When I was doing design work for a local printer, we had a film stripper who set up our work to make plates for the presses. He was a really good guy and we got along quite well. I was from New Jersey and he was a Florida native. A lot of people from here have a fair amount of resentment towards people from other parts of the country, especially northerners. If you were from Alabamee or Mississippa, you were OK. Ron and I used to tease each other about northern and southern differences - the Civil War, the South Rising Again! and other issues. It was all done in a good natured, friendly manner with no implied intent. Whenever he brought up some Yankee thing to tease me about, I always had a standard reply, one he could not defend, "Well, at least I didn't have a hangin' tree in my back yard."
Ron lived in Apopka, which is a relatively rural town northwest of Orlando. Plenty of the deep south has areas of racial hatred, including parts of Apopka. I'm not trying to single out any community. They're everywhere, and most of the town is not like that, but there's a long history, steeped in racial bias and, yes, hangin' trees that should have been chopped down a long time ago. Ain't been no hangins' around these here parts in a long time, yet there still exists a small faction of folks who believe the old rules of the deeply segregated south have never and shall never change.
When I moved here in 1981, I found a place in Winter Park called Harrigan's. My sister used to work there. It's been gone a long time now, but one of the bartenders ended up buying an established business in downtown Orlando, on the corner of Orange Avenue and Pine Street, called Tanqueray's. It used to be part of a bank and housed the vault. You walk down a flight of stairs from street level, step inside, and immediately feel the warmth of the friendly crowd. Many of the regulars, at least, back when I had opportunities to go, were professionals who worked downtown and stopped by for a drink or two to unwind and socialize. It was known as a hangout for lawyers and it always seemed to be a well mannered, intellectual group. I don't go downtown very often, but if I do, I try to stop by, since I've known Dan a long time and he usually has a few good jokes to tell.
One time, I dropped by for happy hour. I had to go into the city for some reason and I figured, why not go see Dan. I took a seat at the bar and we exchanged some friendly banter. The place was pretty busy, so we didn't have much time to talk. Next thing I know, some guy is standing to my immediate left. Somehow, he didn't quite fit in with the rest of that crowd. He ordered a draft beer and said to me, "Yup, I was at Whiskey River at 7 o'clock this morning." Whiskey River is a liquor store on S. Orange Blossom trail, in Orlando. Not one of the nicest parts of the city. There are a few scattered around and they have a reputation for catering to hardcore drinkers - the labor pool and seldom employed types who live off their daily paychecks to buy booze and cigarettes. Such was this guy. I have no idea why he chose me out of the crowd to enlighten.
"So, what did you have for breakfast?" I asked.
"I had me a 3 Marlboro omelet."
"Hmm. Sounds good."
"Yup," he responded and then went on to say, "I'm a card carrying member of the KKK."
"No. No way."
I had never met anyone with any type of affiliation to a white supremacy organization. You know, you always hear stories, but have you ever met anyone like that for real? "OK. Let me see your membership card."
"Ain't got one. Don't need one."
He didn't come across as some sort of nasty fellow. He didn't seem to have gone in there to start trouble. I think he just wanted someone from the big city to talk to. After all, he told me he lived in the outskirts of Apopka. I thought to myself, why not give the guy a chance to speak his mind. I will try to rationalize everything he says and come back with an appropriate response. I asked him how he could feel this way and have so much hatred inside?
"They're animals. Damn n*ggers are monkeys." I think he really wanted to test someone, yet I sensed sincerity in his statements and a certain curiosity on his own part, like he was questioning his own tenets with each breath.
"Animals? What if you had sex with a monkey, could you get it pregnant?"
"What if you had sex with a black woman, could you get her pregnant?"
"Yeah, of course."
"Well then, what you are saying is that if black people are animals and you could get that type of animal pregnant, then you are a monkey, too. We're all a bunch of animals." He had no smart answer. With everything he stated, I had a response. At one point, I asked him, "What if you were in a horrible accident and needed a blood transfusion and found out later you now have the blood of a black man inside. What would you do? Would you try to return it? Would you tell your card carrying members that you are now tainted with the blood of an animal? Would they hang you?" No responses to my queries made much sense. He didn't necessarily agree with me, but I could tell he was grasping, if not absorbing, everything we were discussing. He really was trying to understand the other side. I brought up the "be they yellow, black or white" song from Sunday School days gone by. Many southern racists are born into religious families that adhere to weird and twisted interpretations of the Bible. I asked him about black heroes who had saved plenty of white hide during the war, World War II in this case. A lot of us wouldn't be here today if it weren't for good ol' blackie.
The conversation had taken on a kind of flow. It was never a heated exchange and we showed each other respect. I couldn't judge him for his status in life, but I surely did question his morals and prejudices with a vengeance. Our discussion began to wind down without ever unwinding itself and I had one final question to ask.
"What if we were on a deserted island, you, me and a really good looking black woman..." Just like that the door opened up and a group of very good looking women sauntered in, one of whom was black. "HER!" I exclaimed, looking right at her. She didn't see a thing.
"I'd kill you, not her. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do." I knew what he meant.
"You mean to tell me you'd kill a white man to save a black woman? Wait a minute. Doesn't this go against your entire credo? Something you've hated all your life? What would the KKK say about that? Kill a white to save a black?"
"You're confusing me, man, you're confusing me." Aha! Gotcha, I thought to myself. "You know, you're right." he continued," Yup, you are, but I'll never tell my friends about it. I can't. They're my friends and they'd kill me." He had listened to enough, I reckon. "Thanks for the talk. Gotta go." And off he went. The crowd immediately broke into applause. I had no idea anyone had been paying attention to our conversation.
Occasionally, I think about that guy who went back to the hangin' trees that only sway from the wind these days. Back to the fiery crosses of days gone by. I hope and pray those days will one day be gone forever and the warm southern breezes of brotherhood sweep through the minds of people like him everywhere. I can dream, can't I?