As soon as we settled into our apartment complex in Meridian, we found out that the black maid who cleaned the public areas of the buildings had been forbidden by the management to use the ladies room in the office and had been told to go out into the woods to do her business. The Navy wives who lived there had told her no way that was going to happen, she could come into any of our apartments whenever she wanted and use our bathrooms. Rob and I were immediately onboard with that and had the first indication about what we were going to face in Meridian.
While Rob immersed himself in ground school to prepare to learn how to fly jets, I was content to continue being the supportive, helpful wife my mother had always envisioned me becoming. But then one day, shortly after we had moved in, I had to face down the “Welcome Wagon” lady.
This bubbly, friendly, middle-aged southern lady breezed in through my door as soon as I opened it.
“Hi! Welcome to the neighborhood!” She carried a huge basket, full of “goodies” – cleaning supplies, coupons, packaged food and potholders, and held it up for me to see.
“I think you’re going to enjoy all the things I’ve brought you.”
I invited her to sit on the couch and she piled her treasures on my coffee table all the while keeping up a steady stream of one-way conversation in her Mississippi accent. I found her utterly charming and knew we would become the best of friends. Then she began to fill me in on everything a newcomer to Meridian needs to know, just as bright and chirpy as a friendly Blue Jay.
“Well, first I have to tell ya’ll a few things to get you acquainted with this town. I’m sure it won’t take you long to get the hang of everything and feel like you’ve lived here all your life.”
After hearing about the maid, I wasn’t convinced of that but she continued on.
“The closest church is the Community Methodist, just about a mile up the road. You don’t want to confuse it with the other church a few blocks up. That’s where all the nigras go.”
I wasn’t sure I had heard correctly.
“They’d die if a white person ever showed up there, except for those nosy civil rights workers buttin’ in our lives where they got no business being. And the noise those nigras make -- clappin’, stompin’ and carryin’ on like they’re wild animals or somethin’.”
I had never thought much about racism in my teens. I was the typical self-involved teenager and was aware that black kids were being bused into my high school from another part of town but nobody thought it was much of a big deal. I was friendly with all the kids from different countries and ethnic backgrounds that went to my school but my world was pretty much limited to singing, cheerleading, and Dave. Listening to this woman talk, I was, for the first time in my life, being slapped in the face with the reality of deep-seated bigotry and as much as I detested what she was saying, I was strangely fascinated by the complete lack of awareness that she, as a “God-fearin’” woman, accepted her hate-filled existence as being completely normal. I stared at her as she continued on.
“Now the shopping center is almost across the street from here as you probably saw. But the market closest to you is the one you’ll want to go to. The market on the other side is for the nigras. And be sure you notice which drinking fountains and restrooms are for white people. God forbid you use the ones the nigras use.”
I was almost spellbound by the filth spilling out of her mouth and her obliviousness to her own degenerate self. I had to ask.
“Why? What happens if I go there?”
She laughed nervously.
“Well that’s the craziest thing I ever heard! Nigras can work for us and cut our grass and all that but the rest of the time they go their way and we go ours. It’s worked out fine for a hundred years.”
She looked at me suspiciously.
“Why would you ask a question like that?”
“Oh, it just sounds a little strange to me.”
“What do you mean strange?”
“Uh-huh,” she said as her mouth puckered up and her eyes became slits.
“Where you from anyway?”
“Seattle.” She had to think about that.
“Seattle? Isn’t that way up in the corner of the country somewhere near Canada? Are you Canadian? I didn’t think you could be in the Navy if you’re not a real American.”
I couldn’t take anymore. I stood up and walked to the door.
“I’m sorry but it’s time for you to leave. I have some important things I need to do right away like… organize my husband’s underwear.”
She was aghast.
“Well, you’re just about the rudest Navy wife I ever met.” She began piling her goodies back in the basket.
“You sure are ungrateful. And I was showing you all kinds of hospitality. Try to be nice to a Yankee.”
“Actually, I’m Norwegian.”
She gasped. “I don’t know what that is but there’s no need to forget your manners!”
As she hustled herself out the door, I couldn’t resist one last shot.
“Where was that church again? The one I’m not supposed to go to? I’m feeling in need of some loud singing, stomping and praising the Lord!”
I smiled at her as I firmly shut the door on her horrified expression.
I dutifully reported her visit to Rob and he laughed nervously and warned me, no matter how sorely tempted, do not do or say anything that would reflect badly on him and the Navy. Like the good Navy wife I was, I assured him I would never even think of doing anything like that.
Our one and only car was in need of repair so I took it to a garage to be fixed. A black man who worked there gave me a ride home in his car. I started to get in the passenger seat and he panicked.
“No, no, ma’am! Get in the back, please!”
“Why?” I asked.
“People would see and they wouldn’t like it. Please.”
I reluctantly got in the back seat and asked him why he would want to live in a place that gave him so little freedom and forced him to live like a second-class citizen. He explained to me that he had visited family in Chicago once but hated the cold weather and missed his friends so came back to Mississippi. It was home.
I described to him how when I walked down the street and a black man was on the sidewalk heading in my direction he would cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I said I had half a mind when that happened again to cross the street and force him to walk by me. My driver just about swerved off the road.
“I don’t know why not!”
“You want to get somebody killed? Is that it?”
“Of course not.”
“Then don’t be doin’ somethin’ that God-almighty, bone-headed stupid ma’am!”
He calmed down.
I was an idiot, of course. I knew how dangerous it was for black men to have anything to do with white women. But in my northern white girl naiveté I wanted them to stick up for themselves! This mechanic could drive me home but only if I sat in the back. Any hint of impropriety and his life would be in danger. I felt as if I were living in the dark ages. Local television commercials told me “moonshine kills” so stay away from it, candidates running for public office didn’t bother using correct grammar and had teeth missing, schools were supposed to be integrated but still were almost completely separate and civil rights workers disappeared and showed up dead a year later. Louisiana was no haven for black people but maybe Neeva was right, Mississippi was worse.
In Meridian, I started having nightmares whenever Rob was on cross-countries and one of my neighbors loaned me their Irish Setter to stay with me during nights when he was gone. But soon I found myself a German Shepherd puppy at the local veterinarian’s office. All his brothers and sisters had died of some sort of disease shortly after being born. But this little guy seemed to be doing fine. His name was Hans and he became my best friend. He followed at my heels everywhere and cuddled with me on my pillow at night. He was sweet and loving and I knew he would give me a sense of permanence as we moved from place to place. Hans was there for me as I spent nights alone with Rob off on his cross-countries. One day, Hans seemed to be listless and tired. Terrified that he might be sick with the same disease as his siblings, I carried him in my arms to the veterinarian’s office because Rob had the car that day. The vet was not encouraging. He gave me some pills to give to Hans and warned me straight out that Hans could die. All the way home I held little Hans close to me and prayed that he would be okay. But it wasn’t to be. I saw that he was suffering terribly and I had to take him back to the vet to be put to sleep. I was devastated. I always seemed to lose what was most precious to me.
I read in the newspaper about auditions for The King and I, which would be performed at the Meridian Theater, and I decided to try out. I would never have presumed I was good enough to play “Anna,” but I imagined I sang well enough to be in the chorus -- the director thought so too, and I was cast. Friends and family were invited to the dress rehearsal, and before the show I kept peeking out through the curtain to see if Rob was there. But he never showed up. Afterwards I found him at home playing cards with his friends. He thought he was being hilariously funny as he ridiculed my soprano singing voice by pretending to be Jeanette McDonald, an actress from old MGM musicals, and sang in a high falsetto, “When I’m calling youuu-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooo. Will you answer tooo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooo?” His friends all thought Rob was a riot and laughed uproariously, while I felt so humiliated, I wanted to slap him. I wished I could run away and follow my own dreams in California and let him cry on somebody else’s shoulder every time he got down and discouraged and thought he would fail. That would show him! Miss Ideal Housewife had a lot of growing up to do.
For Rob, jet training was a lot more stressful than learning how to fly the little T-3s in Pensacola. Flight students would have to fly with an instructor who taught them the various maneuvers and if the student didn’t do them correctly they would receive a “down,” which meant they flunked the lesson. If they received too many “downs” they would wash out of the program and end up…actually I don’t know. I never asked Rob what would happen to us. Since he had never failed at anything, I just assumed he would make it through. Whenever Rob had to go up with a bad instructor (called “screamers”) and received more than one “down,” he would come home very despondent, near tears, sure he was about to wash out. With complete faith in him, I would sit him down and put my arms around him and reassure him that would never happen.
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