The Reverend Dr. Huber was well-loved by the university students who made up most of his congregation. He was, as a Presbyterian, more intellectually inclined than his counterpart in the Baptist church, more liberal than the Methodist. He was the dynamo powering the Tuesday Coffee Hour, where you might hear a professor read from Finnegan’s Wake, or a debate between Cubans, or listen to a guitar recital, before refreshments in the institutional kitchen downstairs. It was the early 50’s, when students were becoming more vociferous and iconoclastic; he was one of the few adults who seemed to encourage us in our urge to protest. Dr. Huber was a cheerful man in rimless glasses and it was difficult for us to understand why at five o-clock one morning he killed himself in his wife’s kitchen with a shotgun.
After Dr. Huber’s funeral, ten or twelve of us got together in the Cherokee Hotel dining room for dinner, a sort of wake for the minister. My wife Donna was in a complete funk, slumped in the horsehair booth opposite me. She was just seventeen, and had always been religious. It was she who introduced me, the avowed atheist, to the weekly coffee hour.
George Sikorsky, eccentric son of the inventor of the helicopter, sat at his end of the table smoking chains of black tobacco cigarettes, which he held in his peculiar way, cupping his palm underneath, holding the cigarette between three fingers rather in the manner of the bow of a viola da gamba. He observed us darkly through his thick lenses, a glint of Russian arrogance in his gaze, holding up the elbow of his smoking hand with the other as he puffed at increasingly frequent intervals, clearly building up to one of his heavily accented diatribes. He was an anarchist by nature, and looked the part: undernourished, clad always in a rumpled dark suit, black unruly hair, ranting against all forms of government – sometimes reciting an Ezra Pound poem condemning usury. He believed that all public documents, including advertisements, should be translated into the terms of symbolic logic, and that parliaments should sing Bach chorales or Gregorian chant before starting the day’s business. When he had worked up the steam, he would launch into one of his political manifestos.
Recently in the Student Center Cubans debated the Fidel Castro phenomenon. On the one side it was fat cat Batista supporters, asserting that Castro got his name from lack of balls; on the other, skinny, bearded and bereted admirers of Che and Fidel swearing that the fate of Juan el Baptista would be visited upon Fulgencio Batista. The two factions shouted each other down in Spanish, while Dr. Huber smiled broadly and tried to appeal to reason and civilization.
In Florida the general feeling was very strong against Castro, who had vowed to throw American capitalists out of his country and nationalize their property. We left-leaning students sympathized with the rebels, and why not? We were rebels ourselves, part of the great tradition of university students everywhere. In Hungary students were driving the Russians out; we thought that American occupation of Cuba should come to an end. We had read Max Eastman and Marx and Engels. There was Steinbeck, and Dreicer, and Dos Passos; the Spanish Civil War figured heavily in the novels and biographies of writers of the pre-war generation. Some big changes were taking place, that much was sure. Cuba was just part of it.
Donna and I had in fact been to the island just the year before the rebels came down out of the mountains. Havana was a popular destination in those days; it’s where everybody went who sought cheap honeymoons, divorces, or abortions. We had gone for a honeymoon, and Donna was now pretty completely pregnant. Dr. Huber had been counselling us twice a week right up till he died. She was devastated by the tragedy and superstitiously related it to our fate in some mysterious fashion.
About the time that Castro started his raids from the Sierra, Count Basie came to the Arts Series in the auditorium of our university. Black students from the agricultural college were barred entrance on the night of the concert, a perfect opportunity for some positive protest; after a lot of noise and threats of a sit-in, the blacks were brought in through the truck entrance to sit on stage with the band.
Pamphlets on desegregation started flying again, and Castro was of interest only to the Cubans. A student committee canvassed the dorms, soliciting signatures for the admission of black students to cultural and sporting events at the state university, and eventually to classes. There were fistfights in the corridors and coffee shops. On the one side were rednecks and Aryan sons of local southern gentry; in the other camp were “commie-pinko-fag” types like most of our few friends in the music and art department.
“The goons and baboons of your average south’r’n white youth hate niggers and commies, and boast the beef and brawn to change your point of view from vertical to horizontal,” David Wade, a poet, used to say. He couldn’t have fought his way out of a soap bubble; he merely screamed like a banshee if threatened, a ploy which nearly always worked.
Sikorsky rose heavily from his chair on this, the night of the wake, and waved his cigarette like a tiny torch of Miss Liberty. He was profoundly moved, we were to understand, moved by Dr. Huber’s death. His voice was thickened by vodka, hindering his always dense English. “Doctor Huber always extolled the tactical value of civil disobedience. If we want to pay real homage to him, we should recall the first such disobedient act he advocated. An act which we have not yet carried out.”
Dr. Huber had dreamed up the project in one of our bull sessions in the Youth Center kitchen. Integration had become the hot issue for college youth; in the dormitories we had been pushing petitions to allow the entrance of blacks, pamphlets pro and con were littering the coffee shops and assembly rooms, and the first skirmish against the Jim Crow laws had already been planned. Most of us were a little reluctant to participate, since it meant possibly coming up against redneck policemen, which might bring more grief to the blacks than to the whites.
We were preparing at the time for a visit by a leader in the civil rights movement, a man highly praised from the pulpit by Dr. Huber, and now, moved by Sikorsky’s speech, we voted to put the plan to the test, partly in memory of our recently departed ethical mentor, and partly to lend credibility to ourselves. It seemed a sure way to get an ambience up before the celebrity preacher arrived.
It was a very simple, almost trivial, plan. A group of us waited at the bus stop in front of the Town Hall. George Sikorsky headed the file, followed by David Wade, a poet who quoted Prevert and Mayakovsky; Pat Petrucci, an Italian Jew from New York, editor of the campus newspaper and literary magazine; a couple of other students from the sociology department brought up the rear. The Negro bunch stood away from the rest of us as local custom required, forming a huddle around John, their leader, a tall athlete down from Baltimore.
The whites boarded first, Sikorsky dropping into the first seat behind the driver, David and I right behind him, while the other white students spaced themselves out. Then the blacks stepped on, hurrying up the aisle to the back.
At the first traffic light, when the driver was occupied with manoeuvring a turn, half the blacks from the back stepped forward, and half the whites slipped past them the other way. A heavy white woman in the middle row scooted from her window seat to the aisle and blocked John, who had decided to take this thing to the limit of provocation and sit on the same seat with her.
The bus driver took it all in at a glance in the rear-view mirror and headed straight for the police station.
“Like a damn checkerboard,” he told the Chief of Police. “Black and white right to the last seat. We knowed it was going to start here sooner or later, and we better crack down hard now.”
Within an hour, all the colored students were locked up.
The whites were taken one by one from a holding room into the police chief’s office. When my turn came, I was forced to call my counselling professor, Carmen Rogers. She was a Shakespeare scholar, a little confused by the situation, but she paid a fine and signed me out. Most of the local white students received the same treatment.
The northern students were expelled unconditionally from school, on the assumption that they were the ring leaders, while the blacks spent a couple of rough nights in a cracker jail. Not a line of print appeared in the newspapers. So much for impressing those in the civil rights movement.
The speaker who delivered the sermon in a church near A&M was supposed to be Martin Luther King, but he had sent an emissary in his place. King was already famous among informed provocateurs on campus, and most of our friends attended the rally, though there had been grim threats of violence in town. One rumor had it that the church would be set on fire.
The Tabernacle was a rectangular box, packed to the bare stud walls. A choir in crimson robes sang one of the hymns that in the Presbyterian church sound tired and dreary, but here in this room swaying with warm bodies, its harmony literally filled the air. My heart rose up, and Donna and I sang along with the rest. Hope for another is hope for one’s self as well.
King, we were told, had other duties, I think in St. Augustine, but his substitute, whose name doesn’t come to me, was a fine orator, chanting a message punctuated with melodious amens and you speak the truth for us all, thank God from the congregation. Rhetoric and rhythm convinced us all that the soul could sing out, that injustice could be ended, that separate is not equal. It was not the “I have a dream” speech by King that would be remembered forever, but it was inspiring. We were euphoric when we stepped out into the moonlit, dewy night. The crowd scattered quickly now that we were outside the solidarity afforded by the church’s walls. Donna was pretty far along in her pregnancy, and we fell behind.
There were no more worthy wars and fields of adventure like those of the first half a century. Korea was not Spain. Vietnam was not Germany. Cuba was a cause celèbre, but downright dangerous; we had lost a friend to that conflict already, blown up over the Everglades – flying rifles to the rebels, to supplement his GI Bill.
The Spanish moss hung from the live oaks like beards of wise men. “Aren’t you proud?” Donna asked me, squeezing my hand.
Then we saw the men. Like distant ancestors, they came at a crouch through the shadows and moonbeams, clutching axe handles and chains, muttering niggerlovers as they approached us.
In my mind’s eye I saw the Reverend Huber, who had scattered his brains around his wife’s kitchen, probably in despair at the state of mankind. I thought of the faces recently behind us aglow with a new mission for humanity. I did not feel afraid, except for Donna. As the first pair of angry eyes met mine, I reached for the hem of her skirt and lifted it to her chin, the only defense I could think of.
Her belly shone in the full moon, our unborn child pulled by heavenly tides toward the light. Saved by our son.
As just a fetus, before I was even a baby, it seems I was called upon to help my family. From fetus to middle-aged man, some things apparently don’t change.
I found an early draft of this story dated in 2004. This is from the most current version dated 14 October 2013. There’s also a Spanish version that I believe is incomplete, also from 2004. I wonder, Lee, do you remember this incident? If so, how accurate is this tale?
Patrick Meadows 1934 – 2017.