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Soda Springs: Chapter 3

Sunday morning, the bedroom door banged open. Charlie shattered Rick's sleep. "Mom says we're taking her to church. Get your butt in gear."

Rick hadn't been to church since he left Soda Springs. In Ithaca, no one demanded Sunday morning religion. Moreover, in rambling all-night bull sessions, he and Charlie concluded God didn't exist, not with the evils that plague the world. Schopenhauer's man-as-evil pessimism depicted the world more accurately than St. Augustine's misplaced faith in mankind's ability to reason. "I'm game. Whatever your mom wants. Your dad coming?"

"Nope. All Mom would say was, 'He came in late, left early. More police nonsense.'"

Men seemed to spring to attention when Rick and Charlie escorted Priscilla into church, stunning as royalty in a robin's-egg blue suit, ruffled blouse, wide-brimmed spring hat.

Rick settled into the carved pew in Birmingham's cathedral-like First United Methodist Church. Two-story stained glass tinted the sanctuary with a sunlit panoply of Christ's miracles. This sanctuary alone could swallow up Soda Springs Methodist, basement included.

Beside him, Priscilla sat erect, hands folded -- delicate hands worthy of a Dürer portrait. In his brown corduroy suit Rick felt like a country bumpkin. He should have sprung for a haircut and trimmed his moustache and bushy sideburns.

The two-story organ rumbled. They rose, and Priscilla grabbed at the pew in front.

Rick whispered, "You okay?"

"Stood up too fast." She took his arm, pressed against him. Her scent rekindled Friday night's rapture. He tried to focus on the service: scriptures, hymns, collection plate, a sermon that Christ's painful journey on Palm Sunday presaged man's path to redemption. More polished than Soda Springs, and with none of Bob Hardwick's bromides. Despite Rick's best efforts, this stunning women squeezed in next to him dominated his thoughts.

Afterwards, at Priscilla's side in the stone-paved courtyard, Rick shook hands with her friends -- parents with kids in college, a few white-hairs, fellow teachers.

"I didn't see Phil," one said. "He on duty?"

"Always. This nigger business has gotten out of hand."

Rick winced. Priscilla sounded as blasé as if she had commented on the weather. Nigger business? God, this to a bevy of charm-oozing blue bloods dressed to the nines. And in the shadow of this sanctimonious cathedral.

Charlie took her elbow. "We better get moving, Mom. Rick and I are starving. Nice to see y'all." He nudged Priscilla away. Midway across the street, they jolted to a halt. Rick followed. Two blocks away, a convoy of police cars, lights flashing, formed a barricade. Two lines of Negroes in preachers' robes marched up the street. Armed policemen were filing into place between the marchers and the squad cars. Hundreds of Negroes milled about in the park.

Rick started toward the demonstration. Charlie hooked his arm. "Don't be stupid."

He and Charlie had hoped for this. They would tell a unique story that only Charlie-as-hometown boy and Rick-as-outside observer could write. Now, Negroes marching. This was why he badgered Charlie to come to Birmingham. "It's headlines." Rick tore free. Halfway down, he glanced back. Priscilla had both hands on her hips. Charlie stood there like a dunce.

Down the street, the preachers advanced on the waiting police like a funeral choir, chanting a hymn Rick had never heard, blended men's voices, strong but muted, as if undertone to a silent prayer.

Rick skirted the police line and made his way to the curb. The crowd seemed playful, like July Fourth parade-goers. The hymn faded as the thirty marchers neared the barricade, their only sound now the cadence of shoes on pavement. Rick searched for Martin Luther King or Ralph Abernathy. He saw neither, nor anyone he had seen on TV. A muffled voice squawked from a police radio. Ten yards away, policemen hardened into an impenetrable wall. Some fiddled with night sticks, but their faces betrayed no emotion. Rick had never gone head-to-head with a cop, let alone a battalion. He stepped back, bumped into someone, felt a hand steady his shoulder.

"Stand firm," a man's voice said. "First time's always heart-poundin'. You be okay."

Rick looked around. All Negroes. No, a pair of white men across the street -- one carried a mike, another a camera. The cops: all white. They loomed menacing as an occupying army.

As if on cue, the Negro marchers knelt, lowered their heads. The front cop poked the lead marcher with his night stick. "Stand up, boy." Clusters of Negroes tightened into a throng. Some edged into the street. The marcher rose, serene, and the policeman pushed him toward a nearby paddy wagon.

"Don't let him take you, Reverend. We got rights," a woman called.

The marcher held up both hands and strolled in step with the cop. No fight, no back talk. Rick couldn't imagine being led away to jail. Or kneeling in front of a gang of cops. In Anniston, white thugs beat the Freedom Riders to a pulp, left them drenched in blood.

"Bust his white ass, Reverend," a Negro on the curb shouted.

A stubby cop burst from the line, wrestled the shouter toward a police car. The man fell. Someone lunged to help, and the cop rammed his club into the man's gut. He doubled over. The cop smashed his nose. Blood spurted. The mob surged. Cops charged, clubs swinging. The initial rush swept Rick into the park. He crashed into a portly Negro woman. They both fell. He reached out to help her. A Negro man swatted him away, helped the woman stumble off. Police whistles shrieked. Girls screamed. Pain shot down Rick's leg. Someone had knocked him flat. A cop kicked him, but Rick rolled away. The cop screeched, "Goddamn scruff-ball. Crawl the hell back under your rock. You read me?"

A kid raced by, stopped, plopped his hands on his knees, gasped for breath. A cop galloped past, half-running, half being dragged by a German shepherd. "Sic him." The dog tore into the boy's leg. The kid fell screaming, blood oozing from a ragged tear. He dug into his pocket, yanked out a penknife. The dog sunk his teeth into the boy's hand.

"Get up you little sack of shit." The cop jerked the kid up by his belt and hustled him off.

Cops were everywhere, forcing people back like cattle, punching some, carting others off like stray dogs. Then, as if on cue, the police cleared out. Around him, Negroes huddled in little cadres, like witnesses who couldn't tear themselves away from the ashes of a neighbor's burned-out house. Some wandered about as if in shock. He noticed a weathered plaque, Kelly Ingram Park, and made a few quick notes on his church bulletin. Some park: scraggly tufts of grass, no playground or ball diamond. He scribbled a description of a patent leather shoe abandoned in the dirt -- a left shoe, spit-shined but scuffed. He picked up a colorful new sweater, soft as cashmere, one sleeve ripped nearly off.

"Got you picking up trash, eh? So you do have a skill." Charlie's voice, behind him.

"Jesus, I was in a riot. Where were you and your damn Nikon?"

"Took Mom home but had to drive your car back. She said, 'You're not gonna use my car to pick him up. If he's so hot for niggers, he can move into the Gaston Motel.' Direct quote. You better pray she doesn't toss all your shit into the street."

Read on: Jump to Chapter 4

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