Spring 1981, Middletown, Ohio
Catholic schools are notorious for their uniforms. Mine was a grey polyester skirt that hung to my knees. I was allowed to wear a pastel-colored blouse. All purchased at the local JC Penney. Plain, Ugly. Horrible for a fourteen-year-old in the era of disco flash and pre-grunge.
I attended Bishop Fenwick High School in nearby Middletown, Ohio a mere twenty-mile drive over winding country roads. My older brother, a senior, drove in his first clunker - the dreaded dark blue Gremlin. Sigh. I hated that car. The passenger floor was rotted out and I had to brace the rubber mat with my feet to prevent road debris from flying up and hitting me.
The end of that school day felt somewhat typical. A crush of students streaming from the school flooded the parking lot and I made way in the warm spring sunshine to the growling beast. My six-foot-tall brother with flyaway black hair and sunglasses leaned against the car joking with the other senior boys. I was the nerdy younger sister he was obligated to drive. I clutched my few books to my chest and with my head down, took the obligatory passenger seat. I placed my books on the back seat and prepared to drive home without eating the road.
Passing the mall, I glanced with envy at the cars of teenagers filling the food court parking lot. We waited by the mall entrance traffic light as I watched one car after another filled with teenagers turn in. My brother cranked his stereo that played Black Sabbath so loud the window vibrated. As he accelerated away, I knew that the mid-metro area of Middletown was ending because the ramp for I-75 was the magical line. Urban oasis on one side. Country bumpkins on the other.
My eyes were cast behind the car watching the mall behind us when we suddenly slowed instead of the usual acceleration. Confused, I looked at my brother’s profile and noticed his normal Welsh coloring pale even more. He quickly turned off the radio and told me to get into the back seat. Confused, he stopped suddenly and pulled to the side of the road.
I looked around anxiously at the highway entrance ramp before us; the hotel parking lot next to us and the crush of cars in an area that should be unpopulated at 3 pm on a weekday. I could feel his panic flowing off him like crashing waves of fear.
“Now, get in the back. On the floor and pull the blanket over you.” He barked at me. His now beet red face in mine.
As I struggled over the seats in the small car, I could suddenly see why. Stretched across State Route 122, a line of figures in white robes and pointy hats. More than thirty Ku Klux Klan members linked by arms allowing one car at a time through. Shoot. We were in trouble. Just that morning, there were remains of a burned cross on the school’s front lawn. The KKK hated Catholics too.
My brother quickly pushed the books on the floor as twisted and pulled a blanket over me and the back seat. Peaking out from under the blanket, I noticed he untucked his shirt and from the glove department, he pulled out a ratty tie. Clipping on the tie, he reached under the seat and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He pushed in the cigarette lighter and shook out a smoke. My eyes widened at the sight of my brother smoking. So casual and practiced, he lit the cigarette and took a deep breath. Glancing over the back seat, he nodded at me peeking up, and cautioned me not to move until he gave me the ok.
He then casually rolled down the window and placed his elbow on the window, cigarette carefully smoking in his left hand. He put the car back in drive and merged into the long line of waiting cars to pass through the KKK roadblock.
Inch by inch. The blanket was musty, old, and smelled like fried onions. I tried hard not to sneeze or move in my very cramped position under the blanket.
Quietly, I heard my brother whisper to me. “Don’t move. We’re next.”
Tears were pooling in the corners of my eyes as I tried to understand. I am not black. I am blonde, of German heritage, Catholic. I am a good girl. The hatred did not make sense. Yet that burned cross had certainly cast fear that morning as I remembered the teacher telling us to stay away from the windows when we were caught whispering there before the first period. Mr. Long’s face was tense when he pulled down the shades. They stayed down all day yet the cross was gone when school was let out. No one whispered about it. It was as if it never happened.
“Become part of the future young man.” I heard the deep voice outside the car. My brother mumbled thank you. I heard the sound of paper crumpling as we continued forward slowly.
I pictured my brother looking blank with his eyes darting around behind those black sunglasses. I could see in my mind’s eyes his studied casualness. His white shirt, black tie, and grey pants could be misconstrued as a work uniform. My obvious grey skirt was tantamount to waving a flag on top of the car - Catholics Here! Rock this car! Drag out this girl!
“Crap!” I heard my brother mutter. “They are stopping someone. Sh*^, they’re rocking their car and banging on the hood.”
My heart beat faster. The crowd noise outside was growing and I could hear the banging and shouting. I tried to shrink down further in the footwell of the back seat. Is it obvious someone is hiding in the back? Could they tell?
“Hold on.” I heard him mutter. “They are letting us drive by.”
More long moments passed as the hump bit into my back and I breathed the vile perfume of the rotting blanket.
“We are clear. You can come out.”
I pushed off the blanket and sat up. Relief flooded through me as I scrambled into the front seat looking back the whole time.
As we turned a long bend in the road the urban oasis of Middletown disappeared. Fields of small green growth came into view as I turned and sank into the passenger seat.
About the Creator
Author, mother, grandmother, and former teacher - Annie Taylor has three decades of writing in a variety of forms. She has written manuals, speeches, books, and sales brochures. Annie travels the US in her RV obsessively writing.