The memory that haunts me

This column by Gillis Morgan was first printed several years ago in The Auburn Villager and won first place for commentary that year in the Alabama Press Association Better Newspaper Contest. I am reprinting the column in honor of Gillis’ receiving a 2016 Auburn Journalism Honors award this month.


By Gillis Morgan

Sometimes I can think of more reasons not to write about a heavy thought or a dark memory, and I have found that not to write about something is simply a way of running away from it.

But it always catches up with you.morgan

So right now I have decided to write about the darkness of a memory I have been running away from for 58 years.


The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes.


It was in June of 1952, about a week or so after my high school graduation from Evergreen High in south Alabama.

My plan was to join the Navy, get the GI Bill and then attend college to study journalism. My father was lobbying for chemical engineering, but we would have more time to think about that after four years in the Navy.

“You’ve got about two weeks before you join the Navy, so you have time to get a job,” Dad said. “Try the bus station. They’re always looking for somebody to pump gas.”

Dad was always saying that “a man without a job is not a man,” so I got the 8-to-midnight shift at the Greyhound bus station pumping gas. A character named Slim was the night manager. He was over six feet tall, lean and wiry, and had tattoos, which back then left a man’s character open for question.

I had been there a week, when about 11 p.m. on a Friday night the bus from Montgomery roared in, air brakes pumping and loaded with passengers. Evergreen served as the rest stop between Montgomery, 94 miles on north on U.S. Highway 31, and Mobile 113 miles south.

As the passengers were unloading to make their way to the station café, I was walking away from the pumps. Slim was standing outside the café door, and I was walking toward him when a young black man got off the bus, stretching and yawning his way to the café door.

I saw Slim reach into his pocket to grip a leather scabbard that held his ticket puncher.

At the black man approached the door, Slim snatched out the scabbard in his right hand and then slapped the young man on the left side of his mouth, and I could hear Slim saying something but I could not make out the words because of the roar of the bus motor.

The man fell to his knees, about three or four yards from me. For a second or two he stared at me, and I could see the fear and terror in his eyes. As he tried to stand, Slim charged again and slapped at him with the scabbard as the man backed up and began to stumble his way back to the open bus door. He got on the bus. The bus driver and the passengers were still inside the café.

Slim opened the café door and went inside. There was no one else out front.

I looked at the bus, and I turned away. I didn’t check out from my shift. I just started walking home, all the while thinking: “I didn’t do a damn thing.”

All these years, and I still feel guilty.

§

I never told anyone about what happened that night at the bus station—not my folks, not anyone.

After I joined the Navy, went to college, majored in journalism and started working, I never told anyone. Even when I was covering the Selma-to-Montgomery march I never told anyone.

It was only after I came to Auburn in 1977 that I told someone.

This past week was the first time I have ever written about it, and I rewrote it at least three times.

I never saw Slim again. Nor in all my visits to my hometown did anyone mention that night. I don’t know if anyone else knew about it.

And I figured the young man who got attacked then got back on the bus just went on to Mobile or Pensacola. It was 1952, and I don’t think he would have gotten much attention with his story.

Was I scared of what I had seen? Of Slim? I think I was scared, but I didn’t run home that night. I walked.

And after thinking about it while writing about it I think what I felt was mostly shock. And I have always felt guilt and pain. A whole bunch of guilt and pain.

After I decided to send this in to Jacque, my editor, I sent a copy to a friend who grew up in Evergreen but now lives in Huntsville. I asked him if I could include his letter and use his name—James Daniels.

It is a beautiful letter, and it made me feel better. Here is the letter.

§

Gilly: Thanks for that painful, heart-rending story. I know that, like all of us in our younger years in older times, you suffered from shame at your own inaction. But also, as we all did, there was the inertia of the soul that kept us from reacting in accordance with our conscience in black-white relations.

It was just the way we all were, like our parents, like our neighbors, like our friends, like the whole white South…and yes, like the blacks themselves, just bogged in our cultural swamp. As youths in that overwhelming noxious atmosphere of white adult prejudice, we felt the absolute helplessness of any overt response that would be counter to the norm.

I, too, saw acts similar to the Slim incident on a number of occasions, even among my own king. And, of course, I was hypersensitive to the constant lesser incidents, where I did not speak up or express my own evolving sentiments. I don’t excuse myself, Gilly, for not acting, for not standing up for my own conscience.

And, today, I don’t dwell on regrets and self-flagellation for my guilt. Yet, like you, I still can’t erase from memory such childhood failures to protest prejudice. But I find some solace in the fact that I did at times at least raise objection to my parents and some few adults.

And I know that in my adult years I have stood up for my convictions on a number of occasions. Of course, the climate of change and the protection of law had become prevalent by the time I started openly holding my stand.

Gilly, we need never regret nor dwell in self-condemnation for the timidities of our youth. Be proud, good friend, that in the soggy, foggy environment of our birth and childhood that we saw the light of right, anyway, and threaded our way through childhood thickets and found the dry hummocks through swamps of our youth toward the brightness. And that, today, though shadows still fall all around us, we live in the light.

And don’t forget that “the child is father of the man.” And you are today a product of all that you experienced as a child and a youth—the good, the bad, the indifferent. And, be grateful to the Creator for the cards he dealt you. You have played them well, my friend.

Now, my children, my sermon next week will be on sin and all the pitfalls therein!

The Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council presented the annual awards during a luncheon at the AU Hotel and Conference Center on Sept. 9. Also receiving awards were Rick Bragg, David Housel, Philip Marshall and Ken Hare.
Artwork by Natalya Kochak

 

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You can go to war, meet your ancestors and even play Indian at the local library

By Jacque White Kochak

(This article first appeared in the Auburn Villager)

I’m a nerd, and proud of it. God bless Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish industrialist and philanthropist whose largesse built more than 2,500 libraries in the U.S., Great Britain and Ireland.

Thanks to Mr. Carnegie, I was able to spend long, hot summer afternoons in the cool, domed Dodge City Public Library, located on the western Kansas plains. My child’s body rarely traveled past the stockyard and feedlot at the edge of town, but my mind was free to explore foreign countries, spend a season with a Bedouin or see the world through the eyes of a French madame. My goal was to read every book in that little library.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica.

And God bless former Auburn University President Ralph Brown Draughon, the moving force behind construction of the Auburn University libraries that bear his name. The libraries—there are several—boast combined collections of more than 2.7 million volumes as well as 2.6 government documents, 2.5 million microforms and some 148,000 maps. The libraries also receive more than 35,000 current periodicals, many available online. And the libraries provide access to more than 227 electronic databases.

I have always said that if I suffered a mid-life crisis, I would disappear into the bowels of a library to study ninth century marriage customs or some such esoterica. And this is the place to do it.

I tend to become enamored of a subject and research it thoroughly. Where else can you find the Colonial Records of South Carolina volumes relating to Indian affairs? I have perused the pages of a master’s thesis about the history of the old Drake Infirmary and wrestled with microfilm to read issues of the Opelika Daily News from the early 1900s. You’d be surprised what constituted news in those days.

I’ve even fended off the advances of a 30-something graduate student. I was carrying a volume about South Carolina’s old 96 District, and I guess the fellow—a history student with a passion for the Revolutionary War—thought he’d found a soul mate.

If genealogy is your thing, check out the archives in the basement. The staff was quite helpful when I begged them to find mention of my great-uncle, an early barnstorming pilot, in their collection of aviation memorabilia (unfortunately they weren’t successful).

The building is imposing, parking is difficult and townspeople may feel they’re not welcome. That’s not true. All bibliophiles are the same, if you ask me. Rich or poor, young or old, they’re all seekers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someplace to go. James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees is calling my name.

 

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

This article was first published way back in 2007. I updated it slightly, but it is every bit as relevant today as it was then.


By Jacqueline Kochak

(This article first appeared in The Auburn Villager)

Several years ago, a nonprofit pro-life group from Wichita, Kan., set up professionally designed 18-foot-tall displays covering some 5,000 square feet on Auburn University’s Cater Lawn. Graphic photos of aborted fetuses stopped students in their tracks, sparking some protest.

“I believe everybody has the right to inform people, but I don’t think this is informative,” said Shannon Symuleski, a senior majoring in social work. “When you couple facts with pictures of bloody flesh, you’re not going to get your point across the right way. I’m just out here to show there’s another side. I want to show people that not everybody feels this way.”

Almost no one I know is ‘pro-abortion,’ although many are ‘pro-choice.’ Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth…Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

The display, funded by private support, is the brainchild of David Lee, founder and executive director of an organization called Justice for All. Lee says his goal is to get students thinking about what abortion means.

I happened to meet Lee while he was in town. Turns out he was born in Trinity Hospital in Dodge City, Kan., and that’s where I was born. His family is from Minneola, an insignificant speck on the map just south of Dodge. I know the town well. His wife’s family is from another insignificant spot, Kinsley—where my brother lived at the time.

So we talked.

I don’t like people pushing ideology down my throat, and I was at first wary of Lee. I was surprised. He’s something of a scholar. He wasn’t pushy, he wasn’t dogmatic, and he didn’t preach. In fact, he listened.

“I guess a college campus is a good place to ask people to think about abortion,” I said. “But you need to aim this at the young men.”

“That’s why the pictures are so big,” he replied. “Males are visual.”

Several years ago, I wrote a series about date rape on the AU campus. I learned that many young women who leave home for the first time are naive. And some young men are predatory.

“You need to be talking about date rape,” I ventured.

“I know,” Lee said. “We need to be talking about a lot of things. Young men today don’t have enough responsible role models.”

And that got me to thinking.

Almost no one I know is “pro-abortion,” although many are “pro-choice.” Yet we live in a culture where sex is considered recreation, no more significant than brushing one’s teeth. Television and movies portray a world where casual sex is accepted, normal and even glorified, with real passion and meaning removed from the formula.

Is it wrong to suggest that casual sex can have consequences, and that a human life can result? Is it odious to seek to open a dialogue between opposing groups?

“We wanted to educate our fellow students about the reality and truth of abortion. People are pretty ignorant about what really occurs,” said Diane Phelps, a sophomore majoring in history and president of Auburn Students for Life, the group that invited Justice for All to campus.

“We wanted to be able to talk in a reasonable and compassionate manner,” she said. “We knew people would get mad about it. I think it’s worth that. If this exhibit saves one life, it was worth offending someone.”

Lee has told other newspapers that he wanted to bring the kind of discussion he experienced during his college years at the University of Kansas—where I also went to school—to campuses throughout the U.S. When Lee was a student in the early 1970s, KU was wracked by turmoil because of racial tensions and the country’s involvement in Vietnam.

That’s why each panel included a question aimed at pushing students to examine their own beliefs. Outright condemnation was not part of the show.

“We wanted to do this in a compassionate and loving way,” Phelps said. “We are prepared for women who have had abortions being upset and prepared to deal with it in a respectful and compassionate way.”

That’s not how many people saw the display, however.

“They are scaring people out of a choice they have every right to make,” said Lauren Bahr, a senior majoring in social work. “They say they’re educating, but I don’t think they’re here to educate. They’re here to scare people.”

“It’s pretty damn disturbing,” agreed Bryan Andress, a sophomore majoring in hotel and restaurant management.

And maybe that’s the point.