Monday, September 26, 2016

Close Encounters of the Klan Kind

I used to work as a fry cook at the SONIC. It was a brief stint, mostly working the night shift.  I was hired for night shift because no one wanted to cook for it. See, all the factories working nightshift would put in evening meal orders right at the beginning of that shift for 60 or more people at a time, and since they were the bulk of the small town business for the drive-in, you had to get each massive order right, keep everything hot and get them out quickly.



On a Friday morning,  I went to pick up my first paycheck, happy to be getting a paycheck locally instead of traveling the over 70 miles I did to get summer work in the past. I was clueless about what was going to happen; I only realize now, years later, that subsequent events may be the reason I have avoided  SONIC restaurants since repatriating to the United States nearly 15 years ago.

I had signed for and collected my paycheck and was weaving my way around the skating carhops serving their parked clients when a pickup truck drove up with one of my former high school classmates behind the wheel.

We had  a mutual enmity that began with an instant dislike for one another but unfortunately one of my best friends was his girlfriend. So when I saw him waving me over, against my better judgment I walked towards his truck, thinking something might be amiss with my girlfriend. 

It was only when I reached the passenger side door of the truck that I realized he had a rifle missing from his gun rack, it was in his hands and he was pointing it at me.

I had no idea whether anyone else could see what was happening but it was a busy day, broad daylight, and if I could smell the Jack Daniels coming out of the truck hopefully the carhop whose backdraft I felt pass just behind me could and they would call the police before I was dead. He pushed the empty whiskey bottle and several beer cans littering the car seat with the rifle and demanded I get in. I was about three weeks from my 18th birthday. I thought, "overall Lord, it's been a good life. Thank you for it," and got in the truck.

Yep. I was pretty certain I was dead.

My calmness annoyed him. He had no idea I'd grown up part of my life around Vietnam vets wth PTSD. He poked me with the rifle as he yelled at me. I told him he couldn't drive and hold the rifle at the same time. He put the rifle in his lap and floored the gas. We peeled out of the SONIC and I wondered how the traffic cops could miss this.

That began one of the longest rides of my life. 

He continued shouting at me that my friend had broken up with him because of me. He'd been drinking all night. He shouted that he was a card-carrying Klan member. He didn't see what she saw in me. Blacks were, after all, an inferior race. He struggled to remove his wallet from his back pocket and the truck veered into the opposite lane down Mainstreet. The wallet fell open and I saw the Klan symbol on a card before it rolled out of the awkward grasp of his hand and fell out of sight. He cursed. He said he knew all about my kind. We were ruining everything.  On and on he ranted while the truck weaved and the rifle shifted insanely in his lap. I quietly suggested that if he planned to shoot me, he should at least have the courtesy to not kill other people by driving drunk. That seemed to make sense to him. He decided to pull into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. We careened to a stop there. 

Image of a gun-rack with two long guns visible through the windshield
He picked up the rifle and began waving it around as he ranted on about how much he loved her and how he was ordering me to fix it. What I answered was "no, I don't have to fix it." He poked me with the rifle, shocked.  I told him I was her friend. I wasn't required to be his friend. Friendship was a two-way agreement based on mutual respect that must be earned. I further suggested that he sober up before trying to talk to my friend again. He gaped at me in surprise. I was only 17 and figured if I was going to die anyway, at least I will have spoken my mind. I went on to say that he didn't have to be my friend to be her boyfriend. We didn't have to like one another. At all. Some people never like one another. But he did have to stop pointing loaded rifles at me and he did have to have respect for me and stop saying I was inferior to him when I was one of the smartest people in our graduating class and he knew it.

He thought about it, slack-jawed and eyes agape, upper body slightly weaving, as if the truck were still moving, the rifle weaving with him. Meanwhile, one of the people in a car backing out of the Dairy Queen parking lot somehow saw what was happening and the driver of that vehicle looked directly at me and pulled right back into the parking lot. I vaguely heard the sound of running feet. A glance made me realize that driver was running back into the DQ, I hoped to get them to call the police. I told drunk Romeo we needed to end our conversation and he needed to let me go now. He seemed to be waking from a dream. He put his rifle back on his gun rack after several tries, at one point just missing hitting my head with it, and said he was sorry. I told him to go home and sleep it off. He said I was alright, almost like a white girl, not like those other (expletive redacted) he'd learned about. I corrected him and said I was just like those other Black people. We would discuss it when he was sober. I told him to drive to the nearest place with a payphone, park the truck and call  for a ride home. He nodded and I opened the passenger side door.

When I exited the car, he drove off, and the good samaritan driver of the car who ran for help ran to me and asked if I was alright.  I couldn't answer. I didn't know. I just shook my head and asked the staff at DQ to call the SONIC, where my ride was paged to the phone and was wondered what on earth I was doing at the Dairy Queen. 

This was being alive while Black in the days before cell phones. 

I never told my mother, because she would then tell my stepfather the Green Beret and my giant uncle Bob the ex-airforce prison guard, and they would have found my friend's ex-boyfriend and my Kendall cousins would have come down from Chicago and they would have taken on the Klan again and that was not necessary. 

When he sobered up and realized what he had done, he asked to meet his ex-girlfriend to say goodbye, telling her what he'd done and that he expected to be arrested for it, because it did happen in plain sight of a great many people. Small town news travels fast. She knew before he called.

She came out to my house two days later, picking me up in her truck (yes, I was the only person in Massac County who was a teenager and didn't own a pickup truck.) She asked me where I wanted to go so I could tell her why I hadn't called the police on her ex. We went to the DQ where  it was a different shift of people but news travels fast and I got a free ice cream and lot's of Southern Illinois wisdom, like "it takes all kinds, hon." and "pray for that misguided young man. I went to high school with his brother." 

She said she'd never forgive him or get back with him because he could have killed me. I told her he was ready to turn himself into the cops, and that was a good thing. Apparently, after peeling out of the DQ parking lot and while waiting for his ride, he was arrested for a DWI.  I told her I wasn't going to press charges.

White people then didn't understand. Even drunk Romeo didn't know. It didn't matter that this all happened in front of 30 or more witnesses and one of those called the police. The word of a Black girl in that town would never have been believed back then. 

Crying, she said that he said he finally understood what it was she saw in me. He said I was a stand-up girl. Just like a good white church going country girl. That was supposed to be a compliment. I didn't even bother explaining it to him then or her later. I was out of emotional capital. 

He appointed himself my anti-Klan guardian angel until I left the continental United States. Despite the fact that he kept his sobriety, I don't believe he left the Klan, so it was in many ways more disturbing having him struggling to be my friend than hating me.

It was with great relief that I left for South Korea shortly after my birthday.

But that afternoon, two days after I thought I was going to be shot by a junior Klansman in training, I sat in his ex-girlfriend's truck, eating ice cream and thinking what a very, very, long way I had to go explaining racism to that dude, then realizing it wasn't really my job to do that. He had to make an effort to learn. 

I have no idea whether he ever did.