I had been hanging out for most of the summer around the Boston Commons with a strange assortment of folks - veterans returned from Vietnam, college students on summer vacation, hippies, wino's, youthful runaways. During the month of July I slept a few times on the steps of a local church, other times at various residences of girlfriends, and sometimes, having stayed up all night, slept through the mornings in a sleeping bag out on the commons. In August, the YMCA opened a large room filled with portable beds, available for 25 cents a night. I met Tom at the YMCA.
Tom and I spent a lot of time together. At summer's end, we decided to remain friends and travel together. We left Boston and went to northern New Jersey to stay at my parents apartment. Needing money, we got jobs delivering supplies and paints to area auto body shops. Tom and I would often eat hot open-faced turkey sandwiches for lunch at a local chrome metal diner. We played the Beatles Hey Jude on the jukebox. We talked of travel, maybe to California. After a month of delivering body shop supplies, we were ready to go.
During an early October evening, with a little money saved from our jobs, Tom and I left my parent's house for the road. The autumn air was exhilarating and we were in high spirits. Tom and I walked the few miles from my parents' house to the entrance ramp of the New Jersey Turnpike. At first we had no certain destination other than to head south, but after a short while, we agreed that our first stop would be Nashville, Tennessee, where Tom's Uncle John and Aunt Mary lived. From there we weren't sure where we would go, though at some point we wanted to make it to California.
Each of us carried a bedroll and a couple of suitcases. I carried a small suitcase of clothes in one hand, an attache of books in the other, and a couple of rolled blankets under my arm. My clothes were a few pairs of dungarees, a few white shirts, a red bandanna, white tennis sneakers, a beat black sports jacket, and a few changes of underwear and socks. For books I had Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, John Blofeld's translation of the I Ching, a volume or two of science fiction and a red vinyl-covered book with a red ribbon marker. This little red book was the infamous The Writings of Chairman Mao, actually a sort of a curiosity for me rather than a serious text. Possession of this book would prove to have consequences.
Our first ride was with a black family heading south to Richmond, Virginia in an old 50's car. The trip was several hundred miles and would take some six hours. Now we were on our way. Cruising down the turnpike, through the darkening October evening, I began to relax and settle back. Suddenly, our driver reached down from the steering wheel to a dark space under the dashboard, turned around quickly, and brandished a huge knife right up under our surprised faces. The blade appeared to be at least 8 to 10 inches long.
"Don't try anything funny on this ride", the man solemnly threatened. After a brief pause Tom and I hastily assured him that we were OK. We certainly wouldn't be any problem for him or his family.
We continued on our journey and the night wore on in silence. Eventually we arrived in Richmond. Our driver invited us to sleep over at his house. Tired, we gratefully accepted. Our car pulled up in front of a city row house. Some relatives already there were glad to see our driver and his family. One girl played a popular record over and over on her little 45" player. "...God didn't make little green apples, it don't rain in Indianapolis in the summertime..." continued for over an hour.
Tom and I rolled our sleeping bags out on the living room floor. Drifting off to sleep next to my friend Tom, I felt good. Already we had travelled several hundred miles.
We slept well into the morning. After several hours of sound and restful sleep, Tom and I thanked our hosts and proceeded on our way south out of Richmond. By our maps we saw that our best route would be to continue south to North Carolina, about midway through the state, where we would pick up an East-West interstate continuing west to Tennessee. Looking closer at the map, we discovered that the Interstate road we intended to travel was marked in many places by a series of broken lines. Apparently, sections of the interstate were not yet completely built.
We made it easily enough to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Now it was evening and getting dark. Out of Winston-Salem, the roads grew smaller, darker, and more ominous. Traffic was sparse. In the middle of the night, after a hundred miles or so of travel, and far into rural North Carolina, a driver warned us that we best be careful. According to him, in some of these rural 'hollers', tucked back in the hills, lynchings were known to happen. Though tired, we were now full of nervous energy.
By dawn we were in Cherokee, at the Tennessee border. Walking through town I noticed many Indians, apparently the Cherokees for whom the town was named. Some were standing in line outside a building. It was early morning. Perhaps they were waiting for work, or perhaps unemployment or welfare. Many seemed poor and beaten by the hardships of life. Cigarettes were cheap in North Carolina. I bought a carton of Camels for $2.00.
A short walk brought us through town into the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. The road wound through grassy meadows wet with morning dew. Large spiders sitting on webs 2 or 3 feet in diameter were everywhere among tall meadow weeds and flowers. We were tired and needed sleep. We chose a place amongst the flowers, weeds and spiders to lay out our sleeping bags, and slept through morning on into early afternoon.
Waking up we were refreshed. We gathered up our belongings and in high spirits, moved out to the road. Tennessee was right over the mountain, on the other side of Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Soon we got a ride from a guy who was travelling all the way to Nashville in a Volkswagen bug. I got to drive much of the way.
By late afternoon we were in the Nashville area. We called Tom's Uncle John and Aunt Mary and after getting directions, rode a few local busses to their house in a garden apartment complex in East Nashville. When we arrived, Uncle John had just returned from a hunting trip and was busy eating a groundhog.
We stayed at Uncle John's in Nashville for a few days and planned the next leg of our trip. Much of this time we spent just walking around town. We walked by the Grand Old Opry. We ordered bowls of chili and cups of black coffee in a local greasy hamburger joint. We saw Hubert Humphrey stumping in town as the Democratic candidate for president. That year Humphrey was running against Republican Richard Nixon and Independent George Wallace.
Tom and I decided that we were going to travel further south to New Orleans. One of our rides down from Richmond had been with a guy driving an old hearse converted into a mobile home. He had recommended New Orleans. The one drawback of travelling into the deep south was of the infamous Southern racism. Tom was black and I am white.
When we told Tom's aunt and uncle of our plans, Aunt Mary called Tom's mother in Miami. After talking with Tom's mother a bit, Aunt Mary handed the phone to Tom.
"Are you boys crazy? You could be killed. A white boy and a black boy together heading down South!?!".
Despite the concerns and warnings of Tom's family, our minds were set and we were determined to be on our way.
One evening after dinner, after several days in Nashville, Tom's Uncle John and Aunt Mary drove us to the interstate outside of town. We positioned ourselves at the highway entrance ramp heading south. Within about an hour, we were fortunate to get a ride in a big semi-truck. Two drivers were heading all the way to Montgomery, Alabama, almost 300 miles south of Nashville and were nice enough to let us take turns sleeping in the comfortable sleeper compartment behind the seats. By the time we got to Montgomery, we were well rested.
Two Georgia Buddies
Continuing South from Montgomery, we caught a ride with two middle age characters driving a late model car. Although suspicious of their rough country-hick appearance, I figured we might as well keep going with them as we were already in the car and on our way. However, I became more apprehensive when in thick southern drawls they began telling tales of having sex with pigs, goats and sheep back home on their Georgia farm.
These guys were in no great hurry to get anywhere. Soon after picking us up, they pulled off the main highway to drive down a small country road. After a short distance we parked near a dirt field with a few scraggly trees in the distance. One of the guys leaned over to rummage around under the seat and produced some sardines, saltine crackers and a clear liquid in an unlabeled clear glass bottle.
The guys shared their lunch with us. I ate some sardines and crackers and took a swig from the bottle. I tasted the fiery burn of strong liquor. Neither Tom nor I were into getting drunk, and as the bottle passed again for a second round we declined. The boys continued to take deep draws from the bottle and talked of their liquor and how good it was.
"Yeah," said one, "we got 90 gallons more of this stuff under the back seat."
Eventually, the boys started up the car and we continued on our way, driving down backwoods country roads. We were now in the deep south and the boys continued to drink. We drove up and down red dirt roads that ran straight for miles over Alabama hills of ghostly pines. After about an hour, the boys well soused, we started stopping at roadside bars. Tom and I sat outside in the car while the boys went in.
At one bar, about 50 miles north of Mobile, the boys suddenly came running out. They were quite agitated. The driver wrenched open the car door on my side and yelled to me to get behind the wheel and start driving. "Sherrif's over the hill!", he panted. "Let's get out of here!".
Obligingly, I got into the driver's seat, started her up, put her in gear, and took off. After an hour or so at high speeds, we figured we had outdistanced any trouble. We were now nearing Mobile, at the southwestern end of Alabama. Our hosts said they were heading West to New Orleans. We wanted to go to New Orleans too, but not with them. We had had enough and wanted out of the car. We thanked the boys for the ride and disembarked just outside of Mobile.
Tom and I stood for awhile out on the hot pavement of the Mobile freeway. After an hour or so someone stopped to give us a lift. Our driver was a local resident, a young, friendly guy. He turned out to be quite knowledgeable about southern political situations and racial strife. He drove us around for awhile to checkout some of the poorer areas of Mobile, pointing various local trouble sites like Black project tenements, and scenes of racial difficulty. When we told him of our intention to hitchhike to New Orleans, he warned us to be very careful. He told us stories of people he knew who because of their politics or skin color had been set-up by the police and sent to prison. He knew cases where people had spent years being shuttled from jail to jail under cover of darkness and beyond the law. We were told that the area we intended to travel -- across Mississippi, from Mobile to New Orleans -- was especially dangerous. Tom and I though quick and changed our plans. We asked our friend to take us to the bus station. Instead of hitchhiking, we would spent our limited funds on tickets and ride the bus to New Orleans.
New Orleans adventures
At the New Orleans bus terminal, one of the first things I noticed was that liquor was very prevalent. Hard liquor was openly displayed for sale in bus terminal showcases and drugstore windows. Mixed drinks were sold from sidewalk carts.
Our first order of business in New Orleans was to find a place to sleep. Low on money, we looked for cheap lodging in a poorer section of the French Quarter. I loved the distinctive New Orleans architecture of ornate wrought-iron balconies. There were many signs on cheap hotels advertising rooms for 50 or 75 cents, but the cheapest we were able to find cost 1.50 apiece. These were small curtained-off cubicles barely big enough for a single bed.
Tom and I needed money and decided to look for temporary work. We scanned local newspapers and asked around. One guy directed us to someone who supposedly had work. He took a look at us and stated that he had work for only one. Questioning further, we found that I was the only one he would hire because I was white. Racism, up front, 1968 America.
Institutionalized racism was rather prevalent in New Orleans. Clubs had signs "for members only". Jobs were listed directly in the paper as for "whites only". Unable to find work of a more suitable nature, we got some underground newspapers to sell. Tom and I put some effort into the job. We strolled Bourbon Street hawking The Word to the crowded streets of tourists. We figured that many were southern businessmen, sheriffs, or other complicitors in the racist status quo out for entertainment on a Saturday night so we began calling out catchy phrases like "Renounce your southern mores", "Get the Word", and "End racism". What the hell - we enjoyed ourselves, but didn't sell a single paper.
For a quarter a night and mandatory attendance at church services we could get dinner and a place to sleep at the Baptist mission. The door to the dorm was kept locked until 9 PM. The men would begin lining up early, outside the door, each with a bundle of clean linens. When the door was opened they quickly filed in and found a bunk amidst the neat rows of bunk beds filling the room. There was no talking allowed in the dorm.
Most of the mission patrons were grizzled older men and winos. On a couple of afternoons I sat around a table with some of these guys sharing cigarettes and coffee, alternately reading my copy of Steppenwolf and listening in to conversations. At one point I asked some guys if they were experienced in hopping freight trains and if they knew where I could catch one out of town. I heard grim stories of vicious freight yard bosses who delighted in finding freight riders to beat up. Tom and I decided to give freight-train riding a try anyway. We spent a whole day riding busses from one end of the city to the other, looking for the right freight yard opportunity, but our efforts were unsuccessful.
It was time for us to leave New Orleans. We resigned ourselves to hitching a ride out the next morning. It took us several hours standing on a busy run-down New Orleans city highway to get a ride out of the city. Finally we were able to get past the Mississippi River over the Huey P. Long bridge. We had decided to take the southern route, through the rural bayou country of Southern Louisiana. There was no interstate, only a 2-lane state road that meandered from town to town across to Texas. Appealing to my romantic nature, this route seemed a colorful way to go.
Our next ride was to take us west for 50 miles or so. This car had a Wallace for President sticker on the bumper. In 1968 it was generally acknowledged that Wallace's campaign platform was racial segregation and state's rights - the old southern party line. In the car with Tom and I were 3 or 4 southerners who clearly approved of Wallace's politics. Our ride went on for about an hour and eventually we stopped in a sleepy town called Raceland.
"How much money you boys got?", said the man in the front seat.
Tom and I looked at each other.
"Only about $2.00", I said.
"Well, we need a coupla' dollars for gas."
We gave up our money and got out of the car.
Now we were broke. It was late afternoon. We started walking through town, and spotted a young black man walking in our direction. We greeted him and then asked how he got along with the whites in this town. His response, delivered with a cheerful grin, sounded like a negro line out of an early 50's black and white movie.
"Yassuh! We gets along jes' fine!".
I was feeling a little scared.
Another block and we were on Main Street, a mere 2 or 3 blocks long. As we passed a local diner, we saw people inside talking, eating and intently staring at us. We kept walking the few blocks to the edge of town. From here a road cut to the left, stretching off into the late afternoon haze.
At the intersection was a policeman directing traffic. He signalled us to walk over to where he was standing and then stated that he had gotten a call from people at the town diner. They had complained that we were making fun of them. How could he have gotten a call from the diner when we had only passed it a few minutes before? I gulped. Tom and I insisted that we weren't making fun or intending to insult anyone. We were just passing through and wanted to leave town as quickly as possible. Tom told the policeman that we were being inducted into the army and were spending our last free month touring the country.
Seemingly appeased, the policeman directed us to stand outside the town limits, indicated by a sign 100 feet away from where we were standing. Obligingly we walked just outside the sign and put our suitcases down. We figured that the police had bought our story. However, within only a minute or so, flashing lights and sirens appeared on the horizon. Though alarmed, there was nothing for us to do but stand where we were and continue hitchhiking. Just maybe they weren't after us. But soon, two police cars pulled up beside us. The police got out and we were ordered to assume a spread eagle positions against one of the cars.
On our way to jail
Handcuffs were slapped on our wrists and we were frisked. Tom and I climbed into the back of one of the cars and slumped into the ribbed black-vinyl seat. We sat behind a wire cage that separated us from the front of the car. A big shotgun straddled the middle of the front windshield. Stunned with fear, tangled and fragmented thoughts of racism, lynchings and conspiratorial hate played across my brain.
Somewhere across timeless miles of Louisiana backroads, past sugar cane fields, swamps, and stillwater bayous, we suddenly stopped near a small rural house. The cops got out and talked awhile with some whites while we simmered in the back of the police car. As the cops got back in the car and we drove off I breathed deep, realizing that at least for the moment we were not to be beaten or lynched.
It was now dark as we drove into a town and pulled up in front of a two story building. White globe lights on poles lined the sidewalk leading up to the door. The evening air was thick and quiet. I felt relieved again. We had made it to the police station. This was at least a public place. We wouldn't be lynched in secret.
Tom and I walked into the building and stood before the police front desk. Our bags were taken from us. We were frisked once again, and then escorted upstairs to two large adjacent prison cells known as bullpens. The room I walked into housed all whites. Tom went into the room next door that was all black. We were not allowed to make phone calls.
Thibodaux jail - first impressions
The first thing I encountered walking into jail, was several inmates sitting at a small table playing cards. When I walked in and the prison door locked behind me, they casually looked up from their cards and looked me over. Most of these guys were sitting around in underpants and cowboy boots. Some had bulging muscled arms covered with many tatoos. Some wore cowboy hats over crewcuts or heads that were totally shaved. Most spoke cajun; a patois hybrid of French and English delivered with a thick southern drawl.
Nervously, I answered their questions. I was asked a little about myself and what I was in jail for. Despite the menacing undertones I was experiencing, conversation was non-threatening, at least for now.
It was evening time, after dinner. I found a bunk in a top corner bunk right below a heavy metal screen window that looked out front of the jail into the small town of Thibodaux. A half an hour or so after my arrival the lights on our floor went out for the night. I slept well enough through the night.
Jail - 1st day & night
When I awoke in the morning, I felt tense but basically OK. Gradually I became acquainted with my surroundings.
I was in a "bullpen", a room perhaps about 20 feet square. Along one side of the room were three individual cells, each with it's own set of bars and lockable doors. The cell doors were never locked the whole time I was there. On the wall opposite the cells were bunks bolted to the wall. The bunks were laid end to end along the wall and there were three tiers of them. A heavy flat grey steel table with benches on either side stood bolted to the floor in the center of the room.
The front of the bullpen was a wall of steel bars that ran from floor to ceiling. To the right was a steel bar door that had a small trap door in the middle through which food trays could be passed. At the other end of the room was an open metal shower stall with a flimsy plastic shower curtain. Next to this was a toilet and a sink bolted to the wall. Outside the bars, on the facing wall was a sign that said Thibodaux jail. Lafouche parish. Apparently the black bullpen on the other side of the wall of bunks was a mirror image of the white bullpen.
For my first day in jail, breakfast was hot, buttery biscuits, a small glass of orange juice, and syrupy, over-sweetened coffee. The biscuits actually tasted quite good. Lunch and dinner were beans and rice and more biscuits. The food was served on large metal trays.
One of my fellow prisoners was Jim, a young man from Georgia. Jim appeared to be in his early twenties and spoke with a heavy southern accent. He was sandy-haired, crewcut and of average height and build. Jim told me that he had hitchhiked across the south from California and was presently in jail on charges of car-theft. He spent hours telling me stories of his escapades on the road - stealing cars, high speed chases, petty theft. Jim explained the art of "shortchanging", a ruse he had often employed to finance his travels. He would smooth talk store cashiers while applying misdirection and sleight of hand and thereby get $10 for a $6 outlay.
I soon learned that several of my fellow inmates were in for more serious, violent crimes. Some had in fact had been in this same county cell for 2 or 3 years or more.
Wahoo was a tall, lean, dark-haired man with wide eyes and a sullen appearance. I learned that he was in on a charge of 2nd degree murder. One of the prisoners told me that Wahoo had slit someone's throat on a dark night back in the swamps.
Another of the long-term prisoners worked as a trustee outside the prison. Someone told me his job was on the warden's sugar cane plantation. Some days he washed the warden's Lincoln Continental.
The first full day in jail had passed without trouble. I went to bed resting a little easier than the night before. Maybe things would be OK. When the lights went out, I got into in my bunk. I mused over my predicament and began to drift towards sleep. Suddenly however, a match was lit. Torches made of newspaper were kindled and several prisoners came over to where I lay in my bunk.
"Hey you, boy, where you from?"
"New Jersey", I offered in reply.
"Hey John, come see. He's a jew from New Jersey."
"Boy, what you doin' down here travelling with a nigger?"
I felt a wrenching in my gut. I stammered a reply that I was just travelling through. What could I say?
I was ordered to get up. I sat up in my bunk and lowered myself to the floor. Someone told me, that as a newcomer, I would have to fight.
Suddenly Jim, the young guy from Georgia who had befriended me that day, announced that he wanted to fight me. The men wrapped our hands with sheets for makeshift boxing gloves. Then they formed a circle around us. Jim threw a punch at me. Then another. I began swinging back. This went on for a few minutes, then it was over. No one was hurt. I had gotten off quite easy. Later it occurred to me that my friend from Georgia had spontaneously volunteered to fight me in order to save me the pain of a more severe encounter.
Jail - another day and night
When I awoke the following morning I was subdued and somewhat more fearful than the day before. Perhaps the others would think up some new diversion at my expense, worse than the fight.
That day I watched Wahoo carefully inscribe a tatoo into another inmate's arm. Using a straight pin, he picked ink from the barrel of a ball point pen and then carefully poked the ink a spot at a time into pattern the man's arm. Wahoo asked me in a long, hollow voice if I wanted a tatoo. Not wanting to offend, I took care in what to reply. I let him know that although I appreciated his offer, I wasn't into getting one that day.
The day passed like a dream. I was fearful and somewhat dissociated. I kept to myself. I needed to take a shower and didn't relish the look of the single shower stall out in the open. However, I gathered my courage, stripped to my underpants and walked over to the stall. On the way, someone called out that I had "tits like a woman".
At nine o'clock the lights went out. Restless and afraid, I tossed and turned for hours, falling in and out of sleep and near-delirium. Other prisoners were awake. I heard them talking in low whispers. I continued to lie awake, anxious and afraid. After what seemed like hours, I was suddenly ordered to get out my bunk. I climbed in to a bunk on a lower tier. A man then climbed into the bunk I had been in. Half in a dream, I heard various voices:
"Are they there?".
"No, I don't see 'em"
"OK, let's go".
I imagined that these guys might actually be trying to escape. However, I dismissed these thoughts as being too far-fetched and finally fell asleep.
Morning - they're gone!
When I awoke the next morning, I discovered that my night reveries had become reality. Several of the more fearsome prisoners were no longer in the cell. Somehow the guards found out that the inmates had escaped. Within a short time, several angry and threatening men stormed into our bullpen. They questioned thoroughly those of us who remained as to what we knew about the escape. Over the next hour or so, they tore up beds, weeded through boxes of personal belongings, and combed nearly every inch of the bullpen, scouring the jail for evidence.
Altogether, six prisoners had escaped. Apparently they had been planning their escape for at least a month. Secretly, they had worked the bolts off of the grill cover of a ventilator shaft and cosmetically replaced them so they looked normal. Then they had climbed up the shaft, and sawed off some bars separating the ventilator shaft from the jail roof. On the night of their escape, they removed the false screws, crawled up the shaft and jumped off the roof to pre-arranged getaway cars.
Now that many of the toughest inmates had escaped, the atmosphere in the jail was more relaxed. Most of the violent and threatening prisoners were among the ones who had escaped. I was happy and relieved that they were gone. Only about 7 or 8 of prisoners remained.
There wasn't much to do in jail. I never left the bullpen. Space was limited and I felt confined. I kept mostly to myself. I laid on my bed and dreamed of release. I also spent much time sitting on the upper bunk and looking out the only window in the jail to a limited view of town. I saw the sidewalk leading to the street. A tree and a few low buildings across the street were visible. I couldn't see many people outside.
In a day or two it was Sunday, and a service was conducted by local church volunteers. An organ was set up below the Thibodaux sign, in front of the bars of the two bullpens. Parishioners and prisoners who cared to participate sang a few hymns. There was a short sermon. Ironically, there before our segregated cages, the minister affirmed that "Jesus doesn't care about the color of your skin".
After the service the local parishioners carried their bibles up to the bars of the cells and spoke individually with prisoners who wanted to talk. My friend Tom in the bullpen next door took this opportunity to speak with one of them. We had not been allowed to make phone calls. At this point there was no one in the outside world who had any inkling of where we were, or the fact that we were in jail. Later I learned that Tom asked this person if she would get in touch with his mother in Miami for him, to let her know of our dilemma.
As the days passed tensions again mounted. I was well aware of the horrors that could happen to prisoners in jail - rapes, beatings or worse. I knew that I was fortunate to have escaped injury thus far. I was still in prison however, and still vulnerable. Some of those who remained with me in jail seemed quite capable of violence. I was shown marks on the steel table, and what appeared to be dried bloodstains. It was explained to me that a month ago a prisoner had lost his ear at the hands of some of the inmates who had escaped.
Gazing out of the jail window at as much of the local town scene as I could see, occasionally I observed police activity. I watched guards leaving the building with dogs and shotguns and saw one of the escaped prisoners being brought back to jail. We followed the progress of the manhunt for the escaped prisoners over the radio and through jailhouse gossip. According to reports we heard on the radio a few days after the escape, the escapees were known to be in the vicinity of Lake Charles, across the state from where we were. We heard that one of the captured escapees had informed on the others.
One of the first prisoners to be brought back was a man who had broken his leg in jumping from the roof. Over time, other escapees were caught, one by one. Even though we knew they were being returned to our jail, all did not return to our bullpen. Some prisoners claimed that most of those captured were being kept in a special punishment cell downstairs known as "the hole". This cell was extremely small and low to the ground. A man could not stand in the hole.
A new prisoner came into our cell one day, an old grizzled hobo, reportedly from a small Mississippi town. He was floridly drunk when he arrived and wore several layers of old ratty clothes. Shortly after arrival, he stripped down to his union suit and began hand-washing his clothes in the sink, all the while ranting and cursing. He hung his clothes up to dry over a rope that he strung across the length of the cell.
We had beans and rice for lunch and dinner every day except on the weekend when we had fried chicken. Actually the beans were varied so that we had a different kind each day. One day it was pinto beans; the next day it was white beans; another day, red beans, etc. Breakfast was biscuits and coffee one day, and oatmeal or grits and coffee the next. Grape koolaide and coffee accompanied lunch and dinner.
Communication between the black bullpen and the white bullpen happened daily while the black trustee prisoners delivered our meals. News and information was traded while meals were slid through the metal slat on the bullpen door. Occasionally, a man from our side would go over to the corner of the pen by the dividing wall and talk to one of the black prisoners.
At times I heard a black music station playing from the other side. I remember hearing James Brown singing "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud". Some of the black prisoners would sing along. The Fifth Dimension sang "Surrey down to a stoned soul picnic. C'mon and surrey down..."
One day Tom and I were taken out of our cells and then escorted downstairs to another cell. This was the first time we had been out of our cells for the entire time we had been in jail. We had been in for over a week. A man ordered us to take off our street clothes and put on thin striped denim prison uniforms. We had been in our street clothes since the beginning of our incarceration.
Tom and I were then taken back upstairs. We never saw a judge nor were we informed at all of any charges against us. We had made no phone calls nor were we given the opportunity. An hour after returning upstairs we were taken downstairs again, this time to the front desk area. The police handed us a telegram from Tom's mother in Florida with an attached check for $75. The woman that Tom had spoken with after the Sunday church service had called his mother.
The police informed us that we had been held pending investigation of some crimes that had been committed. They said that we fit the description of two wanted criminals and they had needed time to check us out. They told us that now we were in the clear and free to go. Our belongings were given back to us and we were released. Stepping out of the police station door into the fresh air and freedom was exhilarating.
Tom and I walked right over to the bus depot and, using the money Tom's Mom had sent, immediately bought tickets for the next bus out to New Orleans. We had an hour or two before the bus was to leave and so we decided to have a few beers at the local bar. This bar, like many other local public places, was segregated. Tom and I went through the back door marked "colored" and sat at the bar. The beer tasted watered down. Soon it was time for our bus to arrive so walked across the street to the bus station. As we climbed aboard the bus and sat back in our seats we felt great; we were out of prison and on our way to New Orleans.
A day or two in New Orleans
A few hours by Greyhound bus and we were back to the relative safety of New Orleans. In celebration of our new freedom, we bought a couple of six packs of beer and caroused around Bourbon Street. Late that night we stayed at the hotel room of a friend we met on the street.
By the next day, our money was almost gone. Chastened by our jail encounter, and feeling rather weary, we decided to head back up north to Nashville.
It took us awhile to get out of the New Orleans area. Although we had started early, by the time our first substantial distance ride came it was already nightfall. Two cars filled with people pulled over for us. Room was made in one car for Tom and I to sit; most of our luggage went in the other car.
As we drove off, our car steadily accelerated until we found ourselves careening through the warm Louisiana night at high speeds. The road was bumpy and dark. I became afraid and disoriented. I was no longer sure what road we were on. We could have been on a dead-end dirt road for all I knew.
Speeding across a narrow bridge, we grazed the metal bridge girders causing scraping noises and showers of sparks. Our ride became increasingly wild. Somehow we persuaded our driver to stop and let us out. When the driver finally did pull over, the other car carrying most of our luggage was nowhere in sight.
Unwilling to argue the point of missing luggage with unruly strangers in unknown territory, Tom and I conceded the loss of our luggage and felt mostly thankful to be out of physical danger. The suitcase that I lost contained my clothes. All I was carrying now was my small suitcase of books. All of Tom's clothes were gone.
Finding ourselves on dark backroads somewhere between Louisiana and Mississippi, we proceeded to find our way back to the main highway. But even on the main highway, the cars travelling through were few and far between. Hour after hour passed in the southern darkness. Most of the time all we heard were the rhythms of insects. Tom and I grew quiet and morose. We felt uneasy and somewhat fearful. Eventually the sky began to pale with the morning light.
Finally a car stopped for us. It was a police car. We counted fourteen hours that we had stood waiting for a ride. The policeman told us to get in the car. Fortunately, this policeman turned out to be friendly towards us and gave us a ride to the other side of Biloxi, Mississippi.
Soon we were in Alabama and here we began heading north towards Tennessee. As we travelled through the neverending pines and red-clay dirt, I noticed a dramatic difference between neighborhoods. The white houses tended to be modern or traditional southern architecture, spaced well apart. Black housing tended to be shabby and close together. A few times, we encountered cars of young southern whites who drove by hollering rebel yells and tossing strings of firecrackers as we stood out on the highway.
North towards Tennessee
About halfway up through Alabama we got a ride in an old pickup truck with 3 or 4 blacks crowded into the front cab. Learning that we were hungry, they invited us over to their house for some food. We drove off the main highway, over some dirt roads to a small community of shacks. Chickens ran loose over a bare dirt yard. Factory machine noises creaked, grated and rumbled in the distance through eerie pine woods.
We entered a shack of the kind that I had observed from a distance years before as a child travelling with my family through the south on our way to Florida. The roof was corrugated tin, the walls were papered with newspaper and the floors were dirt. A large family lived here.
Our hosts were generous. They laid out a whole spread of Southern cooking including fatback, hog-maw, black-eyed peas and collard greens. I felt ashamed. As hungry as I was and as grateful as I was for the food, I just couldn't bring myself to eat the fatback. After dinner, our hosts loaded us up with homemade bread, jars of homemade fruit preserves, and other foods and drove us back to the main road.
Stopped by the cops in Nashville
Finally we made it back to Nashville. It was about four in the morning and quiet. No cars were in sight. Although quite tired, we began walking the few remaining miles to Tom's aunt and uncle's. We had travelled far and were almost home. Suddenly a police car appeared. Spotting us, he turned on his flashing red dome light and pulled up beside us.
The cop got out of the car, asked a few questions as to what we were doing and where we were going, and then began to search us. In my suitcase of books the officer found my little red "Writings of Chairman Mao" book and a magazine entitled "Youth against War and Fascism". Apparently my possession of these was enough to violate his interpretation of lawful conduct. We were ordered into the back of the police car.
After a short drive we arrived at the police station in downtown Nashville. Upon entering the building, we were ushered into a small room with a number of chairs facing a desk. A man sat down behind the desk, and the policeman who had picked us up entered the room. The copy gave the man behind the desk the books he had taken from me and the man behind the desk examined the for a few minutes. They whispered together.
Suddenly the man behind the desk cleared his throat, looked up at us somewhat aghast and exclaimed in a drawl,
"You mean that you boys been travellin' across the country spreading the word of communism?!?".
My mind ran confused with what to say.
Suddenly I heard Tom snap back with "We don't believe in that goddam book!". The man behind the desk replied swiftly and surely.
"You boys are in a court of law. Contempt of court, $10 fine"
"We didn't know we were in the fucking court!?!", protested Tom.
"Contempt of court, $10 fine, got anything else to say?"
Nothing much else we could say. The policeman led us out of the room and upstairs into prison cells for the night.
The next morning we went with other prisoners to appear before a judge in a large courtroom. We were formally arraigned, charged with vagrancy and contempt of court, and summarily convicted. Ours fines were $25 each for vagrancy along with $20 contempt of court charges.
As we had no money we were remanded to the county Work House were we could work off our fines at the rate of $2 a day.
To qualify for the Nashville work house chain gang, one had to have a prison sentence of greater than one year. In a way I was disappointed. I had always been curious about chain gangs. As I sat in the great prison dining room early in the morning, I could see the prisoners through a portal at the far end of the hall being fixed with chains on ankles and wrists.
I was assigned to a large cell lined with about 10 bunks. I wasn't as tense as I had been in Louisiana. These prisoners did not seem as threatening. The cell felt very open, as the walls were bars that went all the way around like a cage. In the evenings we got to go upstairs to a small recreation area that had a tv and a small library. Here we had the opportunity to purchase snacks and cigarettes.
As a prisoner with minimal sentence, I was part of a work crew. The first day I was assigned to work in the Tennessee countryside about 20 miles from Nashville. It was a beautiful October day. We moved a few logs and stones around as part of constructing a baseball field. For pay, I received two packs of camel cigarettes and earned $2.00 to be applied towards my fine.
Warrant car & subsequent week
On my second day at the workhouse I was assigned to the warrant car. Tom had been assigned to this job the day before so from talking with him I already knew something of what to expect. Five or six prisoners were packed into a car commandeered by the "warrant officer", a burly man in a suit with a heavily scarred face. Early in the morning we set out driving through poor Nashville neighborhoods. Eventually, we stopped in front of a run down house. The warrant officer got out and knocked on the door. When the residents answered, the officer handed them an eviction order. They all stood out on the porch awhile talking, and then the residents were ordered to leave. Next, the warrant officer went inside while we stood outside waiting for several minutes. One of the experienced men claimed that the warrant officer was casing the place. Eventually he came out and motioned us inside to begin our work.
We removed every piece of furniture from the house, refrigerator and stove included. While removing a drawer from a dresser, I found a box of bullets and a bottle of librium. On impulse, I secreted these inside my pack of Bugler tobacco that I carried in my jacket pocket. After returning to jail I easily got through the casual search at the gate. Later I sold the pills and bullets to an inmate.
At this jail, Tom and I were allowed to make phone calls, so we contacted our families. Within a few days Tom's aunt and uncle paid the remainder of his fine and he was released. A couple of days later money arrived from my dad in North New Jersey. I was able to pay my fine, and buy a ticket home to New Jersey.
When I got out of jail I stayed with Tom's aunt and uncle for a day or two. With the few extra dollars I now had I stopped at a discount clothes store and bought some cheap clothes -- striped pants, a denim shirt and a dungaree jacket. Tom rode with me to the Nashville Airport and we said our goodbyes. I got on a plane that took me home to my parent's house in New Jersey.