Thursday, May 8, 2008

The long drive home © by adrian

We’re driving east from Little Rock, Arkansas, along highway 40. It's early evening, just past seven o'clock, and this has been a beautiful, sunny spring day. We are just a few miles from our planned stopover for this leg of the trip. We're going to stay at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, tonight. We picked the Lorraine simply because that's the name of one of my sisters, and we thought it would be cute to stay there.

After three years of living in the United States, a land seemingly full of contradictions for us, we're finally moving back home to Canada. Our last residence had been Houston, Texas. In Houston, among other things, they had what was called “the brown bag” law. If you wanted any booze to drink with your dinner in a restaurant, you had to bring it yourself in a “brown bag”. In some restaurants, they would serve you liquor only if you signed a membership card, so that you could be a “club member” during your dinner. At the same time in Houston, it was legal to carry around a pistol anywhere, as long as it was visible.

We've also had our fill of America's social difficulties and racial tension. We will never have to deal with any of that stuff again. It's clear sailing now, we feel good, and know we have an easy drive ahead of us.

"We" is myself, the girl I just married after four years of us living together, (you can check out my blog story Of Nomads and Amazons © by adrian) and the Lab/Shepherd mix dog "Brutus" we acquired a few years ago in California. We're in a large window van we bought a few weeks ago. We're travelling with everything in the world we own in it and tied on it. Every time we exit the van, we need to keep pushing items that tumble out back in. Stuffed to the gills is the descriptor that comes to mind. I also have eleven hundred dollars cash in my pocket. Eleven hundred dollars is the grub stake you needed back then to move to a different city. That way you had enough to pay rent and supplies for a few months until you got resettled in your new place.

Further down the highway, as we comfortably cruise along, we begin to see signs of some kind of commotion ahead. Can't quite figure it out yet, but flashing lights abound, perhaps, we reason, there's been an accident.

As we get closer, we can see the road ahead is barricaded in both directions, and state troopers are everywhere. As we come to a stop, a trooper comes to our van and excitedly tells us that we must turn back, we will not be allowed to go any further forward. We are instructed to make a U turn across the median and drive back in the direction we came. No explanation is, or will, be given. "Go back!" is the order. Memphis has been sealed off, and no one will be allowed in or out.

We drive back and find a small motel in a little place called Mound City. The clerk has no idea what the problem in Memphis is, and would like twenty seven dollars for the nights lodging, please.

We start getting settled in our room and turn on the television. The date is April 4th, 1968, and we now find out that one hour ago, Martin Luther King had been assassinated at the Lorraine hotel, in Memphis. If we had been one hour earlier, we would have been in that tragic place.

We watch the news for a few hours, this is long before the days of CNN and their ilk, and mostly all we get is confused reporting. The one thing that is consistent is that the icon of Americas' civil rights has been assassinated. Memphis is sealed off, and no one will be allowed in or out.

As a Canadian, I was never able to make much sense of the difficulties that plagued the southern states and much of the U.S. Certainly not because I felt pure or better than them, I would say naivety was the main reason. I grew up in a decidedly different environment, and simply was never affected by the racial divide.

My very first contact with segregation and what it meant was during a time that I did a lot of hitch-hiking while I was young. Occasionally, if I could afford it, I would take a bus as part of my trip so that I could relax and use the shower facilities that were available for passengers in bus stations in those days.

On one of my bus rides, going south into Georgia, I had been talking to a black kid who was about my age (seventeen) in the seat next to me. When we got off the bus at one rest stop, I suggested we get a drink at the lunch counter. He pointed to the signs above two separate doors and said that would not be possible. Not this far south. I was dumbfounded. Talk about naive, I truly had never encountered such a thing, and had never heard any hint of anything like this discussed in any schools I ever attended. I knew I had blinkers on as I was growing up. That was one of the reasons I went hitch-hiking in the first place, so I could learn more about the world, but at that moment I realized how little I understood about what was around me. At that time, I suggested that we should both get what we wanted at our designated places, and if he wanted, we would have our snack at the side of the road, which we did.

The next morning at our motel the news was bleak. America had started a slow burn, and riots were engulfing many cities. Like it or not, we were in for a difficult ride ahead.

Needless to say, we bypassed Memphis and headed north along highway 55 to St. Louis.

During the remainder of our trip, we literally drove around and through bigger cities listening to our car radio for instructions on which areas were and were not safe to drive in. That information was always very race specific, with information on where whites were thought to be in danger, as well as where blacks were in danger.

We went east on highway 70 to Indianapolis, and then on to Columbus, Ohio. There was serious tension everywhere. In coffee shops along the highway, if black people came into the restaurant, everyone would stop what they were doing, to wait to see if there was going to be an incident. We travelled up highway 71 to Cleveland, and at all times were mindful of the danger that was mostly in larger cities. Our trip was scary but apart from the tension of all the burning and rioting in the large cities our trip was uneventful and we were never confronted with personal hostility. However, this was anything but a comfortable trip. Definitely not the way to travel.

As we went further north and east, we began to feel some comfort in the fact that we were getting closer to Canada. We travelled across highway 90 and bypassed Buffalo, then went on to Niagara Falls. We drove overnight so that we were able to cross the Peace Bridge into Canada in the morning, just a few days after the dreadful event that had started the rioting.

I vowed to never return to The U.S., but of course over the years that has proved to be a false vow. When I now travel to the States, I'm always mindful of what I perceive as the edginess in the way the races deal with each other there. I don't suggest that Canadians are exempt from racial tension, but so far, we have managed to deal with our differences a little more subtly than in the States.

It seemed that this past April, everybody had a story about the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. This is mine.