Saturday, September 22, 2007

Jena 6

“Things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all.”

So goes the theme of a Don Henley song that I can’t for the life of me remember the name of right now. But it’s true, ain’t it?

All the drama going on in Jena, Louisiana brings back some memories of my younger years in Batesville (what doesn’t?) back in the late ‘60’s & early ‘70’s. For one, there’s that tree at the school.

We had us a tree, out in front of the office at the old BJHS – which, I understand, is now some kind of kindergarten or something – down on Water Street. It was a big wide Oak, as I recall. Wide enough to stand behind and not be spotted by Mr. Caraway as we smoked those Viceroy cigarettes stolen from our dads’ dressers the night before. There were, maybe, a dozen of us who hung out there every day during the lunch break. A dozen – out of all those kids who attended that school. I honestly don’t recall if any of the “regulars” were black kids or not, but I know nobody would have had any problems with any blacks being there.

I do recall one event when one of the white guys got into a fight with a black guy behind that tree. It wasn’t because the black guy had “invaded” our space. It was because they had gotten into it over something earlier in the day and, as mentioned, the big tree was the best shield from the eyes of the school officials, and therefore the best place to resolve their disagreement. It was resolved – one on one. No guns. No knives. No cops or lawyers or political groups seeking to promote their own agendas. Just a couple of kids who had to work things out.

A couple of years later, when I was a Jr. in the “new” high school, up on the hill, I was (as usual) returning late from lunch. When I pulled into the parking lot, expecting to find that everybody else had already gone back inside, there were about ten (white) guys sitting on their cars and standing around. The “tardy” bell sounded as I opened my door. I jumped out in a hurry, thinking maybe I’d beat Mrs. Newton to class, I noticed all these guys looked and behaved uncharacteristically serious.

“Hey! Come on! The bell rang!” I said, as I took off toward the building.

Nobody moved, so, late or not, I had to go back and find out what was happening. I kept asking what was going on, but everybody just ignored me, keeping their eyes fixed on the gate up there that blocked off the then-open hallways.

As it turned out, one of the guys in the parking lot had been in an altercation with another guy – who had been hitting on his girlfriend. The guy in the parking lot, as I said, was white. The guy hitting on his girlfriend happened to be black. I say “happened to be” because I don’t think it made any difference to the dude what color the other guy was – at first, anyway. But, before lunch was over, it had apparently turned into some kind of race war.

Fearing Mrs. Newton more than I loved excitement, I got off the fender of my Mustang and proceeded toward the building. But I stopped cold when I looked up at a sea of black students – male & female – coming out the gates. I didn’t want them to think I was charging them by running up to the building, so I went back and sat on my car. Braveheart, I wasn’t.

There were, it seemed, three times as many black kids walking our direction than there were white kids in the parking lot. Skinny little cat that I was, I was certain that it wouldn’t take my pro-rata share of them to whoop me, but I had literally no place to go.

As they approached there were some words between one or two of the guys on each side of the impending battle. It was obvious that the situation wasn’t going to improve by virtue of the dialogue. They’d stop and yell for a while, then walk toward us again. When they got about 30 yards away, one guy opened the door of his pickup and pulled a hunting rifle out from under his seat, and laid it, pointed at them, across the hood.


Of course, they stopped walking our direction. And I quickly pondered the option of going back to Tommy’s Kingburger and playing the pinball machines, since I was already late for Geometry (or Algebra, or one of those number things). But before I could come to a decision, Mr. Cross and Coach Johnson, and Mr. Hicks (I think), and some of those other male teachers and coaches came running through that sea of black kids carrying riot clubs, looking like they meant business. The black kids split up and returned to the building. The guy with the gun stuck it back under his seat. And suddenly, WWIII was over – without a shot ever being fired.

It’s interesting to think that a guy was considering actually shooting somebody, but didn’t want to get in trouble with the principal.

After that day, although it could have happened, I don’t remember any further “racial” issues at BHS. We didn’t get any TV coverage. There was no internet to stir the pot. In fact, I may be the only person that has any recollection of the event.

I don’t know what it means. But it seems pertinent.

© 2007 Rick Baber