Memories can last forever. This is one of my forevers, still touching me deep after 66 years.
It's 1953 and I'm 17, a cub sports reporter for the Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal. A close friend breaks into professional baseball down South. The paper sends me off to do a feature story.
Come with me now to Maryville, Tennessee, to an America I never knew existed. Join me on the bus as I meet Jim Crow--up close and personal, then out the window, in this country I'd never seen before.
I don't remember the name of the place where it happened. I just remember sitting down and the bus driver walking back and telling me to move. "You can't sit here," he said, "only coloreds sit back here." It was my first time ever in the South, and already I'd broken a supreme law: whites don't mix with blacks. They don't sit together on buses, they don't drink from the same water fountains, they don't use the same rest rooms.
Separate rest rooms and water fountains were unheard-of to me, and I had my first sighting out the bus window. There stood two fountains, starkly unequal, marked in big capital letters "WHITE" and "COLORED". The signs laid down the rules, and they were meant to be obeyed.
When the bus driver told me to change seats, I changed seats. Just two years later, Rosa Parks made civil-rights history by breaking the rules.
I love baseball, and I really loved somebody else picking up my expenses, so the rest of the trip was sweet. I heard an echo at the end though, and you will too.
The local team, the Maryville-Alcoa Twins of the Mountain States League, sat me up in the press box like a visiting dignitary. That night I was a T.I.P., a Temporarily Important Person.
My Jamestown friend showed off his stuff: a double, a single, a fine over-the-shoulder catch. The star of the game though, fresh on his way to a decent major league career, was the black Twins right-fielder Willie Kirkland. He hit one of his 35 home runs of the summer, and got his reward in storybook fashion. His fans threw bills over the railing and onto the field. Kirkland would later scoop up the money, turning now and then and tipping his cap.
I met him after the game, shaking hands for the first time with a major-leaguer-to-be. Afterwards my friend let me in on a secret, the echo that I mentioned earlier. Kirkland and a white girl were seeing each other, and they could lose their lives if the wrong people ever found out.
It was one of the truths I learned over those two days: bitter truths about the land of the free that nobody ever told me.
What brings it all back now, 66 years later? Actually it's happened many times; history can hardly hit home harder than it did for me back then. In this case I had a specific memory jog, the new book Unexampled Courage: The Blinding of Sgt. Isaac Woodward and the Awakening of President Harry S. Truman and Judge J. Waties Haring, by Richard Gergel.
Woodward, a black, was a decorated war hero. In 1946, just hours after his discharge, he was pulled off a bus in South Carolina and arrested for being "disrespectful" to the driver. Seconds later, within sight of the riders still on the bus, he was blackjacked in both eyes by the local police chief. He would never see again.
Once more I was back in 1953, reliving my forever memory--and America's too, and it's far from over down deep.
This piece first appeared at www.nydailynews.com