THE DAY THE FIFTIES BECAME THE SIXTIES
John Kenny Crane
"Gettin’ lotsa tit" was the phrase in those days, "those days"being the spring of my junior year in college, 1963. It was a phrase reserved for males, of course, and few of us truly understood what either of the first two words actually meant and probably not the third one entirely either. But it was something that, if you were what was known adjectivally as "cool" nominally as a "stud," you were clearly supposed to be achieving. The verb suggested possession, at least of an experience if not anatomical treasure. "Lotsa" probably meant many experiences as opposed to one, orgasmically cataclysmic one, you would remember in masturbatory fantasies and brag about for the rest of your celibate life. The direct object, though even as naive as we who had "adolesced" in the fifties were, was literally clear. A "tit" was a human female breast, though its singularity in this particular phrase was distinctly curious, especially since most possessors had two of them and, if a young woman made one available, its mate was probably was so as well. Hence, "tit" as here used had something of the collective noun about it. It probably embraced not just one breast but both, and not just breasts but anything you were lucky to get your hands on at the rare moment, for me at least, of "gettin’ lotsa’. There was little"tit" to be had at my Methodist church in Olympia, Washington, and even the girls in my high school seemed more interested in volleyball,dancing, and–for a real kick–boomalacking the boys basketball team on to victory, also rare at my high school.
When I arrived at the University of Washington in the fall of 1960, there was more tit to be had, though not a whole lot, and what there was seemed in those days to be reserved for athletes–not just any athlete but the true stars–rather than for those of us who sat in the end zone or behind the south basket slugging off concealed cans of Rainier Beer.
There was tit to be had, however, in one place at one special time of the year: Fort Lauderdale at Easter (later changed to "spring break" in an attempt to separate Church and Tit). The trouble was that the only two points in the forty-eight contiguous states which are farther apart than Seattle and Fort Lauderdale are Bellingham and Key West. About 3300 miles of rain forest and mountains and desert and more mountains and plains and swamp land just to "get tit," though word had it that there was plenty (or at least "lotsa’) to be had, like King Solomon’s mines beyond the dry Sahara. But spring break was only nine days long, and in those years class-cutting meant flunking automatically. Even if you drove straight through, four lead-footed, tit-hungry males, it took sixty hours each way, two and one half days, making a total of five of the nine days you had coming to you. Other guys I knew who had tried it in 1961 and 1962 freely admitted that they were so physically and emotionally wrecked by the time they reached the beach that they slept away most of the four days they were there, hence getting very little, if any, tit. Girls found them merely objects to step over while they cavorted with more rested males from the east coast and the Mississippi Valley who, like pirates on unpatrolled high seas, walked off with the entire booty of tit. The guys I knew had not even witnessed it happening.
One solution attempted in 1962 by a disillusioned 1961 contingent was to try to find their share at the notoriously honky-tonk beach at Seaside, Oregon, instead, less than two hundred miles and four hours away. But in the mist of early April the ferris wheels were not running, the sea was choppy, the sand was wet, the skies were raining, and every female insight, less than a half dozen, was bundled in a sweat shirt or a mackintosh. Seaside, Oregon, was not the right place. Fort Lauderdale was.
All through the 1962/63 academic year, then, my friend Frank and I cultivated a wormy little fellow named Normy who hailed from St. Louis, Missouri, suddenly in our minds the Gateway to Tit. If we could just get Normy, who was known to be the son of a famous sex therapist and, therefore, a) loaded, b) knowledgeable about tit, and c) with access to a compulsory car, to invite us home with him at Easter, we could get him to borrow his father’s Lincoln Continental and drive us to Fort Lauderdale, which from St. Louis was only 1200 miles. Twenty- four hours at the worst, eight hours apiece, and we would have a full seven days in Florida, the first used to rest, the next five to get what we came for (undefined),and the seventh day– surely–to rest again from too much of it.
The scheme worked. We took a late flight from Seattle on Good Friday, paid enough homage to Normy’s father to assure him that his Continental was in good mature hands, and then blasted-ass out of his driveway, pedal to the floor across the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, down the Old River Road toward Cairo, Illinois, barreling across state line after state line–Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and finally Florida which was bursting with more tit than a training bra on Jayne Mansfield.We should have been to Fort Lauderdale by sunrise on Faster Sunday, ready to rock and roll in all Our glory, but we got nailed for doing eighty in a sixty-mile-an-hour zone near Chiefland, Florida, just before midnight. The trooper asked us, de rigeur, if we were on our way to a fire, but we could not cover our actions with a true statement of what we were on our way to, which I don"t have to remind you of. We were held in a cell till mid-afternoon when Normy’s father wired bail money along with the message that "one more incident" would require that we turn back immediately. One more incident happened pretty quickly, as I will relate in a moment, though it was Normy’s father who, without knowing it, got us out of it.
We finally got to Lauderdale just after midnight on Monday. The day’s activities had already moved inside from swimming and beaching and beering to something else–we thought we knew what–and very few people were in sight on the streets or the beach, though loud music inside hotels and motels and rooming houses suggested there would be a healthy crowd back in the morning. So Frank and Normy and I decided we would establish ourselves in a motel, catch about six hours of z’s, and then be ready to "quit the shit and hit the tit." Normy and I were both into poetry.
After two more hours we still had not found a place to stay. The motels which still had desk clerks available at I a.m. said they had "nothing left" and looked at us as if we were crazy to even think they would. Most places, however, just had their offices locked up tight, as if the owner had checked to make sure his insurance was paid up and then retreated to a bomb shelter to hide out for a week. The motel rooms themselves throbbed with music giggling, screaming, yelling, retching,catcalling, stomping, pounding, singing, dancing, and–maybe even–screwing; but the offices were as quiet as Santa’s bedroom on Christmas Eve. By three a.m.. we still had nothing, so we went into an all night convenience store to ask for advice.
We had been on the road for twenty-four hours, in jail for fourteen, and prowling the Lauderdale motel district for two. We were red-eyed, unshaven, disheveled, and odiferous. I saw the old man behind the counter quietly unlock a drawer beneath the counter–probably the one with the gun in it–as soon as he saw us enter. We figured we ought to buy something to establish a camaraderie with him, so Frank, the only one over twenty-one, got three cans of Budweiser out of the freezer. He thonked these down on the counter, directly above the gun drawer, tossed a dollar next to them, and his driver’s license beside those. The clerk did not look at the license but merely flipped Frank his dime change and said nothing.
"We just got to town," Frank said confidentially, "and we can’t find a place to stay. Any advice?"
The grizzled old fellow looked at him, then at us, as if he wished not only we but fifty thousand other kids had stayed home. He said nothing Frank flipped another buck on the counter to "make it worth his while."
"No rooms left in town, ‘less somebody emptied his by goin’ to jail." This was a true Floridian, a Southerner, not a transplanted Brooklynite. He drawled his words and chewed as he did so. "My advice would be this, son. Go two blocks north along the beach and crawl under the boardwalk. Sleep there for tonight. In the morning, go get you a newspaper. See who got arrested today, then find out what mo-tel theyin. That’s where they’s rooms. Only place."
Now I spoke up, whining, in complete distress. "But … we don’t have time for all that! We’re already late getting here. We gotta be on the beach first thing in the morning, gettin’ lotsa … rays!"
The old guy shook his head. "Only thing I kin suggest, son. Head down to the boardwalk and slip under there for now. Think it over in the mornin’ when ya’all’s rested." He seemed to turn away as if he wanted nothing more to do with us. Then he turned back with one more piece of advice. "Hey, and be sure to drink those beers before you get to the boardwalk. No drinkin’ ‘flowed under the boardwalk. Police watch real close. Don’t want nobody under the boardwalk gettin’ bothered while they’s tryin’ to sleep. Hear?"
We heard, thanked him for the caution, then stepped out onto Ocean Avenue to open our beers with the church key Frank always had dangling at the ready from his belt. We had not gone twenty feet nor two sips apiece before a squad car bolted across oncoming traffic, drove up onto the sidewalk in front of us, and came to rest diagonally across our paths, red light flashing as the cop burst out from behind the wheel, hand resting on his holster. He was an old cop, fat, consigned to the quietest hours of the night.
"You sons of bitches can’t drink on the street! There’s a ordinance. Ever’jerk college kid in the city knows that!" We didn’t, but I suddenly suspected the clerk did. "Gotta write yous all up." He pulled out his pad. "Where yous all stayin’?"
Normy, the most frightened of the three of us, ventured the answer. He pointed two blocks north along the beach. "Under the boardwalk up there, sir!"
The cop’s mouth dropped open, he turned his slovenly frame halfway to look north over his shoulder, then back to Normy. "Shee-yit, boy, that was a dumb sonofabitch thing to tell me. Sleepin’ under the boardwalk is seven days in the slammer, automatic!"
"Woah, officer," Frank said with his hands up in a gesture of peaceful camaraderie with the law, "we haven’t taken up residence there as yet.We were just thinking about it. You can’t arrest us for thinking, can you?"
"No sir, I can’t. But I can arrest you for drinkin’ on the street. Which I plan to do." For some reason he looked at me first as he put pen to paper."You, what’s your name?"
"2023 Darwin Avenue, Olympia, Washington."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Frank gaping at me like I was crazy.
The cop turned to him next. "Yours?"
"1878 Egdon Heath Road, Wessex, New Hampshire.
"The cop scribbled furiously. He turned to Normy. "Yours?"
"Norman Katzenmeier.""Spell it."
"N-0-R…"No, boy, I mean ‘Cashinmeer’."
"The cop stopped writing, looked at him curiously, then returned to the citation. "Address?""4043 Westminster Place, University City, Missouri."
Now the cop stopped writing entirely. "Shee-yit, boy. You ain’t the Norman Katzenmeier, is you? The one who wrote that book with the…"
Normy shook his head. "No, that’s my father."
Now an odd thing happened. The cop took all three citations in his hand, tore them off his pad, ripped them in sixteenths, then let all the pieces including the carbons float to the sidewalk. He continued to gape at Normy. "Boy, I am going to let you and your buddies go." He reachedout to shake Normy’s hand. In confusion Normy took it. "Yo’daddy saved my marriage and my sex life with his book. I was havin’ trouble gettin’ it up, ya see, ever since the wife got fat and I got forty. And then all these chicks with hardly any clothes on started showin’ up here in the spring. Why I could get it up on patrol watchin’ them, but I sure couldn’t by watchin’ my old lady scamper around the house in her girdle with the garters flappin’. So one day I bought yo’ daddy’s book and read what he got to say about screwin’ old fat bags, and suddenly it was just like I was bouncin’ around with Hester just like she was one of these half naked babes on the beach. Yo’ daddy saved my life, son!" He turned for his squad car which was still diagonalled on the sidewalk, blinker twirling."You boys be careful, though. Don’t be doin’ no drinkin’ on the street or sleepin’ under the boardwalk. Do what ever’body else is doin’. Be gettin ‘yo’selves lotsa goddamned tit."
So we slept in Normy’s father’s Continental in an A & P parking lot. This was illegal too, but it was 7:30 before a young cop knocked on our window to tell us so. Seeming to know what we had come to town to do, or get, he just gave us a warning. He had probably arrived in Lauderdale a couple of years before in quest of the same prize.
Figuring the clerk the night before had at least given us one piece of sound advice, we went into an Eckert’s drug store to get a paper, to see who might have done something that would have gotten him or her arrested for a week and so not occupying their motel room. The front page for the day after Easter was littered with all kinds of fun–threatening headlines which we tried, not entirely successfully, not to see. The atomic sub Thresher had sunk eight thousand feet down the Atlantic two hundred miles east of Boston, killing 129 sailors. The Navy decided it had no way to rescue them. Rumors from the sports world had it that Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were about to get suspended for betting on NFL games.And then there was on going annoyance in Birmingham, Alabama, a city we had purposely skirted on our way south. The Reverend Martin Luther King had been campaigning there for about two weeks and finally gotten arrested on Good Friday. He and fifty-nine others went to jail, and on Easter Sunday–while we ourselves were doing time in the Chiefland pokey–two thousand Negroes rioted in protest against their arrest. Toward the bottom there was a brief block announcing that there was to be a protest in London this day against the A-bomb. But it was the inside pages we were interested in–the local news.
We found what we wanted almost immediately. Three guys from North Carolina State had been tossed out of the Shore Breeze Motel just before midnight for allegedly throwing rotten oranges and "other rancid vegetation" at another motel balcony across the street. While the inhabitants of that room had not fired back, merely complained to the police, they too were evicted when it was discovered that the two men officially renting that room had two others living with them as well, both Negroes. The owner of the Surf and Sand tossed them all out on the grounds of hotel fraud.
Suspecting that the latter room, at the Surf and Sand, just might be in better shape, we tried to rent that one first. But when we got there it had already been let to "three blondes from Montgomery." So we went to the Shore Breeze, where the owner seemed all too happy to have our business."
Ain’t had time yet to give her a thorough cleaning, though, men." He suspected this wouldn’t matter, that we were desperate, and we took it readily. We lugged our bags up to the second floor, anxious to get into our swimming trunks and get to the beach five blocks away and, at long last, quit the shit and hit the tit.
The room itself nearly caused us to pitch off the balcony the second we opened the door. It smelled of death, vegetable death, animal death, even mineral death if there is such a thing. These guys had spent a lot of time petting each other with food before they took to the balcony. All four walls were sprayed with orange pulp, tomato seeds, and even wild cherries. The remains of the fruits themselves lined the baseboards. The ceiling had been hit with sprayed cans of Coke and beer, and a triangular piece of pizza could be seen sticking out of a light fixture. The mirrors looked like somebody had urinated on them, the bathroom like a public toilet during a sanitation strike. The two double beds had had their mattresses tossed on the floor, and every pillow but one was shredded, its feathers stuck in the remains of puddles of food and drink which had either been spilled, abandoned, or barfed all over the shag rug on every vacant piece of floor space. Two nightstands were for some reason stacked on top of the bureau.
Beggars cannot, however, be choosers, nor can seekers after tit. We got into our bathing suits, stopped by the desk to tell the clerk that the maid would be welcome, then headed for the beach, three used motel towels slung over our shoulders.
Now, I had seen a beach movie with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, but it had not prepared me for what I now encountered on the Fort Lauderdale beach. In the movie there was a credible amount of sand. Here the whole beach was covered with blankets, edge to edge, all laden with greased-up youthful bodies. Portable radios blared, ball players threw baseballs and footballs around, stepping among bodies the way a little kid hopscotches on a playground. Even as we arrived trying to find a pathway through all this to the water, the tide was coming in and those blankets nearest the water were closing backward concertina fashion on those behind them. Everybody in sight, however, was laughing and shrieking happily, loving every minute of it, even when they got beaned with a cover-torn baseball.
There was, however, one major problem that neither Frank nor I had thought of: males outnumbered females, to the naked eye, about three to one. Tit was going to be damned hard to get lots of.
While most of the girls we could see wore traditional one-piece bathing suits which concealed almost everything of anatomical interest with several inches of lastex to spare, a few of the more daring ones wore what we had seen only in masculine magazines: bikinis. Though modest by later standards, you now could examine more female flesh than had ever been legal or at least acceptable before. Even the girls who wore them seemed a little unsure of themselves, continually tugging the fronts upward toward their navels, the backs downward to hide their behinds.The tops seemed to fit more tightly and cause less concern. The girls who wore bikinis, though, were clearly getting more attention than those whose bathing suits dated from an earlier, less liberated time. I recall making a mental note that it might be among the latter, larger group that tit might be easier to get.
Then, on the afternoon of our very first day we got some! A pretty little blonde girl from Kokomo, Indiana (at least that’s what I heard her say across me to the people on the blanket next to me) had untied her bikini top so she would "not have a line" on her back. She lay face down on her blanket, the top squarely planted below her and properly positioned. Normy was in the middle of our blanket, Frank on the right side, I on the left. I was closest to the blonde, though she had a rather muscular guy on the other side of her which discouraged conversation between the two of us. At one point the guy rose to thread his way among the tanning carcasses down to the water line, probably to cool off. Neither the blond nor I paid him any attention as he walked off. She seemed to doze off rather than have to talk to the likes of me, though Frank seemed to be trying to catch her eye across Normy and me.
Suddenly, SPLAT. Something wet and gross struck both her back and mine. "Jelly fish!" the muscle man shouted.
He produced exactly the result he wanted, at least for the first two seconds. The blonde erupted from sleep, screamed, and jumped straight upward from her blanket, leaving her bikini top behind. Both of us (I having jumped up also) flung what turned out to be seaweed off our backs. Then, having discovered what it was, she realized that her breasts were bare, and she began to cry and cover them with one arm while she groped on her blanket for her top. The top, however, had already been confiscated by another stud in a Georgia Tech tee shirt. And then it happened. She rushed over to me, the nearest standing person other than the despicable flinger of seaweed, and threw her arms around my waist, bracing up against me to hide her breasts till the top was found. This lasted between six and seven seconds till another girl in a bikini tore the top loose from the ramblin’ wreck’s grasp, passed it to her, and helped her jiggle into it and tie it behind her back–all of this while she continued to clutch me tightly to her. When it was secure, she flung me away as if I had been part of the original conspiracy.
A number of other males nearby were cat calling to me, though whether at my good fortune or because my swimming trunks suddenly looked like a pup tent, I am not sure. I was twenty years old and had truly had my first tit! The trouble was this: that was all any of the three of us got for the entire rest of the week. It could hardly be called "lotsa" either.
"She couldn’t even half fill an A cup, Armstrong," Frank said to me three days later when it was clear that we might have already topped out."Those tits looked more like pimples than real knockers." Frank was clearly jealous, but I didn’t say that. Some might not be lotsa, but it was a damned better than none of.
Lauderdale was not all it was cracked up to be. It was too crowded, the girls proportionately too few, the rituals too predictable. One of the most predictable was beer drinking. Each of the three of us usually downed about eight to ten cans a day, which was not so bad for Frank and Normy–they liked beer–but terrible for me because I did not. Especially warm beer. Having no cooler, we had to improvise. Each day we would go downstairs and buy a newspaper. With headlines about Birmingham jail, London protests, Billy Sol Estes, the formation of the United Arab Republic, Communist executions in Madrid staring us in the face, we would carefully wrap the paper around a dozen cans of beer which were already swaddled in an ice pack made out of a hotel towel. This kept the beer cold for perhaps the first two hours of an eight-hour beach day. One day we would tie on the blanket with Martin Luther King’s face, soaking as the ice melted, between us. The next day it was George Wallace’s, then Khrushchev’s or Castro’s or John F. Kennedy’s. We cared little which of them kept our beer cold. l recall that on the last day before we started home there was a headline that said something about pro-Communist forces capturing an airport in Laos, wherever that might be. That was a Saturday, the paper was not very thick, and the ice melted twice as fast.
Normy and I were just as glad to be back in the car heading for St.Louis once Saturday night came, though Frank seemed still to believe that something could have been made of the whole week if we had just thought it through more carefully.
"All those kids don’t go down there just to sit on their asses in the sun and act cool while they get drunk and chase chicks. There must’ve been something we missed."
Around ten in the morning on Sunday the 21st, we stopped for gas in a northern Alabama town called Jasper. These were days before the interstates, so you pretty much passed through everything each state had placed across the roadway. We only had credit cards for Sinclair and Gulf, had seen neither in miles, and were running low. We had already passed the Sinclair station and its big green dinosaur sign as we plowed northward, so we had to turn around and retrace our path southward to get back to the gas station. This would prove to be a meaningful miscalculation.
Jasper is, or at least was in 1963, fairly typical of a small Alabama town. It had a town square with a civic building plunked in the middle of it, diagonal parking spaces on all four sides, each with a two-hour-maximum-meter. Opposite the square, again on all four sides were rows of stores–Woolworth’s, Rexall, a Sears outlet, Kresge, a local department store, two shoe stores, the standard bit. On each corner was something larger–a Sinclair station on the northeast corner and a heavily marqueed theater called the ‘Bama on the northwest. As I guided Normy’s father’s Continental up to the special gas pump, I noted that the ‘Bama’s marquee was badly (and newly) shattered–the glass was still all over the sidewalk before it. The picture that had been playing, according to what was left of the lettering, was DR. STRANG L E, starring PE ER SE ERS. As I peered down the street at it, the gaunt, unshaven, face of a greasily clothed man of about thirty-five suddenly blocked my view through the windshield.
"Do you for?" His voice was neither friendly nor harsh. Just Sunday morning businesslike.
"Fill ‘er up. Special. And check the oil, please." My answer roused Frank and Normy who were asleep. I got out and did some deep kneebends. The man began pumping the gas, chewing on a reed of some sort as he did so. Sweat trickled through the stubble of his beard. "Say, what happened to the movie house?" I asked earnestly, more to make conversation than to know.
He flicked his eyes toward it, then back to the nozzle, and kept chewing. At first I thought he was not going to answer me, but finally he did. "Troy Donahue went to the show there last night." He acted as if this should explain everything.
I tried to make a joke. "Have to smash his way in, did he? Ha ha." Now the man flicked his eyes toward me, then back to the nozzle, then to our Missouri plates, then back to the nozzle again. He set the clip so the gas would pump itself. "Troy Donahue don’t belong here. He was just makin’ trouble." With this he walked off to the shade of the garage until the Continental’s crater-like tank filled itself.
At this point Normy got out of the car, announced that he had to take a leak, and headed for the building. The rest rooms were on the front, facing the road, to the left of the office. There were three of them: Men, Women, and Colored. Normy entered the Men’s just as a woman in a Sunday dress emerged from the Women’s. The Colored had no door on it and looked from thirty feet away as if it hadn’t been cleaned in recent memory. There were puddles of water on the floor, streams of paper saturated into them and also hanging from the sink, the barest shard of glass remaining in the mirror frame above the orange-ish sink. As I studied this, Frank got out of the car as well.
"I gotta take a piss, too," he announced with a good deal more ceremony, or so I thought, than the event required or could support.
"Might as well wait a second," I said as I heard the pump click off. "Normy’s in there."
Frank shook his head and started toward the rest rooms. "Can’t wait. Gotta go too bad." Neither quickly nor slowly, just steadily, he strolled across the apron, into the Colored bathroom, and proceeded to relieve himself. Anyone passing on the square could see his back hunched, his legs spread, and even hear his stream. At this point the gaunt man returned to the pump. He had neither checked the oil nor cleaned the windows, the latter being pro forma a decade before the oil crisis. He disconnected the hose automatically, his eyes now locked on Frank’s back as he finished up his business in the Colored bathroom. Then the man stuck the palm of his hand out to receive either cash or a credit card. He got the latter. Still watching Frank, he walked quickly into the station to write up the charge slip. Normy by now was returning to the car and sliding in behind the wheel to take his turn with it. I waited outside for the man to return, but then I saw him motioning me inside to sign the slip there. He was also just hanging up the telephone.
"Katzenmeier?" he said, studying the card. "You Jew?"
"No, my friend is. It’s his dad’s card."
"His old man the one that’s on Steve Allen, talkin’ ’bout sex and shit like God wants ever’body screwin’ all day long?"
I laughed nervously. "Yeah, same guy."
Now he head-gestured toward Frank who was gliding at the same steady pace back toward the car. "What ’bout yo’ other friend? He nigger?"
"No, he’s white.""What’uz he doin’ in the nigger shitter, then?" He coughed up a huge hocker of phlegm and shot it out the doorway onto the apron.
"He … had a hurry call. He’s got a … real bad bladder problem." I was really getting scared now. Frank did stuff like this. "We’re stopping every ten miles just so he can get out and piss and empty that god darnned bladder of his." I tried to roughen my language to establish a camaraderie with him.
"If he was to git his kidneys fixed he wouldn’t have to think about no bladder problem. And if he was to get his pecker tied in a knot y’all wouldn’t have to be stoppin’ ever’ ten miles for him to pee." At this he jerked the charge slip free of its carbons and jammed it and the card hard into the palm of my hand. He never took his eye off the car or, more precisely, the back of Frank’s neck in the back seat. "I’d advise you boys to move out of town right fast ‘fore your windshield looks like the ‘Bamasign does. And I’d advise you to head north, too, not south or east or west. You hear me, boy?"
I tried to repress a gulp in a brave and dignified way. "Don’t worry,friend," I said with a finality which suggested that human intercourse between him and me would never have to be re-established, to the joy of both of us. "We’re heading north to St. Louis." I thought I saw his head nod about a sixteenth of an inch to acknowledge this.
"Damn it, Frank," I said when I got into the shotgun seat. "What are you doing taking a leak in the colored john? We’re lucky that bastard didn’t call out the Ku Klux Klan on us."
"I was trying to make a symbolic statement in the name of human rights." This was junk, of course. When Frank did something like this he was making a symbolic statement in the name of Frank’s right to do what he damned pleased.
Now we made the error I referred to earlier. Normy had been asleep when I had to turn around to retrace our ground to get back to the Sinclair station. So he pulled out of the station in the same direction that we were pointed, which is to say south. I tried to close my eyes quickly, to get some rest and to forget the previous episode, so I failed to notice what he was doing. Instead of leaving Jasper toward the Mississippi state line, we were headed back south toward Birmingham which I had skirted an hour earlier.
Not that we got very far. About a mile outside the Jasper town limits Normy muttered a low curse and speeded up just a bit.
I didn’t open my eyes or raise up to look over the dash. "What’s the matter?"
"A pickup full of yahoos is riding my goddamned bumper. Think I should speed up and try to shake ’em?"
"Nah. They’ll probably turn off at the next farm road or so. just give them the finger if they get too close again." Sage advice from someone whose eyes were still closed, literally and figuratively.
I don’t know whether Normy flipped the bird or not, but suddenly I felt our rear bumper take a distinct bang; the car lurched forward slightly from the impact. Now Frank and I both scooted up to a sitting position and glared out the rear window. The pickup was an older model, rounded cab with a two-pane windshield, out of the late forties or early fifties.Three grinning moon faces lined up inside the front seat, with another three men riding in the bed and gawking over the top of the roof.
Frank stuck his head out the right rear window. "Cut that out, you crazy asshole, or I’ll take your license number and call the cops." It would take me perhaps another year to realize how pointless a statement that was.
Now we took another ram from behind, and Normy momentarily lost control of the car, veering out into the oncoming traffic lane. Luckily nothing was in it. "What’s the next town, Charlie?" Normy asked. "We’ll pull off there and look for a police station."
I studied the map. "Looks like Saragossa. Pretty small place though."
Again we were rammed, harder still.
Frank reached over the seat and snatched the map. "No, a sign backthere said Calumet. Let’s head…"
Here things became clear to me all in one burst. "Damn, we’ve already come through Calumet, when I was driving. We’re going the wrong goddamned way, Normy. That bastard back in the filling station warned me not to go any direction but north.""We can go any direction we damn please," Frank said just ahead of the fourth, slightly lighter, bump."Yeah, just like you can pee in any pot you want. That’s what’s got them hopped up, Frank. Around here you do what you’re told."
Now the truck veered sharply out into the passing lane and pulled along side on a long straightaway. The yahoo nearest the window motioned Normy to pull the Continental onto the shoulder. Normy, his face soaked with perspiration, shook his head no, then jammed on the brakes so that the pickup shot by us. The Continental started to fishtail, so Normy let up on the brakes, just in time to rear end the pickup truck which had slowed to under fifteen miles an hour in front of us. The driver jammed his foot down on the brake to bring the truck to a complete halt, the Continental all but locked to its rear bumper. One gut-slinging, straw-hatted, tobacco-chewing redneck jumped down to the road, slogged up beside Normy’s window which was closed because the car was air conditioned, and put the business end of a revolver about level with his temple. He motioned Normy to roll the window down. Normy gave itabout two inches, enough for the barrel of the gun to get inside.
"Where you boys fum?" the man demanded in the voice of one holding a gun.
Bad answer. "No," I said, "state of Washington, long way from here."The man looked as if he had never heard of it. Several others were alongside him now, all packing sidearms which were as yet bolstered."What you doin’ round here?"
"Coming back from Florida," Normy ventured without the explanatory footnote.
"Shee–yit you are, boy. You’re going back toward Florida right now. I think you three is goddamned freedom riders, mindin’ other folks business ‘stead o’y’ow.n."
"What’s a freedom rider?" Normy asked with complete if unbelievable innocence.
"A freedom rider, son, is a northern white fairy who can’t get no pussy up there so comes down here to get nigger pussy in exchange for gettin’ them seats on buses and shit like that. A freedom rider thinks the greatest guy in the world is Martin Luther King. You one of those, boy?"
Normy gulped now. The pistol was tight against his left temple. He tried to deny the man’s statement without shaking his head and touching off the gun. "No, I think the greatest guy in the world is John F.Kennedy, sir."
Another bad answer, still worse. The man actually used the barrel of the gun to shove Normy’s head sidewise and forward into the rearview mirror. His right temple started to bleed slowly. Normy was crying.
"Let’s get these peckers off the road, George," one of the others said."These yellow bellies don’t travel alone. Might be more of ’em coming."
The first man bolstered his gun, tore open the driver’s door, dragged Normy out onto the ground and held him down with his boot on his chest. "You," pointing at me, "git behind the wheel and drive this boat down to the next turn off. Follow the truck."
I had no choice. They had Normy. The next turnoff was about fifty yards farther on, a dirt lane to the right. Two men dragged Normy by the feet through the gravel in the wake of his father’s Continental. When both vehicles were off the main road and concealed from it in in a copse of trees, the leader unhoistered his gun again, waved it at Frank and me,and pointed us out of the car and into the bed of the truck. Normy, crying very loudly now, was tossed into it ahead of us. As soon as all six of us were aboard, the driver jerked forward down the lane, hitting almost on purpose, every rut he could find. There seemed to be little in the way of springs or shock absorbers left in the undercarriage.
In about two miles we came to a rundown, unpainted, barely roofed shack which had a better maintained barn beside it and a tilting outhouse behind it. There were a million of these we had seen along highways in Alabama and Mississippi. No one was in evidence as the pickup ground to a halt in its drive, spraying dust into the Sunday morning heat and humidity.
"Carter," the leader shouted. "Lucius Carter, get yo’ black ass out here, right now." He shot a quid of tobacco into the dust to kill the instant between command and response. When no one appeared in five seconds, he picked up a baseball-sized rock and flung it at the front door, hitting the wood panel at the bottom just below the cracked pane of glassthrough which, now, we could see Lucius Carter (we supposed) buttoning his denim shirt. He came out onto the porch, clearly frightened. A woman and three children now peered out the door behind him.
"What you need today, Mr. George?" It was the voice of a man who knew how to cooperate and be rid of Mr. George at the earliest possible moment.
"Same, Lucius. Same."
Carter, gray-haired and red-eyed, put his hands up in front of him,defensively. "No, sir, Mr. George. Yo’ ‘member we ‘greed, no mo’! I ain’t got no mo’ room. ‘Sides . .
Mr. George laughed in as friendly a way possible for a superior dealing with an inferior. "Don’t you worry none, Lucius. These boys is first timers. Least we think so."
Lucius Carter looked relieved, though only partially. "Well, sir, if yo’got to. But I still thinks that . . ." He was left standing alone as the six yahoos took the three of us roughly off the truck bed and started to the rear of the house. Even the woman and three children had emerged from inside, passed around him and followed the lot of us to the rear. Carter reluctantly did the same. Fourteen people.
When we got to the rear of the house, another man whose name I had overheard as "Al" took over. "Okay, now, you sons- a-bitches just take yo’ clothes off’n yaselves and jest hang ’em on the side o’ the chicken coop. And hurry up ’bout it since couple o’ us got to git home by ‘lebhum to take the wife and kids to church." No guns were drawn right now, but there were six of them available. We disrobed, watched carefully by Lucius’s pigtailed daughter of about fourteen. She clutched her red-faded-into-orange dress tightly in front of her.
When we were all naked, Al seemed to recall something he had forgotten. "Okay, which one o’ you boys was the one that liked the smell o’ nigger shit and piss better than the white man’s? Back at Harley’s, I mean."
Frank had a wise ass streak that got him into frequent trouble, but he was also no hypocrite. He raised his hand forthrightly, if not eagerly. I think he was beginning to suspect what might be about to happen.
"Okay, then, you kin go first. All you boys, lie down on the ground,on yo’ bellies." We knelt down and felt pebbles grind into our kneecaps, then lay forward and felt the same in our chins and chests and genitals. "Put yo’ hands behind yo’ backs." We did so and immediately felt them being bound by short pieces of rope which were conveniently ready, hanging through the holes in the wire on the chicken coop. "Put yo’ feet tight together." These were bound too.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see a long rope now being tied to Frank’s feet. As I tried to turn my head to watch, one of the others spun me around to get a better look, pivoting me on my privates. I retched in pain.
The rope that had been tied to Frank’s feet passed upward into the outhouse, apparently over a beam in the roof inside, then back outside. It lay beside Al’s dusty black wing tips, apparently his church-going shoes.Al was the largest of the men and the only one who did not seem to be more gut and ass than shoulders and biceps. When Frank was fully secured to the longer rope, Al took it in his giant hands, wrapped several turns of it around his right wrist, then proceeded to back up. For a few seconds Frank was scraped along the ground. He tried not to cry out in pain but could not help himself. Then suddenly the rope pulled taut with the beam on the inside, his feet went up, then his torso, then his head after badly cutting his cheek on the pebbles. His body swung violently into the outhouse, upside down, twirling as it went. His forehead struck the toilet bench and his back the rear wall of the outhouse. As he dangled above the hole, I could see his face running blood downward into his hair. One of the other men, laughing gleefully, trotted into the outhouse, removed the toilet seat, and flung it out onto the ground, exposing the entire pit below it. Now Al began to step forward slowly, and with each step Frank was lowered. First his head went out of sight into the hole,then his shoulders and chest, then his stomach. At which point Al backed up and drew him upward, clean from the ribcage to his feet, but covered with brown slop and pieces of paper from there to the top of his head. Some of it ran off of him, but most of it just stuck to him. All the men haw-hawed uncontrollably, but Lucius, his wife and the two youngest children had retreated into the house. The older daughter remained where she was, watching this, crying slightly.
Al lowered Frank back down and he disappeared entirely from sight this time. He remained there for a full five seconds, at which point Al jerked him up so violently that Frank slammed against three of the walls of the outhouse, staining each of them with the slime from his body. He blew hard through his nose and spit and retched and, now, cursed violently. After about thirty seconds of this, Mr. George walked up to him with yet another piece of rope."Open yo’ mouth, boy.""Get fucked!"
Mr. George whipped him across his coated face with the end of the rope. "You want to hang there forever, boy? Give yo’ friends a chance. Now open yo’goddamned mouth and bite down on this rope." Frank did so, and Mr. George used the rope to swing his inverted form out the door of the outhouse. As he did so, Al lowered him roughly to the ground. Frank rolled in the dust like a flea bitten dog, trying to rid himself of one sort of dirt in favor of another. By the time he stopped rolling, he was indistinguishable from the earth on which he lay.
They moved toward Normy next. "No, no. Please don’t. My father’s a famous doctor. He’s rich. He’ll send you money. Just give me your names and addresses and you’ll each have ten thousand dollars by the end of the week. I promise. I swear I do." Incredibly Normy felt all this would work He was crying uncontrollably as his small frame travelled the same path Frank’s much larger one had. He managed to twist his head over the edge of the pit, however, though it banged hard into the back wall of the privy instead. Al dropped him the entire distance on the first try, let him stay down nearly ten seconds, then pulled him back up. Normy too struck all three walls. His white teeth and pink mouth stood out in bold relief to the rest of him as he screamed in horror and pleaded futilely. Al lowered him back to where his eyes were just below the rim of the Pit. His jabbering mouth was still in sight when Mr. George stepped forward with the rescue rope.
"Open wide, boy. I got the rope here for you to bite on." Normy stopped screaming and opened wide. "Wider, boy, it’s a fat rope." Normy opened as wide as he could, at which point Al released the rope and he fell with a sucking thud back into the pit.
The other four men loved this, guffawing and heehawing and hawhawing and coughing and spitting and pounding each other on the backs, the very pounding making them laugh and cough all the harder.
Normy was swung out finally, this time taking the rope in his mouth as if he were about to nurse at a breast. I was tied up and in I swung.
There were advantages to going last. I had practiced keeping my lips pursed, my teeth clenched, and using both of those actions to cut off my sense of smell for periods of as much as ten seconds. But they dangled me for a long time, seeming to take some new pleasure in watching my facial contortions as I readied myself. I knew there was no good in screaming or pleading, so I just locked up my entire face, everything but my ears which would not close no matter how hard I tried to force them to. I could hear them laughing, and the last thing I heard was somebody shout "thirty fathoms, Al" as I disappeared downward.
They sent me the entire distance on the first drop. I felt my entire body go under. As I took back on it, the sensation was one I had imagined as a kid that fruit must feel that is suspended in jello. The only sense that operated was touch. I had everything shut off. I neither smelled nor saw nor tasted nor heard anything. I had had plenty of time to decide I could endure this, and I had seen two people emerge alive before me. That helped, too, though I was not sure that the grand finale might not be to cut the rope on the last poor bastard. Just as I stopped dropping and felt the rope go tight on my feet, something smooth struck both my cheeks, almost as if the bottom of the pit were triangulated. Up I went. Suddenly I could hear again–and smell myself, but I did not open my eyes or my mouth.
"Come on, Al, one last time. I gotta get to church or the missus’ll kick my ass." I had not heard this voice before.
Down I went again, more slowly this time, but it probably was the last time. I held my breath waiting for the triangulated area to catch me again. But I struck something sooner than I had expected, squarely in the face. I glanced off it and felt my cheek rub downward along something stiff, almost boney. The first thing I struck scraped my shoulder as I passed it, and finally my head came to rest in the triangle. The rope tightened and up I came, just as slowly. Where my right cheek had made contact on the way down, my left one did so on the way up. And I was sure that I had been dropped between the legs of an inverted human body with its legs splayed. When I was finally sucked up from the hole, I was actually vomiting the pancake breakfast I had had south of Birmingham that morning, the only one of the three of us to do so. Even as I continued to throw up I managed to take the rope in my mouth long enough to be dragged free of the privy.
Mr. George took over, leaning over the three of us on the ground triumphantly. "Why don’t yo’ spread the word round up north, boys. Any of yo’ kind that comes down here a meddlin’ can count on just what you got or worse. Just tell them that the south don’t want them around. And if they come, they’s gonna be gettin’ lotsa shit." He stared at each of us. "Yo’all hear me–gettin’ lotsa shit." He and the other five stalked back toward their truck, one of them carrying our clothes, lumbered into its cab and bed, and drove off quickly, probably to church.
And now a ritual that had probably been played out several times. Lucius Carter’s wife and two small sons emerged from the rear door of their shack, each carrying two buckets of heated water. While we still lay tied on the ground, Lucius took the buckets one by one and sloshed each of us with two of them. It helped. Then everyone but Lucius took their buckets to the well to get cold water, while Lucius himself cut our bindings. Frank was cursing, Normy crying, but for some reason I was analyzing.
"You know, mister, I think there’s a body down there." I gestured with my head while he was freeing my hands.
He nodded matter-of-factly. "Mo"n one, I’d bet. We done pulled a few out over the years. Others jest rots away."
"These same guys toss them in there and leave them?"
"Them or ones like’em."
"All the bodies of civil rights people?"
He shrugged. "Can’t tell a civil rights people from a regular people when they’s covered all over wif shit. Kin hardly tell a white man from a nigger, either."
"Why don’t you have them stopped?"
He studied me while he cut the ropes on my feet. "Son, you ev’ been a nigger?"
Well, yo’ sort of looks like one right now. Yo’ think if you walk outta here into the courthouse or the police station that anybody’s gon’ have anything to do wif you?"
"Then yo’ is beginnin’ to know whut bein’ a nigger is." He stepped back, and I was sloshed from behind by a bucket of cold water. "And even if the sheriff listen to yo’ when yo’ say ‘Mr. Sheriff, I done got a human body in my crap hole, ‘you know whut he’d say to you? He say ‘Whut youneed on yo’ bumhole to shit around it, Lucius, a damned high-powered gunsight? Now yo’ get yo’ black ass outta here and start practicing wifout one’."
By the time a dozen buckets of water had been expended upon us, we were reasonably clean, though only reasonably. Lucius turned to his daughter who had done little more than stare at us through the whole episode. "Callina, go get them shirts and britches." Without changing herfacial expression in the slightest, she pivoted toward the far side of the chicken house and returned with three faded shirts and three pairs of faded and torn blue jeans. Lucius gestured to us to put them on. "You walk back to yo’ car and get you’ clean clothes on. Then bring these back here." Something in his voice suggested he might need them again very soon. He waved slightly, then disappeared into the shack with his wife and two sons. The girl remained behind.
Normy and Frank started to trudge toward the road, their still-wet hair and bodies saturating the rags they wore. I looked the girl in the eye.She was pretty in a way, though her hair was pulled back severely into stubby pigtails. "Thanks," I said stupidly.
"What’s your name?" she asked. There was none of her father’s butchered English.
"Armstrong. Charlie Armstrong."
"Where do you live?"
"Washington state. Seattle."
"That’s a long way from here. You’ll come back again?"
I laughed semi-hysterically and threw my hands out in front of me."No way. I don’t plan to have this happen to me again." I started to move off with a wave.
"It happens to me every day." She studied me. I knew she did not mean it literally. I did not know what to say, but she had stopped me in my tracks. "You come back some day, Charlie Armstrong, hear me? And then you and I will cover those mother fuckers with worse than shit."
"But … why me?"
Now she turned toward her shack. "It’s got to be somebody."
I must have lingered there another thirty seconds. Then I trotted off after Frank and Normy, who were far ahead of me. Three college kids in the borrowed clothes of a poor Southern Negro, headed for their sole possession, a brand new 1963 Silver Lincoln Continental.
I never returned to Jasper, Alabama. I was assigned to Yazoo City, Mississippi, instead. In the fateful summer of 1964.