Our daughter recently graduated from the College of Charleston. She intended to rent a U-Haul and drive her belongings back to Albuquerque on her own. I offered to drive with her, but she believed that traveling during the coronavirus quarantine would jeopardize my health. I explained that I would minimize my contacts. I had enjoyed moving her sisters, and looked forward to a memorable experience with her. She agreed.
The night before I left for Charleston, the riots began in Minneapolis. Because I remember the riots of the long hot summer of 1968, I decided to waste no time. It is a 1,700-mile drive from Albuquerque to Charleston, but I drove hard and made it in two days.
Friday and Saturday, my daughter and I finished packing. Saturday evening, we walked down to a nearby restaurant for red snapper and fried oysters, then walked to the truck and trailer. On our way to the grocery store, police cars with lights blazing and siren blaring passed us to set up roadblocks to the north and west. We formulated a plan to get back to her apartment: head way north, then west, then back south.
The rioters must have been given our game plan, because they opened the path forward before closing the door behind us. Things went south very quickly. We were the second car at the intersection as rioters entered the intersection to our left. The cars in front of us and across the intersection were either paralyzed with fear or chose to live life vicariously. Either way, not good for us. The rioters momentarily focused their attention on the coins in a street musician’s instrument case. He put up a fight until the mob swarmed him. They didn’t stop hitting him until he stopped moving. Then the mob started in our direction. We discreetly checked our car door locks. I told my daughter, “We are okay,” then gave the advancing rioters the look. The look says, “Move on.”
The front of the mob moved on. There was a break in the mob in front of us. Cross traffic had stopped, so I swung around the car in front of us. By the time we were into the intersection, a car on the opposite side made the same maneuver. We were gridlocked, and the mob kept coming. I had no choice but to drive forward, and try not to sideswipe the car in front of us. Our left side was inches from the oncoming car, and our right wheels were on the sidewalk, where people moved out of our way. As soon as we had space in front us, my foot hit floor and the truck lurched forward.
We made it down to the apartment and parked the truck and trailer. We walked to her apartment, closed the gate behind us, and walked upstairs. The mood was tense. As we went to sleep, we could hear remnants of the mob, police sirens blaring, and a police helicopter circling.
We were up at 5:00am to move the truck and trailer closer to the apartment and to finish packing. As we packed, store owners cleaned up debris and boarded up their storefronts to replace broken windows or to protect their windows from more rioting that afternoon. Rumors flew. The rioters would be coming back at noon to get the stores they missed.
The two guys I hired to help move showed just after 10:00am. I told them we had two hours, max, to load the truck. The guys carried down furniture and boxes, and I organized it all in a tight pack inside the trailer.
All morning, the sidewalk was crowded with people sweeping and cleaning. A woman said to me, “See? Not one black person here is cleaning up.”
She was right, but the reason was not clear. Half an hour later, a black man walked up to me and volunteered to help.
“No thanks,” I said.
He continued down the street, offering to help the white people who were cleaning up. Every one of them rebuffed him, just as I had.
I realized I had missed an opportunity to build a bridge. I called out, “Sir, I could use a hand.”
He started to carry boxes down to the trailer. But moments later, my daughter came downstairs, thanked him, and told him we no longer needed his help. He walked on down the street. This time, it was my daughter who gave me the look.
By noon, we were packed and ready to head out. On the street, my daughter took her last few photographs of Charleston. Down the street, rioters with clenched fists in the air took selfies in front of boarded up stores. It reminded me of hunters having their photographs taken as they held up the head of a dead elk. The rioters got their trophy photos and started moving our way. Time for us to go.
As we pulled away from the curb, I called Marion to let her know we were on our way. She asked if we could get a picture together. By this time, we had moved two blocks west of King Street, away the growing mob. All was quiet. It seemed like a reasonable request to me. But as I started to pull over, my daughter yelled, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
“I don’t like being yelled at,” I said.
“Then you should wear your hearing aid.”
“I received more help from strangers packing that truck than from you,” I said. I wasn’t calling her lazy; I was referring to her reaction to my asking the black man for help.
“You asked black man you did not know to help carry down my boxes. He could have been casing my apartment. He could have walked off with my boxes.“
“He was trying to help me and everyone on the street,” I said. “I was working like a dog in that hot-as-hell trailer, to make everything fit and secure. I kept banging my head on the top of the trailer.”
We laughed. “I did thank you,” she said.
“All I wanted was to take a photograph for your Mom, and you go nuts. You were the one saying we need to go now, because the mob was coming back around.”
We laughed and hugged.
Back on the road. Our strategy was to avoid traveling through major cities in the late afternoons or evenings. As we drove through Atlanta, the electronic highway boards announced curfew hours. As we drove through Birmingham, we heard on the radio about the riots there the night before.
On day two, we passed through Memphis late morning (more riots), and arrived in Little Rock mid-afternoon (more riots). We stopped for the night just east of Oklahoma City (more riots), and the next day drove the rest of the way to Albuquerque (more riots).
I’d told my daughter that I wanted our trip to be memorable. I had no idea what would make it so. Our journey through our troubled country brought us closer together.