Strange things blow in through my window on the wings of the night wind and I don’t worry about my destiny.
A Bonfire at Midnight [Based on a true story about my grandfather and my father, McKenzie, Tennessee 1926]
Willie worked at his father's newspaper office the summer he was twelve. He was in charge of all the junk and extra papers in the storage room. Somehow he was supposed to keep the place orderly, an impossible task since he was seldom allowed to throw anything away.
One day in late June, Willie was down in his office, the storage closet, when his father shouted so loud the glass in the transom over the door rattled like a snake about to snap. "I will not be intimidated!" Pop's deep voice thundered.
Willie froze, though no one was there to see him. Pop was publisher and chief editor of the McKenzie Banner, and he could yell when someone didn't do his job well. But this was different. Pop sounded almost afraid.
A smothering silence followed. After awhile, Willie stepped over the mess he had made, the clutter he was supposed to be sorting, and crept down the dusty wood-planked floor to the edge of Pop's office door where he crouched down and tried to see without being seen.
Uncle Eddie stood next to Pop's desk. His police officer's uniform was wrinkled and his knuckles bulged where his hands made big fists. His face dripped with sweat, and his wide mouth narrowed into the tiniest O-shape. He was a big-boned Irish man and everyone in town called him Uncle Eddie, though as far as Willie knew he wasn't really related to anyone in McKenzie.
"I will not back down," Pop said quietly now, as if he knew someone was standing less than five feet away listening with big ears and a wildly beating heart. Willie jack-rabbited back to the storage room and began pulling stacks of paper off the shelf as if his life depended upon it. When he heard the front door slam, indicating that Uncle Eddie had left, Willie waited for Pop to seek him out. While he waited, he worked harder than ever to put the storage room in order. But all he got for his diligence was a long, deadening silence and an empty doorway.
That night Pop hardly said a word at dinner. Most nights he would lead a discussion, asking each of his children in turn about their day, giving everyone a chance to speak. He was happiest when the conversation took a philosophical turn, his favorite topic being liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He often quoted Thomas Jefferson as if he had just that day spoken with the man. Willie knew his pop was frequently criticized for his stands on the editorial page of the "Banner," but he was also greatly respected. He had a reputation for being just and fair and this was his third term as Mayor of McKenzie. "We'll read together before you go back to the office, David," Moms said softly. Pop stabbed his meat and jammed it into his mouth without looking up.
Moms read aloud from the Bible most nights to Willie and his brother and sisters. Willie thought this bothered Pop because he wanted his children to be independent thinkers. Pop balked at black/white, right/wrong notions. He always looked for the haze of doubt around an idea and tried to poke holes in it. He liked nothing better than a good debate. "Not everything can be solved by reading the good book, Mamie," Pop said as he left the table. It was the first time he had ever left for work without listening to his wife read a passage from the Bible, without saying goodnight to his children. Willie figured whatever Pop had been yelling about to Uncle Eddie must be the worst thing that ever happened. That night, long after Willie had been sent to bed, he was awakened by an urgent prodding. He opened his eyes confused, what was Pop doing there with his finger to his lips, hushing Willie before he'd even made a sound? Willie sat up and Pop motioned for him to get his dungarees which lay in a heap at the bottom of the bed. After Willie got dressed, Pop led the way out of the quiet house and down the summer street.
"I want to show you something," Pop said as they crossed the railroad tracks. Willie thought it was a crazy thing his pop was doing, bringing him out in the middle of the night, and this thought made Willie burn with fear. He had to trot to keep up as they headed down the street toward the ball park. At first he thought it was crickets making a shrill noise all around him, but the sound got louder and louder the closer they got to the edge of the baseball diamond and by that time Willie could see a huge bonfire surrounded by people in flowing white sheets that even covered their heads.
Pop squeezed his arm as he towed him along. "I want to show you some grown men, leaders and businessmen, who hide behind masks and perform hateful acts of prejudice." Pop had taught all of his children that prejudice was cowardly. Just the sound of the word made Willie narrow his eyes and hold up his head in proud defiance. The sky glowed deep red-orange over the white figures that moved like waves in the night.
A raging bonfire licked the sky just beyond second base. The fire was encircled by ten to twenty Klansmen in white sheets with pointed hats that covered their faces, all but their eyes, making them look frighteningly like ghosts. An immense flag fluttered ominously at the edge of the gathering, but it held no stars and stripes, only three thick black K’s. Willie drew back, but Pop took his elbow firmly in his grasp and yanked him along toward the fire. With his other hand, Pop reached out and jabbed the shoulder of the first figure they came to.
"Where is the Grand Dragon?" Pop roared, and Willie shrank back at his side. "I am the mayor of this town and he has challenged me to meet him here." Pop's voice cracked slightly at the end. Willie had never heard it do that before. For an instant it was quiet and the circle parted, letting Pop and Willie in where the heat of the fire nearly scorched them.
Pop tugged on Willie and they approached the flames where Willie was certain he'd meet his death. He clutched his pop's hand in great terror, wanting to believe his pop would protect him. Pop gave his hand a squeeze as if he could feel Willie's fear then he stopped purposefully and spoke to Willie in a loud voice.
"Don't worry, son. They wouldn't do anything with a boy here."
Willie felt all eyes on him and he wanted to shrink into himself and become invisible. Just as they reached the scattering of logs by the fire, a man with a scarlet sash over his shoulder stepped in front of Pop, abruptly halting them. The man poked a finger in Pop's chest. "You appointed Eddie McClellan Chief of Police, did you not?" the man shouted.
Only the fire crackled loudly in response.
"I did," Pop replied. "And if you take that sheet off your head and face me man to man, I'll tell you just why he's the best person for the job."
Murmuring stirred up from the background and built into a cloudburst of shouts. He can't be Chief. Take it back. Appoint someone else. White-cloaked red faces surged around them intense as human flames and Willie shivered, drawing closer to Pop. The bonfire spit and a huge limb split and caved into the blackened pit. Willie couldn't keep his eyes off the fire. He didn't want to look at the men.
Just then his father took his arm and pulled him out of there. The Grand Dragon stepped in their way to detain them and Willie halted, but Pop yanked on his arm and shoved past. Voices rumbled like a thousand motors.
"Come on, son," Pop shouted. "There are no men here to talk to." They pushed through the white barrier of Klansmen, walked over the pitcher's mound, and moved toward the other side of the field which seemed like miles away. Willie's feet wouldn't cooperate and he tripped over and over again. His head wanted to fly him right out of his body, clear out of the park. His hand numbed up inside Pop's tight grip. His heart pinged against his breastbone. He didn't know if they were being followed or if large looming white men would jump out of the bushes in front of them along the way. He was afraid to look back for fear of what he'd see.
Finally the chanting was only a distant hum and it was just crickets and cicadas Willie heard calling and chirping in the night. The midnight air was almost cool. "Pop?” Willie asked as they turned the corner and started down their own street. "Why don't they like Uncle Eddie? He's been a policeman ever since I can remember."
Pop stopped in the street and turned to look Willie in the eye. "They don't want him because he's Irish Catholic. Same as they don't want anyone of dark skin or slanted eyes."
The answer hung in the air because Willie couldn't accept it. It didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t understand hating someone because of their religion or the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes.
They got back home with some night still left for sleeping, but Willie stayed awake until daylight he felt so sad. The next day everybody was talking about the cross that had burned on Uncle Eddie's yard and Willie heard Pop tell Moms that windows had been broken out of the Banner offices when rocks were thrown. In that week's issue of the newspaper, Pop wrote a scathing editorial about the Ku Klux Klan. He said their constitutional rights should be denied them just as they interfered with the rights of others. He read it at the dinner table that night in a deep, clear voice. Willie's bones felt like threads beneath his skin as he watched his father read and his heart felt like a rodent in his chest, nibbling its frightened way toward freedom.
"The sun will not rise or set without my notice, and thanks," Winslow Homer, 1895