and for Jeremy. Before I could put my thoughts into words of warning, the other brother and sister had slipped away as silently as they had appeared, swallowed up in a sea of quiet passion.
“Come on, Boo,” my brother shouted, jerking my arm nearly out of its socket. He pulled me toward the monument of the Civil War soldier who had guarded our town’s Square for almost a century. I balked.
“I can’t, Scrappy,” I yelled. “My ankle.”
He scooped me up in his arms and ran diagonally across the dormant centipede lawn that would, in the next few months, turn from brown to lush green. At that moment, a scream ripped through the Square. Seconds later, what had been a peaceful demonstration was chaos.
Scrappy whirled us around until we were face-to-face with a nightmare defined by unmistakable howls and shrieks. A hundred years of anguish. Bodies were hurled through the air, landing one on top of the other, making the rank and file of marchers fall back and ultimately down onto the street.
There was water everywhere. It gushed through the air with amazing power, smashing treetops and phone wires and shattering store windows into glass splinters. Most of the students toppled over when struck full-force by the water, hitting the ground with bone breaking thuds. They screamed, unlike the silence they had demonstrated earlier, and they no longer looked human.
Ants. They looked like the ants that invaded our driveway last summer. Mama made Scrappy turn the garden hose on them and he blasted them away. That’s what the fire hoses did to those kids, students who had gathered to protest an injustice. Ants.
My brother and I watched as one student after another got knocked down to the pavement. He would scramble back up only to be squashed again with another blast from an arrogant fire hose. My mind refused to grasp it. This was not New York City. Not Chicago. Ugly things didn’t belong in my safe, little town.
Suddenly we were jolted out of our stupor by Daddy’s voice shouting into a bullhorn.
“Disperse at once or you will be arrested.”
The fire hoses continued to erupt with a powerful sea of water that spun the youthful bodies around in mid-air, ultimately knocking them to the ground. A few of the students would pick themselves up and continue pressing forward, but others, rising briefly, were quickly knocked down to be trampled by their fellow compatriots. It was horrible. It was the war I had only seen in movies. The passionate parade I had envied only minutes before was a battlefield, mean and violent. For the first time in my young life, I saw what human beings were capable of doing to one another. It was real and it was brutal.
Shaking all over, I said, “Scrappy, get us out of here.”
My brother held me close for a moment and then we escaped to the safety of his black and white Studebaker parked behind the First Baptist Church. We drove away in silence, neither of us knowing how to put into words the horror we had experienced.
I knew Scrappy wouldn’t drive us directly home; he would take us to Rocky Bottom. Within minutes, we were staring blindly at the deadly Cherokee River rushing by. We sat for a long time without saying anything before my brother sighed from somewhere deep in his soul, started the car and drove us on home.
While Daddy washed up for supper later that night, Mama called Scrappy and me to the table. After Daddy was seated, we all bowed our heads for him to say grace. Usually, he said it so fast it sounded like a sneeze.
That night, however, Daddy didn’t say the blessing; he just bowed his head. The three of us waited, feeling ill at ease in the stillness. Pretty soon, he took the napkin off his lap and put it down next to his plate. Scraping his chair back from the table, he said, “Mary Francis, thank you for cooking another fine meal but I don’t have much of an appetite tonight. Y’all go on ahead.” He left the room with his head still bowed.
“Scrappy,” Mama said, “why don’t you say grace for us tonight?”
Scrappy mumbled something that was a carbon copy of Daddy’s sneezy blessing, then silence dropped down on top of us like heavy humidity.
I wasn’t hungry either. Mama had fixed liver and onions, my favorite, but when I looked at my plate, I felt sick. My stomach twisted and rolled, and no wonder. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw bodies flying through the air, landing on top of each other. I saw broken bones sticking out of bloody arms and legs.
I threw down my napkin and jumped out of my chair. “I’m not surprised Daddy can’t eat his supper after what he did today!” Pools of fresh tears spilled from my eyes and I could no more have stopped them than I could have stopped a moving train with my bare hands.
Mama stared at me in confusion, but Scrappy’s expression was one of fury. Until I opened my big mouth, Mama hadn’t known that we were downtown and Scrappy had not planned to mention it.
“Boo,” Mama said, “what are you talking about?”
I looked at Scrappy for a moment and then at her. “You know what I’m talking about, Mama. You know as well as I do what Daddy did this afternoon. He turned fire hoses on those students from the college and they were not breaking any laws. They were quietly marching down the street. What’s wrong with that?”
Mama glared at me. Her eyes looked like small pieces of coal. “You and your brother were in the middle of that mess today?”
“Yes!” I shouted between gasps. “And we weren’t the only ones. Jeremy and Eula Mae were there too, and they might be dead or hurt or in jail right now while we sit here saying grace. I saw daddy hurt people today and I’m ashamed of him. Why does he have to be a policeman? Why can’t he dig ditches?”
Scrappy never took his eyes from me. Not once. Mama looked down at the liver and onions beginning to congeal on her plate. The gravy, shiny only minutes before, looked like dried mud.
“Sit down and shut up, Boo,” Scrappy ordered. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I do so,” I shouted at my brother. “I saw it with my own eyes and I’ll see it in my mind for the rest of my life, so don’t tell me to shut up, Scrappy. Don’t you ever say that to me again!”
His eyes still did not leave mine. In a level voice, sounding much too grown-up, he said, “Sit down and be quiet, Boo. I understand that you’re upset. But if you’ll quit acting like a brat long enough for us to talk about what happened, things might look different.”
Nobody said anything more until I had cried myself out. Then Scrappy said, “Those students you saw today did break the law when they disturbed the peace which, as you well know, is against the law. Daddy was just doing his job.”
Earlier that day, my brother had made me feel like a bigot because of what I’d said about Zetty ironing my clothes. He had seen bodies flying through the air and he had heard their cries of pain when their bones broke on the hard pavement. Scrappy had been as much a witness to the chaos as I. How then, could he absolve Daddy of his part in what happened? How could he say Daddy was only doing his job?
“Scrappy, that’s pathetic. People have been using that flimsy excuse for doing bad things since God was a baby. Following orders —doing their job. Those kids today were peaceful; they didn’t disturb anybody; they didn’t break the law. Following orders doesn’t even come close to excusing what happened to them.”
“Yes, it does,” Mama said. She placed her napkin on the table and carefully folded it, making a strong crease down the side with her fingers. She cleared her throat.
“Boo, your daddy’s responsibility as Chief of Police is to keep order in this town. It is what he is paid to do. That job you wish he didn’t have, young lady, is what puts food on our table and buys you the new clothes you love so much. God willing, it will provide you and your brother with a decent education. Don’t you criticize my husband. He was doing his job, and knowing him like I do, he was doing it the best he could. Don’t you dare criticize him, young lady.”
“Mama, you don’t know what it was like because you weren’t there. I wouldn’t have known they were there if people hadn’t been staring so hard. Mama, the only time peace was disturbed was when Daddy gave the order to turn the fire hoses on them.”
In my eyes, Daddy had tried to drown the passion of those black students, passion I had seen for the first time, passion I had envied. But it was beyond my ability to say how furious I was at him and why. I was young, confused, and torn up inside. Until that afternoon, I had trusted my father more than anybody in the world, believed him to be a fair man who did the right thing, no matter what.
“Mama,” I said. She lifted her chin and looked up at me. “What if those students had been white? Would it have been disturbing the peace if Scrappy or I had been marching for something we believed in?”
Before either of them could respond, I ran out of the house. Grabbing my bike, I rode like the wind until I gave out of angry fuel at Rocky Bottom. I sat on the banks crying for a long time before Scrappy’s car eased up behind me.
He got out of the car, walked over to where I sat and plopped himself down next to me. Stretching his long legs out in front of him, he put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. Neither of us said anything and I was glad. There were thousands of angry and confused feelings in my heart, but I wasn’t ready to let them out and I didn’t want my brother to take away my anger. Not yet.
His voice, when he finally spoke, felt like salve smoothed over a sidewalk knee scrape.
“Daddy’s not a bad man, Boo. He looks out for us and for the town, too. You need to remember that.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you think he woke up this morning and said, ‘I’m going over to the Fire Department first thing and make sure those hoses are ready to knock down the Calhoun College students when they march.” Naah. He left the house like he does every day and went to work thinking he’d fix a parking ticket or two, or maybe — if the day got exciting, he’d arrest a shoplifter.”
I continued to gaze at the river.
“Who knows why things happen? Maybe because they’re supposed to. The thing is, life can’t always be as well defined as you want it to be, Boo. Issues are not always black and white.”
I looked up sharply at my brother, thinking he had intentionally made the black/white pun, and I was fixing to let him have it. It surprised me to read on his face that he’d meant nothing by it. It was just an underline.
“Before you judge Daddy too hard, think how you would have handled things if you had been in his shoes. What if you had a job to keep, a family to support, a town to protect?”
He didn’t say anything more and it was the last time we ever mentioned that day.
I tossed and turned before I finally got out of bed and padded softly to the kitchen for a glass of water. A light was on in the breakfast room making me wonder who else couldn’t sleep.
Daddy was sitting alone at the kitchen table in front of what was left of a bottle of Ancient Age. His shoulders were slumped, his head bent.
I stood back, shielded by the night shadows. A part of me wanted to put my arms around the man who had been my hero and who obviously needed to be comforted. But I was young and ignorant of adult pain, so I remained in the shadows.
I felt his sadness and it hurt my heart, but something big had happened to me during that long, horrible day, something unexpected and still very raw. A new piece of me had reared its head from the cocoon existence of my self-absorbed adolescence, and it was this new feeling in my soul that compelled me to keep still.
When six hundred black college students publicly opposed the status quo, it changed everything for me. If, years from that night, I were to write my life story, I would be obliged to say, “That day in the Square is when my core belief system shifted.”
They had marched in silence even knowing that they would be taunted and sneered at by intolerant, frightened white people. Prepared to suffer physical abuse or God knows what, they kept on because they so believed in their cause. I was able to catch only a measure of that passion, but it was provocative and I was determined to protect the smattering of transfused spirit I stole from them.
I would no longer be a naive young girl when, through a different set of eyes, I was able to be generous in my judgment of Daddy’s involvement that fateful day. Generosity of spirit came easily when I thought of the students, however. I sensed the courage it took for them to demand a better way of life for themselves and their people but Daddy’s part in it was something else. He followed orders instead of his innate sense of fairness.
And therein lies the rub.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Daddy giving the order to turn fire hoses on those students. It makes me very sad, but I can do it. The thing is, he is long dead and I am left with only a pocketful of memories of the man who was once my hero.
Other people can do the blaming, the criticizing. Let them. I choose to remember him on the night I saw him as a human being. I choose to keep the vision of my father as he sat all alone in the middle of the night at the kitchen table weeping for having played a part in man’s inhumanity to man.
That image remains to remind me that all of us are fallible. Even parents.