A blog category looking at a topic we white folks usually don’t like to talk about.
I SO wish all my childhood memories were fond and happy. They should be, right? Some of mine, many of mine, maybe most of mine are joyful. Going into the woods to pick out and chop down our Christmas tree. Such fun. Summer vacations at a tiny, inexpensive motel at Jacksonville Beach. Neighborhood fish fries after softball games. I could go on.
But, if truth be told, not all of my early childhood memories are so happy.
I remember cowering under my bed, after watching The Wizard of Oz, thinking that those flying monkeys were absolutely horrendous. And might be up in the skies outside my window.
I remember purposefully and loudly falling off my bed as a little kid when I would hear my parents fighting in their nearby bedroom. I sometimes pretended to sleepwalk for the same reason.
But one of my most harrowing early memories is an uglier, impossible-to-understand one, a darker one, even though it involves such unforgettable hot and fiery light.
I am a skinny, freckled, awkwardly sensitive little kid in hand-me-down shorts. My parents, four brothers and I live in a crowded small house in the Peach Orchard section of Cochran Field on the outskirts of Macon, Georgia.
It is summer, a sweltering night in the South. It is probably 1957 or 58.
I’m in the backseat of our ancient station wagon, dad driving, mom directly in front of me, at least one brother also in the back.
No air conditioning, of course. No seat belts. Windows down. Warm night air blowing my hair and keeping my outstretched hand standing up as we make our way down the road. Incredibly, I can occasionally hear the tires make sticky, sucky sounds as they roll over tar-patched cracks, still oozing from the day’s unmerciful Macon sun.
It’s a sultry night in Georgia.
“Something’s on fire,” one of my folks say.
We get closer. The fire appears on my side of the car. I can feel the heat before I can see what’s burning. I quickly pull my hand inside the window.
I am mesmerized. A cross, unbelievably tall, is on fire! I have to crane my neck up to see the top of the flames. I hear dogs barking. I see people in white Halloween costumes mulling around the cross. I smell gas. And see smoke around the flames. People are yelling. A weird party.
The cross is just SO big. Way too big for Jesus to carry up a hill. And the cross was’t on fire in the Bible, I’m sure of that. It is summer, and I go to Vacation Bible School.
“Neal, roll your window up!”
I’m scared. But I don’t know why I’m scared.
“NEAL, ROLL YOUR WINDOW UP NOW!”
I obey. But it’s like the heater is on full blast.
My father starts to speed past. But why? I’ve never seen anything like this. Why can’t we watch? I have to turn around quickly to see the cross get smaller and smaller. It finally morphs into a tiny lighted dot behind me.
It’s hotter than it’s ever been in the car. The heater MUST be on. It’s sizzling. Suffocating.
And it’s quieter than it’s ever been. Our car is usually loud with rambunctious boys yelling to be heard over one another.
Finally, I feel slightly cooler air begin to blow in from my mother’s window.
“Neal, roll your window down.”
We ride in silence till my father turns on the radio. I hear quiet music.
“What WAS that?” I ask.
“That was bad people doing something bad.”
I don’t understand.
Over six decades later, I look upon that night as one of those loss-of-innocence junctures. I can’t remember exactly how my parents explained what was really happening at that “weird party.” But I did find out, at some point, that the cross was being burned in a white couple’s front yard to warn them about being sympathetic to the struggles of black people. Vigilante hatred. Burning on the cross.
I wish I could say that the temperature has gotten so very much cooler in the South—or elsewhere in our nation. That the tar doesn’t still melt and stick to our tires. That air conditioning has decreased the scorch. That there are no more “weird parties.” But I cannot.
Just look at yesterday’s “Real Feel”:
Another “weird party” just down the road that stretches from my Savannah to Brunswick. You probably know the horrific story of that hot day in Georgia when vigilante hatred burned anew …
May we somehow as a people learn how to live.