- Historic Sites
Long, Hot Summer In Indiana
It was 1924 and the Klan was riding high. The author’s father, a congressman, wouldn’t join, and this Is how It felt to be an outcast In one’s own home town that
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Dave took off his cap and put it back on.
“Are you a crossback, kid?”
“A what?” I said.
“No,” I said. “Why?”
“I heard your old man was one.”
“Well, he isn’t,” I said. “But what difference would it make if he was?”
“We don’t want no crossbacks or kikes around here,” Dave said. “Politics is different. Nobody’s a Democrat or Republican any more. Hell, I used to be a Democrat myself! And you being a college boy is O.K.—with me anyhow. I wouldn’t’ve minded going to college myself.” He repeated the ritual of the cap and, afterward, clucked his tongue. “All them flappers! You tell ‘em, saxophone!”
I knew by then what I was up against, but I was resolved to make the best of it. As the evening wore on, however, nothing more was said about my father, and I began to think my biggest problem would be to remain neutral in the tension between Dave and Schelhaus. There was not much to admire in Dave, but there was even less in Schelhaus. He was not only disagreeable; he was lazy. He often went to the toilet when there were cars in the drive, and after Dave and I had done all the work, he was critical. “Can’t you clean a windshield better than that?” he would say to me; or, to Dave: “The nozzle nearly fell out of that tank while you were filling it. You better watch yourself, or I’ll have to report you.”
The first Negro came into the station about an hour after I started working. He was driving a Ford truck, with “Hauling” painted crudely on the panels. I wiped the windshield and filled the radiator while Dave stood at the back cranking out the gasoline. It was not until the truck drove off that I saw the dark, rainbowstreaked puddle of gasoline on the concrete. Dave must have spilled at least a gallon. I was sure that before long Schelhaus would lash out at him for his carelessness, and there was an awkward silence among us when I sat down between him and Dave and tilted my chair against the wall.
“What the hell did you mean, doing that?” Schelhaus said, finally.
I glanced covertly at Dave, who remained silent, his gaze fixed on the cars passing in the street.
“You a Bolshevik or something?” Schelhaus said.
Still Dave did not speak, and then I saw that Schelhaus was addressing me.
“You mean me?”
“Who the hell else would I mean? What did you think you were doing back there?”
I turned in appeal to Dave. But Dave continued to stare straight ahead.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Oh, yes, you do!” Schelhaus said. “You know damn well what I mean. Giving that nigger radiator service and wiping off his windshield.”
“But you said—”
“I never said you was to give free service to a goddam black nigger!” Schelhaus shouted, sweat popping out on his oily forehead. “There ain’t no job in this country can make a white man wait on a nigger! This is still a free country, and you’d better learn that pretty quick—you and your old man both!”
At the unexpected inclusion of my father in the tirade, I lost my temper.
“If it’s a free country, then the Negro should get the same service as everybody else,” I said.
“The Nee gro!” Schelhaus mocked, almost screaming. “Listen to him, will you? The Nee gro!”
Before I could speak again, he got up and went into the toilet and slammed the door behind him.
I was trembling, and when Dave reached over and laid a hand on my shoulder, I jerked away.
“I don’t have to listen to that kind of talk,” I said, “and if he says anything about my father again, I’ll punch his nose!”
“O.K., O.K.,” Dave said, trying to quiet me. “Schelhaus is an s.o.b., and I don’t blame you. But you got to think of the principle of the thing too, kid. If you give a nigger an inch, he’ll walk all over you. Schelhaus is right about that. It’s a matter of self-respect, kid. A guy has to keep his self-respect or he ain’t worth a damn. It’s just a matter of self-respect. See?”
No more Negroes came in until the end of the evening. Then a big Marmon rolled up with a prosperous-looking black man at the wheel. Dave and Schelhaus were inside totalling the day’s receipts, and I was out beside the pumps hosing down the concrete. I filled the tank with gas, and although Dave and Schelhaus could see me, I wiped off the windshield and checked the radiator. The gasoline came to exactly two dollars, but the Negro handed me two one-dollar bills and a quarter. They had told me at the downtown office that anyone caught accepting a tip would be fired, and I handed back the quarter.
“O.K., Mr. Crescent City Refining Company,” the Negro said. “You don’t want my two bits, that’s O.K. with me.”
He revved the motor and the big car lurched out of the drive.
When I went into the station, neither Dave nor Schelhaus looked at me. After a long, tense silence, Schelhaus turned.
“Listen, Mr. College Boy Bolshevik!” he said. “If you think you can come in here and start turning down tips, you’ve got another think coming! Maybe you don’t need the money, your old man being congressman and all, but Dave and I do. We work for our living. And anyhow your old man ain’t going to be there much longer, so you’d better—”
He ended speechless and went into the toilet.