A Time When They Were Real

Falling through the universe at the speed of life

By David Glenn Cox

It is a trick of time, that which is inconsequential becomes the historic. Such things as memories are made of. I’ve written before about my father’s uncanny ability to move us as a family, to wherever national headlines were about to erupt. Apparently, daddy had a side job. Dallas in 63, Montgomery in 65 and Chicago in 68. In the middle of that triad is Montgomery, Alabama. Highway 80 and the lonely road to Selma. There’s a lot of country between Selma and Montgomery.

I’m nine years old. And I’m riding in the back of the old man’s green 1962 Chrysler Imperial, with the bulbous satellite taillights and a 1,200-pound chrome front grill. We were going for a ride; people did that back in antiquity. Back when the world was still unlit and analog. We were proud just to have electricity for lights and the coffee pot. We’d waste twenty-five or thirty cents worth of gasoline, just driving around, just for fun. Maybe buy an ice cream cone and  go down to the Tastee Freeze and watch the waitresses on roller skates. Entertainment wise, it was a savage time.

Gilligan’s Island with lights and a motor car. No Internet, no video games, no cable TV, no color TV, just three channels of living Black and White with the AM Radio. “And those are today’s hog reports…” Entertainment like masturbation, required personal intervention. It wasn’t going to get done just by waiting on it. So going for a ride became a viable option as opposed to sitting at home and staring at the four walls and waiting on air conditioning. Sometimes we’d get an ice cream, sometimes not. This was the 1960s, we weren’t that fat yet.

He wheels the car out onto the highway headed out of town, passed the chicken places, truck shops and laundry mats. 1960s neon and green tinted glass America, before the corporations took over and homogenized the whole world with clever logos. Slowly, industry was replaced by green fields and trees. The kind of road out of town that makes you check your gauges, and makes you nervous about riding with strangers.

Then the car slows some, as my dad announces “Okay, there they are. There’s Martin Luther King.” To me, he was the man I recognized from TV. The man with that powerful voice. We passed the long line of marchers headed for Montgomery, ourselves pointed towards Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Seeing the sights of Selma, we turned round and headed back towards Montgomery. This time, I was prepared, as we were coming from the other direction. I watched Martin Luther King, slowly disappearing out the back of the car window. Seeing him in silhouette. Last seen, walking towards Montgomery.

It was a day or so later when the marchers finally reached Montgomery. Downtown was under lock down and needed to be. I doubt that there was a policeman with the day off in the entire state of Alabama. This was the home of Freedom Rider beatings. Of course, my dad, being my dad, had to try and outsmart the police. Just to see if we could get through the barricades. He drove us through the railroad yards and warehouse back streets, trying to sneak up on downtown from the river.

We got within two blocks of the Capitol. And as we rolled down the windows, we could hear the voices through the loudspeakers and the commotion.  The crowd cheered loudly, and then that man with the powerful voice began to speak. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, it didn’t matter. I could tell that the crowd approved.

These little things, that mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. I saw an interview with the last man alive, present at the Lincoln assassination. Like me, a peach faced little boy who heard a bang and the show ended early and everyone went home. But to him, Abe Lincoln was a real person, not just a historical figure to be read about in books.

On the steps of the Capitol Building in Montgomery, is a star inlaid on the spot where Jeff Davis took the oath of office as the first (and last) president of the Confederacy. Stand on that star and look a little to your left, and about four hundred yards away is Martin Luther King’s church. Two ends of history staring at each other. Down the street in the Winter Building, was the old Western Union office, where the orders were sent to fire on Fort Sumter. The same street Dr. King marched up from Selma.

If you believe in grand design. It’s almost a story out of the Bible, where the children of the former slaves demand their rights before Pharaoh, led by a messiah promised long ago. If you believe in that sort of thing. But the symbolism is striking. The conquering army of the oppressed, peacefully forcing the White power structure to its knees. Forced not only to tolerate the march and rally, but to work overtime protecting it. Under the watchful eye of the Federal Government, the good ole boys were forced to make nice.

Alabama at the time was a was a tinder box. Two years after the Birmingham church bombings. Memories of Bull Conner with the dogs and fire hoses were still fresh. Freedom Riders, University of Alabama, George Wallace, Viola Liuzzo. The hell we didn’t start the fire!

It was a crucible, a strange time to be inside of something historic. Without having much of an idea of what was actually going on, but knowing still that it was important. That it will someday be written about in history books and memorialized. Like that time, you saw Julius Caesar or Napoleon, or Churchill. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Except to see them as flesh and blood human beings, rather than a face on a postage stamp or a commemorative coin. To remember a time when they were real. It’s a trick of time.

“Can it be possible that the painters make John the Baptist a Spaniard in Madrid and an Irishman in Dublin?” – Mark Twain

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