September 6, 1960
This place is a lot different than Scranton. The land in these parts is flat and dusty with acres of nothing but yellow. Ordinarily I don’t mind yellow, but this is the loneliest yellow I’ve ever seen. ‘Reminds me of old lady skin. And you wouldn’t believe how sickening the air is. I heard there’s a factory on the outskirts of town where they make corn products. When the corn is cooking, the air in town turns a dreary brown. You can taste the odor. It smells like infected feet. I’ll never be able to face a bowl of corn flakes again without thinking of plantar warts.
Today I somehow tolerated the skin-coating stench long enough to make it through my first day at my new school. I was trapped in a hot classroom checking out the nearest escape routes when a vision by the name of Miss Saslow strutted through the door like Marilyn Monroe. I bolted upright in my seat faster than a launched Sputnik. Her skirt was wrapped around her hips so tight it was panting. (Well, okay, that was me doing the panting.) Anyway, she’s beautiful and very young for a teacher. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was sent by the Russians just to confuse America’s youth.
Miss Saslow, who immediately became ‘Sassy-Ass’ in my lascivious mind, welcomed us to our junior year before going off on a tangent about how the teen years can be challenging. She suggested we seek support from others, or even write about our emotions in a journal. I sensed she was implying that repressed feelings could harm a growing body. That sure got my attention because ever since my life turned to disaster last year, a lot of stuff has been festering inside me.
I was thinking it all over when Russell Kinney, the sap who was vegetating next to me in class, actually raised his hand and asked Sassy-Ass who a guy should talk to if he has “nobody who will listen.” I was sure the collective groan for world-class rejects could be heard at the Pennsylvania Deaf School.
Before I could turn away to keep from staring at pathetic Russell, Sassy-Ass looked straight at me and urged us to come to her if we ever “need a feel.” (Well, perhaps she actually said, “need a friend,” but my imagination often affects my ability to hear.)
I was struggling to keep my manhood in check when Russell, obviously too dumb to let a chance to be even dumber pass him by, fell out of his chair. Yep, just up-and-fell. I’m serious. Sassy-Ass, who must have been totally alarmed to discover she had a full-blown freak loose in her classroom without arm restraints, covered it well…but I thought I’d soil my pants.
After her class, there seemed to be no reason to hang around the institution, but I forced myself to stay till lunch. Guys my age can’t miss meals. The school feeds those of us with limited funds, so I’m “government subsidized.” (I’m the human version of a crop of soybeans.)
Even lunch was a trial. After the human boil sitting next to me dumped ketchup all over his spaghetti, I moved away to eat by myself. I saved my Jello for my brother Leland, which is a habit I can’t seem to break even though Leland died last year. Eventually I offered it to a goofy little squirt with no front teeth, because all kids seem to like Jello.
You might be wondering what a young boy was doing in the cafeteria. Well this town is so small that elementary students are in the same building as us adult types. Frankly, I don’t see how it can be good for innocent little kids with lunch pails to be surrounded by flying teenage sex hormones. Anyhow, when I spotted some more cute first-graders who reminded me of Leland, I felt a real sadness bearing down on me…so I ditched school and headed for town.
Along the way to the center of nowhere, I decided to stop by Searles’ Corner Sundry Store for a Coke. The store is actually a pharmacy that sells gift items, tobacco, books, and other stuff out of necessity because there are only a few stores in this booming two-street metropolis.
I have to admit, my mood lightened the minute I entered the place. An old tune called “Blue Moon” was playing. As I see it, that song is all about hope. Because I could use some hope, I took my time looking around. As I browsed through the books on a spinning rack, I found a Steinbeck I haven’t read (Sweet Thursday) and a comic book Leland would’ve liked. Then I spotted a counter display of Old Spice Aftershave. As I took a whiff, I imagined my Dad in the bathroom getting ready to go off to the Scranton Firehouse. It was a nice memory, but I had to let it go before the sadness could catch up.
What got my attention next was an old soda counter in the back of the place. Nearby there were four booths covered with bright red vinyl the color of candy apples. Miniature chrome jukebox machines were mounted to each tabletop, so the whole area felt pretty lively. I took a counter seat and was just opening my book when I heard a tone of voice I didn’t take to too much.
“You planning on paying for that?”
No, I plan to rip out the pages, wipe my ass a few times, then make a big collage out of it. Well, that’s what I wanted to fire back at the guy whose badge announced he was Mr. Searles. In my mind he instantly became ‘Mr. Snarls.’ “I’ll be paying, and I’ll have a vanilla Coke,” I replied…but not too friendly myself. (Honestly, I’m a really nice guy in spite of how this sounds, but my nerves are a bit on edge these days.)
“Hmmm, all the other kids order cherry Cokes,” Snarls sniffed, like he was the Betty Crocker of fountain drinks.
December 12, 1960
Russ called me at about 9:00 P.M. to tell me his dad was almost run off the road by a caravan heading toward Jessie’s neighborhood. Apparently Roy expected the worst. Russ said his dad immediately rallied as many responsible citizens as he could to try to protect the Negroes from any possible harm.
“What kind of harm?” I asked Russ.
“The K.K.K. The guys in the caravan were wearing white hoods,” Russ explained. “Dad recognized Leonard Sitz. He’s a cop over in Greencastle, and he’s the local leader.”
“Holy crap! Come and get me, Russ!”
Ollie begged me not to go, but I knew I could never be the guy my parents raised me to be if I just sat there and did nothing. Before I had enough time to chicken out, Russ pulled up out front and laid on the horn. Jimmy Dale was with him, and they both looked as worked up as I was.
“Does this kind of thing happen here often?” I asked as I jumped into the truck.
“Nothing this bad has happened in years,” JD answered.
“So, why now?”
“Dad heard that the Klan is riled up because of all the heat on them since Denise’s accident,” Russ said. “They say Denise and Robert were asking for trouble, so they’re gathering just to make a point.”
“Yeah,” JD added, “and with all the sit-ins going on, like the one over in Crawfordsville, they’re saying it’s time to put Negroes in their place ’cause they’re getting too ‘uppity.’”
I couldn’t even respond. As we veered off onto a dirt road, my gut was burning and my mouth was dry. My mind couldn’t make sense of it. I had no idea things were this bad. Maybe the only people completely awake in life are the ones who are on the receiving end of badness.
Before we reached the strip of houses where Jessie lives, we saw the glow of headlights through the pines. The area was very quiet, and so were we. But as we turned the bend, the three of us gasped aloud at the blur of white hoods in the road before us. The Klan was out in force, and there were vehicles everywhere. The K.K.K. had blocked the road, leaving a strip of gravel just big enough for one car to pass. By the time I spotted the De Soto with the Spencer Gun Club sticker, my heart was pounding.
Russ drove as near as he could before pulling off the road to park. We jumped out of the truck and ran over to Roy and the other citizens he had hastily gathered. But there must have been close to one hundred of the Klan present, more than twice our number. And no law enforcement had yet arrived. I have seen some frightening things in my life, but nothing comparable to that line of men in white robes with freakish hoods. It was horrifying. I could feel their malice.
As Roy’s group moved in closer to the houses, I was momentarily relieved to see that the homes were dark. Not one light was on. Then when I saw Cotton’s station wagon and Jessie’s old car, I realized people were hiding inside.
The K.K.K. gathered around a cross lying on the ground. It was wrapped in rags, which one Klansman doused with gasoline. One of Roy’s group strode over to reason with them, but several Klansmen pointed shotguns at his chest keeping him back. Nobody seemed to know what to do next.
Suddenly I heard a click in my ear, so I instinctively spun around in the direction of the sound. Roy Kinney had his rifle leveled at the head of the Grand Dragon. Then I heard other guns being cocked. When I looked up, I saw at least ten Klansmen with their weapons aimed at Roy Kinney. One of them had white-tipped shoes, just like the ones the righteous Reverend Harper wears.
Russ yelled, “Dad!” But Roy didn’t look his way.
“Move away from me very slowly,” Roy cautioned everyone around him in a quiet voice. ‘You, too, Russ.” Then he shouted at Leonard Sitz, “I’ve got my sights right on you, Leonard…and so does Cooper and Sam and Draper.”
“There’s twice as many guns pointed at your head, Kinney,” a Klansman shouted from somewhere.
Roy stood tall and didn’t flinch. “Is that so?” he said calmly. “Then we better all stay calm or there’s gonna be a lot of funerals tomorrow.” Then he shouted at Leonard, “And yours will be one of ’em, Leonard, ’cause I’ll get you before I go down. I’m not afraid of the likes of you. You can have your right to free speech, but you better talk quick ’cause the sheriff is on his way. And don’t go agitating trouble, or my fingers might get jumpy.”
“This here is what I have to say,” Leonard shouted. Suddenly the cross was yanked upright by two ropes, and Leonard tossed a lit match. There was an audible whoosh as the flames exploded and the cross shot upright. It loomed over us like a tower of evil. We were all pushed back by the heat, but throughout it all, Roy held his weapon steady.
Leonard yelled above the blaze, “Stay back! Our fight isn’t with white folk, but we ain’t lettin’ no white man cross this road to the nigger side. We won’t tolerate liberals who will destroy us as sure as the mixin’ of races will. We’re here to do the work God intended,” he yelled. “His plan was to keep the races separate, just like this here road separates us from them coons. No one better cross if he knows what’s good for him! The great white race will not be tainted with nigger blood!”
As I stared at the burning cross, the contrasts were too overwhelming to absorb. Hurting others in God’s name only seemed to make sense to those with white hoods…and black souls. The whole ominous event unfolded like a movie. There was an invisible screen that separated me from what I was watching, and I didn’t know how to break through it.
Seconds later, the leader signaled someone, and then a truck suddenly took off at break-neck speed down the narrow strip of road. Tied to the back bumper was a dummy made of pillows spray-painted black. As the truck careened in the snow, the dummy slid back and forth over the jutted road. The car stopped, abruptly reversed, and ran over the black effigy.
As we all watched, two hooded agitators soaked the mangled likeness of the Negro with flammable liquid. “Let this be a warning to all you niggers hiding inside,” the ringleader yelled, “you ain’t gonna taint white blood. This is what happens to those who defile the white race.” He then set the symbolic black man ablaze. The pillow curled up like a human suffering at the hands of a demon. It was ghastly.
I thought I’d seen the worst until Leonard signaled again. This time the truck door opened and two people were forced out at gunpoint. To my shock, it was Jessie and Martha Jane. They tried to back away, but a Klansman made them stand beneath the cross. In the firelight I saw that Jessie had been covered in whitewash.