James and I were still kids, I think probably 17 and 18, when this happened. We were both green kids – though one of us was black and one of us was white.
We were living in Paducah, Kentucky, attending good old Paducah Tilghman High School. James and I had been drafted to return my big brother Mike to school at Southeast Missouri State University. I expect we saw it as an adventure, and as it turned out we were right, but not in the way we expected.
The trip to Cape Girardeau was uneventful, as I recall. We got Mike back to SEMO and headed home to Paducah.
This is not about Cairo, Illinois, but I believe I gotta add some context here. The year was 1974 or 1975. There were still burned-out spots in Cairo from riots several years before. I hesitate to call them ‘race riots’, though some have, because I wasn’t there, and if I had been I was rather oblivious and sheltered as a child.
The route home from SEMO passed through Cairo, however, and just outside town the blue lights flashed in the mirror. It was Mike’s car, so I was driving.
I dutifully pulled over to the side, and a few moments later an officer approached the window. I have no idea and no recollection of whether the officer was a city cop, county deputy or what. He leaned down and shown his flashlight on James in the passenger seat, then asked for my license.
Now in those days the Commonwealth of Kentucky was still issuing paper licenses without pictures. Yes, kiddies, they really did that. The officer looked at my license and said ‘What’s this?”
That was not a confidence builder.
Well, I was speeding. I guess I expected a ticket, which would no doubt be followed by an appropriate ass-chewing at home. What I did not expect was handcuffs.
But there they were, and for the first time in my young life I got a look at the back seat of a patrol car. James escaped the cuffs, but certainly not the notice of the officer. We both made the trip to the Cairo jailhouse.
Once there we were escorted inside. I was stripped of my belt and shoelaces, forever giving me a heightened level of appreciation for the line in Alice’s Restaurant where Arlo Guthrie asks Officer Obie ‘Did you think I was gonna hang myself for littering?’
It turns out I was to be held in custody until someone paid my speeding fine. I have no recollection of how much the fine was.
What I do remember is my mom and dad were out of town. Hence James and I being trusted to take Mike back to college. So James called his mom.
A word or two about James’ mom. I haven’t seen my black Momma in many years. This is the way I remember her, as well as details pieced together in later years.
Gloria Greer (later Gloria Freeman, as she re-married a man I never met who has since gone to his reward) was a force of nature. I remember her as almost 6 feet tall with red hair, hard-working and fierce. She was lovely and terrifying. She loved me as her own, as my own sainted late mother did James.
Well, James’ mom climbed in her car and headed off to Cairo. I said I don’t know how much my fine was, but I do know that Momma Greer was scraping by. There were five kids to be cared for on a nurse’s salary. How difficult it was for her to put together the money to get me out of jail I will never know. She would certainly never have told me.
But my black Momma showed up a while later at the Cairo jail. What happened between her and the unfortunate jailers who greeted her, again, I do not know. James had sat in the lobby awaiting her arrival, and witnessed the scene. I have heard him describe it, and have been told it was more than a little scary.
When they let me out I can only say that my black Momma seemed to have grown to just under 9 feet in height and just under 1,000 pounds. I remember being ushered into the lobby by a jailer who refused to make eye contact with Momma Greer or even glance in her direction, and who timidly and furtively moved to do whatever she wanted done just as quickly as he could do it. He clearly wanted us – OK her – out of there.
The trip home is shrouded in the mist of thousands of dead brain cells I have mercilessly slaughtered in the more than 40 years since. I do have clear memories of James and I talking about the events later.
His belief was that I had been pulled over and arrested for ‘driving a n-word through town’ which I guess in those days in our part of the south was not such an uncommon charge. James and I were both unusually large for our ages, so perhaps the officers can be excused if they thought we seemed dangerous.
I use ‘n-word’ here though in those days James and I often referred to one another is more colorful – and in today’s world socially unacceptable – terms. I remember us calling each other hugely inappropriate things in loud voices, much to the chagrin of some who overheard.
What I remember most about these events is Momma Greer. When I say she was a force of nature, she was. When I say she loved the oblivious suburban white kid like he was one of her own, she did.
And when I thank her for everything on her 85th birthday this is only part of what I mean. She helped make me the man I am. I was blessed to be surrounded by good people growing up. Few burn brighter in my memory than my black Momma.
Happy birthday Momma. Thanks for everything. I love you.