I watched the wheat fields and telephone poles race past as I looked out the window. It was the three of us, all packed into papa’s old station wagon; Papa and mama were up front talking about Sunday’s sermon and what Mr. Greene down at the drug store had said about someone or other, and I was in back, only the empty North Carolina horizon to entertain me. The car rattled over the gravel road, shaking my view from the window.
“Where’re we even going?” I asked.
“To a big party,” Papa answered, “like a big barbeque, or a county fair.”
“Will there be rides?”
“No, hon,” Mama said, “but there’ll be food, hot dogs and ice cream, and there’ll be a band…”
“And animals!” Papa chimed in.
“Yes! All sorts of animals, dogs and horses and baby pigs!”
This satisfied me. I piped down and went back to looking at the outside world. It was perfectly flat, seemingly in every direction. There was nothing but wheat and corn and the occasional farmhouse or two for ages. It dawned on me that I’d never been this far away from our town before; We’d never gone on a vacation before, all our family lived in town or not too far away, and even the summer fair the church put on wasn’t more than ten minutes drive. We’d been in our hot little car for what seemed like hours now.
As we drove the houses started passing more frequently. We passed an old church building, then trees started popping up. The fields of crops gave way to clusters of houses; we were in a city.
“Is this it?” I asked.
“No, we’re not there yet, sweetie, but soon.” Mama assured me.
At the outskirts of the town we turned onto a wide dirt road. There were two lanes of traffic here, old cars like papa’s filled with excited families and smiling, boisterous groups of young men. I could hear them singing from inside our car, but I couldn’t make out what they were singing.
The cavalcade of cars rolled down the road, to where the trees got thicker and the dirt road gave way to pure grassy field. Men in long robes shepherded us over to an enormous field filled from tree-line to tree-line with parked cars. This startled me a bit; these men, at least I assumed they were men, were dressed unlike anything I’d seen before. They looked like the atlar boys in church, but with more authority, more clout. I pressed my face up against the window to watch them as our car rolled into an empty patch of grass.
“Alright,” Papa said, “We’re here!”
Papa walked over to the red picnic blanket with our hot dogs. I waved at him as mama stroked my hair. I heard a Dixieland band distantly, and watched as kids played catch in a field out of the corner of my eye. In the distance I saw a big stage, with what seemed like hundreds of people gathering in front of it, chatting loudly.
“Eat up,” Papa said, “then you can go over and play with them.”
“Alright, Papa,” I answered distantly. My line of sight had drifted over a small crowd of those robed figures. They almost looked like ghost, I thought, if it weren’t for the big red patches sewn onto their chests. I wondered who they were.
“Papa, who-“ I started as man I recognized as a neighbor of ours hurried up to our blanket.
“Michael, issat you?” he boisterously bellowed.
“Yeah, Donnie, nice to see ya!” Papa said as he got up to greet his friend. The two men clasped hands and shook hard, smiling and making small talk. I waited as the next few minutes were overtaken by “It’s been awhile!”s and “How’s the wife?”s.
I took a big bite of my hot dog. The hot juices burned the back of my mouth.
“You gotten a chance to talk to the knights yet, Mike?” Donnie asked, sticking a cigarette into his mouth and pulling out a lighter.
“Nah,” Papa answered, “Wanted to get the wife and kid all situated first.” He had pulled out his own cigarette, and Donnie held his lighter out for my father.
“Speakin of, how ya doin Pam, Tilly?”
“Good, thanks. Nice to see you, Don.” Mama answered.
“Well, I was just over talkin to the knights, talking bout what they’re for an all. I think it’s a good idea, ya know?” Donnie said, “Now I ain’t got nothing ‘gainst no negros, but I just can stand for all the uppity bull they pullin’. They want in our schools now, Mike, our schools!”
“Oh, I know Don,” my Papa said, “there’s a little negro girl in Tilly’s class, poor thing’s dumb as a post. Look, if they were smart as us, I’d have no problem with it, but the fact is they aren’t. They just aren’t as smart as us.”
“Mmm,” Donnie agreed, “Just ain’t smart enough to know what’s good for ‘em.”
I licked the last of the catsup off my fingers and though about what they were saying. They were talking about Janie; she was a black, yes, but she seemed like a nice enough girl. She certainly wasn’t ‘dumb as a post’. I thought about telling them that, that they must be thinking of a different kid, that Janie wasn’t that dumb.
Instead I said, “I’m gonna go play with the other kids.”
There was a sow and four piglets, and the kids were having fun chasing them around and hearing them squeal. There was a strong earthy scent as I walked over, hearing the faint crunch of grass under my shoes. I saw a boy I recognized, Johnny Mathis. He lived down the street from me; sometimes he and his friends would let me come to the drug store with them. He was standing around some other kids his own age, sometimes jumping out of the way as the younger ones chased a piglet straight through their group.
“Hey, Johhny!” I said.
“Tilly, hi!” he shouted back, “How’re you doing?”
“Alright, I guess…” I was unsure about that answer; I had been doing alright, but my papa’s words had left me uneasy. I didn’t know quite where I was or why I was there. Maybe Johnny would have an answer.
“We were gonna go get popsicles from the tent. You wanna come?” he asked.
“Sure.” I replied. I may not have understood everything that was going on, but I understood popsicles.
The group of eleven year-old boys and I made our way away from the other kids, across the field and over to the big tent where the popsicles were. Groups of men and women congregated about, laughing and talking and enjoying themselves. I sometimes picked up snippets of conversations, words, or phrases, that I’d heard Papa say before. I swallowed the lump in my throat and picked up my pace. We walked by the stage where the band was playing; Older men, all in nice suits, were chatting just of to the side. They all looked so serious, so angry. We passed a group of those hooded figures again. I picked up my pace and moved over closer to Johnny.
He must’ve noticed my unease.
“S’all right, Tilly. That’s just the klan.” He said, “They’re putting on this whole thing. They’re just like a big club. My uncle’s a member, actually.” I couldn’t tell for sure if this was true, or if he was acting big for his friends.
“What do they do, then?” I asked.
“You know, secret club stuff. They talk about… politics, I guess? Negro folks?”
“What about ‘em?”
“My pa says they take our jobs!” Another of the boys interjected, “They take our jobs cause they work cheap, and now they’re takin’ our schools and our stores, an’ all.”
“My older brother says they all want white girlfriends!” Another boy shouted out.
“My Uncle says they all came from monkeys!” Johnny said. All the boys laughed, and I smiled along. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about this whole thing.
“My Uncle, he knows a lot.” Johnny continued, “He said, and he’s not supposed to say this outside the meetings, but he said “The negro-lovers and sympathizers, they’re all startin’ to get elected to government.”, that’s what he said. He said that’s why the klan’s here, to stop that. They say we gotta elect real Americans, not “traitor bastards”, ya know?”
We walked under a big tent that had been set up on the edge of the clearing. Instantly, the air was cooler, and I blinked a bit to get used to the dimmer light. I saw the popsicle stand and quickened my step. They boys, however, were now more interested in talking politics like the grown ups than in popsicles.
“Can’t wait for the Dragon to talk,” one of the boys said. “My daddy heard him talk a few months back in Waynesville.”
“Wait, there’s a dragon here?” I asked, shocked and excited. “A talking dragon?!” Why hadn’t Mama or Papa mentioned this before? Was it a big dragon? Where was it? Where could it hide?
“Nah, dragon’s just a name.” Johnny corrected. He was laughing a little. “He’s a man. He’s sorta the leader. He’s here, helpin’ us white folks. You know, know everyone’s giving handouts to the negroes and all, we don’t have anything. We’re losing everything. An’ Mr. Jones, that’s his name, he’s here to help up take back what’s ours. And he’s a real good guy. He set this whole thing up. You’re having fun, aren’t you?”
I wrapped my mouth around the already melting popsicle, letting myself be jolted by the cold. The juice stained my lips a bright red, like my Mama’s lipstick.
“I guess.” I said.
When the sun began to set, some women came and gave us sparklers. We all ran across the field, trailing bright yellow sparks. I had let myself relax and have fun, chasing around some girls my own age and trying to poke them with the hot tip of my sparkler. They tried to do the same to me. We all collapsed, breathlessly, into a fit of laughter as the sparks died out. Mama and Papa stood at the outskirts of the crowd, talking to other adults who I didn’t know. I tried hard not to imagine what they were talking about. Instead, I imagined a big, red dragon, standing on top of a mountain of gold, breathing fire at the poor knights who tried to fight back. I tried not o think about any real-life dragons that may have been hiding out among the crowd.
As the pink sky faded to purple, then blue, a chill settled over the gathering. I felt it, I’d bet the other kids felt it, too. Some families left, and secretly I wanted to leave, too. Some lanterns were set up around the stage as the band wrapped up their last song. I can’t remember if I went over to my parents, or if they went over to me, but the three of us found our way into the congregation as the band waved goodbye for the night. In the distance, behind the stage, I could just barely make out some sort of statue being put up.
A tall, boxy man stepped onto the stage to polite but intense applause. His face was stoic, and he walked with deep purpose.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“That’s Mr. Jones,” Mama said, “he’s gonna give a speech before the lighting.”
I wasn’t sure what mama was talking about. I looked back up to the stage where Mr. Jones stood. He was oddly square, like a bunch of melting boxes stacked on top of each other. I thought he looked sort of like a sweaty ham, but a very intense sweaty ham. He almost seemed to be gazing right at me, and in the moment before he began I felt wholly uneasy.
“We must remember, in these harsh times, that we are God’s chosen people.” Mr. Jones began, “We are the ones who built this great nation in His great and holy name!”
There were scattered shouts of agreement from the crowd. Mr. Jones raised his hand up for silence, and an anticipatory hush fell over the crowd. My own discomfort grew.
“We must remember,” he continued, “that as these beasts come out of the woodwork, demanding we placate their sick desires, that they are the opposite of God! Segregation, as it is, is the will of God, and to oppose segregation is to oppose God!”
I felt sick. I hugged onto my Papa, who absentmindedly patted the back of my head. I looked up at him; he was staring, glaring even, at Pastor Jones, anger practically oozing out of his eyes. My heart sank as I realized the anger was not directed at Jones, but at the ‘mongrels’ he spoke of. In the back of my mind I knew he was speaking about negros, but in that moment, I didn’t want to face it. I let the righteous anger of the crowd wash over me, their uproarious cheering drowning out my own misgivings.
The rest of the Dragon’s speech passed me by. I didn’t pay attention, nor did I want to. Papa scooped me up and I realized that I was being carried somewhere. For a moment I desperately hoped we were headed to the car. Sadly, my parents and I walked with the crowd past the stage, to where throngs of people were standing around the large object I’d seen earlier. It was then that I got a good look at it; It was a cross, a giant cross made out of wood and rope, ominously standing up above the trees. A sick feeling of excitement ran through the crowd. I shuddered.
By the time the hooded men marched out from behind us, single file and carrying flickering torches, I had practically shut down. I was awake, but not fully aware. Blankly I watched them dip their torches onto the cross. My eyes watered as the effigy went up in flames, although I was unsure whether they were tears of sadness or exhaustion. The golden flames licked the deep, deep indigo sky. The crowd around me, my parents included, cheered as the robed men, the Klan, sang a hymn I only half recognized. I watched the giant cross go up in flames until I couldn’t recognize it as a cross anymore. The light bore holes into my eyes, and the fire heated my face like a dragon was burning down the whole world in front of me. I could tell my cheeks were boiling, turning red. Small tears fell down them, and almost seemed to burn up as they rolled down.
It was late when we finally made our way to the car, Papa carrying me up against his shoulder and Mama lovingly brushing my hair out of my face. It was a late summer night, still warm but with a distinct current of cold running through my bones. Papa placed me down in the back seat of our old car, and he and Mama went to the front. We were all where we had started out day.
We drove home the same way we came, the pebbles and dust of the dirt road shaking the car every few feet. The world had been the same as we’d left it. I wasn’t the same. I didn’t feel the same. I was eight, but in that moment I felt so old.
I hoped it would be a long, long drive home.