Men Who Burn Crosses
My brief childhood encounter with the Klan
15, I lived for a while at a boarding school in the deep, deep South. In the foothills of remote mountains where people drank turpentine, picked up snakes, walked on hot coals, and “no harm shall come to ye, if ye believe”. It’s the part of the South where the KKK was notably active and well-connected and still congeals from time to time.
They came to my school one evening just as the sun was setting, in a line of long, old cars, saying we had a mixed-race girl they were going to take away. She was 11 or 12. There were far more of us boys than adults, and we had all kinds of duties. We were the ones who chopped the wood and cut back the tall grass from the mountain roads. We drove our own bus, settled all disputes, and hunted for extra food on the side. We were also the unofficial security and guardians of the grounds — us and the snakes in the dense, surrounding forest. I was at the bottom of the class by age. Our effective captains were 17 and 18 years old and picked their teeth with hammers in our eyes.
The Klansmen told the older boys to be ready, not to interfere, and to make sure none of us did either. Then they drove off as night fell over the Appalachians. Some of the boys said it would do no good to fight them. The Klan was too many, too far-reaching, and too dangerous. You never knew who they all were — judges, politicians, sheriffs — and they would be vengeful. They might kill us.
I didn’t think the cost mattered, but the oldest boys wouldn’t listen, despite multiple goes at them on the topic by the underclassmen. Get in line, and shut up, was the bottom line. So I went to work on my peers. I said no one could come here and take one of our own, and it’s our duty to stand up to them. We had a pact, and every one of us knew about it. The oldest boys drilled it into us from day one. If one of us was threatened, at school or anywhere, the others would stand up for him. Giants would bump into one of us, learn who we were with, and apologize.
A group of us went to the older boys, but they said the rule didn’t apply here. The girl wasn’t a high-school boy. Each class took care of its own. Different class, different gender. Race aside — we couldn’t get involved. I said the rule applied because it was grown men stealing a kid, and for any reason that wasn’t right. I said we were responsible for anything that happened if we knew about it and could do something to stop it. The younger boys rallied, but we didn’t have enough backing. I had some more thinking to do.
That night, I lie awake listening to the cicadas and the mountain birds in the blackjack oaks and sweet gum trees. I dreamt of Carolina panthers stalking the forest. Stop, freeze, but never run, the older boys had said. I woke with a half-formed idea.
The men came again when they said they would, as darkness descended to cover their intended crime. Three older boys approached the cars, telling the rest of us to stay back. We could hear parts of the conversation. The men asking if we were going to interfere. We could see the older boys hesitating. It wasn’t going our way. So I called their names, and called again, motioning for them to come over. They waved for me to ‘shut up’ but I shouted out that if they didn’t come over, I’d come and join the conversation. Angrily, two of the boys walked back, shoved me, and asked what in the Hell I wanted. I was standing with all others — more than a dozen of us.
I said if the older boys wouldn’t stand up to those men, I would. They laughed at me. I would have laughed, looking at the hair in my eyes and my skinny as a rail physique. They said I’d get my ass handed to me. I said, “No, I won’t, because we have a pact.” If I got threatened, they’d have to back me. They didn’t like that, but a light went on in the faces of the boys around me. They were nodding. That’s right — if they threaten him, we all have to step in. That’s the deal.
The older boys were much bigger than the rest of us. One had even been to jail for hurting someone in a bar fight when he was underage. They were ferocious fighters, skilled at woodcraft, hunting, and living off the land. The best of those were Maine boys. And they knew what their fathers would think of them. They knew we were in the right, and they wanted us to be.
Rather than be dragged by a 15-year old into a confrontation they couldn’t control, they decided to lead, and so they faced the Klan, and stood their ground, and made them leave. They said two dozen of us would go get the bows and hunting rifles and tools from the woodshop and make good on our word if they challenged us. They said we’d go until the last one of us was standing.
“You’ll be sorry,” an old man said from the back seat of one of the cars, and spat an oily black wad of chewing tobacco. “Chaw”, they called it in those parts. “No, you will,” said one of the older boys. “Don’t come back,” said another. “Come back, and I’ll get my Daddy out here and his friends,” said the third. “You won’t survive.” Two things crossed the faces of the men I could see — they were livid, but they were afraid.
The line of cars drove off into dusk and never came back.
I told this story once in a storytelling workshop, and someone asked if I made it up. If I was going to make up a story, it’d be more dramatic and less idiosyncratic. Things like this happen. One of the things I like about Stephen King’s “Stand by Me” is he says things like that happen when we’re kids. I think he’s right.